‘Do you know about the boys?’

the boys
THE BOYS: This photo was taken in 1926, just before they set out on their fateful trip.

A terrible event, with links to Leaside, occurred on Balsam Lake on July 20, 1926. The lake was the location of the estate of William Mackenzie, co-founder of Leaside, and my family’s cottage. At dusk 15 campers left a leadership camp on Long Point in a canoe. Hours later 11 were dead.

A perfect storm of careless acts converged in six hours of horror. Counsellor Robert Shea-Butcher, like many of the boys, could not swim or handle a canoe, the unstable racing war canoe had been altered and slick paint applied, it was overloaded, had no lights or life jackets, an off shore wind killed distress calls, a warning about the canoe was ignored and the boys ate before leaving which may have caused the severe cramping they endured.

Robert Shea-Butcher had founded the Brotherhood of St. Andrew leadership group at St. James Cathedral. The war hero applied his exceptional networking, communication and get-it-done skills to the group. He sought out members based on merit from all denominations willing to participate, an innovative approach in a rigid society where opportunity was determined by income and family status and inter faith relations were limited.

A reader of Shakespeare. he based the group’s philosophy on the bard’s ideal of the knight with support of friends and protection of the weak a priority. This at a time when workhouse rules were the common level of social conscience.

Camper Oliver Mardall lived on Mt. Pleasant Rd. and was a choir member at St. Cuthbert’s on Bayview. He had just started his first job at Wrigley’s, leaving school to help his mom as his father had drowned in the sinking of the Empress of Ireland (1914).

According to survivors the boys sang and helped each other and Mardall was indeed a true knight. He swam around the canoe encouraging the boys and diving to take the smaller boys by the ankles to heave them up onto the slippery canoe.

The tragic story went global with newspapers from New York to London to Australia following the recovery. At our cottage my grandfather patrolled our shore each morning. One body did wash up. Reverend Lamb of St. Cuthbert’s, vacationing on the lake, found one of the victims.

Last to be found was Mardall, still holding a smaller boy, trying to the end. Identified by his father’s ring, he was buried in Mt. Pleasant Cemetery. The St. Cuthbert’s choirmaster said Mardall was a genius; he could have done anything.

Following a public-demanded inquiry camps across North America increased training and beached war canoes.

At the 80th anniversary memorial, cottagers exchanged stories of the tragedy’s effects on three generations: Aunts who never boated again, a woman who could not forget seeing the coffins, all children taught to swim well.

A Long Point cottager had purchased the cook shack from the camp from a Dr. Shapley. In the ‘50s my grandparents, of 694 Eglinton East, bought lots next to Dr. Shapley. To my shock I realized they had purchased the camp! My grandfather had taught me to swim at the spot where the canoe had been launched!

A Leaside neighbour introduced me to her ailing husband by saying my cottage was on Balsam Lake. He had been a camp counsellor on Balsam in 1926. Through the fog of time and dementia he focused on me and asked, “Do you know about the boys?”

Article written by Karen Fraser.