Ottawa Valley Disaster

On a cold and stormy November night, in 1912, the “Mayflower” sank into the frigid waters near Barry’s Bay. There were 12 people aboard, including crew members, and the only survivors were three travelling salesmen from Ottawa. The brave young salesmen clung onto a wooden coffin, part of the ship’s cargo, which stayed afloat, and they made it to a small island, and were rescued the following day. The other eight souls onboard perished.

The Ship

The “Mayflower” was built in 1904, from oak, hemlock, and local white pine, on the shore, beside the Hudson Hotel in Combermere, Ontario, by Napoleon Tessier, of Hull, Quebec, for two brothers, John Charles Hudson and Henry Edwin Hudson. She had a length of 77′, a breadth of 18′, a depth of 4′ and height of 20′, and was powered by two steam engines. The “Mayflower” was nearly a flat-bottom boat, designed for navigating the shallow waters on the Madawaska River.  A single rear paddle wheel was set into the stern and had twelve paddles. By 1912, the eight year old boat had not been well maintained, was not seaworthy, and was not certified for safe operation.

The “Mayflower” was used for transporting freight, mail, and also offered a limited passenger service between Barry’s Bay and Combermere, also Palmer Rapids, on the Madawaska River.

The crew of three included: Owner and Captain John Hudson, the Pilot and Wheelsman – Aaron Parcher, and the young Fireman and Engineer, Tom Delaney.

Because of very low level running-lights this ship was not designed to be on the water after dark. What was supposed to be the final run of the season took place earlier that same day.  The ill-fated voyage would never have left the harbour if it wasn’t for the local Radcliffe Township Councillor, William Boehme, who persuaded Captain Hudson to make one final trip that evening to transport the corpse and coffin of a relative – John ‘Herman’ Brown, who had died five days earlier in Saskachewan, and had arrived that day by rail.

The 12 People Onboard

On Tuesday evening, November 12, at 7:00 p.m., the Mayflower left the harbour at Barry’s Bay. It was a bone-chilling night, with high winds, and blowing snow. This journey, at the usual speed of 5 – 7 miles per hour, normally took three hours.

There were twelve people including the crew, plus John Herman Brown’s casket onboard the boat when she left Barry’s Bay.

“The Mayflower left Barry’s Bay in the midst of one of the howling storms for which the month of November is noted.”

“A howling wind was sweeping down over the river, which is nearly a mile wide at the point where the boat sprang a leak, and the water was lashing the sides of the ill-fated boat with a vengeance.  All around was black.  Not a light could be seen anywhere.  The boat began to lurch a little, a little more, and then terribly; then the old coal oil lamps went out by being crashed to the floor, and in a few minutes, when all was in darkness, the boat keeled over broadside and sank suddenly, throwing passengers, crew, freight and all, of which there was a good deal aboard, and machinery, into the icy water.”

Nov. 14, 1912, p. 3, “The Berlin (Kitchener) News Record”

3 Life Jackets

“On the deck, Captain John Hudson handed out the only three life jackets on board. It is said that Elizabeth McWhirter, age 83, refused to take one, expressing her desire to see a young person survive the ordeal. The captain ordered that the casket bearing John Herman Brown’s body be thrown overboard. Then he ran down towards the engine room where Engineer, Tom Delaney, was still at his post. With the ship keeling over, the passengers either jumped or were washed into the icy waters by the high waves which crashed against the hull.”

Nov. 12, 2012,”The Pembroke Observer”

The Crew

The Mayflower had a crew of three:

Captain John Hudson

Capain John Hudson, owner of the ship, Mayflower, native of Brudenell, Renfrew County, age 46, was also Reeve of Radcliffe Township, and well respected in the community of Combermere. He was the son of John Hudson and Elizabeth Dennison, and at age 38, in 1904, he married Margaret ‘Maggie’ Mahon, in the town of Renfrew. In 1905, their only child, John ‘Edwin’ Hudson was born.

Aaron Parcher, Pilot

Aaron Parcher was the son of Cyrus Parcher and Mary Ann Knight. He was 28 years old at the time of the wreck, and was the Pilot/Wheelsman onboard the “Mayflower”. Five years earlier, at age 23, he’d married Maud McLean, and they had two young sons, Gordon, age 4, and Allen, age 2.

Thomas Delaney, Engineer

Little is known about Delaney, who was the Fireman on the “Mayflower”. “When the boat began to sink, he and passenger, William Murphy, clung onto the flagpole, according to Gordon Peverley, one of the survivors”

“As soon as Aaron Parcher realized there was danger he put on a life belt, which hung in the wheelhouse and hollered that he inteded to try and make for his father’s landing.  He said he could get help there. I could see the flagpole of the boat sticking above water, and Delaney, the Fireman, clinging to it. We tried to get towards Delaney and Murphy who was also holding the flagpole. We got near to them and told them to make an effort to reach us. They were too exhausted to keep their hold any longer, gave up hope, and sank.”

