Hay Bay Tragedy

Called “Not a Ripple” photography by Wendy Harty May 2020

The year is 1819. Close your eyes and hear them singing those old Methodist songs. The sound of the hymns would echo over the Bay. The youngsters in the boat were newly converted. In this long ago time, when my grandfather’s lived in the settlements beside the Bay of Quinte, neighbors were few but they were either mostly related or had business dealings, so everyone knew everyone. Here at Ernestown, Ontario, 4 generations of my grandparents lived and worshipped in the Methodist way. Garrett and Elizabeth Miller, parents to Mary Ann Miller who married Charles Henry Bush and daughter Mary Ann Bush had married James Wilson my 4rd great grandmother a mother aged 20, had just given birth to my 3rd great grandmother Mary Sarah Wilson July 27, 1818 -Jan 31, 1867. Mary probably memorized the poem about this day, when she went to school.

I’m sure what happened in 1819 was felt like an earthquake amongst the whole community, and the 4 generations of my relatives that learned or saw it happen. The Hay Bay Church, located on the south shore of Hay Bay was about twelve miles away from Miller’s Corner. A poem was written about the sad circumstances and for years in the schools the children were taught and memorized it. A quarterly meeting was sure to bring out the zealous people from every society of Methodists that formed.

On August 28 and 29, 1819 Methodists closed their business and stopped farming at noon when Quarterly services were held. They made their way to meeting, on foot, horseback, in wagons and with boats. On this Sabbath morning 18 parishioners had gathered on the north side of Hay Bay, all anxious to reach the church before nine o’clock for Love Feast. The Love Feast was very different from Holy Communion or the Lord’s Supper. It could be conducted by any Christian. It involved sharing a meal, and testimonies, hymns and scripture readings. These early Methodists often passed a loving cup with two handles from person to person.

The Cole family owned a large skiff. That Sunday morning more assembled to cross than it was safe for even his large boat to carry. Two brothers, Gilbert and Peter had a disagreement but Peter won’t get out. The girl he wanted to marry was in the boat. They could see the Hay Bay Church and the people could hear the group singing. It was a calm and beautiful morning, not even a ripple on the Bay. The 18 obtained a boat and the whole company embarked. It would be a mile and a half to row. A young man was given the tin dish to bail with, as the boat leaked badly. The young man was also singing and dropped the dish overboard. The men used their Sunday hats to bail but the water came in to fast. The heaviest of the men, Peter German, took off his coat and boots, to lighten the boat and swim to shore. Before he got far, he heard the shrieking. Heads and hands in the water with an overturned boat is what he saw! It was a sight of confusion and dismay. Apparently when he stepped on the edge of the boat it rocked and the girls panicked, leaning to the other side and the boat flipped. The youngsters were not good swimmers. Peter swam back and got Miss Cole to the boat which was turned bottom up. Helping another he was caught in a death grip by 2 or 3 others that drew him to the bottom, 20 feet deep. He escaped their grasp and surfaced. Miss Cole had disappeared. A few were trying to reach the shore. John German tried to help his sister but she sank beneath his reach. He swam until he was exhausted and was not recovered til the next day. Peter helped a young Cole boy get to shore who cried, “Help me or I will drown”! Mr. Cole was trying to save his wife and back he went with a pole, saving 3 out of the 4 Coles. Mrs. Cole was unconscious. She lived many years but would say, “The drowning was easy and painless but the agonies of resuscitation were such that she wished they had left her as she was.” There were eight saved and ten lost in just a few minutes.

The lamentations and cries on the shore from fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, friends and neighbors was a terrible sound as they refused to be comforted. The bodies were laid near the Old Hay Bay Meeting House. One of the parents witnessed the terrible scene from the shore. She was a beautiful singer, but never heard to sing again.

The preachers in charge of the Bay of Quinte circuit that year were Revs Isaac Puffer and James Wilson. Rev. Puffer had started the prayer meeting with these words, “make this a day long to be remembered.” Instead of a feast, the congregation got to work making coffins and graves dug in the old burying ground opposite the church. The next day, so affected was the Reverend Puffer with the funeral scene that he broke down over and over and the whole congregation was sobbing and in tears of sorrow.

For nearly two generations the words of the poem were committed to memory. It is called A Ballad on the Death of Ten Young People, Drowned in Hay Bay.

The 5th stanza reads, “The voice of Jehovah speaks unto us all; Always to be ready, to go at his call, And when you are reading these mournful lines o’er, Death may be sent for you, and enter your door.

Published before 1830, author unknown.

Credit Lennox and Addington County Museum, Napanee, Ontario

Scholar, J. William Lamb, an authority on the Hay Bay Church wrote 1994, in the Hay Bay Guardian

“Death itself is a common enough phenomenon in church life, but the simultaneous death of ten teenagers in the prime of life… children whose parents were themselves survivors of the holocaust of the American Revolution, gives the event unique pathos.”

The homes in which the circuit riders arrived were very small. As more settlers flooded into the territory larger places of worship were needed. By 1816 there were Methodist chapels in twelve Upper Canada settlements. The oldest was at Hay Bay, near Adolphustown on the Bay of Quinte Circuit.

The marker put up for the Hay Bay Tragedy

One thought on “Hay Bay Tragedy

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create your website with WordPress.com
Get started
%d bloggers like this: