By Mark E. Vogler
---- — 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.
Tragedy lost in history
A century later, there are no remnants of the ill-fated bathhouse. The city has no monument that marks the spot of the tragedy, names the young victims – ranging in age from 8 to 15 – or pays tribute to all the heroes who kept the death toll from becoming much higher. There are no special exhibits or events set for today to commemorate the so-called “Bathhouse Tragedy.”
The best public acknowledgement about this significant event which drew national attention at the time are three pages in historian Maurice B. Dorgan’s 1918 book, “Lawrence – Yesterday and Today.”
“It’s a tragic story that lives on in the Dorgan book,” said City Attorney Charles D. Boddy Jr., a Lawrence native who remembers reading about the doomed bathhouse while a student in the seventh and eighth grades at the Oliver School.
“That’s really its only commemoration. That’s too bad because this is a tremendous story, and a story that kids need to hear. A monument, particularly one with a sculpture, would open up meaningful public discussions about the dangers on the river,” Boddy said.
“Other than the Lawrence history buffs, there are very few who are aware of this event. If you went to the Lawrence Historical Commission, everyone would know because they are history-minded people who absorb history with relish. But if you ask the average school children about it, they’re not going to know the story,” he said.
Ask the average person of any age in Lawrence about the worst tragedy on the river, most of them will recall the December 2001 drownings of the four boys – ages 7 to 11 – who fell through the ice and into the Merrimack River, he said.
Boddy, who prides himself on having a deep interest in Lawrence history, attempted to raise public awareness about the bathhouse tragedy in 1992, during the 80th anniversary of the Bread and Roses Strike. He developed a hiking trail through downtown Lawrence with a booklet that included major sites related to the historic strike. It also included a site mark the Pemberton Mill disaster and the bathhouse tragedy.
He hoped that people who took the walking history tour through the city might pause near the lockkeeper’s house on Broadway at Water Street by the dam, overlooking the segment of the river where the bathhouse once stood.
Boddy said he believes there should be a historical marker near the water where 11 kids perished on June 30, 1913.
“Even if it’s just a bronze plaque on the wall somewhere to remind people what happened, so the poor kids who would have lived out long lives and had children wouldn’t be forgotten,” Boddy said.
A story about young heroes
In Dorgan’s book, which was published five years after the bathhouse tragedy, he focuses on the unselfish acts of bravery that were displayed – particularly by young people.
“Indeed, the one bright spot in the whole sad affair was the heroic way in which men and boys alike went to the work of rescue and resuscitation,” Dorgan wrote.
“Many a boy who figured in that terrible happening owes his life to some police officer, doctor or civilian who assisted either in his rescue, or in the application of first-aid principles after his removal from the water. But for such commendable work the loss of life might have been at least three times what it was,” he wrote.
Dorgan’s book – like many newspaper accounts of the tragedy – cited the heroics of 15-year-old Joseph McCann, a physically disabled youth who was on the river bank when runway collapsed. Moments later, he jumped in to help, surrendering his own life in the process.
“Although a cripple, he was a good swimmer, and he struck out bravely toward the mass of struggling boys,” Dorgan wrote.
Boddy also marvels at McCann’s valiant efforts.
“Here’s a message to be learned because of the fact a disabled youth went to the rescue of able bodied youths. He didn’t succeed, of course. But the fact he was able to overcome his disability to help others is a message that was tremendous in the day, and now 100 years later, it is still of tremendous value. It demonstrates everybody has value,” he said.
Henry Hinchcliffe, 16, was another youth who risked his life. He received the Carnegie Medal for Bravery and a college education paid by the Carnegie Hero Fund. One newspaper account said he pulled 17 kids to safety before narrowly escaping when he was drawn under water by several children thrashing in the water.
Hinchcliffe said he was headed to No. 2 Bathhouse, used by older boys, when he heard screams of children from No. 1 Bathhouse and looked over to see about 20 young children in the water.
“Some of them grasped me desperately and gave me a battle for my own life. I jumped into the water with my clothes on after I pulled all that I could to safety from the platform. I saved a few of the others in the water and saw several go under whom I could not reach on time,” Hinchcliffe later told The Lawrence Telegram.
Bathhouses never reopened
The city’s response to the tragedy was swift.
Mayor Michael A. Scanlon ordered the flags throughout the city flown at half-staff and called for a meeting of the City Council to launch an investigation. The council voted to compensate each of the victims’ families with $100 to help defray funeral expenses.
Councilors also began discussing alternatives to the bathhouses, like the construction of swimming pools in every primary school yard throughout the city and a swimming tank in every ward where primary children could be taught swimming. There was also talk of creating small wading pools.
District Court Judge J.J. Mahoney ordered an inquest to determine the cause of the collapse. At the conclusion of testimony, he ruled the accident was due to inadequate support of the runway and the railing. He said the accident could have been avoided had the runway been supported by two ledger boards instead of one.
Building Inspector John O. Battershill admitted during the inquest that the railing on the wharf could have been built stronger and also admitted he thought the accident would not have happened if two ledger boards had been used instead of one.
Battershill determined the cause of the accident was the fact that nail heads in the ledger boards that served as fasteners to the supports were pulled all the way through the boards, causing one end of the section adjoining the wharf of the bathhouse to fall into the water. In the excitement of their scramble for safety, the boys were crushed against the side railings causing them to give way.
Even if the bathhouse tragedy didn’t happen on June 30, 1913, there was evidence of potential problems on the horizon. Battershill indicated as much in his report to the City Council in which he noted a deterioration of the remaining bathhouses in the city.
Just a day after the tragedy, Battershill declared the bathhouses unsafe and ordered them closed.
“I have watched the condition of them as to their buoyancy and have come to the conclusion that the bottom timbers of the bathhouses from long use have become water logged and unsafe,” Battershill wrote. “They were launched and put in commission in June 1895 and have been constant use since then,” he said.
Battershill was the same official who as superintendent of public property, placed the bathhouses in position a week earlier. It was also the public property department that constructed the gangway that collapsed.
The city was the target of several lawsuits totaling $90,000. But the Supreme Court determined that the city wasn’t liable for any civil damages under state law, noting a municipality couldn’t be sued for loss of life at a public place of recreation.
The victims Secundo Allegbro, 10 William Bolster, 10 Joseph Belanger, 8 John Cote, 8 Ronaldo Gaudette, 10 Roland Jones, 9 Joseph Hennessey, 15 Joseph McCann, 15 Flower Pinta, 11 William Thornton, 10 Michael Woitena, 14