By Kathi Kresol
Sledding has been a past time for children for many generations. During the late 1800s one of the areas that offered this activity was Rockford’s southwest side on Knowlton Street. At that time, Knowlton Street ran all the way down to the Rock River. The river was narrow at that point and would freeze over completely and the children were able to slide down several blocks of the street and shoot out onto the ice. The children would slide on Knowlton even when the river wasn’t frozen they just needed to stop their sleds before it reached the water.
The Flenniken sisters had been sledding on Knowlton many times and there was no indication that Saturday, February 16, 1884 would be any different than their previous occasions. Nannie was nine years old and her older sister Maggie was 11. The girls were joined by their friend, Mamie Mosher, that day. The hill had been busy that day and there were many children coasting down the street. Each of the three girls had her own sled and Nannie was all set to go down first. Maggie and Mamie watched as her sled flew down the street. They were horrified to see the little sled containing Nannie slide onto the ice where the ice was thin. There was nothing they could do to stop the sled as it slid into the cold water of the Rock River. Maggie ran to help her sister and she too fell into the frigid water. Mamie was close to Maggie and bravely grabbed one of her legs to pull her back onto the solid ice.
After saving Maggie, Mamie reached out and caught Nannie’s mittened hand. Nannie screamed for her to hold onto her. But to the horror of the girls, Nannie’s hand began to slip from the mitten. Nannie screamed, “I can’t hold on any longer.” With these words she slipped under the surface. That would be the last time Nannie Flenniken was ever seen alive. Both Maggie and Mamie began to scream for help. Mrs. P.H. Welsh who lived at the foot of Knowlton Street heard their screams and she along with another neighbor, Mrs. A. Bessey, ran to assist the girls. But the women were too late to save little Nannie.
The police were notified and the search began. It was decided that the river should be dammed. Twenty five men cut holes in the ice and inserted huge timbers into the holes. They also stretched netting between holes in the swiftest part of the current. The men were so determined to retrieve the little girl for her mother that they worked late into the night on Saturday.
On Sunday, February 17, hundreds of men volunteered to join in the search for the little girl. They cut channels in the ice and dragged lines with hooks through the water. The men retrieved the little girl’s sled and one mitten but no other sign of the little girl was recovered.
Nannie was the daughter of T.M. Flenniken. He was a well-known Rockford inventor. Mr. Flenniken had been dead for several years prior to Nannie’s accident. His widow lived with the couple’s three children in a nice little cottage down by the river. Mrs. Flenniken sent the girls to the butcher shop on the day of the accident and had no idea that the girls were sledding until someone came to tell her of the tragedy.
Later, a reward for 100 dollars was offered when the little girl was not immediately recovered. It was not until February 26 that Nannie’s body was discovered by Sylvester Scott. Later, Scott would suggest that a locket be given to Mamie Mosher as a reward for her bravery and quick thinking in saving Maggie from the same fate that Nannie suffered.
Mrs. Flenniken lived until 1898 but everyone who knew her stated that she never recovered from the death of her little girl. Her friends all said that part of her went to the bottom of the river with her daughter on that cold February day.
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