On March 30, 1915, shortly after 5:00 p.m., four prominent Washingtonians die when the car in which they are backseat passengers plunges off the Riverton Draw Bridge into the Duwamish River. Killed in the accident are Thomas W. Prosch (1850-1915), his wife Virginia McCarver Prosch (1851-1915), Margaret Lenora Denny (1847-1915), and painter Harriet Foster Beecher (1854-1915). The driver, chauffeur Paul Kumai, and the frontseat passenger, Emily Carkeek (1852-1926), survive the accident. Emily Carkeek is the owner of the car, likely a large Pierce-Arrow touring car. The friends were driving home to Seattle from Tacoma, where they were attending a meeting of the Washington Historical Society.
The accident occurred on the west side of the Duwamish River, midway between the present (2003) Allentown Bridge and a footbridge to its north. The Riverton Draw Bridge (built in 1903, demolished in 1927) was a wooden swing-span bridge. The east end of that bridge was located at the present intersection of S 124th Street and 42nd Avenue S in Tukwila. A small island midstream marks the location of the bridge's swing pivot. At the time of the accident, the road ran along a trestle beside the Interurban track. The turn onto the bridge was a sharp right angle.
As the driver, Paul Kumai, began making the sharp turn onto the bridge, he saw two children and swerved to avoid them. At the same moment, Mrs. Carkeek directed him to pass by the bridge and continue straight along the west side of the river. He corrected the steering wheel and applied the brakes, but the heavy touring car did not respond quickly enough. The car crashed through the railing of the bridge. It turned completely over as it dropped 30 feet into the water. The Duwamish at this point is about 10 feet deep.
Some accounts report that Emily Carkeek and Paul Kumai were both thrown from the car. Other reports state that Kumai was thrown clear, swam ashore, and then immediately swam back, pulled Mrs. Carkeek from the vehicle, sat her on the car's roof in water to her waist and then dove repeatedly trying to free the backseat passengers.
His task was impeded by the vehicle's heavy rain curtains, which had been fastened in place before the party left Tacoma. These rain curtains took the place of window glass on the sides of the car. They were fastened in place by pulling grommets in the curtains over metal posts on the body of the car. Locking fasteners were then screwed onto the posts to hold the curtains in place. These fasteners would have been difficult to remove in an emergency.
A group of men floated a raft downstream to rescue Emily Carkeek from the car roof. She was in shock, with a serious gash on her head. Seattle physician C. B. Boudwin was driving by, saw the accident scene, and stopped. He attended to Emily Carkeek and drove her back to her home in Seattle. The bodies of the victims had not been extracted from the submerged car when Emily Carkeek was driven away.
Thomas Prosch was still breathing when police officers pulled him from the river. Patrolman C. C. Fortner and Dr. J. L. Harvey worked with a pulmonator (a primitive resuscitation device) for longer than half an hour, but Prosch could not be saved. The other bodies were pulled from the submerged car with ropes and grappling hooks.
Paul Kumai's Story
According to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Deputy Sheriffs Sutton, Boyd, and William Hodge took Paul Kumai from the scene of the accident:
"As the sheriff's car whirled away toward the jail, Kumai attempted to hurl himself out of the automobile in an endeavor to return to the spot where he believed members of the unfortunate party were still in the waters of the Duwamish river. When the county jail was reached, Kumai, dripping from his attempts to rescue those beneath the car, was bundled in a blanket and placed before a fire and hot coffee was given him. There he revived enough to tell his part of the story in broken sentences.
When he had finished, he announced that he would kill himself. Fearing that he would carry out his threat, Sheriff Hodge ordered a guard placed over him throughout the night. Yesterday he was taken to the hospital ward, where medical attention was given him. Physicians fear that he will have brain fever. Kumai tossed on his cot, repeatedly calling out 'Is Miss Denny alive?'" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 1, 1915).
Kumai, whose arm was injured in the crash, was not told until several days after the accident that the four passengers in the back seat had drowned.
Kumai later told reporters that he was driving slower than 18 miles an hour at the time of the accident. He said the car had had tire chains on during the drive from Seattle to Tacoma, but that the chains were removed prior to starting back after the Historical Society meeting ended. Had the chains been left on, he felt, the car would not have skidded off the bridge.
