Thursday, February 21, 2013

Capreol, A Stout Little Railroad Town Cares For Its Own

It was early November, 1956 and the townspeople of Capreol, Ontario  were turning out in droves to attend the funerals of a number of the towns' finest young men who had drowned when they were caught in open water as a storm struck their canoes on a hunting trip.

The story of the tragedy that took the lives of these young men is reproduced here from among the many railroad stories to be found at the site of the following web site.  Please visit this site.


(October 1956)

 On October 12th, Patrick O’Rourke, aged 27, George Bowness, aged 39, Walter Dines, aged 45 and Audrey Lunn (Walter Dines’ brother-in-law) from Huntsville, Ontario, left Capreol to hunt moose. They traveled to the Ostrom area on Lake Donnegana, northwest of Capreol on the CNR mainline.

Tuesday arrived. The hunting party, failing to appear on their expected date, concerned Terrance O’Rouke. All four men were experienced hunters who had been in that area before. Terrance went up to Lake Donnegana to look for any sign of his brother Patrick or of the other three hunters. Before long, he found their canoe upside down, two sleeping bags, two boxes of unopened groceries, one can of gasoline and a paddle – all floating on the lake.

Once news of Terrance’s discovery reached Capreol, twenty-five CNR men went by train to the scene, late on Wednesday night. The OPP and the Ontario Department of Lands and Forests from Golgama began to organize a systematic search.

Some of the searchers returned home after one full day of operations. They were replaced by others on Thursday night. Along with reinforcements came Esther Prescott, wife of Capreol’s Mayor. Other woman included Florence Marteniuk, Mildred Fitzgerald and Mabel McKinnon who were ready to take care of the cooking. Every man had a hot meal when he came off.

Capreol clerk-treasurer, Alistair MacLean reported that the town was ready to collect money to assist the families of the four missing men

On Sunday afternoon, Allan Kelly, who was the leader of a group, discovered Patrick O’Rourke’s body in one hundred feet of water. The bodies of George Bowness and Aubrey Lunn were taken from the water on Tuesday, October 30th. They were flown to Gogama by the Department of Lands and Forests. The bodies were transferred by CN train to Capreol on Wednesday. It was after dark on Thursday evening when the last of the four moose hunters, Walter Dines, was recovered from forty feet of water. After nine continuous days of searching, all four bodies and most of the hunters’ equipment was recovered from Donnegana Lake.

Throughout the entire operation, the CNR gave its full co-operation. All trains west of Capreol were alerted to make unscheduled stops in the Ostrom station area to set down or pick up men and supplies. The Department of Lands and Forests, under the direction of the Regional Forester Keith Acheson, supplied an aircraft, a drum of gasoline for the outboards and a variety of cooking utensils. The OPP from both Gogama and Foleyet took an active part in the search. Their leaders were Constable Charles Locke of the Foleyet Detachment and Constable Wallace Gargales of Gogama. Wallace McKee organized a flotilla by lashing boats together. He began a designated pattern to drag the bottom of the lake systematically.

The Sudbury Daily Star credited the successful nine-day search to the 2,435 residents of the Town of Capreol, led by mayor Harold Prescott who organized the search; to the Canadian National Railway who provided an aircraft, 2-way radios, and men, including a diver, George Deavy.

George Bowness left a widow Dora and a daughter Madeline. Patrick O’Rourke left a widow Elsie and three children – Claire, Judy and Jimmy. Walter Dines left a widow Emma and five children – Dolores, Altreta, Arlene, Darlene and Louis.

This has gone down as one of the worst tragedies in Capreol’s history. It was also an event that stirred every citizen to action and demonstrated the morale of a small community under stress.
I've included the tragic story of the loss of those four men in order to highlight and underline the intense emotional stress that the residents of Capreol, were experiencing as they gathered in the homes of the deceased, and in a variety of 'watering holes', attending a wake that brought the little town to a twenty-four hour standstill.  Meanwhile, on the eastern edge of town four children, Tom Rupert, Lynn Dennie and Susan and Bruce Harvey, all members of CNR families, were walking slowly down to the end of Vaughn street, where they would enter the forest of jack pines and birches. 

My mother had suggested that, because hundreds of adults would be attending the services, it would be best if children did not attend. When she asked me to look after my sister while she and dad went to the funeral, I asked if I could take my sister for a day-hike in the woods near our home, returning in time for supper.  She agreed, saying that my friends Tom and Lynn might also like to go along, as their parents would also be attending the funeral. 

As we walked along the road that led to the beaver-dam crossing of the creek nearby, we talked about where we would like to go and how long we would like to stay. We had been forced to promised our parents that we would not go too deep into the woods. Neither my sister Susan, nor Lynn had any experience in the bush and felt somewhat uneasy about going out there, but since Tom and I were tasked with looking after the two younger girls while our parents were attending the funerals, Tom and I were confident that we could do the job.  After all, we had spent countless hours wandering the hills around Capreol, hunting, fishing, snaring rabbits and exploring the hills and valleys.  We felt quite at home there and did our best to make the girls feel comfortable about going on the hike.

