Two Austin police officers — Chester Nelson and Gene White — helped rescue two Austin boys from the frigid Cedar River on Dec. 29, 1966, at the downtown dam. The boys were playing in snow when they fell into the river. City employees Norman Vasey and Robert Francis also helped with the rescue.

LOOKBACK: Wintry rescue saves two boys from Cedar River

Austin police, city workers credited for quick actions at downtown dam

Cedar River Watershed District
3 min readJan 4, 2024


By Tim Ruzek, Cedar River Watershed District

A call for help came from a block away at the Cedar River’s downtown Austin dam while two Austin police officers were starting their night shift on a late December afternoon.

A couple of cousins, both age 12, had been playing in snow drifts near the dam under the 4th Ave NE (old Water Street) bridge when they fell into the river. One of the boys still was in the river, floating face down and unconscious when officers Gene White and Chester Nelson arrived about 3 p.m. Dec. 29, 1966.

1955 image of the Cedar River at Austin’s downtown dam.

City employees Norman Vasey and Robert Francis were working on the 4th Avenue bridge when they saw the boys in the river and called over to the officers. At the time, the Austin police station was on 4th Ave NE where the YMCA Community Recreation Center is today.

“Nelson threw off his jacket and plunged into the water, working his way out to the boy with a cable, held at the bank by White,” the Austin Daily Herald wrote Dec. 30, 1966.

Austin Daily Herald story from Dec. 30, 1966.
1951 aerial showing the Austin police station circled along 4th Ave NE (old Water Street) and a line leading to the Cedar River below the dam.

The boy was “blue and he wasn’t breathing when Nelson began giving him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation in the snow,” the Herald wrote.

The other boy had pulled himself out of the water using a cable thrown to him by Vasey and Francis, who suffered a gash on his leg during the rescue. That boy was taken by ambulance to St. Olaf Hospital and released after getting treatment for exposure.

Vasey and Francis also held the cable used by Officer Nelson as he plunged into the river to rescue the boy floating face down.

Once the boy was pulled out of the river, Shirley Petit, an attendant at a nearby gas station, worked with Officer Nelson to revive the boy until an ambulance resuscitator arrived. The next day, the boy was reported in good condition at St. Olaf.

Dec. 31, 1966, Herald story.

Officer Nelson later went to the hospital and spent the night for observation and treatment for exposure. Officer White changed his wet clothes and reported back to work.

A 9-year-old boy — a brother of one of the boys who also was playing in the snow with them — was “taken home in time for supper and a warm bath.”



Cedar River Watershed District

Formed in 2007, CRWD works to reduce flooding and improve water quality on the Cedar River State Water Trail and its tributaries in southern Minnesota.