The coroner's office fully exonerated Kumai and prosecutor A. H. Lundin ordered him released, but jailer M. E. Hally continued to hold him in the hospital ward for his own safety: "Hally said that the Japanese shows signs of being on the verge of insanity, due to remorse, and advised that he be held several days longer" (The Seattle Times, April 1, 1915).
A few Seattleites reacted with anti-Japanese rhetoric, but Kumai also received a groundswell of cards, letters, and even newspaper editorials praising his heroism and attempting to offer him comfort. By April 5 he had been released into the care of friends, who took him to a local Japanese hospital for further recuperation.
The owner of the car, Emily Gaskill Carkeek, was born in Bath, England, and came to Seattle as a bride in 1879. Her husband Morgan James Carkeek (1847-1931) was a contractor and stonemason who used his time and fortune to help build Seattle (both literally and figuratively).
The Carkeeks were civic leaders, especially interested in documenting and celebrating the history of Seattle and of the state of Washington. Emily Carkeek is most remembered as the founder of the Seattle Historical Society, an organization for which she, her husband, and their daughter Guendolen Carkeek Plestcheeff all served in turn as President.
Shock and Sorrow
Thomas and Virginia Prosch's daughter Edith learned of her parents' death from a Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter who came to the door of the family's home at 621 9th Avenue. After recovering from the shock Miss Prosch said, "I was worrying some over the late hour, but we expected the folks to come home soon. Despite the fact that a chauffeur was with the party I did not feel that they were safe owing to the bad conditions of the road on a wet night like tonight. I cannot believe that it is true" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, undated but probably March 31, 1915).
The Washington Historical Quarterly recounted the loss of these four colleagues with grief and disbelief: On Tuesday evening, March 30, death took heavy toll from the friends of history in the State of Washington. "The whole State was painfully shocked by the accident. All four of the victims were prominent and well beloved" ("Death of Four Friends of History").
The Pioneers of Washington, an organization in which all four of the deceased had been active members, issued the following statement:
"The people of the City of Seattle and the State of Washington have been shocked by the announcement of the sudden tragedy that has overtaken a group of honored and respected pioneers.While in pursuit of their earnest efforts to preserve the pioneer records of their loved Commonwealth for the benefit of generations to follow them, they were called from earth in a moment by an unfortunate accident.
"Thomas Wickham Prosch and his wife, Virginia McCarver Prosch; Miss Margaret Lenora Denny, Mrs. Harriet Foster Beecher, all were loved and respected as pioneers of Seattle and the Puget Sound country during the greater part of their lives. Miss Denny came to Seattle as a small child when her father's family constituted a part of that colony which founded this city. The others came later, but all had witnessed the city's growth from a village in the wilderness to the metropolis of the present day.
"Words are inadequate to express the feeling of sorrow engendered by this tragedy. All that can now be done is to express our sympathy with the stricken families and to give voice to our appreciation of the noble lives whose untimely end we mourn.
"The Pioneers of Washington, through a committee appointed for the purpose, speak for the pioneers of the State in thus attempting to offer this tribute of their appreciation and their sorrow, as well as of sincere sympathy for the bereaved families" ("Death of Four Friends of History").
Biographies of the Victims
Following are brief biographies of Thomas Prosch, Virginia McCarver Prosch, Margaret Lenora Denny, and Harriet Foster Beecher.
Thomas Prosch was a key early journalist, historian, and civic booster. He was the son of Charles Prosch, who founded the Puget Sound Herald in Steilacoom in 1858. Thomas grew up helping his father with the newspaper, and bought the paper in 1872 when he was 22-years-old. He moved it to Tacoma in 1873 and to Seattle in 1875. The Tribune ceased publication in 1878. In 1879, Prosch and Samuel L. Crawford bought the Seattle paper the Intelligencer, and in 1881 with John Leary and George W. Harris, established the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. In 1884, Prosch became sole owner. Following the paper's sale in 1886, Thomas Prosch focused his energy on recording and preserving the history of the region and on civic improvement .
Prosch was appointed Seattle postmaster by President U.S. Grant (1822-1885), a post he held from 1876 to 1878. He served on the Seattle Board of Education from 1891 to 1893. An early and long-standing member of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, he actively promoted Seattle and played a major role in both the civic and social life of the city.
