This story is contributed by a member of the Macoupin County Historical Society.
CARLINVILLE — It was a typical June evening when Ivah Coles, age 21, and Richard Cromwell, age 20, went for a swim in the reservoir near Benld. While attempting to climb up the steep, high bank, Cromwell fell back into the water and began to sink. From the bank, Coles waded into the water toward Cromwell but sank within eight feet of him. The men’s bodies were found in water 10 to 12 feet deep; the reports indicated that they were victims of cramps, caused by the chilliness of the water due to springs nearby. That was June 8, 1904.
Though newspaper accounts of the incident gave no stirring account of bravery or heroism on Coles’ part, recognition would come later. In 1908, Coles’ mother was presented with a silver Carnegie Hero Medal, Coles’ act being among the first few dozen recognized by the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission (CHFC), which since 1904 has recognized nearly 10,000 acts of heroism throughout the United States and Canada.
The Coles medal was recently put up for sale on eBay by a jeweler in O’Fallon, Mo., who had acquired it from someone selling it for its 5.5 ounces of silver. The medal was purchased by Matthew Campbell, a member of the Pennsylvania Association of Numismatists (PAN), of Washington, Pa., who contacted the Commission, based nearby in Pittsburgh. Rarely seen for sale, these medals are usually held by the recipients and families as heirlooms.
When Campbell contacted the Macoupin County Historical Society (MCHS) for research assistance, the society seized on the story, gathering information and locating Coles’ grave at Bunker Hill Cemetery.
“When Ivah went to his final resting place,” said David Jokisch, MCHS web developer and manager of the plaque project, “by all accounts, it was quiet. But it is never too late to honor a hero. Thanks to the Carnegie Hero Commission, the Macoupin Historical Society, and the generosity of Carlinville Monument, Mr. Coles will receive more permanent recognition.”
Finding Coles’ grave site to be unmarked, MCHS, PAN, Campbell, and various individuals contributed money to install a memorial plaque and a Carnegie Hero grave marker supplied by CHFC. The plaque will be installed at Bunker Hill Cemetery during a ceremony at 11 a.m. on Wednesday, August 24.
The Coles medal, which traveled from O’Fallon to Pennsylvania, will return to Illinois to be shown at MCHS’s Ruyle Building at a reception at 1 p.m., also August 24. A photographic display will remain at MCHS, while the medal will be displayed at PAN’s semiannual conventions in Pittsburgh and potentially travel nationally for other events.
MCHS has invited many involved in the project as well as county and state officials to the dedication at Bunker Hill Cemetery. The public is welcome to attend both the ceremony at the cemetery and the reception. CHFC Executive Director Eric P. Zahren will attend both events.
“We were impressed with the work done by the Macoupin County Historical Society,” said Zahren. “We were happy to support their project to honor Coles and make his inspiring story known to the community.”
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