Steamer “Mayflower” – Then & Now

By David Kelley: Curator There have been many stories written about the sinking of the steamer “Mayflower” boat on Lake Kamaniskeg on November 12, 1912 with three men surviving and nine people drowning. This story takes an underwater perspective as to the state of the boat in the summer of 2003.

The Mayflower was built on the shore beside the Hudson House Hotel in Combermere, Ontario in 1903 by Napoleon Tessier of Hull, Quebec for two brothers, John Charles Hudson and Henry Edwin Hudson. She was built from oak, hemlock and local white pine and was launched and commissioned in June 1904. Her official registered number was 116861, gross tonnage of 58.86 and net tonnage of 38.02, length was 77′, breadth 18′, depth of 4′ and height of about 20′. It was almost a flat bottom wooden boat designed with shallow draught for navigating the shallow waters over some shoals and sand bars on the Madawaska and York Rivers. Some individuals described her looking like a “scow” She was powered by two cross compound steam engines with the steam supplied by a Fitzgibbon boiler mounted amidships 3 1/2 ft. below the deck which was supplied by J & R Weir of Montreal. Weir also designed the Mayflower. The single rear paddle wheel was set into a cut in the stern and had twelve paddles. A modification to the paddle wheel was made some years after launch as the boat tended to “porpoise’ when underway and cause considerable hardship in handling and steering. Two rudders mounted off to the sides and aft of the paddle wheel helped the narrow boat navigate the sharp corners in the Madawaska River especially around the present day Pine Cliff Resort. By the year 1912, the boat was not seaworthy and was not certified by the authorities. She had a previous sinking when it ran into a log “dead head” on the Madawaska River and partially sunk the year before. The boat had not been well maintained in the previous few years.

The Mayflower was used for freight, mail and limited passenger service between Barry’s Bay and Combermere, Palmer Rapids on the Madawaska River and Havergal on the York River. It also serviced the corundum mines at Craigmont in the Conroy Marsh waterway by towing or pushing barges containing bags of processed corundum to the train at Barry’s Bay for shipment to the USA and Europe.

She had a crew of three – owner/Captain John Hudson, pilot/wheelsman Aaron Parcher and fireman/engineer Tom Delaney. It had low light level running lights and was not designed to be on the water at night. On Tuesday, November 12, 1912 the Mayflower had made what was to be the last return trip from Combermere to Barry’s Bay for the season earlier in the day. However, a local Combermere Councillor, William Boehme persuaded Captain John C. Hudson to make a second trip later that day to pick up the body of a brother-in-law, John Brown, from the Grand Trunk Railway station in Barry’s Bay to be buried in Schutt before winter. John died as a result of a gun accident in Yorkton, Saskatchewan. There were twelve people plus the casket onboard the boat when she left Barry’s Bay about seven o’clock p.m after a dinner at the Balmoral Hotel. The life boat, a 28 ft “pointer” the same used by Ottawa Valley lumbermen had been left behind on this last voyage as it had drifted way from the Mayflower on the first trip of the day, retrieved and left tied up at the dock in Barry’s Bay. Another incident that day was the Mayflower bumping into the ship Ruby at the dock in Barry’s Bay but the crew was able to push the Mayflower off the Ruby with little damage to either boat.

The boat normally operated at about 5-7 miles an hour and had left Barry’s Bay and the trip from Barry’s Bay to Combermere normally took about 3 hours. It was a very cold November night with high winds but bright stars were shining when they left the wharf. It began to snow at about 9:00 p.m. and between what is now called Mayflower Island and the shore (about halfway from the island and 600’ from the shore) at a position where Parcher’s and Mayflower islands appear to come together, the boat sank quickly for no apparent reason without warning in about 24-25‘ at that time. If she had provided some warning to the Captain and had another 30-60 seconds, she probably could have made it to shore and everyone may have survived. It has been suggested that she went down for several reasons; (1) poorly maintained, (2) too shallow a free-board of 18”and therefore subject to rough waves coming over the bow, sides and rear into the interior of the boat; (3) not being certified by the government agency; (4) the snowy, windy, cold weather that night; (5) pilot Aaron Parcher was not properly certified to operate the boat at that time with the required Master’s Certificate; (6) the modification to the paddles of the paddle wheel; (7) Oakum (caulking) disintegration between the ship boards; (8) Captain Hudson was not certified to carry passengers that year and was not licensed to be a captain, and (9) no cargo on bow to provide proper boat balance. There have been various rumours that the Captain and perhaps some of the crew had been drinking at the Balmoral Hotel in Barry’s Bay before the voyage although this was not substantiated at the inquest. John Hudson was forty-seven years old and was Reeve of the new  Radcliffe Twp and left a wife Margaret Mahon, aged 36 years and 8 year old son Edwin. Aaron Parcher was 26 years old and left a wife Maude McLean, aged 35 years and 4 year old son, Gordon and 2 year old son, Allen.

