News From Terre Haute, Indiana

December 26, 2012

Fountain honoring sacrifice by life-saving Santa may return to site of his heroism

Mark Bennett
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — A commemorative drinking fountain once marked the spot. Someday soon, it may return there.

Donors who funded the fountain considered it a fitting tribute to Claude Herbert. It provided cool relief from the heat.

At that place, 17-year-old Cora Harper watched 18-year-old Herbert perform an extraordinary act of heroism and then vanish, forever.

He had just saved her life.

The teenagers were two of 150 employees on duty at the bustling Havens & Geddes department store on the evening of Dec. 19, 1898, on the northeast corner of Wabash Avenue and Fifth Street in downtown Terre Haute. Harper worked as a clerk. Herbert portrayed Santa Claus and had been hired just two days earlier. The role seemed ironic. Herbert, fresh-faced and whiskerless, didn’t resemble Santa but was home from duty in the U.S. Army during the Spanish-American War and needed a job to support his newly widowed mother, Mattie.

On that night, less than a week before Christmas, an incandescent light bulb popped in a display window, setting ablaze Havens & Geddes — the largest department store in Indiana. Lives ended in the inferno. Burned and injured, firefighter John Osterloo died. Henry Nehf, a volunteer firefighter, also perished in an adjacent building. Store clerk Katie Maloney jumped from a second-story ledge, struck her head and died.

More than 30 children had come to the Haven & Geddes basement — adorned as a “winter cabin” scene — to sit on Santa’s lap and tell him their Christmas wishes. When another staffer shouted “Fire!” from the top of the stairs, Herbert — staying in costume and in character — calmed the panicked kids and shuttled them outside to safety, according to accounts in the next morning’s Terre Haute Gazette and a Tribune-Star retrospective published in 2000.

“The stories varied as to how many times he went back in to get the children,” said Terre Haute historian Mike McCormick.

In one poignant account, a hysterical mother screamed that her lost child, Nettie Welch, was still in the store. Herbert, who already had marched other children out, scrambled back inside and found 3-year-old Nettie huddled in Santa’s chair, picked her up and returned the girl to her mother.

On his next-to-last trip inside, a group of clerks followed Herbert and the last few youngsters out. Like the children, the clerks received a gift — of life — from the selfless young Santa.

“I know that some would probably have never been saved if it had not been for his cool head and nerve,” Harper told the Gazette.

That list included Harper.

‘No, I’m going back’

With all of the children safe, Herbert thought his mission was not yet done. Several clerks remained trapped in the basement — Herbert thought — after he brought the previous group out of the smoke-filled, burning building. Herbert caught his breath in the open air, shed his Santa suit, and re-entered the store in his street clothes.

By fate or providence, his path crossed that of Harper.

In a moment of impulse, Harper — who already had ventured back to the store’s boiler room to pick up her hat, wrap and boots before escaping — darted back into the building to retrieve her lunch bucket. Herbert rerouted her toward the door.

“When I started back downstairs, he was behind me and pushed me down the aisle and out of the room… and I expected that he would follow me out into the street,” Harper said, her voice shaking as she spoke to the Gazette. “He turned, however, and started back in.”

A bystander, Gertie Stein, yelled for Herbert to “come out, come out.”

He did not. “No, I’m going back. There’s plenty of time,” Herbert answered, “and maybe there’s someone down there.”

Standing at the top of the steps, with one hand shielding his eyes and the other hand stretched forward, Herbert walked back into the billowing smoke.

“That is the last we heard” from him, Harper told the Gazette.

Unbeknownst to Herbert — a brand new employee — the clerks he thought were still trapped inside had safely exited in the opposite direction through an underground passageway leading from the store to the Havens & Geddes warehouse on Cherry Street. Unfamiliar with the structure, Herbert did not find the same route.

One unidentified man said he spotted the heroic teen trying at last to save his own life by jumping from an upper-floor window. Some claimed they saw him leap from the second floor at the back of the building, just as that wall of the Havens & Geddes department store collapsed. Others said it was the fifth floor, where Herbert left his overcoat while suiting up as Santa.

Regardless, his final steps, through a fire visible for miles, remain a mystery. Herbert died that day.

Three days later, amid the smoldering ruins of a tragedy that destroyed four lives and $2 million in property over a city block, searchers found two of Herbert’s bones in a location that led investigators to speculate he was on the fifth floor. Otherwise, Herbert was cremated by the blaze. His remains are interred in a family mausoleum at Highland Lawn Cemetery.

