Almost Yesterday: The Mud Hen Tragedy

Apr 21, 2020

It seems like Almost Yesterday that the Ohio and lower Mississippi Rivers experienced a severe flood. And, this 1937 flood occurred in January and February in the midst of cold, snow and ice.

From Pittsburgh to Cincinnati, Louisville, Paducah and Cairo the rivers reached record levels.  Desperate calls went out for volunteers to help sand bag.

One young man who volunteered was Robert “R. E.” Tompkins of Campbell, Missouri. A young man of 18, R.E. traveled to New Madrid where he joined others on a wooden barge that was pushed north toward Birds Point and Cairo, Illinois by a tow boat named the “Mud Hen.” Approaching bird’s point the wooden barge hit a partially submerged tree resulting in damage to the front of the barge, but they continued on, dropping the men at bird’s point to join in a massive sand bagging effort.

There they worked all day and into the night until they were cold and exhausted. Late in the evening the workers were ordered back onto the barge to return to New Madrid for rest and hot food.

A tarpaulin was nailed over the hole in the damaged front of the barge. Soon they began taking on water and men shouted, “We are sinking.”  Panic resulted and men jumped from the barge to board the “Mud Hen”. The crew of the tow boat feared that the men would sink the towboat and used hammers, hatchets and clubs to beat them back. It was a desperate scene. Twenty six men drowned in the cold flood waters.

Fortunately, a crew on a passing tow boat was able to throw lines to some of the men in the water and clinging to the sinking barge, and carry them to the bank. It was a tragedy within a tragedy that seems like Almost Yesterday.