For the last few summers, I have participated as a history guide for a middle school-aged outdoor activity camp. It is a product of the Journey Through Hallowed Ground Heritage Area, a partnership I worked with closely during my time at the Tourism Council of Frederick County. This group is headquartered in Waterford, VA and comprises “historic” real estate stretching from Gettysburg to Frederick and down to Charlottesville. My primary role for these camps is to provide historical context associated with the Potomac River while the participants are engaged in a peaceful canoe sojourn from Lander to the Monocacy Aqueduct near Dickerson, affording a beautiful view of nearby Sugarloaf Mountain.
My talk revolves around the early geology and peoples of the environs, with major emphasis on the earliest inhabitants in the form of the Piscataway and Tuscarora Indian tribes. I have to say the highlight for me is retracing the research and videography steps I took back in the late 1990’s while producing a film documentary on the subject.
My favorite sites are part of the tour and include Heaters Island (home to the Piscataway Tribe from 1699-1712)and the Mouth of the Monocacy, where a French Canadian fur trader named Martin Chartier once operated a trading post and a contingent of Tuscarora Indians would come up from North Carolina and settle nearby from 1712-1724.
The experience has been quite rewarding for me, but not just because of the history aspect. The natural beauty of the area and getting glimpses of ospreys and bald eagles is the proverbial “icing on the cake.” I’ve also recaptured an appreciation for paddling and the expertise practiced by river guides. We’ve been “on the river” in a variety of situations, from static flat water under sunny blue skies, to summer rain storms, one of which cut our trip short as it brought with it “an electrical component.“
That brings us to this week’s “Story in Stone,” set in the year 1926 amidst the backdrop of a river and what was supposed to have been a carefree day of picnicking and pleasure on an island “sandwiched” between east-central Michigan and the western border of Ontario, Canada. Below is the first article I could find which appeared in the Frederick News a few days after the tragedy. I found out a bit more about the accident in the following Michigan paper out of Lansing.
I originally stumbled upon this melancholy tale about a year ago. It involves two former Frederick County residents, one having been a veteran of World War I. What struck me more is the fact that William Turner, Jr. was a Navy veteran who would be promoted to Seaman 2nd Class. I just assumed he would be a strong swimmer since he was stationed on and adjacent water.
William John Alfred Turner, Jr. was born on November 22nd, 1896 and Paul Edward Turner in 1909. They were among seven children of William John Alfred Turner, Sr. and wife Margaret Virginia “Jennie” H. Kanode. The Turner family resided in the hamlet of Mt. Ephraim near Bell’s Chapel at the southwestern foot of Sugarloaf Mountain. The specific location is just west of the intersection of Comus and Mt. Ephraim roads. The property appears on the 1873 Titus Atlas.
Details (on earlier life for the boys) have been hard to find. The Turner children presumably worked on the farm and attended local schools. Apparently, William would obtain a job as a hotel clerk in Frederick. On July 5th, 1918, 21-year-old William Jr. would join the Navy as the United States ramped up its staging and began amassing its great force in eastern France in the fall of that year. He was sent to a Naval training Station in Newport, RI. Two months later, William was assigned to a Receiving Ship in Boston. He remained here for four months before being admitted to a hospital in Chelsea, MA. Next, I found William receiving an honorable discharge for physical reasons on March 14th, 1919.
Another article about the boating accident, from the local Frederick paper of record, explains that the two Turner boys had recently moved to Detroit to join two other brothers, Millan David Turner (1904-1967) and Gordon Henry Turner (1906-1968), already living in “the Motor City.” I would discover that both were employed as auto body mechanics at the time of their deaths. The surmise the reason for their move could be related to the fact that the young men lost their father earlier that year in January. The aforementioned Mr. Turner died of acute indigestion, and was laid to rest in a family plot on January 7th, 1926 beside his wife who had passed back in November, 1917.
As for the melancholy drownings in the St. Clair River, I sought to learn more about the area, and any particulars on the cause of the accident. Stag Island is a private Canadian island that today boasts over 100 cottages and once featured a casino. The island is accessed by Marysville, Michigan on the west and Corunna, Ontario to the east. The St. Clair River drains the famed “Great Lake” Huron, with the waterway’s mouth located just upstream from Stag Island. This surely explains the potential for dangerous currents, such as that which swept the Turner brothers to their early demise.
The quartet of brothers were apparently vacationing on the Ontario side of the river in Corunna. On September 26th, they had obtained a rowboat and ventured to spend the day on Stag Island. While there, three of the brothers decided to make a quick trip back to their vacation cottage at Corunna in hopes to return right back a short-time later. Gordon Turner remained on Stag Island to “hold down” the proverbial fort in his brothers’ absence.
The largest nearby town is Sarnia, on the Canadian side, within Lambton County. From death records, I found that this was the location of a coroner’s inquest on the bodies of both William and Paul. I even found the original coroner’s report on Ancestry.com. This was a boon, especially due to the fact that our original cemetery interment cards were scant and even mistakenly listed Lambton County as being in Michigan.
I found several vintage images of Stag Island, Corunna and Sarnia. These helped me visualize to a degree, the scene of drownings. From my own recent experiences on the river, it’s somewhat hard to believe that a place of such beauty and tranquility can be tarnished in an instant by such a tragic event.
A final article found in newspaper research came within a funeral announcement in the September 30th edition of the Baltimore Sun. This article tipped me off to a prime catalyst and cause for the horrific events of September 26th, 1926. It appears that the fateful “chain of events” was put into motion by a simple error in packing the picnic basket for the island excursion—someone forgot the bread. Somehow, I was reminded of the passage found in the Bible, Ecclesiastes 11:1-10, known commonly as “Cast thy bread upon the waters."
The bodies of William and Paul Turner were shipped back to Frederick, and the young men would be buried in the family plot in Area OO/Lot 36. In time, they would be joined by Millan, the brother who was luckily saved from the jaws of the St. Clair River back in early fall, 1926. He would stay in Detroit for the rest of his life, working as a merchant. I assume he painfully relived the site of that terrible day for 41 years before his death in November, 1967. Remaining brother, Gordon, returned home to the family farm. He worked as a carpenter, never married and would join his siblings in death a year after Millan in 1968.
The lot also includes sister Catharine “Katie” (Turner) Smith and an additional brother named George (1900-1946). Interestingly, our cemetery records list George’s profession as that of a cable-splicer with C & P Telephone. I wonder if he was inspired by the advent of the telephone earlier in life, as he was 13 when it was installed in his home.
"Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days.
Give a portion to seven, and also to eight; for thou knowest not what evil shall be upon the earth.
If the clouds be full of rain, they empty themselves upon the earth: and if the tree fall toward the south, or toward the north, in the place where the tree falleth, there it shall be.
He that observeth the wind shall not sow; and he that regardeth the clouds shall not reap.
As thou knowest not what is the way of the spirit, nor how the bones do grow in the womb of her that is with child: even so thou knowest not the works of God who maketh all.
In the morning sow thy seed, and in the evening withhold not thine hand: for thou knowest not whether shall prosper, either this or that, or whether they both shall be alike good.
Truly the light is sweet, and a pleasant thing it is for the eyes to behold the sun:
But if a man live many years, and rejoice in them all; yet let him remember the days of darkness; for they shall be many. All that cometh is vanity.
Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth; and let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth, and walk in the ways of thine heart, and in the sight of thine eyes: but know thou, that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment.
Therefore remove sorrow from thy heart, and put away evil from thy flesh: for childhood and youth are vanity."