In the summer of 1907 it wasn’t unusual to find a gaggle of kids playing on the wharf at the foot of Dubuque Street in Iowa City near the home of physics department head Dr. Karl Guthe. It was a favorite spot for kids of university professors.
On Monday, June 17, 10-year-old Margaret Hayes, daughter of Professor and Mrs. Samuel Hayes and 11- year-old Marjorie Coast, daughter of Professor and Mrs. Preston C. Coast, were with a group of kids playing along the banks of the Iowa River. Margaret was on the Dubuque Street dock using a pole to test the depth of the water when she lost her balance.
As the little girl floundered in the swirling waters, her friends watched helplessly from the shore. Newspapers reported they were paralyzed with fear as they watched Margaret sink below the surface in the 7-feet-deep waters. Twice the girl disappeared. “Drowning seemed her certain fate,” according to the Iowa City Press-Citizen.
Just as it seemed Margaret was doomed to “an awful fate,” Marjorie dashed down the hill to the water’s edge. Flinging herself into the “booming” river and with what the newspaper reported as “superhuman power,” Marjorie made her way to her drowning friend.
Luckily, Margaret’s skirt floated on the top of the water; and Marjorie was able to grasp hold of the ballooning fabric. Shoving the struggling girl toward a plank that was floating near the dock, Marjorie managed to hang onto the little girl until some of the boys rushed down the embankment to help haul the two up out of the water. Witnesses said it was a miracle that Margaret had survived the incident.
News of Marjorie's heroic deed spread around Iowa City. Before long the Hayes family and other Iowa City residents decided to recommend Marjorie for the Carnegie Hero medal.
In 1904 Andrew Carnegie had established and funded the award to recognize people “who risk their lives to an extraordinary degree saving or attempting to save the lives of others.”
Carnegie wanted to honor these “heroes of civilization” so their descendants “may know and be proud” of their deeds.
In September 1908 Marjorie received her medal. It was made of silver and engraved with her name, as well as the date and nature of the deed. Andrew Carnegie’s profile graced the front.
Cheryl Mullenbach is an Iowa history columnist and she writes a column weekly for the Clinton Herald.