American Book of Golden Deeds - James Baldwin

A Race to Death

Near the Monongahela River there lived two young men, Howard McCarney and James Gilmer. They had worked together on a towboat which plied up and down the river, and they were firm, devoted friends. It was spring, and there was a great freshet in the river. The towboat was not running, but McCarney was at work alone on a heavy barge which was moored to the shore. The flood increased in height every minute. The water rushed down with fearful momentum. The ropes which held the old barge to the shore were stretched to their utmost tension.

Suddenly there was a snapping, crashing sound; and McCarney, looking up from his work, saw that the barge had been torn from its moorings and was being carried rapidly down the stream. He could not swim. He was already far from the shore. He could only shout for help.

His friend Gilmer, who was not far away, heard the shout. He ran down to the shore, only to see the barge in midstream, and McCarney standing on the deck and wildly calling for aid. A mile below them the river was spanned by a great dam, and there would be no help for McCarney after the barge passed over it.

A small rowboat was tied to the shore. Gilmer leaped into it and pushed out into the stream. He was a good oarsman, but the barge had a long start of him. He hoped, however, that he might overtake it at some distance above the dam; then McCarney would jump into it and both would row to the shore.

The heavy barge was now in the main current, and going swiftly. The swirling eddies caught the light rowboat and carried it out of its course. The race was a losing one, but Gilmer kept bravely on, hoping to the last. The great dam was just ahead. Its roar grew louder and more appalling every moment. Gilmer was still far behind the barge; looking anxiously over his shoulder, he saw that his friend was surely lost; the sight so unnerved him that he lost control of his boat.

In another minute the barge was in the rapids—then, with a thunderous sound it went over the dam and was lost to sight in the deep water below. Gilmer, in his great horror and anxiety for his friend, forgot his own danger. Before he could gain control over his boat, it, too, was swept into the rapids. Men watching from the shore saw Gilmer leap into the boiling flood. A moment later they saw his body hurled over the dam. With that of his friend it was borne far down the raging stream.

What could the commission do to commemorate such heroism? They could not reward the hero; but they gave his father a bronze medal and two hundred dollars as a memorial of his self-sacrificing act.