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“Worst water disaster in Winnipeg’s history” — five drown en route to Elm Park picnic“Worst water disaster in Winnipeg’s history” — five drown en route to Elm Park picnic
Jul 10, 2008

by Bruce Cherney

As the eight people boated down the Red River during the late afternoon of Saturday, August 11, 1906, Ernest Brown belted out the lyrics of My Blue Bell. The young lad was heard to sing, “good-bye, my blue bell” in a clear soprano voice, which sounded “very pretty” to George S. Dawson sitting in a tent along the riverbank and reading a book.

The young people in the boat — Ernest Brown, 14, Ethel Brown, 17, Myrtle Brown, 12,  Ruby Thomson, 13, and May Stewart Whyte, 19, — all were members of the Holy Trinity Church choir who delighted in singing. The young ladies enthusiastically added their melodic voices to Ernest’s renditions of popular tunes as the gas-powered motor boat sped down the Red toward Elm Park. 

“The merry picnic party” aboard the launch was in high spirits, anticipating a pleasant evening spent at the park, situated where Kingston Row now runs.

But their merriment was interrupted by a loud bang, and the young lad’s song was interrupted by screams. 

What followed was reported in newspapers as the “worst water disaster in Winnipeg’s history.”

On shore, Dawson heard a cry for “boats,” ran to a wharf and while jumping into his rowboat saw three people hanging onto the side of a motor launch. 

The cry for rescue boats had been raised by George T. Rogers, the only witness to the accident.

Mustering all his strength, Dawson quickly rowed to the accident scene. 

Meanwhile, Alexander Cheyne, a passenger thrown from the motor launch, grabbed at Ethel Brown who was struggling in the water. After bringing Ethel to  the overturned boat, he let go of her, thinking she had safely grasped the keel.

He then saw Whyte’s hat floating by and caught it, but couldn’t find its owner underneath. 

Cheyne observed Ethel lose her grip on the keel and sink into the water. He swam toward her, grabbed her and the two struggled to keep their heads above  the surface. Four or five times they sank underwater and after each immersion bobbed up further away from the overturned boat. At some point during their struggle, Cheyne lost his hold on Ethel and she sank below the surface. Despite a frantic search in the area where she was last seen, Cheyne could find no trace of Ethel and abandoned his search to assist Dawson and Charles H. Foxwell, the pilot of the doomed boat who had organized the picnic excursion (one account reported the launch was owned by W.H. Hamilton, J. Young and Cheyne) . 

After being tossed in the water, Foxwell spied Ethel and proceeded in her direction. 

“Save mother,” plead Ethel as her head emerged above the water.

Foxwell turned and saw the girl’s mother  sinking. He reached out, grabbed Mrs. Brown (her first name was not reported) by the hair and steered her towards Dawson who pulled her into his boat. At almost the same time, Cheyne climbed aboard the rescue boat.

Tragically, Cheyne and Foxwell later told a coroner’s inquest into the accident that help was near at hand, but not offered. As Cheyne struggled to keep Ethel Brown afloat, a couple in a rowboat were just 10 feet away.

“At last I saw a boat near us and I was making towards it slowly because she (Ethel) had me around the legs when the two yelled, ‘Don’t grab us ! You’ll upset us!’” Cheyne told the inquest headed by coroner M.S. Inglis. 

Foxwell said once the couple made their declaration, they rowed frantically away, abandoning those struggling in the water to their fate.

Witnesses of the incident testified during the coroner’s inquest that there was ample of room aboard the rowboat to help with the rescue effort.

Dawson rowed ashore with the two accident survivors, depositing first Cheyne on one side of the river and took Mrs. Brown to a camp on the opposite side of the river. As he neared the south shore, the increasingly distraught women fainted and Dawson decided he had to return to the north side to find a doctor able to provide assistance. At River Park — on the opposite bank of the Red from Elm Park at the south end of Osborne Street — an ambulance was called to take Mrs. Brown to the hospital.

Her husband, Charles Brown, arrived at the park just as his unconscious wife was being lifted into the ambulance slated to take her to Winnipeg General Hospital. While en route to the hospital, Mrs. Brown insisted to her husband that she wanted to go home. The attendants heeded her pleas and the Browns were taken to their home at 86 Garry St.

Throughout the night and while under the constant care of Dr. C. McKenzie and nurse Mary Macdonald, Mrs. Brown was reported to be in a state of hysteria. After hours of agitation, the drugs given to her took effect and she finally sunk into a light slumber.

Within minutes at least 20 boats had converged at the accident scene to find others who may have survived the tragic capsizing. Foxwell told the rescuers there had been eight people in his boat when it capsized, but upon arriving ashore still believed all had been saved.

Fifteen boys stripped off their clothes and plunged into the water, some of whom swam under the overturned craft where they discovered no one had been trapped inside. They then concentrated their dives in the area around where the craft had capsized.

