By Keva Hoffmann Boardman —
It was a sweltering hot, end-of-summer, August Sunday in 1894, just perfect for a picnic by the river. Marie and Hugo Kramer gathered up their three children and joined Marie’s siblings, Georg and Lydia Hartman, and their in-laws Wilhelm and Walli Hartmann with their two children. Mrs. Williams and her three children tagged along. The group found a beautiful spot on the bank of the Guadalupe River at the top end of what is now Cypress Bend Park. The river came around the bend there and formed a beach-like sand bar with a shallow area where the children could wade and play. Quilts were spread out on the ground, baskets opened, shoes removed and adults and children tested the cool water. After getting their families happily settled, Mr. Kramer and Mr. Hartman walked downriver about a mile to do some fishing away from the giggling and frolicking kids.
At some point in the afternoon, 14 year-old Clara Kramer shouted; she had stepped off the sandbar into deep water and gone under. Mrs. Kramer, Mrs. Hartman and Mrs. Williams immediately recognized the child’s danger and jumped in after her. Two of the women instantly disappeared from the surface but Mrs. Williams struggled, and grabbing hold of a rock made it to shore where she then lost consciousness. The children ran safely back to the river’s edge, but George and Lydia Hartman risked the water in an attempt to save the three who had gone under and barely escaped drowning themselves.
A young stranger was fishing nearby and hearing the shouts and splashing water, rushed to the scene to help. He managed to retrieve the lifeless body of Mrs. Hartman which had bobbed to the surface.
The news of the accident quickly spread through New Braunfels, bringing Mr. Kramer and Mr. Hartmann along with hundreds of concerned people to the river bank to search for the missing mother and daughter. Hours later, J.D. Guinn found little Clara’s body downstream. The menfolk searched all night, torches lit, calling for Mrs. Kramer. She was finally found on Monday further downstream from her daughter. Ironically, Marie Kramer was an excellent swimmer and most agreed that she could have saved her daughter and sister-in-law if she had been clad in a light bathing dress instead of her regular clothing.
Maria Hartman Kramer (36) and Clara Kramer (14) were buried next to Walli Wastel Hartmann (23) in Comal Cemetery the following day. The town mourned.
The August 19, 1894 tragedy was deeply felt in this river-crossed town and indeed, tugged at the sympathies of folks across Texas. Newspaper articles revealed that an undercurrent, not the inability to swim, was the reason for the drownings. It was said that the women were dragged down into a whirlpool created by a “cave” or hole in the river bottom and washed along underground before exiting through other openings downstream. What a terrible way to go.
From that time on, children were told not to swim in that part of the river because of whirlpools. A sign was erected to alert folks about possible whirlpool dangers at that point of the river. My dad was warned about swimming there when he was a boy in the 1930s. There were still many people alive who remembered that disastrous picnic.
As a child, my brother and I were told about the whirlpools. I have a memory of standing on the riverbank licking an ice cream cone and watching the swirling green water while fearful visions of being pulled under and drowning swirling through my mind. Later, when we had Girl Scout Summer Day Camp at Cypress Bend Park, it truly never entered any of our minds to get into that whirlpool water no matter how hot it got. I told my children about the threat of whirlpools when they were little. I feel sure I was not the only one to spread the fear.
A couple of weeks ago, Sophienburg Museum director Tara Kohlenberg and I took David Hartmann driving around Comaltown to learn more about that part of New Braunfels. Stopping in Cypress Bend Park to bemoan the loss of the WPA-built amphitheater, he walked us over to the riverbank and pointed to a place in the middle saying, “Some of my relatives drowned in a whirlpool just there.”
My heart skipped a beat and I madly scribbled the 1894 story down as he was talking. I actually felt my old fear of this part of the Guadalupe welling up inside me. I looked at the water. It was so lovely and peaceful. No ripples or eddies blemishing the surface or swirls indicating dangerous currents. A family was splashing happily on the sandbar, oblivious to the events that occurred there over a hundred years ago. I had to keep myself in check and not run screaming, “Danger! Whirlpools!” lest they call the cops to subdue the strange lady.
It was weirdly vindicating to hear him tell about the Kramer-Hartmann drownings; my fear was not irrational. Do whirlpools still occur in that stretch of the river? There is no longer a sign. I suspect there are undertows and undercurrents all along the Guadalupe as it flows around rocks, buried tree trunks, flood debris and silted up areas. Maybe some of you kayakers can give me a shout and let me know.
It could all be just fine, but you won’t be catching me in that water.
Sources: Sophienburg Museum & Archives: Oral history interview with David Hartman, October 2020; Sacherer-Hartman Family History (FH1); Neu Braunfels Zeitung collection; Oscar Haas German obituary transcriptions.