Okoboji Speedboat Disaster

This article appeared in the July 28, 1970, edition of the Sioux City Journal.

ARNOLDS PARK, lOWA -- Dance bands blared, the merry-go-round whirled, the roller coaster roared with its squealing cargo, and lights twinkled over the adjoining lake as 22 happy people boarded a speedboat destined in a few short moments to plunge to the bottom of West Okoboji.

The date was July 28, 1929, fated to go down in Iowa Great Lakes history as the evening of the worst water tragedy in Okoboji record. On that Sunday evening, 41 years ago this week, nine people drowned in the grinding crash of two rival commercial speedboats.

The unfortunate victims of the apparently needless collision at first seemed to have the major roles in this summer disaster. However, subsequent events put the spotlight on the boat owners and a waterfront warfare of several years' duration.

The tragedy resulted in five criminal indictments by a grand jury and of the resulting court cases, two went to the Iowa Supreme Court. The final two cases were not resolved until almost three and a half years after the collision. The court cases brought forth charges, counter charges, and bitterness never completely forgotten.

A Sub-Chaser

The 22 passengers on that fateful trip were aboard Miss Thriller, a reconstructed government - built submarine chaser, reportedly the fastest commercial speedboat in the United States. Miss Thriller's top speed is not known today, but there was a speed limit on the lakes at that time of 45 miles per hour, considered mighty fast on the Iowa Great Lakes even in 1970.

In 1929, power boats on the Iowa Lakes were few and far between, and, with the exception of a few rowboats equipped with an outboard, navigation was by oar. A small group of commercial speedboats docked at the Arnolds Park amusement area, vying for customers, and Miss Thriller, to the dismay of her competitors, was a top attraction.

At about 9:30 p.m. that fateful Sunday, Miss Thriller neared the middle of the lake, where the depth was 90 feet, when its pilot, Frank L. Long, saw to his horror the Zipper, a rival speedboat, bearing down up on it in the dark.

"When the Zipper was within 10 feet of us, I knew we were going to crash," he said. "I pulled down the gas and tried to speed up to to avoid being hit, but she caught us about six inches from the stern on the left side. Then I turned to Guy Hendrick of Arnolds Park who was riding with us and said, "It looks bad, Guy. For God's sake, grab the belts.' He and Jap Alexander lifted up the seats they were sitting on and started to throw out the belts.

Thousands Panicked

"About 15 minutes later and before any of the rescue boats had arrived, the stern sank, leaving the prow high in the air and she went down stern first with several of the passengers still clinging to her."

The crash of the boats was heard at Arnolds Park and thousands of amusement seekers were thrown into a panic, reported The Sioux City Journal on July 29, 1929. Several fast launches went to the rescue, saving 13 of those aboard. The Zipper, listing badly, made it to shore with its nine passengers.

The nine victims were Carl Christian, 21, of Linn Grove, Iowa, and his date, Esther Rhenstrom, 22, of Alta, Iowa; Melvin Keonck; 21, and Luella Adams, 18, his date, and John Stahnke, 16, all of Everly, Iowa, Milo Nelson, 25, of Linn Grove, Floyd Cummins; 21, of Wabasa, Minn., Henry Hintz, 54, of Harris, Iowa, and Neal Gelino, 11, of Arnolds Park.

Within 24 hours, several investigations were underway by Dickinson County and state authorities, spurred by Iowa Gov. Hamill who declared, "Vigorous action is essential."

Harsh Verdict

A harsh verdict was returned July 30 by a coroner's jury, which stated that the accident came as a result of carelessness on the part of Frank Long and Jasper Alexander, managers and pilots of Miss Thriller, John Hartman and his son, Milo Hartman, owners of the Zipper and the Zipper pilot, Harold Yarnes. It was signed by H. Ilsley, Spirit Lake superintendent of schools, the Rev. Herbert Marsh, pastor of the Spirit Lake Presbyterian Church, and F.R. Dowden, Spirit Lake insurance man.

