Most little boys dream of adventure- being a policeman, a star athlete, racing motorcycles, being a fireman or a hero. One immigrant found all of this excitement and more in Galveston in the 1900s.
Seeking a life more bold than the one on his family’s farm in Yugoslavia, John Nicholas Antichevich immigrated to the United States when he was just a teenager. Born in 1884, he arrived at Ellis Island in 1898 and traveled to Galveston.
What he did in his first few years in Galveston to make a living has been lost to time, but shortly after he found his calling and was often in the public eye.
Antichevich served with the Galveston Fire Department from 1906 until 1912, at Hose Companies Nos. 2 and 3. Local newspapers shared several of his daring exploits of saving people and property.
After a devastating fire in town left only the front walls of a multi-story building standing, it was decided that they posed imminent danger to firemen and passersby. Antichevich climbed to the top of the fire ladder extension and eased out onto the narrow, swaying column of remaining masonry, and fastened a rope around the debris.
After tense spectators watched his return to the ground, a group of 200 men and boys grabbed the rope and pulled the entire wall down. It was the first of many courageous actions doted on by the public.
On a cold December day in 1909, Antichevich and another fireman pulled a hose up a ladder to extinguish flames that had ignited at the front of the Trube Building on Market Street. The steamer truck, which was out of their line of sight around the corner, began to pump water to the hose with tremendous pressure, making it difficult for the firemen to handle. Antichevich’s partner descended the ladder to alert the truck, but while he was en route the hose broke loose from John’s grip.
As it whirled through the air threatening to hit him, he made desperate attempts to grab the hose. Witnesses agreed that if he had been successful, it would have been only a matter of moments until it knocked him off the top of the building.
The hose spun out of control, breaking plate glass windows, spraying spectators, and eventually knocking down the ladder. Antichevich, caught on the roof precariously close to the flames, ran across the top of the wall to a ladder on an adjacent wall and made his escape.
His daring feats made him a local hero, and his brown-eyed, dark-haired good looks made him quite a ladies man. He never married, although his remaining family members joke that with all of his exploits, there are surely a few unknown offspring who roamed the island.
Antichevich utilized his physical strength for more than heroic acts, as he earned a reputation as a formidable local heavyweight wrestler, competing against amateurs and professionals from several states. He posted challenges in local newspapers, setting up matches at public arenas including public exhibitions at the Galveston Opera House.
He wrestled world champion Frank Gotch, and defeated Kid Smith and Minnesota heavyweight champion Chris Person. Antichevich even participated in what was hailed as “the greatest wrestling match ever seen in Beaumont.”
As a result of his skill, he was the recipient of the Southern Association Amateur Athletic Union silver medal.
The agile fireman also participated in the “near marathon” that was held between Seventeenth and Twenty-second Streets. This popular local event required runners to participate in water sports, then run three miles. He was considered to be one of the city’s best sprinters, and even set two local shot put records.
For two years after leaving the fire department, the public servant changed career lanes and became a wharf policeman. The newspapers continued to cover his exploits, including the killing of a rabid dog that was terrorizing a neighborhood, and catching an escaped prisoner hiding in a bunk on an empty ship.
Pursuant to all of this excitement, Antichevich decided to open up his own ice business at 1208 Avenue K, but only a year passed before the call of adventure- or difficulties of business- returned him to the police force.
In March of 1917, government officers seized two Austrian steamers and needed to transfer thirteen sailors from the ships to New Orleans. Officer Antichevich was enlisted to go along as their interpreter. While he was there, he visited the maritime militia from Galveston who was stationed in the barracks there.
During World War I he contributed to the U.S. war effort by working as a blacksmith’s helper at McDonough Iron Works, an operation that made repairs on the numerous ships coming into port. But his biggest claim to fame was yet to come.
Antichevich turned heads in 1920 by becoming Galveston’s first motorcycle cop. His Indian motorcycle was said to be able to run in excess of 80 miles per hour, and he took pleasure in showing it off by participating in the popular beach motorcycle races of the day.
This new approach to patrolling and responding to calls required ingenuity and the ability to problem-solve quickly. After arresting a prisoner while making the rounds on his own one day, the policeman had to figure out how to transport the man to jail.
Without much hesitation Antichevich took out his handcuffs and made the prisoner sit on the rear of the seat. He then took the front seat and handcuffed the man’s hands around his waist. His ride back to the station caused quite a sensation among observers.
In 1922 he finally decided to return to his homeland to visit his family, but since he left during a time of war with a false promise that he would return soon, he was understandably nervous about the repercussions of his actions. However his family offered up no retribution and he spent seven months touring southeastern Europe.
Upon his return to the states, the policeman found that his reputation had preceded him, and he was enlisted by federal agents to help carry out local prohibition raids.
But Antichevich was not always a tough guy. He showed his compassion by issuing warnings for minor infractions, and excusing the occasional bad decision. His kindness was reflected in a letter written by a young runaway boy from Tyler, Texas, whom Antichevich had taken to a restaurant where he fed him and offered words of advice.
The boy thanked him for “being the best policeman he ever met,” and wrote that “his mother was relieved and appreciative that he was back in school.”
Following his police career, he transferred to the City of Galveston Water Department where he worked until 1944. He also helped out in his former blacksmithing position during the Second World War.
By 1944 it was time for Antichevich to slow down a bit, and he took a position as a maintenance man at St. Mary’s Orphanage, where the campus of Galveston College now stands. Much loved by the nuns and children, he remained there until his death in 1956.
John Antichevich, remembered as a local hero and member of Knights of Columbus and Fraternal Order of Eagles, was laid to rest in the Old Catholic Cemetery on Broadway after dying from a brief illness at St. Mary’s Infirmary.
Stories of his amazing life were shared for years afterward, and his adventurous soul lives on as a part of Galveston’s colorful past.