Since we were only going to be in the woods for a couple of hours, it wouldn't be necessary, therefore to bring along my usual knapsack stuffed with all the necessities of bush travel; knife and sharpening stone, snare wire, waterproof matches, dry socks, snacks, compass and map. None of these things would be needed today, because, after all we weren't going very far and would be home for supper.
Four kids, ranging in age from 5 to 10 years crossed a wide, swampy area by picking their way across a long beaver dam and walked eastward on the Alderdale sub until we reached the Yard Limit board.  Then we climbed up into the hills for a couple of hours of hiking and playing.  Roxy, my Labrador-cross retriever came along with us. He never missed an opportunity to go exploring.

Time and miles seemed to melt away as we enjoyed ourselves in the warm autumn sunshine. The leaves of the oak and maple trees were in brilliant fall colours and the air had a slightly cooling effect on our faces.

All day long, we scrambled over rocks and logs, climbed hills and rolled down sunny slopes that lay deep with dry grasses, blueberry bushes and brown leaves.

 The realization that the sun was getting low and I was not really sure about our location was a sobering one. Looking around, I found that I didn’t recognize any of the hilltops that were still visible in the gathering haze. However, I still felt confident that we could re-trace our steps and be out of the bush in an hour or so, but there was a pang of fear rising in my young chest, nonetheless.  We changed direction to return to the railway tracks and home, but after an hour of hiking, we came across a fallen tree that we had seen less than a half hour earlier.  We were going in circles!

 Having exhausting all the theories I had at my disposal, I had to admit that we were lost. The decision to leave home without my knapsack full of tools and provisions was haunting me.

 As shadows deepened and crept out of the hollows with gathering speed, we sat down on a large, flat rock to discuss our options.  The temperature had begun to drop as sunlight took on a late-afternoon hue and we began to zip up the jackets that had hung open and loose all day. 
We were going to have to spend the night in the bush.  Now, all that remained was to find a spot to settle down and make a bed out of cedar boughs and birch bark.  We stopped for the night, near the edge of a boggy area, set low in the rolling hills common to the Canadian Shield. 

We had no matches, but thought we could start a fire by rubbing two pieces of wood until friction created a spark that we could fan into a blaze. We found what we thought would be the proper materials and set ourselves to the task of making fire our of cold, obviously damp wood.  Soon, blisters were forming on our hands and there wasn't even a hint of flame or smoke.  

The only water that we could find was stagnant and smelled bad. We had stopped for the day near the edge of a boggy area, set low in the rolling hills common to the Canadian Shield.  We would search for running water in the morning, but for now, I decided that I would climb to higher ground, find a tall tree and climb to the top for a look around.  I might be able to spot a shelter, or a cabin, or a light...., anything but the miles of Northern Ontario bush that we had been walking through all day.


 The author (left), his dog, Roxy and good friend, Mike Corrigan
Surveying the forest north-east of Capreol, Ontario from
a vantage point on the rocky Canadian Shield, ca. 1956

 Climbing to the top of the tallest hill we could see, I located the one tree that would allow me to have a 360 degree view of our surroundings; a big White Pine that stood a good thirty feet taller than the forest around it. 
  My father and my uncle, both experienced hunters and woodsmen, had often told me that water will always flow downhill and eventually, a stream will find its way to a larger body of water and that's where searchers will have the best chance of finding one who is lost. I knew that the largest body of water in the area was Wanapitei Lake, which couldn't be more than a few miles away. These thoughts went through my mind like a mantra as I held tightly to a cluster of branches near the very top of the White pine tree, looking in vain for lights or a large body of water. 

To make matters worse, a high, thin layer of cloud had now covered the sky.  I knew that if moss formed on a tree trunk, it would be on the north side of the tree because the sun never shone there. But I couldn't find a tree with any moss on it!  It seemed as if the forest had taken on a mystical air that was conspiring to confuse us, to take away all of the clues that might lead us home.
 As darkness fell, the temperature dropped even further and, knowing that we had to take advantage of the remaining light, I set everyone to gathering fine strips of birch bark from nearby trees.  This we stuffed inside our jackets and pants for warmth. Then we started to pull branches from cedar trees to make a bed to lie on and also to cover ourselves with. 

The trees and hilltops was now just a silhouette against the sky and we lay down on our bed, covering ourselves with cedar branches and began to cry.

Then.... The sound of an outboard motor... putt, putt, putting for about twenty seconds, then it stopped.  Again, it started and ran for a moment, then stopped.  We had only one chance, I thought, to get the attention of whoever was trying to start that motor.
I was trying to determine where the sound was coming from, as there was no indication that there was a body of water nearby, but that didn't really matter.  All that mattered was that there was a human being nearby and we had to get his attention. I said, "the next time that motor stops running, we have to yell and scream as hard and as long as we can, because if he gets that motor running he won't be able to hear us and he'll be gone." 

