In a world of helicopter parenting it is hard to imagine letting a child swim across the Hudson River, but in 1939 six-year-old Stephen “Sonny” Kole became a media darling for doing just that.
That September Sonny, a blue-eyed, fair-haired youngster who weighed just 59-pounds, dove into the Hudson River from the ferry dock of the Palisades Interstate Park about a mile north of the George Washington Bridge.
Accompanied by world champion relay swimmer Victor Till the youngster swam toward the Dyckman Street Ferry slip on the New York side of the Hudson.
Passengers on the ferryboats Englewood and Florida cheered Sonny on as he alternated between breaststroke, crawl and sidestroke.
Along the way the six-year-old joked with reporters who trailed alongside in canoes, kayaks and motorboats.
“How about a beer when we get ashore?” the youngster quipped.
“Ride ‘em cowboy,” he exclaimed as he tackled the wakes of passing ferries.
“Sirens sounded and people cheered as he emerged fresh from the water at De George’s boathouse at Dyckman Street,” wrote one reporter. “His father cheered too and said that Hollywood ought to grab him.”
“Sonny can hurl a wicked baseball, punt and pass a football, do ten kinds of dives, chin himself fifteen times, do sixty pushups, wrestle, box hurdle, sprint, row a boat and paddle a canoe,” his father breathlessly continued. (New York Sun, September 4, 1939)
Amazingly the Koles, both gym teachers from Edwardsville, IL, weren’t the first to encourage their child to take the Hudson River plunge.
In 1925 six-year-old Johnny “Freckles” Devine swam the Hudson River from the pier at 136th Street to the New Jersey shore in just thirty-five minutes.