Answer Man: A drowning in Swansea in 1931

News-DemocratApril 14, 2014 

I am a former Belleville resident who would like to know if there is or was a lake in Belleville named Lake McKinley or McKinley Lake? While recently searching through my genealogy, I learned that my grandfather drowned in that lake in 1931. -- Rodney Biehl, of St. Louis County

Looks like a root in your family tree is about to take a slight detour. According to both Belleville papers, your grandfather, Arthur J. Biehl, drowned Aug. 29-30, 1931, in St. Clair Lake in Swansea.

Anyone who drives up North 17th Street and looks at the street signs will be familiar with the name. About a mile north of West Main Street -- just as described in the news stories -- you can turn right onto St. Clair Lake Drive (although you are warned that the street has no outlet).

The lake itself lies between 17th and Caseyville Avenue, again as described in the story. (There's also a Lake Front Drive off Morgan.) At one time, the lake was to be the central attraction of a proposed St. Clair Lake Park, according to the Swansea village history. A sand beach was installed along with a high dive and bath house.

The recreation center, however, failed financially about 1927 and the bath house burned, although "swimming and wading were frequently indulged in by trespassers," the paper noted.

That's what your grandfather was up to late that Saturday night. Just 31 at the time, the father of four young boys along with Oliver "Red" Funk and Perry Rury spent the day visiting friends around Belleville. Then, just before midnight, the trio went to the lake to perhaps cool off.

According to the News-Democrat report, they went wading near the west bank of the lake, where the water was just 3 feet deep. But 10 minutes later, Rury noticed Biehl was missing and immediately asked Funk whether he had seen Biehl leave the water.

When Funk said no, the two began searching for him and yelling for help. Hearing the shouting, a woman in a nearby house called the sheriff's office. About 12:30 a.m., Biehl's body, clad in trousers and one shoe, was found covered in mud near where he was last seen by his two friends.

A resident of 118 S. 17th St., Biehl, who worked on his father George's farm near Smithton, was buried in Green Mount Cemetery. As a footnote, I have found no references to St. Clair Lake being called McKinley although I'd appreciate any information to the contrary.

By the way, if you didn't know, it wasn't the first time your grandfather made headlines. In 1921, Biehl filed suit against several members of his mother's family, saying they were falsely accusing him of murdering a cousin.

On March 5, 1921, Oscar Linder, 22, was found dead on the Freeburg Road. At first, the death was ruled a suicide, but a second coroner's inquest ruled he was killed by a blow to the head.

Six months later, Biehl sued Linder's dad, two of Oscar's brothers and a brother-in-law for $70,000 for publicly declaring that Biehl killed him, according to Biehl's attorney, Eugene Kreitner. Kreitner alleged the second inquest was "entirely illegal" and was done only so the family could collect on a $1,000 insurance policy, which they did in February 1922.

I could find no further reports on this case, but if you'd like to add copies of these stories to your scrapbook, please send me your address and I'll be glad to send them to you.

Due to the lovely weather we had last week I decided to take my nephew to Moody Park at Longacre to play on the massive playground there. However, when we get there, we found it is no longer there. What happened and why was it removed? -- G.P.

You might want to take your own kite or ball along next time while Fairview Heights prepares to provide an even better playground for the kiddies by summer.

Installed in 1995, the old, wooden equipment was raising liability concerns because it was splintering so badly that it was causing injury. It was dismantled last November.

"We were just having so many maintenance issues with it because of the wooden structure," Angela Beaston, the city's parks and recreation director, said. "I know several other communities in this area had the same type of playground installed almost at the exact same time and they also removed theirs."

Now, the city has approved $275,000 to install new plastic and fiberglass equipment. Initial plans were to have it ready in May, but weather and a debate whether to use a mulch or rubberized surface have pushed that back at least a month.

Once it's finished, though, city officials say it may eventually pay for itself.

"I think the old playground, when it was new, brought a lot of people to the park and the city, where they spent money," Ward 2 alderman Justin Gough told us last month. "I have friends who would drive 20 or 30 minutes to go to that park with their kids."

Today's trivia

OK, Scrabble fans: What's the newest word just added to the official Scrabble players' dictionary?

Answer to Sunday's trivia: Betty Ford was the last incumbent first lady who made no foreign trips by herself. Before her, Lady Bird Johnson also made no solo foreign excursions.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or or call 618-239-2465.

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