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We frequently receive telephone calls seeking more information about an event which happened so long ago that one should expect it to be forgotten. However, it has endured in the community memory, and could be said to have passed into local popular culture. This tragic event is known as the "Hay Bay Drownings". A researcher suggested that we publish information on our website. This seemed like a good suggestions, so here is the story.
This event occurred in the southernmost part of our county, at its west end, facing the high shores of Prince Edward Country. The Lennox county coastline is here indented with a number of bays. These bays made land travel tiresome for the Loyalist settlers settled here in 1783. Hay Bay in particular is a long, narrow bay stretching far inland, dividing northern Adolphustown and Fredericksburgh from southern Adolphustown and Fredericksburgh. Although the one Adolphustown shore is clearly visible across the water from the other, to reach the opposite shore by land one had to travel many miles around Hay Bay. Throughout the 19th century, the farmer-settlers solved this problem by means of ad hoc ferries. A farmer would keep a boat near the water's edge, and on request would take persons across the bay. There was no regulatory control back then to establish the repair of the boat nor the manner in which the ferryman conducted his business.
The chief source for the story of the "Great Drowning" is Thomas Casey, a newspaper correspondent and local antiquarian. He wrote up the story and published it in the Napanee Beaver, April 30, 1897. He reminds the reader that Quarterly Methodist Meetings were big social functions at the time, much looked forward to by the settlers. On August 29th, 1819, Revs. Isaac Puffer and James Wilson were to preach at the Hay Bay Methodist Church, which still stands on the south shore of Hay Bay, in Adolphustown Township. The bay here is about a mile and a half wide. Those who lived on the north side of Hay Bay could cross the water by boat, and many evidently did so using canoes which were common at the time.
A man by the name of Barnard Cole owned a large skiff. On that Sunday morning, a beautiful summer day, many arrived at the crossing place, too many for the skiff to carry. Some passengers had misgivings, and got out of the boat, urging others to do so also. One was Gilbert Bogart, who begged his brother, Peter, to get out and stay behind too, but Peter insisted on remaining in the boat, as it was the last chance to get across and enjoy the meeting.
When the boat pushed off, it was still heavily over-loaded. There were eighteen in the boat, all of whom, with the exception of Barnard Cole and his wife, were young people, eager for the companionship that a Quarterly Meeting offered. They sang hymns, and those already at the Hay Bay Church could hear them quite clearly.
About half way over, it was found that the boat was taking on water, and their was no bailing pail on board. The men who were rowing began to pull frantically for the shore, while others endeavoured to bail using their hats. As they approached the shore, Peter German, who was an excellent swimmer, offered to jump out and lighten the boat. In doing so, he tipped the skiff and even more water came in. The passengers leaned to right the boat and it tipped the other way and began to sink. In those days, it was not acceptable for a young lady to bathe out of doors, and none of the girls could swim. Some of the boys could, but were pulled down by the girls grabbing at them. It is said that John German managed to get clear of the others, but turned back to answer the cries of his sister. When he got to where she had been, she was underwater, and he panicked and swam up and down until he drowned from exhaustion some distance from the others.
Meanwhile, the meeting had begun, with the congregations praying to "make this a day to remember". Rev. Isaac Puffer looked up, saw what was happening and alerted the congregation. Boats were pushed off and seven survivors who were clinging to the upturned skiff were rescued. Mrs. Cole was found floating on the surface, unconscious. She was brought to shore and revived. Years later, she would say that she found drowning painless, but the agonies of resuscitation very disagreeable.
It is hard to describe the agony of those on shore watching events unfold only a short distance out in the water. Many watched their own children drown. Mr. and Mrs. Stephen German watched in horror as John and Jane German disappeared, and it is said that the misery of the mother was "dreadful to witness".
Those who lost their lives were:
|Elizabeth McCay, age not known||Elizabeth Clark, age not known|
|Mary Cole, age not known||Mary Jerusha Detlor, age 20|
|Jane Sophia Detlor, age 12||Jane German, age 18|
|John German, age 20||Huldah Madden, age not known|
|Peter Lent Bogart, age 17||Matilda Roblin, age 18|
Mary Cole was taken back across the bay and buried in the cemetery on her father's farm, now known as the 'Gosport Cemetery'. The other victims were all buried at the Hay Bay Church, eight in a row, side by side, the ninth with other members of her family. In 1897, Casey said, "Strange to say there does not remain anything now to mark even the spot where all these memorable graves are, though the ground is in a good state of preservation." In 1995, the Trustees of Hay Bay Church an archaeological assessment to better understand the Old Hay Bay Cemetery. The assessment found that early burials, including some which may be those of the Hay Bay Drowning victims, were marked with fieldstones now buried beneath the soil.
Casey relied for his information on an eye-witness, Conrad B. Cole, whose father owned the skiff, on the memory of Rev. Isaac Puffer, whom he heard preach, and on many others, such as the German family. "Years ago," he says, "every family about the bay had its store of incidents to tell about that great drowning."
Shortly after the incident, someone composed a rustic ballad commemorating the event, which was circulated as a 'broadside' as was done in those days. Casey says, "At one time there were few houses in all the old Midland district in which copies could not be found, and nearly all the young people for two generations committed them to memory." The ballad combines the all too human fascination with disasters and accidents, with 19th century moralizing, directing young people to make sure they were ready "to go at God's call!". Several different versions of the ballad survive. The first verse of each more or less reads:
Scholar, J. William Lamb, a noted authority on the Hay Bay Church and its people, tried in vain to discover the author of the poem, but believes that it was certainly in circulation by 1830. Bill Lamb commented: "Death itself is a common enough phenomenon in church life, but the simultaneous death of ten teen-agers in the prime of live... children whose parents were themselves survivors of the holocaust of the American Revolution, gives the event unique pathos." (Hay Bay Guardian, June, 1994.)
The Trustees of the Old Hay Bay Church have made a terrific contribution to our knowledge of local, Lennox and Addington History. For more information about the Church, contact the Trustees c/o J. William Lamb, 24 Princess Margaret Blvd., Etobicoke, Ontario M9A 1Z4 If your family is connected with the Hay Bay Drowning and you can therefore offer more traditions and stories about the event which are rooted in an eye-witness, they would be particularly eager to hear from you. Donations to help maintain the church and cemetery would, I am sure, be much welcomed.
Jennifer Bunting, April, 1999