As he grew older, Thomas Prosch became increasingly interested in documenting the history of his fledgling city. He walked the town taking photographs, which he assembled into annotated albums. He assembled a dictionary of Chinook trade jargon. He wrote and published several books documenting the role his extended family and other pioneers had played in the history of the Puget Sound region. They include McCarver and Tacoma, The Conkling-Prosch Family, David S. Maynard and Catherine T. Maynard, David E. Blaine and Catherine P. Blaine. He wrote a chronological history of Seattle from 1850 to 1897, which was still unpublished when he died. Important accounts of the region's history are based on Prosch's work.
His friend University of Washington Assistant Librarian Charles W. Smith (1877-1956) reflected a few years after Prosch's death:
"Though his work was cut short in the midst of his greatest activity, he had already accomplished much of high and enduring value. Subsequent historians in the Pacific Northwest will yield grateful recognition to this industrious and painstaking workman" (Smith).
Virginia McCarver Prosch
Virginia McCarver was born on April 17, 1851. She was the daughter of Morton and Julia Ann McCarver, founders of Tacoma. She taught school in Tacoma until marrying Thomas Prosch on September 12, 1877. She bore five daughters (Julia, Edith, Genevieve, Beatrice and Phoebe) and one son (Arthur). Like her husband, she was an active participant in building Seattle.
Along with Emily Carkeek and several others, Virginia Prosch was instrumental in the incorporation of the Seattle and King County Historical Society on January 8, 1914. At the time of her death she served as the Society's historian. Her duties included listing the Society's acquisitions, which she did in a small red book. "Her sunny smile and cheerful greetings were always welcome at gatherings of pioneers" ("Death of Four Friends of History"). The Prosches were longtime members of Saint Mark's Episcopal Church, which Thomas's parents had helped to found.
Margaret Lenora Denny
Margaret Lenora Denny was born on August 14, 1847. She was the second daughter of Arthur A. Denny and Mary Ann Boren Denny and at age five had landed on Alki Point with her family. With her family she traveled the Oregon Trail from Cherry Grove, Illinois, to Portland and then on by boat to the place called at first New York and then Alki (in 2003 Alki Point in West Seattle). She was one of the original students at the Territorial University. Lenora Street in downtown Seattle is named in her honor.
Margaret Denny eventually inherited from her parents "an ample fortune. This was most liberally used in promoting public welfare, particularly for the support of charitable institutions, schools, churches, and for perpetuating the memory of pioneers" (Himes, "Obituary").
At the time of her death her estate was valued at $400,000. Nearly half of this was bequeathed to public service organizations including the Riverton Pulmonary Hospital (which treated tuberculosis), the University of Washington, Whitman College, the Women's Relief Society of Washington, the Florence Crittenton Home, the Young Women's Christian Association of Seattle, Plymouth Congregational Church, the Congregational Home Missionary Society, and the Seattle Seaman's Friend Society.
Harriet Foster Beecher
Harriet Foster Beecher was a portrait, landscape, and still life painter, said to have established Seattle's first art studio in 1881. She studied at St. Mary's Academy in South Bend, Indiana, and at the San Francisco School of Design. She painted portraits of many Washington pioneers, among them Ezra Meeker and Margaret Denny, as well as Makah and Clallam Indians in the Port Townsend area. Her paintings were exhibited at the World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893.
She and her husband Herbert Beecher moved from New York to Port Townsend in the 1880s, and to Seattle sometime after 1900. She had two daughters, Mary Eunice and Beatrice, and a son, Henry Ward Beecher, who bore the name of his paternal grandfather, the well-known Congregational minister. She was active in artistic circles and frequently exhibited paintings with the San Francisco Art Association.
Thomas and Virginia Prosch's funeral was held at 1 p.m. on April 1, 1915, at Saint Mark's Episcopal Church (at that time located on the corner of Harvard Avenue and Spring Street). Hundreds of people attended. The mourners then moved on to Margaret Denny's 3:00 p.m. service at the family residence at 1220 Boren Avenue.
The Prosches were buried in Lake View Cemetery beside the graves two daughters, Julia and Genevieve, who had predeceased them, and near the graves of Thomas's parents, Charles and Susan Prosch. Margaret Denny was laid to rest in the nearby Denny family plot. A private service for Harriet Foster Beecher was held at Bonney-Watson Funeral Parlor the same evening.