Ask Heidi

How many people died after crashing into Belleville’s Veterans Memorial Fountain?

Q: Has anyone ever crashed into the Memorial Fountain in the middle of town? Has there ever been a fatal car crash there? — T.H.G., O'Fallon

A: From fender-benders to serious accidents with fatalities, Belleville's Veterans Memorial Fountain has been the site of more than a few crashes. Some have even resulted in entire vehicles coming to rest in the fountain.

In the archives, I discovered three fatalities due to cars crashing into the fountain. There could be more, but those might not have been reported if the victim didn't die upon impact but later died from their injuries:

August 1989 — A 26-year-old man from Baltimore, Maryland, died from chest and neck injuries after crashing into the fountain at "a high rate of speed." It was believed this accident was the first fatality recorded from someone colliding with the fountain since it was built, according to Art Baum and Richard Brauer, who were the Belleville city clerk and mayor, respectively, at that time.

However, I spoke to someone who drove ambulances before 1989 and he recalled a motorcyclist striking the fountain, flying into it and dying from his injuries sometime prior to 1989, though no report could be found.

November 1989 — A man died after he fled police in a stolen 1986 Pontiac 6000, exceeded speeds of 100 miles per hour during the chase and hit the fountain traveling an estimated 80 mph. The man was never identified even though police shared his dental records, fingerprints and pictures with other agencies. He is buried at the Sunset Garden of Memory cemetery in Millstadt under the name "John Doe."

May 1992 — An 86-year-old woman from Sheboygan, Wisconsin, died from chest injuries after the car she was a passenger in struck the fountain. The driver of the car had driven all night from Wisconsin to Belleville, and it seems exhaustion may have played a role in the accident.

The Veterans Memorial Fountain has been fatality-free since 1992. It has a storied history and meaning to Belleville, far beyond being simply the site of crashes and the center of the Public Square.

Veterans Memorial Fountain At-A-Glance

The fountain has a diameter of 40 feet and a 4-foot-deep pool. It contains 15,500 gallons of water, which is about how much an average 16-foot-by-32-foot swimming pool holds.

What's the history of the fountain? Here are some of the major events:

fountain construction 1937.jpg
This photo of Belleville's Public Square from 1937 shows preparations for the Junior Chamber of Commerce Street Fair and construction of the Veterans Memorial Fountain. BND Archives

May 22, 1937 — Construction begins on the fountain, which is the brainchild of Herb Schwind, Fred Engel and William G. Adrian. Sam Daniels sketches the design. He is with the St. Clair County Engineers Department.

Oct. 23, 1937 — The fountain is formally dedicated. Cameron Harmon, former president of McKendree College in Lebanon, is a featured speaker at the event.

June 3, 1969 — The fountain has a new owner when St. Clair County sells Belleville's Public Square to the Public Building Commission of St. Clair County for $1.

1972 — Plans are proposed to remove the fountain from the Public Square and take it to a different location. Local veterans groups vote against the measure and it is dropped.

Aug. 15, 1975 — The Veterans Memorial Fountain plumbing is updated. St. Clair County Board Chairman Victor P. Canty and Belleville Mayor Charles E. Nichols are among the dignitaries at the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

December 1985 — Major renovations begin on the fountain. The wording on the fountain's cone is changed from "Belleville Memorial Fountain to Veterans of All Wars" to "Memorial Fountain to Veterans of All Wars."

May 3, 1986 — The city has an official re-dedication of the Veterans Memorial Fountain. The community celebrate with a festival, and Belleville residents are disappointed when the fountain stops flowing the day after the dedication. Officials blame the incident on a timer and human error.

May 29, 1990 — St. Clair County Board approves a resolution to give ownership of the Public Square from the county Public Building Commission to the city of Belleville, making the city the owner of the Veterans Memorial Fountain.

May 28, 1992 — Flagpoles and additional lights are added to the fountain.

Statues around the fountain 1940.jpg
In 1940, plans for the Veterans Memorial Fountain on Belleville's Public Square included 1000-pound statues. Though money was raised for the project, it never came to fruition. BND Archives

Fountain City

The fountain itself seems to be generally beloved by Belleville residents. Major events take place around it, and people use the fountain as a landmark to navigate around town. In fact, Belleville is known as "Fountain City."

Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert said, "The fountain is not only a great reminder of the deep sense of appreciation for our veterans, but it is also a distinguished reminder and symbol for the city of Belleville. People love it."

At the official re-dedication of the Veterans Memorial Fountain in 1985, Larry Geary, of Belleville, one of the laborers who helped construct it in 1937, said, "If my heart could tell you a story... This is my love, and it's always been. St. Louis has the Arch, Chicago has its tall building, but Belleville and St. Clair County has the most beautiful fountain anywhere."

The Veterans Memorial Fountain appears on the Belleville Police Department patches and is required to be included by artists in promotional posters for the annual Art on the Square event.

At the 2018 Art on the Square, Mayor Eckert mentioned the fountain had to be shut down because of gusting wind. But safety issues aside, he said it is a landmark that owes much to the community for its upkeep, decorations and very existence.

Eckert said, "On behalf of the city, we are appreciative of all people who have donated time and energy to the fountain to maintain it over the years. A lot of people, because of their civic pride, volunteer to help make that symbolic statement in Belleville and continue to keep it beautiful and meaningful each and every day."

I found some touching statements from community members in the BND's archive about the fountain:

On Nov. 10, 1985, former Belleville Mayor Richard Brauer said, "The fountain symbolizes everything that Belleville is. It's a viable, living part of downtown."

"You know you're home when you see the fountain," said Leroy Lynch on May 5, 1986.

Like any love story, the relationship between Belleville residents and the fountain has not always been smooth. There have been legal fights about how safe the fountain is in terms of signs and lightning, and if religious displays are allowed on it as it is public property.

Pranksters have been known to dump soap in the fountain, causing mounds of bubbles and a major headache for the city employees who maintain it.

soap in fountain 1975.jpg
Pranksters filled the fountain with soap on the day of a check presentation. Veterans Screening Council Commander Oliver Tolin (center) and secretary-treasurer Walter Bien (right) presented a $3,400 check for Veterans Memorial Fountain renovations to city treasurer Homer Liebig (left). Clarence Chaput BND Archives

It's a costly prank and sets the city of Belleville back more than $1,000 because all of the fountain water has to be drained and replaced each time. And it's a felony if you get caught — so be smart and save the soap for your laundry.

Suggested reading: Though it's not necessarily about fountains, "Rust: The Longest War" by Jonathan Waldman is a fascinating study of the cost and destructive power of rust on monuments, pipelines, bridges and more. You'd think it would be about as interesting as watching paint dry, but Waldman makes corrosion education into an adventure.

If you have a question for Ask Heidi, email it to questions@bnd.com or mail it to Belleville News-Democrat, ATTN: Ask Heidi, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427.
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