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A hero drowns on Upper Saranac, 1950

September 10, 2010
Adirondack Daily Enterprise

Milford M. Deitz, a member of the U.S. Olympic Speed Skating team in 1932 in Lake Placid and one of the top athletes ever to graduate from Saranac Lake High School, drowned on Thursday, June 29, 1950 near the Girl Scout Camp at Eagle Island on Upper Saranac.

Deitz, 39, a building contractor, along with Robert Douglas Reed, 16 years of age, and George Walton, both of Keene, were returning from the mainland in an outboard powered metal, flat-bottom barge loaded with rocks, cement and sand when it swamped in rough water about 400 feet from the camp.

Reed could not swim and drowned after Deitz and Walton both tried to save him. Walton finally swam safely to shore but Deitz also drowned as he continued the struggle to rescue Reed.

The Enterprise report of Friday, June 30 said: "Reed was being towed by Deitz, who was a strong swimmer. Deitz towed Reed 75 feet toward an island, and in advancing that distance Deitz and Reed several times became separated and submerged briefly. Within five minutes both sank and were drowned."

But for the grace of God

The Enterprise story also said that witnesses from the dock were "Norm McCasland, Sr., Norm McCasland, Jr., Charles Rounds and Ray LaHart, all of Lake Placid who worked with Deitz."

Until a couple of days prior to the drowning I was working at the Girl Scout Camp for the caretaker, Tom Dacey, of Bloomingdale; and on one of those prior days when Mr. Dacey was going to be late arriving I had gone to the island with Deitz on another construction barge. This was a pontoon type barge used in bridge building by the engineers in WWII and it was attached in a temporary manner to a long wooden, inboard launch. Those big old boats were common at all the camps at the time and anyone who knows Upper Saranac knows that it can get very rough when the wind kicks up, which seemed to be most of the time.

Deitz was a handsome guy with a nice manner and a great personality. That ride over was a little scary as these two big craft lashed together were rocking and rolling and the barge was filled with lumber and other building material. Dacey and I would usually take a small outboard with a 5-horse engine back and forth and skirt the shoreline coming and going and that little boat would be lifting and banging down in the heavy waves.

I was in shock when my mother told me about the drowning so soon after I had left and had just met all those guys. Until I started researching this story, I thought it was that big barge that swamped, although it never made sense to me because of the size.

An eyewitness

Well, Norm McCasland Jr., another 19-year-old, was working there at the time for Deitz. I remembered Norm, of course, and called him this week about the events of that day. He said he was working on a roof and heard the calls for help, as did his father and others. but the boat that sank was just around a bend, almost out of sight. He said two girl scouts were out in a small outboard just rowing in circles, not using the engine. He came down off the roof and waved the girls in, started the engine and went out to the site of the drowning, but it was too late.

He had been putting in the docks and swimming rafts with Deitz a few days earlier, and he is one of those who testified about Deitz' prowess as a swimmer. Norm said he was a pretty fair swimmer himself but not as good as Deitz.

Norm had to go with the Catholic priest and the state police to deliver news of the tragedy to Milford's wife, Mrs. (Ruth) Deitz.

Carnegie Medal awarded

A story in the Enterprise dated Nov. 2, 1951 read in part:

"Milford Deitz, 40, former Olympic speed skating star and all-around athlete, was one of four men and one woman from New York State awarded the Carnegie bronze medal for heroism. Deitz was cited posthumously.

"In addition to the medal the commission said that Deitz' widow, a chamber of commerce worker, would receive death benefits of $70 a month."

The accident and attempted rescue were also described in great detail.

Norm's birthday

Norm is going to be 80 this Sept. 15 so we were both trying to piece together those events of 60 years ago. Norm has a twin brother, who believe it or not, is also going to be 80 in September. I was very flattered to learn that his Mom, Blanche, who is 104 and a resident of Uihlein reads my column every week. Norm said his Mom recalls not being too crazy about President Coolidge (1923-1929) when she met him "a few years ago."

(Thanks to Norm for the information and to Michele Tucker, Curator at the Adirondack Room of the Saranac Lake Free Library, for the clippings and yearbook pictures.)



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