May 27, 2024
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Remembering the ‘death boat’ Last living survivor recalls 1936 tragedy on Gardner Lake that claimed 12 children’s lives

WHITING – A stillness cloaked Gardner Lake on a recent fall day.

Yellow, red and orange leaves fluttered like the wings of a million anxious butterflies.

Ripples appeared on the water, not the threatening swells of a past summer day when the laughter of 15 youngsters in a dinghy turned to screams of terror as 12 of them, many of whom were unable to swim, drowned during an outing at the end of the Lubec school year – Friday, June 19, 1936.

Locals today say Gardner Lake, which covers nearly 4,000 acres, can appear calm, but within minutes can churn with seasickness-inducing swells.

That appears to be what happened in 1936 when what later became known as the “death boat” was overpowered by high waves and either flipped or simply sank in the lake.

Three youngsters and the boat’s operator survived. Today, only Miriam “Mimi” Kelley-Doherty is left to tell what happened.

“There wasn’t any counseling [back then],” she said during a recent interview at her home in Lubec. “You just forgot. You never ever talked about it again.”

The survivors had to “tough” it out, bury their nightmares and quell the cries of friends that echoed in their minds, she said.

After more than 70 years, Doherty still recalls the day clearly.

“I remember that as though it happened yesterday. I was 9 years old, and I am 83 now,” she said.

The victims were: Daniel “Buddy” McCurdy, 11; Evelyn and Aaron Mahar, 16 and 14, respectively; Raymah Knowles, 11; Frank Reynolds Jr., 8; Roland Eaton, 12; Doris Small, 17; Glen Morey, 8; Christine Sleight, 10; Merrill Lewis, 11; Jerome Kinney, 12; and Roland “Buddy” Dinsmore, 11.

Their ages were calculated from the book “Remember the Children” by Vicki Reynolds Schad, a relative of Frank Reynolds.

Six of the victims were from Doherty’s school.

Those who survived, in addition to Doherty, were Leah Wilcox, 12, and Barbara Tyler, 10, according to a Bangor Daily News account of the tragedy at the time. The boat’s operator, Callie London, 55, also survived.

Four of the 11 rural schools – Ridge, Split Hill, McCurdy and Straight Bay – in the nearby town of Lubec had scheduled the same day off for their summer outing at Pearl Beach on Gardner Lake. Doherty attended Split Hill School.

“Usually one school went” on the end-of-school-year outing, while the other schools usually chose to go somewhere else, Doherty said. “But this year, four different schools went up there to go on a picnic up to Pearl Beach.”

In another part of the town, London was getting his 13-foot dinghy with the nearly 80-pound motor gased up. He was looking forward to giving the youngsters a ride in his boat.

“He is fond of children, is always devising little ways … to make them happy; and they, in turn, are fond of him,” the BDN story said.

They started for the lake before noon, more than 25 miles away. There were four trucks and a bus for the children, while parents traveled by car. There were about 100 children and the same number of parents.

At the lake, it was eat first and then play.

The dinghy was launched after lunch, and the children swarmed to the water’s edge. “The lake was ruffled by a smart breeze and was turned into a million tiny whitecaps, but nobody apparently considered there was a danger,” the BDN report said.

While London filled the boat with eager youngsters, the men who had accompanied the children left to go to a nearby stream to get drinking water. “My father was one of them,” Doherty said. The women lounged on the grassy knoll above the lake.

London took the first group out about 100 feet and then returned to shore.

Eager faces were waiting, and there were more trips – a second, then a third and finally a fourth.

The wind had picked up. “Sixteen youngsters clambered aboard, more than any previous trip,” the newspaper story said.

London asked some to leave. “Course, no one wanted to get out, you know how kids are,” Doherty said. “My sister Ellen was in there and she got out.”

But 15 youngsters stayed glued to their seats or sat in the bottom of the boat.

The boat lumbered forward, its occupants without personal flotation devices because none was required in those days.

“Hardly any of us were watching,” one of the parents told the BDN afterward. “Everybody seemed so safe and London kept so near the shore, who among us could have suspected any harm?”

Afterward, eyewitnesses disputed how far London was offshore, but according to most people it was about 200 feet, the article said.

‘You didn’t have time to be scared’

“He [London] either went to turn the boat because there were too many in it … and go back to the shore or the waves came in over it and flipped it right upside-down,” Doherty recalled. “Everybody was dumped out all at once. You didn’t have time to feel anything, you were in the water.”

Unable to swim, she struggled to stay afloat, but then a hand would grab her leg and pull her underwater.

“You’d just come to the top and holler and someone would pull you down because they were trying to get to the top. You didn’t have time to be scared,” she remembered. “You swallowed water, water, water until you felt like your lungs would burst.”

Wyman Ramsdell, who was a Boy Scout at the time, was onshore. He saw the pandemonium and swam to Doherty. “He grabbed me by the hair of the head [and pulled me up]. I was so far gone that I just wanted to go to sleep, and I was dreaming of a book I’d read up at the school about the Seashell Babies [who lived underwater],” she said.

Meanwhile, Barbara Tyler, who had also been ejected from the boat, swam to help one of her friends.

“She saw Buddy McCurdy as they called him, struggling a few feet from the craft and heard his almost incoherent cry: Save me, Barby!” the BDN report said. “Supporting him by one arm she struck out for shore, but when they had almost reached it, she felt his small form stiffen and knew that he was dead.”

She swam back to the dinghy to help others.

Ridge teacher Stella Burhoe took off her shoes and stockings and plunged into the lake. She yelled to Tyler and Leah Wilcox to hold onto the upturned boat and went to help rescue Doherty.

Doherty’s father, along with others, was returning from the stream when they heard the screams. They ran to the lake. “My father took one of the panels off one of the trucks and he floated one of those out and put me on that and floated me in to shore,” she said.

The Rev. Kenneth Cassens, the former minister of the Ridge Church, resuscitated Doherty.

It was reported that as many as 40 people watched the tragedy from the shore. “But a majority of these were women; and many, when the tragedy came, were far up on the grassy knoll that slopes to the water’s edge,” the news story said.

Others stood “too paralyzed as the tragic panorama passed before them,” the article added. And by twos and threes, the children sank.

Afterward there were varying accounts of what happened.

Audrey Reynolds, 16, told the reporter that the boat seemed to just slide into the water. “And then the water was filled with little heads. All of them sank within five minutes,” she said.

Another eyewitness said the boat was “swallowed in a wave … Only its bow was showing and the waters were filled with screaming little ones,” the article said. “Still another moment – at best only two or three minutes, it seemed – and the screams were stilled.”

London also was tossed into the water. “Two young children seized me and screamed,” he said in the article. “I tried to save them, but I wasn’t able.”

London, partly disabled in one leg by an earlier injury, swam to shore. “He would have fallen back into the water, even after his feet touched land, had not two young girls, one of them Rowena London, his daughter, not run to his side and dragged him to safety,” the article said.

London later told investigators he had just shut the motor off and had no intention of going farther from the shore “when tiny wavelets began rippling about his feet. Then the frail craft seemed to dive head first, as a submarine might have done, spilling them all into the choppy water.”

Others soon arrived to help, including the U.S. Coast Guard, but they spent most of that day and the next dragging for bodies.

Hearses and blame

The deadliest boating accident in Maine history occurred a few years later in June 1941, according to Stephen McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety. All 34 passengers were lost when the excursion craft Don sank in Casco Bay while shuttling passengers from Dyer’s Cove to Monhegan Island for a clam bake.

But the scene after the Gardner Lake tragedy was heart-rending. Hearses, ambulances and an automobile took the eight boys and four girls to the local funeral home, where undertakers from Machias, Eastport and Calais prepared them for the funeral. Later the coffins were taken to the victims’ homes, where they remained until the funeral two days later.

The children’s caskets sat side by side at Split Hill Cemetery. London, “virtually absolved by county officials, but ill from exhaustion and grief, had left his bed to be present,” the article said.

Doherty did not. Her family feared she would get pneumonia because of the damage to her lungs.

Nine of the children were buried in the cemetery. Two others were taken to the cemetery in West Lubec. One was buried in Old Chapel Cemetery in Trescott, according to Schad’s book.A requiem High Mass was held for McCurdy at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church. There was talk of erecting a stone cross at the scene of the tragedy, but that did not happen.

There would be no more school outings to the lake.

“We never, ever went to the lake for school picnics at the end of the year again. That was the end of it,” Doherty said.

London was not charged.

“We believe there was poor judgment, but no criminal negligence,” the article quoted law enforcement officers at the time.

For some, there was no blame.

“[I] cannot find it in my heart to blame a man who was only trying to give the children a good time,” Frank McCurdy, who lost his son Daniel, said at the time,

But others, according to Schad’s book, blamed London. “Some people place all the responsibility for the lake tragedy on Callie London, harassing him and his family to the point of persecution,” she wrote.

Doherty said it was 27 years before she returned to Pearl Beach on Gardner Lake, when she took her son Allen there to go swimming. He was about 12 years old at the time.

“I didn’t know if I would have strength enough to walk down from where I had to leave the car to Pearl Beach,” she said.

BDN news intern Meagan Marston contributed to this report.

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