The Flying Eagle's tragedy on the Mighty Mississippi River just off the Hannibal shores was going to be in Dorothy Yarbrough's family history no matter what.
Time just had it scripted that way.
But this isn't a family story of tragedy left with a series of questions of what might have been. This is actually a story of survival and the quick actions of a mother's love.
Dorothy Yarbrough is a great story teller. She paints pictures with the tales she remembers hearing from her grandmother and father. Her easy, laid back Midwestern personality and word usage add substance to the history story she tells of that fateful Wednesday morning, June 3, 1903, when the Flying Eagle pulled away from Hannibal's shore, never to return again.
Ella Large Porter, Yarbrough's aunt, — Aunt Maggie they called her — saved up her money so she could take a trip on the Flying Eagle with friends from Park Methodist Church. That was the big event for June 3, 1903. Sunday School kids and other church members from Park Methodist were taking a trip on the popular excursion boat that usually taxied folks between Hannibal and Quincy.
"She had saved several little Indian head pennies to go," Yarbrough said. "My grandfather, my grandmother and Ella and my dad was in the wagon with a horse. They came up from the Saverton hills for her to board the Flying Eagle. They almost got there and grandma said, 'She can't go. She can't, I'm not going to let her go.' My grandfather stopped the wagon and said, 'She waited all this time, what's the problem?'"
As it turns out Ella's mother, Mary Large — a full blooded Choctaw American Indian — had a premonition. She wasn't admitting it at that particular moment, just staying stern and firm on her immediate decision to not let Ella get on the Flying Eagle.
"They went on to see the boat and all them little kids were lined up and she just cried and cried and cried," Yarbrough said.
The steamboat pulled away from the dock with thick, black smoke escaping from its tall smoke stacks.
"They were all on board waving. Happy, happy, happy." Yarbrough said. She said this is what her father, who was about 12 at the time, and her Grandma Mary told her in her youth. "It went on and they heard (passengers) screaming. He said it was just fear. That was a panic, they was screaming, everybody didn't know what to do."
The Flying Eagle crashed into the Hannibal railroad bridge and very quickly more than 170 passengers were trying to swim to shore. Some on the river banks jumped in to assist, others couldn't do anything and watched the horror unfold. Yarbrough's Grandpa Large thought about jumping in the river to save some of the passengers, but the threat of the current gave him second thoughts.
Page 2 of 2 - "He (Grandpa Large) said it was just shear panic," Yarbrough said.
One image passed down through the stories was watching the river take away one of the female teenagers who drowned in the crash. Yarbrough said the family remembers seeing one of the girls swim for the lifesaver, but she handled it wrong and the strong current flipped her upside down under water with her feet in the air. Both Martha Coppedge and Lonnie B. Curts drowned in the tragedy, but whose death the Large family witnessed is unknown.
"My aunt was so grateful that they didn't let her go," Yarbrough said.
After everything took place, that's when Grandma Mary told her family a premonition warned her of the Flying Eagle's pending accident.
"An Indian won't lie about nothing, they won't. It's something that comes in the night that I don't know if it was in the form of a bird or it could have been a snake, it could have been anything," Yarbrough said. "She got the message."
Ella grew up and became a nurse and midwife. She never had any children of her own, but helped deliver many into the world. She's laid to rest at Grand View Burial Park.