Among those diving for victims was Harold Cottingham, the boathouse keeper at River Park, who found the sunken piling which caused the accident. It was around the piling that Cottingham concentrated his dives. 

“They must be around here somewhere,” he said. 

But despite being in the water for nearly an hour, he could not find any survivors.

“With awful swiftness the current sucked down the struggling women and children, almost before those in the neighbouring boats and on the shore were aware of what had happened,” commented the reporter covering the  accident (Monday, August 13, 1906, Morning Telegram).

As the day progressed, the search for survivors was called off and finding the victims’ bodies  became the priority.

The irony is that one of victims — May Whyte who had only come to Winnipeg from Glasgow, Scotland, a month earlier to be a stenographer for a local wholesale company — at 5 p.m. was feeling ill and hesitated to join the picnic excursion. After repeated telephone calls from friends Mrs. Brown and her daughters, Whyte was reluctantly convinced to take the trip to Elm Park.

At least another six who had been asked to come aboard the launch, but discovered that eight of the boat’s nine seats were occupied. They decided to take the streetcar to River Park and used the pontoon bridge (in service for 60 years) over the Red to walk over to Elm Park. 

C.C. Onion, Karl Larson and G.E. Wilson, employed in the booths at River Park, took it upon themselves to construct a system of grappling hooks to drag for the bodies. Wilson found an iron pipe at his home with a number of hooks attached which the trio within an hour formed into a grapple. Working from two rowboats, the three men deployed their machine around the scene of the accident and further down the river, taking into account the river’s current.  

The first body they recovered was Ruby Thomson’s, which had been underwater for two hours. Despite the length of immersion, volunteers attempted to resuscitate her. Once ashore the victim was encased in blankets and a fire was started to keep her warm. Lanterns were lit to shed light on the scene as the volunteers endeavoured to revive the young lady. For an hour, they blew air into her lungs until Dr. J. Halpenny arrived to take charge. The doctor used an electric battery and other equipment to unsuccessfully shock Thomson’s heart into restarting.

All their efforts were futile — Thomson was pronounced dead at the scene. Tears were shed as the undertaker’s wagon arrived to remove the young woman’s body.

Darkness finally caused the three men in the rowboats to abandon their attempts to recover more bodies. They pledged to begin again the following morning.

The next day, Onion, Larson and Wilson recommenced dragging and worked well into the morning without success. Exhausted, the men were replaced in the boats by D.D. Johnston, a friend of the Browns, O. Simmons, George Hadskis and Stanley Williams.

For half an hour, the four men scraped the bottom of the river near where the first body had been recovered the previous evening. About 100 yards from the spot, the hooks fastened onto a heavy object. They had latched onto May Whyte’s dress and it was her body they brought to the surface.

The body was removed to the bank, laid on the grass in the shade of some trees and then covered with shawls.

When the dragging resumed among those standing on the riverbank was Frank Brown, the sole surviving child of the ill-fated Brown family. He expressed skepticism that more bodies would be retrieved due to the river’s strong current. 

But, he then heard the cry from the river, “We’ve got the boy.”

The boy’s coat collar was caught by the hooks and the body of Ernest was pulled up and placed alongside Whyte’s.

Johnston speculated that the remaining two bodies would be in the same area of the river. His prediction was correct as when they recommenced dragging, the four men soon recovered the body of Ethel Brown and 15 minutes later the body of the smallest child, Myrtle Brown.

The general opinion expressed after the recovery was that the victims had clung to one another as they drowned and subsequently died in each others’ embrace.

“Many have been the victims of the treacherous Red and many homes in Winnipeg have mourned members whose careers have been terminated in the rivers adjacent to the city,” wrote the Morning Telegram reporter, “but never within the history of the city has such a tragic event cast a gloom so generally over the community.”

The cause of the tragic accident was quickly determined.

The party had started out from the Norwood Bridge in the 14-foot launch  and when rounding the curve below River Park while about 20 feet from the riverbank, the bow struck a sunken post. All eight people aboard were thrown from the boat as it flipped over in the air.

“I was sitting on the south side of the launch and one of the first ones to get thrown out,” Cheyne told the coroner’s inquest two days after the accident. “The engine was running itself (it was Cheyne’s job to oversee the engine’s operation). It needed little attention beyond seeing that the oil was feeding properly. The children were singing when the boat turned over.”

Foxwell testified he was steering the boat along the bank to keep in the shade. The accident occurred as he manoeuvred to avoid a snag. Foxwell later said he saw nothing else in the water to warn him that an object was hidden from view just below the surface.

When he examined his launch following the accident, Foxwell said he discovered a ridge starting three feet from the bow and traversing some way back. He thought the ridge had been caused by the impact with the sunken log piling which was reported to be just 18 inches below the water’s surface.