 The motor stopped once more and we made a tremendous racket, and continued until we couldn't yell and scream anymore. For a moment the forest fell completely silent. Then..... A man's voice calling out from the dark forest.... "Stay where you are.... we can see you!"

Two Capreol railroad men, Ernie Souliere and Ralph Lennox, had gone out deer hunting after the funeral services.   They found a spot on a hillside above a low-lying Tea Bush swamp and built a make-shift blind from cedar branches.  There they waited for the moose or deer they hoped would come to the little hollow to feed and bed down for the night.  But, as evening was approaching, they decided to leave their blind and hike back out to the tote road, where they had left the car, about a mile away.  As they were walking out of the bush toward their car, talking softly in the stillness of the forest, they heard the put-put-putting of a gas-powered motor.  Their conversation turned to an observation they had made during their afternoon hours, waiting for big game to appear.  They had heard the sounds of steam locomotive whistles echoing through the forest glens.  The whistles weren't sounding 'rule book' signals, but random blasts of long duration.  Then, seeming to come from a slightly different direction, multiples of three short blasts could be heard.  They sensed that these were significant in some way, but put it off as perhaps the whistles of trains leaving Capreol after the funerals..., perhaps engineers were blowing a 'last post' for their drowned comrades. 

That was touching.

Besides the sound of their boots rustling through the dead, fallen leaves of maple, birch and oak, and the intermittent sound of their soft conversation, they were completely alone in the growing darkness.

Then, startled by the frantic, panicked voices of four frightened children, they froze in their tracks. 

They had heard our screaming pleas for help.

When the putting sound of the motor started up again, we stopped yelling, feeling that our cries for help had not been heard.  We listen for a 'hoped-for' response from what we supposed was a boat owner who seemed to be having trouble keeping his motor running.  We listened intently...., hoping....

Then, out of the trees, on the other side of the swamp, came the sound of men's voices.   They yelled out...."Stay there!"  "We can see you and we'll come to you!"

In a few minutes, Mr. Souliere and Mr. Lennox walked out of the cedars and came to us.  We were so happy to see them, that we cried.  They sat down with us on our make-shift bed of cedar boughs and shared the last of their lunches, an apple and an orange.  Roxy ate the apple core, tail wagging, non-stop.  When I explaimed that it was a good thing for us that they were having trouble keeping their outboard motor running, they said they were walking and didn't have a boat.  The sound that we had heard, thinking it was a boat motor, was actually a diamond-drill operation quite some distance away.

 The two hunters carried the girls while Tom and I walked along behind with Roxy.

 When we arrived home, some time later,  we found that there was a massive search and rescue operation underway as the town had mobilized to try to find us. 

The CNR had virtually come to a halt on that day.  All the churches had been filled for the funeral services; the usual gathering places were in use as reception centers for mourners, gathering to pay their last respects and to talk about the drowned men, their families and the what the future might hold for a town grieving.

Then came the word that four children had gone into the woods and had not returned before darkness fell.  Half full glasses of beer were left on tables at the Legion, the Capreol Hotel and other places where townsfolk were gathered.

CNR offered steam engines to be brought off the shop track and taken out onto the Alderdale sub, where their whistles could be blown as a beacon of sound that the children might follow to the safety of the railroad track.  One engine took up a position near the Yard Limit board while another went out to mile 138, seven miles east of Capreol.  A third moved slowly between the first two, to watch for us when we emerged from the bush.   All three 'volunteer' engineers blew their whistles, hoping they were contributing to our rescue. 

The whole town waited in fear.

 Every light was on in the house as my sister and I climbed up the steps to the back door. Roxy wandered into his doghouse and we stepped into the kitchen.  The house was empty, and one of our neighbors came in moments later to tell us that our parents were on their way home from the search and rescue centre that had been set up downtown. When mom strode through the door, Susan and I were sitting at the table, eating from steaming bowls of homemade soup that mom had left on the stove. 

R. Bruce Harvey 02-21-13




LOU said...

MAN ! ! ! ! ! ! WHAT-A-' MOVER ' ! ! ! ! I could not hold-back my ' EYE-WATER ' !!!
and then on to PRAYERS-OF-THANKS as as our LODS GRACE brought such a BEAUTIFUL-END-OF-THE-STORY ! ! ! ! ! ! ! !

THANK-Y'ALL-KINDLY-AGAIN Bruce for sharing your most-talanted-writing-ability ! ! ! ! ! ! !

Unknown said...

thank you for sharing the life of Capreol, how the folks looked after one another. How they came together in death and in life as one huge family.
Capreol holds a special place in my heart, My husbands family have many happy memories about Capreol. Blessings