By Lyle Dillabrough
One of the most bizarre events ever to occur in the Ottawa Valley happened on Nov 12, 1912 on Lake Kamaniskeg near Barrys Bay Ontario. On that date, the steamship Mayflower sank mysteriously within seconds, killing seven people instantly. Four others were left to struggle for their lives by desperately clinging to a coffin. It was a true case of the dead saving the living. A day earlier was the original closing date of the shipping season on Lake Kamaniskeg that year. However, the ship’s owners were persuaded to make one more voyage to accommodate the Brown family of Palmer Rapids. Their son John was accidentally shot in Saskatchewan and the family was eager to have his body returned for burial.
This time period was the heyday of steamships upon large bodies of water throughout Ontario, and Lake Kamaniskeg served as a route for several of these types of vessels. The Mayflower itself was a no frills workhorse ship that was built to mainly carry cargo, although passengers often did ride along on her. She set out that day under threatening skies and the weather only continued to worsen as she went along. A crew of four, the coffin containing the dead man, and seven other travellers were on board. Those travellers couldn’t believe the good fortune of being able to avoid a long bumpy ride in the local stage coach by catching a ride on that additional voyage. If all went well, the Mayflower would be back in Barrys Bay by dark.
To this day, and despite the investigation of of a Royal Commission into the incident, no one knows exactly why the ship sank or why it sank so quickly. Had the coffin not gone closely past the survivors, they, too, would have been swept below in the undertow along, with their unfortunate fellow travellers. The survivors claimed that they heard what sounded like a huge explosion, but the ship sank so rapidly that they didn’t really know what happened.
Four men made it to the shore of a small island, where one of them died of exposure. The remaining three survived because one of them had a lighter, which somehow still worked, despite the ordeal. The fire gave them warmth, while the smoke provided the signal needed for their rescue. Today the incident is depicted in a large painting that can be seen on a wall located in the historic Balmoral Hotel in Barrys Bay. It serves the countless curiosity seekers who come each year to learn more about this story. “Dead Man Saves Three,” reads the caption, just as it did afterwards in many national newspapers and in the famous, “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not” publication. Yes; “Dead Man Saves Three” the caption read, but it could also read, “Dead Man Takes Eight With Him”, depending on how you look at it. Interestingly enough: one could not be faulted for saying: “don’t go out sailing on the water in Canada during the month of November.” This is true because so many ship wrecks have occurred during that month. The G. H. JONES also “mysteriously” sank in Georgian Bay (Lake Huron) in 1908, while the most famous of all, the EDMUND FITZGERALD sank on Lake Superior in 1975. This disaster set the theme for Gordon Lighfoot’s classic song, “THE WRECK OF THE EDMUND FITZGERALD”.