MADAWASKA VALLEY – A few months ago, Ottawa resident Elliot MacDonald had no idea that his great-grandfather was a survivor of a tragedy that left nine dead 100 years ago.
Nor did he know that his great-grandfather clung to a casket in order to survive.
But on November 12, MacDonald was one of many descendents that travelled to Barry’s Bay and Combermere to take part in the commemoration of the sinking of the Mayflower steamer, an event which was organized by the Combermere and Barry’s Bay heritage societies.
One hundred years ago, the Mayflower steamer made its final journey from Barry’s Bay to Combermere. In the dead of night, the ship carrying 12 passengers sank in a matter of seconds. It is still unclear to this day as to what caused the sinking, but poor weather conditions are partly to blame.
The marine event was the largest loss of life on an inland waterway in Canada, a record that lasted many years.
Only three men survived the tragedy, including John Imlach, Joe Harper, and Gordon Peverley.
MacDonald is the great grandson of Peverley.
“I didn’t really know much about my great-grandfather,” he admitted in a morning commemoration ceremony in Barry’s Bay on November 12. “What I have learned in the last month…is quite amazing.”
He said he learned more by speaking to his father about the incident.
“A month ago at Thanksgiving, I looked at my father, and I thought he was lying to me when he told me the story about how his grandfather survived by floating on a casket,” MacDonald said.
His father dared him to look it up, and so he did some research.
“Sure enough, to my surprise, my great-grandfather survived this event,” MacDonald said.
Peverley was from Montreal. He was a traveling salesman who sold silk, ribbon and thread to local stores. He was onboard the Mayflower steamer destined to Combermere at the time of sinking.
MacDonald entertained the crowd with his insightful yet humorous speech.
“[My great-grandfather] subsequently, after this event, went on to wring out his clothes, dry off at the Hudson Hotel and go back to Ottawa. [He] later conceived my grandmother and go on to have seven children,” he said.
More than 300 people attended the morning ceremony in Barry’s Bay. Many of them were descendents of victims and survivors of the ship; others were simply onlookers wanting to take part in such a historic event.
MacDonald spoke directly to the children that were in attendance.
“Events like this are important in your life because as time goes by, things like this get forgotten,” he said. “When the 150th anniversary of the sinking of the Mayflower happens and this crowd of people are dead and buried, you have the responsibility to commemorate the 150th anniversary because some of you are descendents of some of the people that drowned in these waters.”
David Kelley is the curator of the Mission House Museum and is the president of the Combermere and Barry’s Bay heritage societies. He provided an outline of the rich history of the steamer, and its impact on the area in the early 1900’s.
“The Mayflower and many other steamers that plied the Madawaska River played a vital role in the early history of the area,” he said. “Roads were mostly very poor, many sections had corduroy that made traveling very bumpy and uncomfortable for passengers in stage coaches, horse and buggy, or wagons, or there were no roads at all. These steamers provided a convenient way to transport cargo, mail, baggage, freight and passengers from Barry’s Bay to Combermere, Craigmont, Palmer Rapids and Havergal. The Madawaska, York and Little Mississippi Rivers today provide approximately 50 miles on navigable waterway.”
Afterwards, a ribbon cutting ceremony was held, and a plaque was unveiled at the Barry’s Bay docks.
Father Mervin Coulas from St. Lawrence O’Toole Catholic Church blessed the plaque, which provides history on the historic steamer, and is part of the Barry’s Bay heritage walking tour.
Once the ceremony concluded, a flotilla of boats left the wharf, which included Members of the Ontario Adventure Rowing Association. Captain Nigel Newing carried nine passengers in his pontoon boat, which retraced the final Mayflower journey.
Story continues in the November 14, 2012 issue of The Valley Gazette.