LAWRENCE — In their day, the municipal bathhouses on the northern bank of the Merrimack River were where Lawrence kids flocked to kick off their summer vacation.
For nearly two decades, the wooden structures anchored in the water and connected by a wharf to the land just above the Great Stone Dam offered free swimming and relief from hot and humid days.
But that era of local history ended tragically 100 years ago today when part of the runway to “No. 1 Bathhouse” collapsed and 11 children drowned in the city’s deadliest river disaster.
School was out and it was the opening day for the bathhouse, with the July 4 holiday less than a week away. Kids crowded onto runway to the entrance of the bathhouse, waiting for attendant William Blythe to return from his afternoon meal. As he approached the gate about 2 p.m. to open it, there was a mad rush, with excited children jumping up and down. Suddenly, the runway gave out, sending several dozen kids into the river.
“All Lawrence today mourns the sudden loss of Some (of) her unusually sunny faced children – the eleven boys whose lives were quickly cut off by the silent waters of the Merrimack yesterday afternoon when they were about to enter a place where they could swim and frolic in safety,” began the lead front page story in the July 1, 1913 edition of The Evening Tribune.
“Many happy homes were made silent and sorrowful by the catastrophe that has fallen, the worst in the history of the city since the fall of the Pemberton mills. With her flags at half-mast and her people offering condolences, Lawrence publicly declares her sorrow but her well meaning efforts to soothe the feelings of the bereaved parents will never fill the places vacated by the sudden visit of the Grim Reaper nor atone the loss of her future citizens,” the article continued.