Hay Bay Tragedy Is Recalled
Old Paper Indicates Cause
[Note: The original article was published in the Napanee Express 29 December 1882. This reprise, undated, was re-published probably by the Picton Gazette, probably circa March 1962.]
A newspaper has been discovered at the old Hay Bay Church which tells the story of the fatal drownings Which took place near there in 1819 and indicates that the tragedy was probably caused through carelessness.
Rev. H. B. Herrington, of Westbrook, who has been in charge of the church during July and living in the church cottage, has discovered a page from a Napanee newspaper dated December 29, 1882, in which an explanation of the multiple fatality appears. It is in the form of a letter sent to the paper as a result of the report a few weeks earlier of the death of the last survivor of the ill fated journey, which resulted in 10 deaths.
The letter indicates that the boat carrying the group was overloaded and in poor condition. The party of 18 set out from the north shore of Hay Bay to cross the bay for services. The church is the oldest Methodist Church in Upper Canada and is now maintained as an historic site. Each summer retired ministers occupy the cottage and show visitors the church. Each year a memorial service is held. Rev. Mr. and, Mrs. Herrington were at the church for July.
He is a former pastor of Newburgh United Church, and is known throughout North America for his hobby of mollusk collecting and cataloguing. Mollusks are snails and clams and others of that species and Rev. Mr. Herrington has been praised for his work in this regard in reducing the vast number of confused species and for his publications in specialized fields. He has been asked to collect samples for museums, all over the world and at present is doing some work for the National Museum of Canada.
Hay Bay Church was built in 1792. When it ceased to be used for regular services it became a granary for 50 years and grain was shipped from the site. It was re-opened in 1912 as an historic site and its affairs are administered by a trustee board. Recently a history of the church was written by Dr. Arthur 0. Reynolds, archivist and historian of the United Church of Canada and at one time minister on the Adolphustown Pastoral Charge, from 1922 to 1925. In the two weeks following printing, the book sold 200 copies at 35 cents each, Rev. Mr. Herrington reports.
The church is located on the south shore of Hay Bay, 20 miles by road from Napanee.
The article which Rev. Mr. Herrington has come across, in the Napanee Express of 1882, is as follows:
Mr. George S. Johnson, of Belleville, gives to the public an account of the terrible calamity which occurred, in 1810, known as the "Hay Bay Disaster". The matter is brought prominently before the people by the death of the last survivor, Mr. Conrad Cole, of North Fredericksburgh, reported in the Express a few weeks ago. In the long ago when our grandfathers lived the settlements were sparse, neighbors few, and for miles around the settlements were intimately known, and most of them had either family or business relations. Anything like a disaster was an earthquake in the whole community, especially when the victims belonged to the best families.
The circumstances of the dreadful catastrophe are as follows, says Mr. Johnson:
It had been announced far and wide that the great Israel Puffer, Presiding Elder of the M. E. Church, Midland District, and probably one of the greatest Biblical scholars of his day, was to hold Quarterly services on the 28th and 29th of August 1819, in the oldest Methodist Church situated on the south shore of Hay Bay.
As it was customary in those days Methodists closed their business on Saturday at noon when Quarterly services were held, and with boats, wagons, on horseback, or afoot, made their way to the place of meeting. They would stop with friends or acquaintances over night, and until the services were over. On the Sabbath morning referred to 18 persons were gathered on the north side of Hay Bay, all anxious to reach the church before nine o'clock, for Love Feast. Among the number were the late Conrad Cole (then quite a lad), his father, his mother, his sister Mary and my father. Some said the two last were affianced, but of this my father never said anything definite. A boat was procured and the whole company embarked. Some demurred to the conveyance, but they finally agreed to proceed. A young man was given a tin dish to bail with, as the boat leaked badly. The company, as was customary in those days, engaged in singing the old Methodist songs. It was thought that the young man with the bailing dish became so interested in the singing that before the boat was half way over he dropped the dish overboard and it went to the bottom.
The water came in so fast that some of the men began bailing with their caps. This created a confusion. The women began to sway from side to side as the water rushed in. My father was a heavy man and, an expert swimmer, so he proposed to lighten the boat. He took off his coat and boots, sprang overboard and started for the shore. Before he had proceeded far he heard a fearful shriek, and looking back he saw heads and hands pointing out of the water. He caught Miss Cole and took her to the boat, which had turned bottom up, and placed her upon it. He then swam to the other side, caught another young lady and was taking her to lock hands with Miss Cole across the boat when two or three persons caught him with a death grip and drew him to the bottom, the water being some 20 feet deep. By a great effort he released himself from their grasp and came to the surface. Miss Cole had then disappeared, and was probably dragged down by the drowning ones. A few were trying to reach the shore. As my father came to the surface young Cole cried out, "Joseph, help me or I will drown"! Though somewhat exhausted, my father swam to him and helped him ashore.
Looking back he saw Mr. Cole trying to save his wife. He caught a rail, went out again and brought them to the shore, thus saving three out of the four Coles in the boat. There were eight saved and ten lost. What a change a few minutes can make in our feelings and destinies! No happier company ever started to cross one of the most beautiful pieces of water in Canada than the company that embarked in a leaky boat that beautiful Sabbath morning. In a short time afterwards ten of the number lay rigid in death on the shore, while fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, friends and neighbors rent the air with cries and lamentations, and like Rachel of old, refused to be comforted.
Instead of a quarterly service, Rev. Mr. Puffer, next day conducted one of the most solemn funerals ever witnessed in the Bay of Quinte region. His text - Job xlx, 26 - was the foundation for a grand discourse.
Most of the bodies were laid near the old meeting house and some were buried elsewhere. Almost the last place I drove my late father was to visit Conrad Cole, about seven years ago. Some four or five weeks ago, happening in the neighborhood, I called on Mr. Cole. He was then working in the garden. When I spoke to him he did not at first recognize me, but when he did he grasped, my hand and said, "I am glad to see you, George". He led, me to his pleasant home and as we rested, he exclaimed, 'This is a son of the man that saved my life".
Never will I forget my last visit with "Uncle Conrad". Little did I think when taking dinner with him and his kind partner, and thinking over the past that it would be our last meeting on earth. I was shocked to hear that in so short a time he had gone. The Cole family were among the pioneers of our country, and settled near my grandfather about the beginning of the present century.
The page from the 80-year-old newspaper is to be kept permanently at the church, Rev. Mr. Herrington says.