On that same date, warrants charging second degree murder were served on the Hartmans and Yarnes, filed by Dickinson County Attorney P. B.Welty, The charges centered around an alleged statement that the operators of the two boats were rivals and that carelessness was involved in the handling of the crafts.

Four hundred persons crowded the courtroom for the hearings on the murder charges before Justice of the Peace C.W. Price.

Harry Narey, attorney for the Hartmans and Yarnes, termed the charges "dastardly" and accused County Attorney Welty of an attempt to convict his clients while letting the Miss Thriller operators go free. Narey charged partisanship on the part of Welty, who countercharged by saying the Hartmans were "out to get" Miss Thriller. Welty pointed to a photograph of the sinking of the Miss Thriller at the dock the previous year which, he said, had been used by Hartman to convince customers they should ride the Zipper. The Zipper pilot said he was going 18 m.p.h. and other pilots estimated Miss Thriller's speed at 35 m.p.h.

The justice of the peace dismissed the charge against Yarnes after two days of heated argument. Welty then dropped the charges against the two Hartmans only after asserting the cases would be brought before a grand jury.

Five Indicted

Five indictments were returned Aug, 29, 1929, by a special grand jury. The three pilots, Yarnes of the Zipper, Alexander and Long of Miss Thriller, were indicted for manslaughter. The two Hartmans of the Zipper were indicted on charges of conspiracy to obstruct business.

The manslaughter charges against Yarnes, the first case to be heard, was dismissed Oct. 8 by Judge Fred C. Lovrein who sustained a defense motion to dismiss on the grounds that there was no evidence to show a crime had been committed.

According to court records reported by A. L."Steve" Stephenson, current clerk of Dickinson County court, the manslaughter cases of Long and Alexander dragged on, with many continuances, until Nov. 22, 1932, when both charges were dismissed on the motion of the county attorney on the grounds of insufficient evidence.

Much more spectacular was the jury trial of Milo Hartman, who with his father was charged with conspiracy to obstruct business, The trial opened Dec. 11, 1929. Testimony was heard that the Hartmans made continual threats that they would destroy Miss Thriller's business, that they would put the boat out of business, and that Hartman had shouted to people who intended to ride in Miss Thriller that it was not a fit boat.

Abusive Language

Another speedboat owner, Roy Lombard, testified that the Hartmans told him that Miss Thriller wouldn't be on the lake for long, and that "we will get Miss Thriller and then we'll get you". Other Arnolds Park people testified that they heard abusive language almost daily from the Hartmans directed toward Miss Thriller's owners, and that the Hartmans had said, "we will put you out of business. When we are through we will be the only ones owning boats on the lake."

It was also brought out that rivalry over the acquisition of docking privileges had led to a hearing the previous June before the state conservation board, although no settlement was reached.

The jury didn't take long, and on Dec. 16, 1929, found Milo Hartman guilty. A motion for a new trial was denied, and Hartman was sentenced to a three-year term in the state penitentiary at Fort Madison.

But Milo Hartman never served that term. His attorneys took the case to the Iowa Supreme Court, which on Nov. 24, 1931, reversed the jury verdict.

In the meantime, the defense attorneys went to work for John Hartman, and were granted a change of venue to Pocahontas County, the transcripts of the case being sent Feb. 25, 1930.

Again the Hartmans won. Paul Poduska, current clerk of court of Pocahontas County, examined the records and reported that John Hartman was found not guilty by the jury on a directed verdict from the judge. This time the prosecution appealed to the Supreme Court, but, on March 8, 1932, the high court dismissed the appeal.

And so apparently ended the case of Miss Thriller and the Zipper, except in the bitter memories of those so deeply affected by the disaster. Most of those who had leading roles in the trials are no longer living or have moved away, with the exception of two men. They are P. B. Welty, who still is practicing law in Spirit Lake, and Harold Yarnes, who farms near the Anglers Bay area of Big Spirit' Lake.

Dickinson County Iowa Genealogy - The IAGenWeb Project