CLINTON — The old high wagon bridge at Eighth Avenue South in Clinton was considered one of the finest on the Mississippi, according to an 1892 article in The Clinton Daily Age. The bridge was built in connection with a C.B.&Q. Railroad bridge at a cost of $150,000.
For Clinton’s Swift family, the bridge launched three careers.
Leslie, Edith and Gladys Swift spent many years in the 1930s and 1940s diving from as high as 125 feet into a 6-foot tub of water, said Leslie Merema, Edith’s daughter. They were three of seven children born to Mabel Briggs Swift and David Swift, a signal supervisor of the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad in Clinton.
While at Clinton High School, Leslie, Edith and Gladys participated in several sports, excelling in swimming and diving. When the new pool opened in Clinton in 1930, Edith was one of “four local mermaids” engaging in a 25-yard freestyle dash as part of the opening program, The Clinton Herald said.
The three Swifts were lifeguards at the pool. One day, Leslie began diving off the old Clinton high wagon bridge, said Merema. His sister Edith followed his example.
The toll bridge was 55 feet above the high water mark and 76 feet above the low water mark at its highest point, according to The Daily Age. It was replaced by the Gateway Bridge in 1956.
With an entrepreneurial spirit, Leslie began charging people to watch him dive off the bridge. When a man offered him a job with his traveling company, Leslie took his daring dives on the road.
During the summer of her junior year of high school, Edith joined her brother in the traveling show, taking a long enough break to graduate from Clinton High School before rejoining her brother.
Gladys traveled with the show for several years as well, and the siblings developed their own company, traveling around the United States and Canada for 10 years, Merema said.
The diving troupe performed with circuses and carnivals and performed for special events and for groups that requested them. They performed in places such as The Boston Commons in Boston and Palisades Park in New Jersey.
The divers erected a tower board at about 125 feet, Merema said, with a mid-board at 50 feet and two 9-foot spring boards.
Leslie would dive off the 125-foot tower. A diver named Frank, who performed as a clown, dove from the 50-foot board. Edith and Gladys would perform various springboard dives from the lower board.
Edith also dove from the high board against her older brother’s orders and concerns, said Merema.
For the finale, Leslie did a 125-food double back layout into the 6-foot tank.
A 1931 article in The Clinton Herald said that Leslie and Edith’s water show was playing in Boston. “Both are expert divers and swimmers and perform special exhibitions in connection with the entertainment offered. They have been featured in special newspaper articles in Boston. Edith Swift is attending high school while there. She attained considerable skill and her early training was procured at the Clinton high school and in the Municipal pool here.”
Gladys left the show after a few years. Edith left after 10. Leslie carried on for several more years before settling in Florida.
Gladys lived in rural Fulton and later moved to Washington, and Edith settled in Clinton for a few years before moving to the rural Albany, Illinois area, Merema said.
“I think our whole family was impressed with what they did and their skills,” said Merema.
“We were taught from a very young age to swim,” said Merema. Her family spent many summer days at Clinton’s pool. “Also, our parents never missed taking us to a circus or carnival in the area.
“We all couldn’t have been prouder of them.”