Drowning of six young men in sailboat hit Bangor hard

This story was published on July 09, 2007 on Page C7 in all editions of the Bangor Daily News

‘SIX BANGOR BOYS DROWNED IN BAY: Sloop Yacht Ruth E. Cumnock Capsized in Squall on Tuesday and All But One of Party of Seven Lost; THRILLING TALE OF SOLE SURVIVOR.” This multitiered headline in the Bangor Daily News announced one of the great tragedies in Bangor history. Drownings were almost a daily occurrence, but this event hit the Queen City hard.

A century ago today, seven vacationing young men, all graduates or students of Bangor High School, were sailing in a 38-foot sloop from Stockton Springs to Isleboro, when they were suddenly tossed into the choppy waters of Penobscot Bay “off Castine back cove about half a mile above Dice’s Head.” Only Loren D. Hall returned to tell the story. This column is taken from several newspaper pieces, but primarily from the account provided by Hall to the Bangor Daily Commercial on July 11, 1907, two days after the accident.

Plans for the outing were made the night before when Hall and several others vacationing at the Hersey Retreat on Sandy Point were down at the steamboat wharf as their friends Harry Dugan, a Bowdoin College sophomore, and Charlie Wood showed up on the steamer Tremont from Bangor. Dugan and Wood were on their way to Castine to meet Billy Veague, who was the youthful master of the Ruth E. Cumnock.

Harry and Charlie planned to return with Veague and his yacht the next day for a sail in the bay before attending a dance that night at the Retreat. Veague, who was living in South Brooksville, was a recent graduate of Pratt Institute. His father was master of a large steam yacht. Dugan was the only son of a dealer in harnesses and trunks. Hall’s father was a grocery store owner.

The next day Harry and Billy appeared on the sailboat about noon at Sandy Point. Charlie Wood stayed in Castine trying to ready his own launch for travel. He probably survived because of this delay.

Besides Hall, Dugan and Veague, the sailing party included Roy Palmer, son of the storekeeper at the Eastern Maine Insane Hospital; Frederick Ringwall, son of a noted Bangor musician who was in Sweden with his wife visiting his family; Amos Robinson, son of the superintendent of motive power for the Maine Central Railroad; and Ray Smith, son of a traveling salesman. Ringwall was a student at the University of Maine where he was an accomplished musician.

At the outset there wasn’t much wind, but it was a great day for a sail, recalled Hall. Billy Veague was giving Harry Dugan sailing lessons. After running down to Fort Point, they headed out into the bay seeking more wind. The plan was to go to Hewes Point on Isleboro and return to Sandy Point by 5:30 p.m.

Out in the bay the wind freshened. “The water was flying some and we were having a great time,” Hall told the Commercial reporter. “The wind was blowing from the northwest. It was light and blowing steady. We had the main sail, stay sail and jib set. The yacht carried a topsail too, but we didn’t have that set.”

Partway down the bay black clouds began to roll up. The boys thought they might have a thundershower. “We were wet some then, so we didn’t care if it did rain,” said Hall. Roy Palmer and Hall were forward and the rest of the fellows were in the cockpit. Harry was at the wheel and Billy was standing not three feet from him. (Earlier press reports also based on reports of conversations with Hall had stated Billy had left the wheel area momentarily at the time of the accident.)

“The squall struck us without any warning at all. The boat heeled over and at the very first dip I guess she took in five or six hogsheads of water,” said Hall. There wasn’t enough time to release the sails. In moments, the sloop was flat over on its side, the sails in the water. Then it sank quickly.

The end came within minutes for most of the boys. Freddy Ringwall and Harry Dugan, who was immediately thrown from the yacht, couldn’t swim. Roy Palmer could swim only a little, but he gamely struck off for shore. Ray Smith was badly injured. Veague and Hall, both strong swimmers, tried to hold him up, but abandoned the futile effort.

Hall struck off for shore using an oar to stay afloat, but it slowed him down so he left it behind. He passed Amos Robinson, who was clutching a seat from the yacht’s tender. After Hall passed him, Amos called out for help, saying he had a cramp. Hall said he was unable to return to him in the heavy seas, which he estimated to be 5 or 6 feet high.

Meanwhile, the tugboat Bismarck was returning to Bangor from a towing job. Hall had been in the water for about 45 minutes and he was still far from shore. He had a cramp in his right leg and he was exhausted. At the sight of the tug, he began to shout. Two crew members heard him, and a rescue was under way.

When the Bismarck returned Hall to the Hersey Retreat, the young people were all in the hall preparing for the dance. “When he appeared in the room, we all asked, ‘Where are all the boys?’” recalled Amos Robinson’s sister Martha. ‘They’re all drowned but me,’ said Loren, and he walked through the room and upstairs.

“We laughed and didn’t think anything of it for a minute. But soon noticed that Loren wasn’t around. Someone ran upstairs and found him up there crying. He came down and proceeded to tell about the accident. … No one went to bed that night at the retreat. We simply sat around and talked and waited for morning to come. We couldn’t believe that all the boys had been drowned. … We all went down to meet the Tremont Wednesday morning when she came in, hoping, but way down in our hearts not believing, that some of the boys would be on board.”

The deaths of six middle-class youths with promising futures unnerved the people of Bangor. A proclamation of mourning was issued by city dignitaries. Some of the richest men in Bangor donated money to finance a search. The Ruth E. Cumnock was found July 30 off Perkins Point in Castine. Bodies were discovered in the days ahead, and funerals were held.

Four of the boys had attended the Universalist Church, which owned the Hersey Retreat. As the rain fell in torrents outside the church on the day of one of the funerals, the minister spoke of “the mystery of death, of the constant, persistent and unanswerable questions that have existed from creation.” These same thoughts doubtlessly were on the minds of the hundreds of mourners as well.

Wayne E. Reilly can be reached at wreilly@bangordailynews.net.