The water level in 1912 at the point where the Mayflower when down was approximately 24 ft. After the Bark Lake and Palmer Rapids dams were built in the early 1940’s the water level rose to it’s current depth at the Mayflower of 27 ft. The bottom is quite sandy with no rocks and no drop offs. The funnel, flagpole and two side posts with attached heavy cable were all out of the water. In fact, four men scrambled to the top of the wheelhouse and were waist deep in cold water. They clung onto the floating casket and set out to the island about 9:00 p.m. about 500 feet away that took about 2-3 hours due to the cold, windy and high waves. The rest is history as Ripley wrote at the time as ”a dead man saves three lives”. The other eight passengers William Boehme (58), George Bothwell (27), William Murphy, Robert Pachal, Mrs. William McWhirter (80)] and crew John Hudson, Aaron Parcher and Tom Delaney drowned. The other passenger Paddy O’Brien, proprietor of the O’ Brien House Hotel in Combermere, hung on to the casket with the other three passengers ( Harper, Imlach and Peverley) died of hypothermia upon reaching the island.

With parts of the boat exposed above water by about 2 feet, the authorities declared that a “navigational hazzard” existed and decided to get rid of the protruding parts. Some time after the sinking, the port authorities came from Ottawa and threw several sticks of dynamite down into the water to destroy the objects and allow other boats to navigate the area waterway safely.

The author and his two sons Mark and Craig are certified SCUBA divers and have descended to the Mayflower remains several times since 1965. Many SCUBA clubs from various parts of Ontario also do their dive there as part of the members training course or “first” dive after being certified. It makes for a good dive, as the depth is only 27 feet of water, no current, no cliffs or large rocks and nothing to get caught on. If anything happens to your equipment, the diver can “free ascent” to the surface without injuring him/herself.

Paddlewheel with a school of fish
Paddlewheel with a school of fish

Today, if an individual was either to snorkel or dive at the Mayflower site this is what they will find. The boat has a very slight list to her port side as she was almost flat bottomed. The hull is completely intact as well as the boiler indicating it did not blow up with the cold water.  The two 13.5 hp engines, brake, paddle wheel and paddles are still completely there but some of the paddles are now starting to rot away. The two large posts with attached cable at each side of the boat have been removed. The cabin and wheelhouse are in many pieces off both sides of the boat on the bottom, due to the dynamite blowing the upper section apart. You can see on the deck, on the starboard (right) side a small linoleum floor covering where the bathroom would have been with a hole in the floor where the round naval style “head” or toilet bowl was placed. If you look over the side at this point there is a hole in the side hull where the effluent would drain out into the water. Around the paddle wheel schools of hundreds of small fish are constantly looking for feed. On both sides of the boat there are all kinds of boards, pipes and metal parts from the boiler and drive mechanisms, pipe insulation, etc. When a SCUBA diver comes across the boat for the first time, it is quite an awesome sight even in the silty water. Visibility is not too bad but you have to pick your day for proper sunlight, calm day and early in the summer months when the water is a little colder before the algae sets in. There is no thermocline (or sudden temperature change) at the Mayflower site that makes for more enjoyable diving.

Over the years since the author first dove on the Mayflower in 1965, many artifacts have been removed form the boat by various divers from Ottawa, Toronto, Oshawa and elsewhere. Many of these artifacts are probably sitting in some museum in various parts of Ontario. The bell, anchor, nickel and brass engine lubricators were removed before the author could locate them in 1965. One of the first divers in modern times went down to the Mayflower in the summer of 1964 and found many of these items including a full, unopened whiskey bottle. That bottle is still in the possession of a local family.

In 1984, the Ottawa Valley Chapter of S. O. S. (Save Ontario Ships) with on-site assistance of the then ministry of Citizenship and Culture’s marine archeologists took measurements, photographs and video of the Mayflower. They were astounded at the good condition of the boat and how well it was made for 1903 standards. Though it was ugly above deck and ungainly in her handling, she was none the less a quality craft when handed over to the Hudson brothers by her builder, Napoleon Tessier.

The Mayflower was the second boat the Hudson brothers owned and operated. In 1899, the Hudson’s, John and Henry, had another boat called the “Hudson” before the Mayflower was built that lasted until 1911 when it burned while it was in dry dock near the Hudson House in Combermere. It had two paddle wheels on each side of the boat and was steam operated. It was shorter than the Mayflower but had a similar boxy ugly style. It was also built locally.

The boat that rescued the three survivors Joseph Harper, Gordon Peverly (56)  and John Imlack (29) on Wednesday, November 13th  from Parcher’s Island was called the “Ruby” and was owned by the Ontario Corundum Company Limited of Craigmont. A fourth person who hung onto the casket, Patrick O’Brien (59) died while getting out of the water at the island from hypothermia as mentioned earlier. The Ruby was also used to tow barges of corundum from the mines at Robillard Mountain east to the junction of the York River and Madawaska Rivers up the Madawaska to the train in Barry’s Bay. The last owner of the Ruby was Henry Hudson who retired her in 1919.

Steamer Ruby
Steamer Ruby