More than a century later, his brave rescue of children and adults still amazes his descendants.

“I don’t think very many people would’ve done that, that many times,” said John Silnes, a 71-year-old Greenwood businessman whose mother, Mary, was Herbert’s first cousin. “He just couldn’t let that happen to them.”

Community responds

The life-saving actions of a teenage, department-store Santa left a significant impression on the Terre Haute area community.

To preserve the memory of his self-sacrifice and courage, citizens and groups created the Claude Herbert Memorial Fountain Fund. The money came through penny drives by local schoolchildren, a furniture raffle by wives of Spanish-American War veterans, and contributions from fellow U.S. Army Company B service men, mayors, doctors, lawyers, Terre Haute Brewery workers, and Terre Haute Star newspaper staffers. On Aug. 2, 1905, the fountain was dedicated at a public ceremony at Fifth and Wabash. The event’s emcee, Star editorial writer Claude Bowers — also a Spanish-American War vet and a future U.S. ambassador to Spain — called Herbert’s feat “God’s occasional manifestation of divinity in man.”

The memorial was meant to call “attention to the immortality of altruistic good,” Bowers said.

“This fountain will one day rust beneath the corroding torch of time, and the waters will one day cease to flow for the refreshment of the stranger,” Bowers said 107 years ago. “But the deed this beautiful creation commemorates will live on in the making of better men and nobler women.”

Time wasn’t the only pitfall the fountain faced. Traffic posed its greater threat. Less than eight years after its dedication, the fountain was leveled by a runaway horse and carriage. An iron fountain replaced the original in 1916. An automobile crash ruined that one. A granite fountain, with spouts and basins on three of its four sides, took its place in 1928. In February 1980, another car struck the fountain, prompting then-mayor Pete Chalos to have it moved to the grounds between the Vigo County Courthouse and Terre Haute City Hall, where it now stands.

“Mayor Chalos was concerned about it,” recalled Pat Ralston, city parks and cemeteries director at the time. “He asked me to make sure it got moved.”

Its relocation upset a handful of surviving widows of Spanish-American War veterans. They sent a letter of complaint to the Vigo County Historical Society, mistakenly assuming the society endorsed the move. “That fountain belongs to the veterans who donated for the public to have a drink of water,” the letter written by Charlotte Stahl said. “This happened at [Fifth and Wabash], not Harding [Avenue, at the courthouse].”

Stahl’s letter remains in the Historical Museum archives, as well as the society’s response. In it, society president Bill Pickett emphasized its preference for the original site and told Stahl, “Perhaps there is a way in which you and the women you represent can work with the society, the city and owners of the land at Fifth Street and Wabash Avenue to design a protected but attractive and permanent site for the monument on or near the corner.”

Thirty-two years later — and 114 years after Claude Herbert’s valiant exploits — the fountain may return.

Plans for fountain’s return

The city has acknowledged that Indiana State University has an interest in developing the block at the northeast corner of Fifth and Wabash for student housing. The Herbert Memorial Fountain figures into those plans, Mayor Duke Bennett said.

“I have had conversations with several people regarding moving the fountain back to the corner as part of a future development project,” Bennett told the Tribune-Star. “I am working to make it happen, and I am very confident it will happen as the site is developed.”

The site falls within the city’s downtown “tax increment finance” district, or TIF, and its development likely would involve the Terre Haute Department of Redevelopment. Cliff Lambert, the department’s executive director, said, “If [the fountain] could aesthetically fit in with what they’re doing, I think that would be wonderful.”

To be a true fountain, the monument would need some upgrading. As Claude Bowers predicted in the fountain’s initial 1905 dedication, its water lines ceased to operate years before the city moved it in 1980. Today, holes for its three spout pipes are empty. Soil, and a few cigarette butts, occupy its basins. Its plaque, weathered and worn, still reads: “To Claude Herbert who gave his life to save others in the Havens & Geddes fire … this memorial is erected by his comrades of the Spanish-American War and patriotic citizens.”

John Silnes, son of Herbert’s first cousin, is proud that his ancestor is remembered, regardless of the fountain’s location.

Terre Haute should not forget him, Silnes said, “because he gave up his life to help other people, and I think that’s important for any community.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.