Five newsboys died on burning ship Survivor: Melvin Otter, who made it into the river and was rescued, visited the graves of his comrades regularly, for 72 years.

Way Back When

July 04, 1998|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

For 72 years, Melvin Otter, an old man with a limp, faithfully visited the graves of five members of The Evening Sun Newsboys' Band in Baltimore's Loudon Park Cemetery. The five died July 4, 1924, when the Three Rivers, an excursion boat bringing them home from a concert in Crisfield, caught fire off Cove Point Light, 60 miles down the Chesapeake Bay. Ten passengers and crew members were found dead on the vessel -- among them band members Vernon E. Jefferson, 15; Nelson A. Miles, 17; Walter Clark Millikin, 13; Thomas A. Pilker Jr., 13; and Lester Alfred Seligman, 15.

Otter, a retired News American proof reader who died of a heart attack earlier this month at age 89, was believed to be the last surviving band member who was aboard the Three Rivers that tragic night.

From then on, no matter what the weather or how busy he was, Otter made time to visit the memorial erected by The Evening Sun in Loudon Park. He'd sit on a bench and recite the rosary for his lost childhood comrades.

"He'd go over at least once a week, sometimes more, and only stopped going about two years ago, when his health began to fail," his wife of 68 years, the former Ethel Nickerson, said from the couple's Elkridge home the other day.

The two had been childhood sweethearts. In the spring of 1924, when she was 14, Ethel attended a concert of The Evening Sun Newsboys' Band, which performed concerts throughout Maryland.

She went with her friends Evelyn and Beulah Knapp, who lived next door in the 2100 block of West Baltimore Street, and whose brother, Roland, was a band member.

"I remember the concert," Otter said. "John Philip Sousa directed the band [that night], and I remember what a small man he was."

But what really caught her eye was the 16-year-old cornet player from South Baltimore. She and Melvin married in 1929 and lived )) in Beechfield until moving recently to Elkridge.

Still, what she remembers most about the band was the night of the tragedy.

"I remember hearing the newsboys shouting 'Extra! Extra! Extra!' and then hearing that the Three Rivers had caught fire. Everyone poured out of their houses -- few had radios then -- when they heard the newsboys yelling. Poor Mrs. Knapp, she was frantic. But happily, Roland was among the survivors."

Otter had been sleeping down below when several band members pounded on his stateroom door after the fire broke out at midnight.

"At first, he thought it was a prank. They were always playing jokes on one another, but when he smelled the smoke he realized it was for real. If it hadn't been for those boys, he'd have been dead," Ethel Otter recalled.

Frank Morse, leader of the band, told The Sun: "The boys, many of them, were among the last to leave the boat. They threw FTC portions of wreckage and life-preservers to persons struggling in the water. Some of them manned the fire hose and fought the flames."

As Melvin Otter went over the side, he hit his left leg on the ship's rail, which left him with a permanent limp. He was briefly in the water before being picked up along with other survivors by the steamer Middlesex and taken to Baltimore.

"He was on crutches for a long time after that, and I'd go to South Baltimore to visit him during his recuperation," his wife recalled. "Till the day he died, that leg still hurt and gave him trouble. ...

"He was a very religious man. And what happened when those boys who lost their lives always broke his heart," she said.

The five victims were buried in a semi-circle beneath a copper and granite shaft designed by sculptor J. Maxwell Miller. The monument features a sculpture of a boy in three-quarters relief holding a raised flute.

A tablet contains a line from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem "Hiawatha":

"They have moved a little nearer to the master of all music."

Pub Date: 7/04/98

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