Nov. 15, 1912, p. 2, “The Ottawa Citizen”

November 14, 1912, p. 1, “The Ottawa Citizen”

Google map – left section showing Barry’s Bay, Madawaska River

“The seventy-foot steamer, Mayflower, sank ten minutes after striking a rock in the river, about three miles from Barry’s Bay, en route to Combermere, a distance of sixteen miles.”

Nov. 14, 1912, p. 1, “The Ottawa Citizen”

“We were sitting in the engine room when suddenly the water came in

and the boat sank within fifteen seconds.”

They clung to the casket, the only thing left floating, and made their way to one of the two islands in Kamaniskeg Lake.

“They clung onto the floating casket and set out to the island about 9:00 p.m. about 500 feet away”

Herman Brown

The body in the casket was that of John ‘Herman’ Brown (Braun), unmarried, age 29, (1882-1912), son of Herman Brown (Braun) and Augusta Groskalas. He died on November 7th, of an accidental gunshot wound in Yorkton, Saskatchewan. He was being transported back home, to the village of Schutt, in Renfrew County, his final resting place.

Robert Pachal

Robert Pachal, age 25, born in Ukraine, son of Friedrich Pachal and Wilhelmine Scheler, accompanied the body of Herman Brown, from Saskatchewan to Ontario on the train. Robert was married to Martha Brown, and they had a two year old daughter, Annie, at the time of his death.

“Robert Pachal’s body was found this morning on the shore of the island where the three survivors were found. He came from Yorkton, Saskatchewan with the body of his brother-in-law, Herman Brown, 30 years old, whose remains he was taking to Combermere.”

Nov. 14, 1912, p. 1, “The Ottawa Citizen”

Nov. 14, 1912, p. 1, “The Ottawa Citizen”

“During yesterday’s examination the divers explored the bottom for 100 feet on either side of the steamer, then continued their search for Bothwell’s body.”

Nov. 18, 1912, p. 12, “The Ottawa Citizen”

Nov. 14, 1912, p. 1, “The Ottawa Citizen”

Only 3 Survivors:

Harper, Peverly, and Imlach

Nov. 14, 1912, p. 1, “The Ottawa Citizen”

Nov. 14, 1912, p. 1, “The Ottawa Citizen”

How Were They Found?

“As hope began to fade, the 16-year-old son of Silas Parcher, and brother of the crew-member, Aaron Parcher, was walking near the shore with his gun, hunting partridges. He saw a body floating near, which looked like that of his brother. The boy hurried back to his father, who canoed out to find that the body was that of his son. Over on the shore of the island, Mr. Parcher saw what looked like somebody waving something white. He at once hurried to Combermere, six miles away, and there learned that the “Mayflower” was missing, and told what he had seen on the island”

November 18, 1912, p. 12, “The Ottawa Citizen”

Ripley’s “Believe It or Not”

The Rescue

Gordon Peverley, survivor, described the rescue: “The day wore on.  Each tried to cheer the other up.  Close at hand lay the body of Mr. O’Brien, and the coffin with the corpse of Herman Brown in it.  Mr. Harper was the only one who had an overcoat and we shared it as best we could.  All the time we kept asking one another what our opinion was about the fate of George Bothwell. We dared not believe he had perished. When darkness came we tried to keep our hopes buoyant by telling one another that the fire which we took care to keep going would attract the attention of the captain of a passing boat.  It must have been nearly nine o’clock when we first heard the whistle of a steamer which we found later to be the “Ruby”.  About 20 minutes later we heard the swish of oars and a chorus of voices say, “Hallo boys! Where are you, and how are you?”

Four More Bodies Found

“Word was received last night from Barry’s Bay that four bodies were found together, and all were either in or near the boat, an indication that it went down so quickly as to afford practically no opportunity of escape for most of the passengers.

The bodies located yesterday were those of Elizabeth (Storie) McWhirter, of Fort Stewart, Councillor, William Boehme, of Combermere, Engineer, Tom Delaney, of Barry’s Bay, and Captain John Hudson, of Cobermere. The first three bodies were found in the cabin of the Mayflower, where the victims had been drowned like rats in a trap. That of Hudson was some eight feet away from the bow of the boat.”

November 18, 1912, p. 12, “The Ottawa Citizen”

Nov. 14, 1912, p. 1, “The Ottawa Citizen”

William Boehme

William Boehme, born in Brandenburg, Germany in 1853, was a Tailor by trade. At age 32, he married Louise Frederick, in Wilberforce Township, and they had eight children: William (1897-1897) died in infancy, Annie (Dustin) (1888-1969), Herman (1890-1955), William F. (1891-1918), Charles (1892-1892), Hubert Arthur (1894-1894), Female not named (1896-1896), Female not named (1897-1897), only three survived to adulthood.