In the early days of Winnipeg, sunken logs and pilings were a common hazard to navigation. These perils to operating a boat were the remnants of log booms floated down the Red River to feed the sawmills lining the riverbanks. 

J.M. Poitous, a river driver, told the inquest he had known about the existence of the piles because he had moored log booms to them for the Sprague Lumber Company.

When asked how many posts were in the river, he replied about 160 that ran between the Manitoba Brewery and the pontoon bridge at Elm Park.

D.E. Sprague, the president of the Sprague Lumber Company which operated a sawmill on the south side of the Red at the foot of Higgins Avenue in Point Douglas, testified that the pilings had been in the river for about 30 years.

“I have some piling in the river,” he said. “A great deal of it was placed in by other companies to hold their booms. This particular post has been used for some years for booming logs. This year it was not used.”

He said several lumber companies had in the past used the post in question to tie up log booms.

Sprague, who operated the largest lumber company in the city, testified that he was unaware until the accident that the pilings posed a “menace to navigation,” but he was “willing to do anything in my power towards allaying the danger.” 

In fact, Sprague said he would never use pilings again. As it turned out, a later letter would refute this promise.

“No person is more sorry for this accident than myself. There are so other dangers in the river such as sunken logs or deadheads. Up to this year we have always cleaned them out when we could find them, but we did not do it this year because there were no logs boomed. I have always been careful when the booms were across the river to keep a watchman there all the time with lights to prevent an accident. When the booms were taken away, however, I considered that the danger was removed.”

Robert Hall, the owner of the steamboat Alexandra, said he had frequently seen pilings in the water over the years, although he did not know of the existence of pilings in the stretch of the river where the accident had occurred as he had not journeyed the Red during the 1906 shipping season.

Obstructions in the Red and Assiniboine were reported to the Minister of Marine and Fisheries in Ottawa, he added. 

F.W. Brewer, secretary of the newly-formed Motor Boat Association, said piles and deadheads were a serious obstruction, and he had asked all motor boat owners to inform him of any snag so that it could be marked and removed. 

He said several times the larger launches had been fastened to the piles but the boats were not powerful enough to pull the piles out.

“All but the necessary piles should be removed and they should be marked,” he told coroner Inglis.

The verdict of the coroner’s jury said they believed the object that caused the accident was a stationary pile — one of “a considerable number” driven into the river bottom by lumber companies that “in some cases ... are unmarked and form a serious menace to the navigation of the said stream.”

The jury said the lumber companies were negligent in not maintaining the pilings and not adequately marking the obstructions as a warning to boaters on the river.

The jury said it was unfortunate none of the drowning victims could swim and recommended the city address the inadequate facilities available for swimming instruction. Among those aboard the launch, only Foxwell and Cheyne could swim. Mrs. Brown, who could not swim, was saved simply because she happened to have been within reach of her rescuers. None of the young people could swim and subsequently drowned.

It was further recommended that all pleasure boats be equipped with sufficient “life belts” for all passengers.

The last recommendation was to notify the proper authorities to “at once remove or properly mark all dangerous obstructions to navigation in the Red and Assiniboine rivers, adjacent to the city of Winnipeg.”

After the inquest, a joint meeting of the Motor Boat Association, the Winnipeg Rowing Club and the Winnipeg Canoe Club was held to discuss what could be done to remove hazards to navigation in the rivers.

A letter was written to Sprague following the meeting, asking him to divulge steps the lumber company president planned to take to remove the hazards.

Sprague said he had already taken steps to mark pilings, but it was “impossible to carry on our manufacturing business in the city unless we have storage for our logs, it is therefore imperative that we have pilings in the city ... On the night of August 14 we had lanterns placed on two of the pilings, the only two we could find.”

Sprague also wrote Brewer that company employees were continuing to drag the river to find and mark the location of pilings.

“Most of the piles are well above the water and a few flags to show the general lines occupied by the boom, would, we think, be sufficient.”

An editorial in the Morning Telegram  called for the better regulation of small craft, as there had been “too many fatal accidents around Winnipeg this season ... There is no reason why a man with limited experience should be permitted to operate a small boat carrying passengers on the river than a large vessel.”

Another editorial called for the purchase of improved life-saving apparatus such as life buoys. “A substantial buoy and fifty feet of rope represents an investment of two or three dollars.”

The newspaper proposed the erection of red-painted posts along riverfronts every few hundred years with each equipped with a buoy and rope.

Despite the recommendations, drownings continued to be a regular occurrence for years within Winnipeg’s boundaries, many of which involved small craft accidents.

May Whyte was commemorated a year later when her parents donated a prayer desk to their Glasgow church. “The chair will bear a suitable inscription recording the sad event (of August 1906).”