Rand Park was one of my favorite hangouts as a kid growing up in Keokuk, it was close to our house and in the summer we went through there all the time. The park was dedicated in 1883 and named after George Rand who was a mayor of Keokuk. It is the largest park in the city, and Chief Keokuk is buried in the park with a fine statue of him atop a memorial. It is very peaceful, has 100 year old trees and a very commanding view of the Mississippi River high up on the bluff. The view is about a mile and a half north of the lock and dam and the water below is actually called Lake Cooper, but it is still the Mississippi.
Inside the park is a playground, a pond, very nice picnic shelters that are made of stone and could accommodate a family reunion. The concession stand would open in the summertime and sell snacks, cold drinks and cheap toys like balsa wood gliders, yo-yos and other stuff. The stand was usually staffed by a pretty high school student and we would hover around and chat her up for a couple hours. There was a very beautiful flower garden that was well kept with a large stone gazebo in the center that had a drinking fountain in it. When we moved to Keokuk there was a wading pond that had about two feet of water in it and it has since been torn out. The park has a tennis court, basketball court, frisbee golf and a baseball diamond. There was a small playground for kids that had small, kid sized rides called Kiddieland, next to that there was an old fire engine that you could climb around on, plus next to the regular playground was an old cannon from some war. A stone with a metal plaque imbedded in it declared that it was memorial from the USS Maine and the plaque was made from the metal of the ship. We thought that was very cool. A large covered bandstand was in the center of the park and many concerts were held there, from the city band to rock n roll, we could hear the music it from our house.
On April 29, 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt visited the city and gave a speech (Roosevelt’s speech) in Rand Park near the flower garden, the city put a marker up and planted a tree commemorating the event. The marker is still there but the tree is not. He would visit the city two more times but not as president. He was the last president to visit Keokuk till President Carter in 1979, and Carter never came into the city but gave a speech from the Delta Queen at the locks, which I saw. Most of the candidates of every election since then did pass through and give speeches, I watched President Obama give a speech at Hawthorne school before he was elected in 2008.
Every Christmas the park has a festival of lights set up for the cars to pass through, in the summer, bands play on July 4th with a great fireworks show at dusk. It is definitely small town America, safe and homey and quaint.
And yet tragedy would strike even placid, idyllic Rand Park. In the middle of the park is a road that leads from one end to the tennis courts. Next to this road is a very small creek that starts at a storm drain on the north and crosses under the road to finish near the tennis courts at another large storm drain. The creek was narrow enough that you could step across it, and generally it held about 1/2 inch of slow moving water. But as a kid I noticed that during a heavy rain the water coming out of the north storm drain increased dramatically and the creek would flood to three feet and even rise to the road. Not only that but the water would rush through there like a rapids, very fast moving water down to the other storm drain by the tennis courts.
Sometimes we would go down there and play around in the creek after a rain and wade into the water a bit till the water depth receded. It never really seemed dangerous to us, but we were pretty careful about where we played. It was always fun to wade around and get wet.
On July 7, 1969, there was heavy downpour in the late morning swelling the creek up around three feet and the water was rushing through very quickly. Some children went down after the rain stopped and were playing around the storm drain near the tennis courts. There seemed to be maybe ten kids in all, some were just sitting around while others were dashing into and out of the water. Four children, two brothers aged 9 and 8 and a brother and sister aged 8 and 6 were playing in the water when suddenly they lost their footing and were rushed down the creek in the turbulent water and disappeared into the storm drain. The other children ran home and told their parents and the police were notified, but by the time they arrived on scene there was nothing to be done.
A policeman tied a rope around his waist and another held the other end as he ventured into the drain to see if he could see anything, but after fifty feet gave up due to the rushing water. Later the rescue personal went to the drain pipe’s outlet which was by the riverboat museum three miles away and started searching. Three of the bodies were found that afternoon, I do not know if the fourth drowning victim was ever found. The authorities later on went from the park all the way to the river via the storm pipe and never saw anything. The two brothers who drowned were the only children their parents had, very sad.
It was later found out that a netting had been placed over the drain at the tennis courts location, but it would get clogged with debris and needed cleaning constantly, and after one such cleaning was never put back on the drain entrance. Not too long after a large steel grate was placed over the drain entrance to prevent any other catastrophes like the one experienced that afternoon. I remember this clearly and even went down to the park that day after we heard about it, there was a large crowd there and people were very shocked at the scene.