It was later reported that it was William Boehme, a local Township Councillor, who persuaded Captain John Hudson to embark on one last trip for the season, at 7:00 p.m., to pick up the body of his relative, John ‘Herman’ Brown, from the Grand Trunk Railway station in Barry’s Bay, to be transported home and buried in the village of Schutt before winter. Brown died as a result of a gun accident in Yorkton, Saskatchewan.

Councillor, William Boehme

Three of the men on the “Mayflower” were politicians.

Captain John Hudson was Reeve of Radcliffe Township, and William Boehme and Paddy O’Brien were both Township Councillors.

Combermere Methodist Cemetery, Renfrew County

“At the wharf were the wives and families of Paddy O’Brien and William Boehme.  They inquired anxiously for news of their loved ones. On hearing the worst they turned away to their homes shaking with sobs.  Both Mr. Boehme and Mr. O’Brien were well respected in the village where they lived and both were members of the village council.  The late Captain Hudson was the Reeve.  All were married men with families.”

November 15, 1912, p. 1, “The Ottawa Citizen”

George H. Bothwell

George Bothwell’s body was the last to be recovered, and was not found until the spring of 1913, in April. His remains were found on the rocks on the east shore of the river, opposite to where the wreck occurred.

April 25, 1913, p. 8, “The Perth Courier”

George Bothwell, age 27, lived at 103 Nepean Street, and came to Ottawa in 1906 from Aberdeen, Scotland. In 1907 he began working as a Commercial Traveller for the F.J. Castle Company Ltd., a wholesale grocer. He had a regular route of the Barry’s Bay district on behalf of his company. He was not married.

Death Notice: BOTHWELL, George H., drowned on the steamer, “Mayflower”, on the Madawaska River on 12th Nov. 1912, body recovered Monday, April 21st, 1913.  Masonic and semi-military funeral will be held on Thursday, 24th inst., at 2:30 p.m.  from Roger’s and Burney’s Chapel at 283 Laurier Ave. W., Ottawa.

Elizabeth (Storie) McWhirter

Elizabeth (Storie) McWhirter, the only woman aboard, was the daughter of Scottish immigrant William Storie, Kirkton, Scotland, and Mary Ann McQueen of Kilbirnie, Scotland. Elizabeth and her husband, William, (he died in 1911), had 8 children: Thomas Alexander McWhirter (1854-1935), Jannett McWhirter (1856-1881), Mary McWhirter (1859-1946), Catherine ‘Kitty’ McWhirter (1861-1953), Agnes McWhirter (1862-1958), William Joseph McWhirter (1864-1942), Elizabeth ‘Lizzie’ Stewart McWhirter (1869-1962), and Robert McWhirter (1873-1875)

Patrick ‘Paddy’ O’Brien

Paddy O’Brien, son of John O’Brien and Bridget McNamara, drowned at age 60, (1853-1912), he owned one of two hotels located in Barry’s Bay – O’Brien House Hotel.

Born in Pakenham, Lanark County, Ontario, he married Matilda ‘Tilley’ Price, and they had a large family: Maggie, Charles, Howie, Matilda, Patrick, Mildred, Sarah, Walter, and Clara.

At the time of his drowning, most of the children were grown, and their youngest daughter, Clara, was 18.

“Mr. O’Brien made a great effort to reach shore, he was in the water swimming for upwards of two hours, but a few minutes after reaching the shore, died from exhaustion.”

November 14, 1912, p. 2, “The Ottawa Journal”

After Paddy’s death, his wife, Tilley, continued to run the O’Brien Hotel, with the help of their sons, Howie and Walter.

O’Brien House Hotel – 1911

The O’Brien House Hotel was established circa 1880’s, was one of only two hotels in the area, along with Hudson House. The O’Brien Hotel had the first telephone exchange in the area and was used to communicate information to Barry’s Bay in the days after the sinking of the Mayflower.

Patrick O’Brien and his wife, Matilda Price O’Brien – Combermere Methodist Cemetery

William Murphy

William Murphy, Irish, age 55, was not scheduled to be on the “Mayflower” on that stormy November night. He was a labourer, and unmarried, and it was only by chance that he decided to go on that fateful voyage.

The Survivors:

Joseph Harper

Joseph Harper, son of Joseph Harper and Matilda Elliott, was born in Forrester Falls, in 1884, and at the time of the shipwreck, at age 27, he was employed with the Dominion Rubber Company in Ottawa, as a Commercial Traveler. He was still a newlywed, having married a Smiths Falls girl, Nellie Ferguson, in June of 1911. They moved to Ottawa that same year, to 207 O’Connor Street. He was employed with the Dominion Rubber Company until his retirement in 1955, and then moved to Almonte. Joe and Nellie had four children: John, George, Betty (Guselle), and Noreen (MacDonald), and at the time of his death in 1957, they also had 11 grandchildren. Joe is buried at the Auld Kirk Cemetery in Almonte, Ontario.

