20th Century, Miscellaneous, People

Kingston in the 1920s: Collins Lake Picnic Tragedy

Collins Lake north of Glenburnie. Photograph from blog The Wilds of Ontario (click image to go to source)

Just a heads up: this story is sad, and while I was researching it I felt depressed and creepy, so you might want to queue up some happy, holiday-themed articles to read after you’re done. (Then again, I live a ten minute drive from where this happened, so the feelings are literally closer to home for me.) Also, I forgot my USB when I was looking at the library microfilm, so I don’t have any actual images from the Daily British Whig newspaper articles that accompanied this story. Sorry about that – a headline or two would have been great.

I discovered this story by looking through some Kingston death records from the 1920s – as one does on a Tuesday night – and noticed two girls amongst them who were the same age and both worked at a “confectionery” store. Then I noticed they died on the same day, in the same place (my own community of Glenburnie), and shared the same cause of death: drowning.

I was interested, and the next day went to check contemporary newspapers to see if I could find any information about this story. Turns out, it was the biggest story in Kingston during that cool, fateful August of 1923, and although not scandalous or particularly remarkable as tragedies go, its very ordinariness and preventability is what makes it so sad.

So without further ado…

On Sunday 19 August 1923, George Sakell’s Superior Ice Cream Parlour was having its annual staff picnic. The Sakell family, originally from Greece, had a string of ice cream parlours downtown, with George’s located at 204 Princess Street. Among those going to the picnic was sixteen-year-old employee Rosa Miltz*, a student at Kingston Collegiate Institute, who decided to go even though she wasn’t in the mood that morning. She called her coworker Evelyn Golloghy, who decided to go with her, and they convinced Isabell Turnbull to come along as well, just a half hour before they were set to drive up to Glenburnie. All the girls were between the ages of sixteen and seventeen and had only been working at the ice cream parlour for a few months.

The approximate site of the Superior Ice Cream Parlour on Princess Street (my photo)

The approximate site of the Superior Ice Cream Parlour on Princess Street (my photo)

The picnickers drove to Collins Lake at about 9:30 that morning, numbering 23 in all. Collins Lake is an irregularly-shaped lake located just north of the intersection of Perth Road and Unity Road, with three sections “attached” to each other by two narrows. It’s unclear at exactly which part of the lake the picnic was happening, but by midday the party had been swimming on the west shore of the lake, and was row-boating to the landing point back on the other side.

The weather wasn’t good that day and it had apparently become very windy, enough to create choppy waves on the shallow lake. (By the sounds of it and the difficulties experienced later on, it must have been extremely windy.) In fact, the weather that August wasn’t good at all: around this time the Daily British Whig reported 13 degree temperatures and noted that the turnout at a certain outdoor soirée was good despite the coolness.

A few boats filled with picnickers had already reached the other side of the lake, but at 12:45 p.m. there were still two in the middle, in the deepest part of the water. In one boat were George Sakell, William Trenhaile, and his son Jack Trenhaile. In the other were Rosa Miltz, Evelyn Golloghy, Isabell Turnbull and William Karis. There was considerable confusion about what happened next, but the inquest held after the drownings came to the following conclusions.

The boats that the picnickers were in were in good condition (early reports that the second boat “broke into pieces” were false) but they were overloaded. They were only meant to hold two people, and in the rough waters they were unsteady. The first boat to go down was the one that held the three men. Sakell, just thirty years old and a good swimmer, decided to risk swimming towards shore. This caused Jack Trenhaile to begin swimming too, but his father held him back, which probably saved his life. They must have been able to cling to the boat – that is, it must have still been floating, but perhaps upside-down or in some way that didn’t allow them to get back in.

In the second boat were the three girls and William Karis. Tragically, when the girls saw the first boat capsize they became agitated and stood up, causing their boat to sink as well. Karis (who apparently couldn’t swim, but survived by floating until he hit a patch of weeds and was rescued) saw the girls above water, but then he sank. When he resurfaced again they were gone.

Meanwhile, those who had already reached shore were trying to save the victims. One rescue boat passed George Sakell swimming and tried to help him, but he refused, saying, “Save the girls – never mind me, I can swim alright.” Later, no one could agree on where they last saw him. And by the time the rescue boats reached the middle of the lake, the three girls were nowhere to be found.

Attempts to recover the bodies began immediately and the families of the victims were notified. Word of the tragedy must have spread quickly because crowds were already collecting to watch the searching process, which was difficult because of the intense wind. Grappling hooks only recovered bits of the girls’ clothing, and by nightfall the search had to be called off.

However, early the next morning, Isabell Turnbull’s body was found, and five hours later, about fifty feet away, the other girls’ bodies were discovered. Funeral arrangements were immediately underway, with Rosa and Evelyn sharing a double funeral at St. Mary’s Cathedral, and the Turnbull family organizing a private funeral at their home (they were practitioners of Christian Science and lived beside the church, now the Greek Orthodox church on Johnson Street). The double funeral was huge, and mourners spilled out the cathedral doors onto the street.

Meanwhile, the three Sakell ice cream parlours on Princess Street closed out of respect, and George Sakell’s body had yet to be found. Bad weather and lack of information on where he was last seen hampered search efforts, until finally on Thursday 23 August, his body was found floating in the lake, no doubt bringing grief but also closure to his family. However, already by that Wednesday there had been an order from the Attorney-General to hold an inquest into the drownings, because of concerns about the safety of the boats. As I mentioned earlier, this inquest smoothed out the details of what went wrong the previous Sunday, and the matter was finally laid to rest.

This is a very sad story, and clearly a big deal at the time. Yet it’s interesting that tragedies like this fade so much away as the years go by, and are forgotten. If nothing else it shows how many hidden stories there are within cities, and how interesting it is to find them. I doubt anyone in Glenburnie today knows about this event – I certainly didn’t – perhaps because it occurred too late to be memorialized into song and legend. But it’s stories like this that make being an amateur local historian so rewarding and fun. Even if those stories are really, really sad.

*Rosa Miltz’s name in the newspaper articles is variously given as Rosie, Rosa, and Rose, with surname Meltz and Miltz. I’m not sure which is accurate but I’m using the name found on her death record. Not that this is any guarantee of accuracy, as Isabell Turnbull’s name is shown as Isabella and it’s pretty conclusive she was called Isabell or some spelling variation thereof.

Sources

Newspaper articles from Monday 20 August 1923 to Friday 24 August 1923 in the Daily British Whig.

Biographical information found via familysearch.org

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