John Imlach

John Stevenson Imlach, born in Carleton Place, Ontario, was one of the three survivors of the wreck of the Mayflower. At that time, in November of 1912, at age 27, he was still a bachelor, living with his parents, at 29 Thornton Avenue, Ottawa. He was a machinist and traveling salesman for the General Supply Company, Ottawa. His brother, Andrew Imlach, was founder and proprietor of the Victoria Garage Company.

“When news arrived of the disaster, Andy Imlach, immediately rushed to Thornton Street and cut the telephone wires so that no news could come through to his mother, until they were certain of his brother’s fate. Not ’till he was in possession of certain intelligence of his brother’s safety that he let his mother know there had been any danger.”

Nov. 14, 1912, p. 2, “The Ottawa Journal”

Four years after the disaster, in the summer of 1916, John Imlach, age 31, fell in love, and married Evelyn Louise May Ready, a schoolteacher. In 1926, they had a daughter, Shirley Isobel Imlach.

Gordon Peverley

Gordon Peverley, son of Clavering Peverley and Jenny Thompson, was born in Quebec in 1884, and was married at age 21, in Montreal, on June 20, 1906, to Mabel Herbert. At the time of the shipwreck, Gordon was 28, and he and his wife lived at 56 Second Avenue, Ottawa, with their two children, Gordon, their eldest, age five years, and baby Howard, who was just five months old. Gordon was a traveling salesman for the General Supply Company, and was doing his usual sales calls in the Barry’s Bay area. When his wife first heard about the Mayflower, it was reported that “all hands were lost”, but she refused to believe that Gordon had perished, insisting that he was a powerful swimmer. She was overjoyed when she heard the news that he had survived. At age 34, Gordon and his family moved to Halifax, where he continued his career in sales. He passed away in 1955, age 70, in Cape Breton. Gordon and Mabel had six children, four who survived to adulthood: Gordon (1907-1989), Harold (1912-2000), Dora (MacDonald) (1915-2013), John (1917-1917 born premature), and Isabelle (Spencer) (1920-1993).

The Inquiry

There were so many reasons that the “Mayflower” should not have taken that final trip of the 1912 season. None of the crew members were licensed, and none had any formal training or certification papers to perform their duties. There were rumours and gossip after the disaster that members of the crew had been drinking at a local hotel before commencing the journey. The “Mayflower” had not been inspected, and was not cleared for operations to transport freight nor passengers. There were only three life-jackets onboard, and no lifeboat. The ship was not equipped with lights sufficient for an evening voyage on a dark November night. There were also reports that it was not the first time the “Mayflower” went down in the waters of the Madawaska River.

Dec. 31, 1912, p. 1, “The Ottawa Citizen”

The official inquiry blamed the government department for neglecting to inspect the ship.

Mr. R.A. Pringle was the Commissioner appointed by the government to head the inquiry into the “Mayflower” wreck. The Minister of Marine and Fisheries, Hon., J.D. Hasen, asked that they “pursue every possible course to discover where the fault lies and to ascertain why the ship was permitted to run without having complied with the law.” Evidence showed that the ship had no qualified ‘Master in charge’, and that it had no life-boat. Although the total number of ships subject to inspection is unquestionably large, “it is the duty of the government inspectors to see that the small percentage that fail to pass are prevented from running until there is the fullest compliance with the Shipping Act.”

The Tribute

The communities of Barry’s Bay and Combermere marked the 100th anniversary of the sinking by unveiling two new plaques in 2012,- one at the Barry’s Bay wharf, and a second plaque at the Combermere dock, paying tribute to the passengers and crew.

Close-up view of the inscription:

Final Note:

The sinking of the stern-wheeler, “Mayflower”, marked the worst inland maritime disaster in Canadian history of that time. Today, the story of the “Mayflower”, is a legendary part of the history of the Ottawa Valley.

Arlene Stafford-Wilson

Member, Association of Professional Genealogists

Member, Lanark County Genealogical Society

Author of 10 books: “Lanark County Christmas”, “Lanark County Comfort”, “Lanark County Collection”, “Lanark County Calling”, “Lanark County Classics”, “Lanark County Connections”, “Lanark County Calendar”, “Lanark County Chronicle”, “Lanark County Kid”, & “Recipes & Recollections”

available at local stores or email:

One comment on “Ottawa Valley Disaster

  1. Jackie Wharton says:

    An interesting story with lots of information about the people on board. I can see it would have taken a lot of research.

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