A Century of Drownings at Harvey’s Lake (1863-1963)



A Century of Drownings at Harvey's Lake 1863 - 1963


Report of Study and Findings of Thirty-Six Drownings in Harvey’s Lake and Susquehanna River
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3. An Era of Drownings: 1901-1940

Fred Puterbaugh, age 15, the son of Dora Puterbaugh, was skating on the Lake in early January 1901 when he fell into a hole in the ice. A son of Thomas Deiter saw the accident from a distance. The body was recovered in 40 feet of water two hours later. This loss was the first fatality through the ice at the Lake. The boy is buried at the Perrego Cemetery which fronts the Lake road between the Picnic Grounds and Sandy Beach.

Two young boys drowned over the weekend of June 6-7, 1903. Earl Hoover, age 8, drowned on June 6 while his father, Perry Hoover, a carpenter was repairing a dock. The next day Joseph Masterson, age 6, from Wilkes-Barre, fell into the Lake and drowned when his father and another adult tried to exchange seats and the rowboat turned over.

A Scranton man, Theodore Yoos, drowned on August 25, 1906, while fishing. (During this time drownings in the Susquehanna River in the Wyoming Valley were very common. By early August 1906 26 died in the river.) During a C.T.A.U. camp meeting (a temperance group) on August 7, 1907, James McGreevy, Jr., age 20, drowned in the Lake while bathing. Another bather, Arthur Jones, age 25, drowned the following year on July 13, 1908.

The first auto fatality at the Lake occurred on July 4, 1910, when George H. Callahan's automobile ran into the Lake. He was pinned under the vehicle. He did not actually drown. He died from a broken neck. The following July 4, 1911, Joseph Morrick, from Luzerne, fell off a raft and drowned. On July 24, 1912, George Brean of Nanticoke drowned after chasing a hat which blew into the Lake. On July 4, 1913, seventeen-year-old Alice Crispell was found drowned next to the Weckesser boat house between Sunset and Outlet. During the evening of July 4 she and friends were illegally drinking at the Hotel Oneonta. A boyfriend was charged in the press for the murder of Crispell but a coroner's jury released him for lack of evidence. The mystery of her death was never solved.

Generally, there was one drowning annually at the Lake for the next several years. William Griffith, 24, from Miners Mills drowned while swimming on August 2, 1913. Five year old Warren Yeisley from Wilkes-Barre fell from the Inlet bridge and drowned on July 31, 1914, and George Stevenson, 24, from Wilkes-Barre, drowned while bathing on July 18, 1915, followed by Bernard McDonald, 19, of Duryea, on August 20, 1916, also while bathing.

The Lake's second automobile accident death occurred on July 24, 1917, when Ethel Wood, 30, of Danville, Pa., died at the Outlet curve. On July 11, 1918, Mary Williamson, age 18, from Wilkes-Barre drowned while bathing.

With the close of the decade two drownings occurred in the post World War I year. Edward Slivinski of Kingston fell into the Lake when his canoe upset on July 27, 1919. His drowning was followed less than two weeks later on August 8 when Joseph A. Laufer, age 23, died while diving into the Lake from a boat at Warden Place. A warning buoy was missing (a common problem with marking dangerous areas). Laufer had recently returned from service with the U.S. Army.

The next drowning occurred on August 13, 1921, when Robert Owens, 17, Edwardsville, fell from a boat. Owens was an Edwardsville breaker boy. He joined the Edwardsville American Legion for a Saturday picnic at the Picnic Grounds. He rented a boat and was also dressed to swim under his clothes. He rowed from the Picnic Grounds towards Alderson. He was removing his outer clothes when the rowboat upturned and Owens fell into the water. He surfaced three times as onlookers watched but a rescuer was too late. Owens slipped to the bottom and he was not recovered until the next morning.

Roland Gross, age 22, a WWI veteran, drowned while ice skating at the Lake on January 8, 1922. He had skated out on to the Lake from Sunset towards Willow Point above Warden Place. He was initially saved by the heroic efforts of a friend Claude MacDougall who dived into the freezing water. But before help could arrive to assist MacDougall, his hold on Gross was lost and MacDougall had to be rescued. Gross's body was recovered with grappling hooks on January 10. Gross had survived 12 operations after serious wounds during the Battle of Argonne when a German artillery shell killed four of Gross's fellow servicemen from Battery E, 109th Field Artillery, the local reserve unit.

On July 14, 1922, Charles Mack, Ruggles, drowned while swimming. Mack was swimming off the Oenonta landing at Sunset when he suddenly went under the water. A friend, Edward Bevan, reached him but was unable to hold Mack. Bevan swam to shore and found a rowboat. He tried to alert a steamboat, arriving at the Oneonta, to throw a rope out to where Mack was last seen but the steamboat crowd could not hear him. Two rescue divers later recovered Mack's body. He may have choked or had other physical difficulty which led to his drowning since he was a good swimmer.

There were double drownings each year from 1923 to 1925. On June 17, 1923, Anna Bonsavage, 17, Larksville, drowned.

Eighteen year old Leo Emerick drowned on August 18, 1923, when his canoe capsized. A speed boat contest was underway at the time and waves upset the canoe. Three friends in the canoe were saved by Henry Jones who rushed to the scene in a motor launch. The accident occurred midpoint between Warden Place and the Picnic Grounds, the deepest part of the Lake. The Chief of Police, Michael Brown, and George Nicholson, President of Harvey's Lake Protective Association, ordered dynamite to be exploded in the lake in an unsuccessful effort to raise the body. A professional diver from Little Falls, New York, was engaged to dive for Emerick but he was unsuccessful. Finally, on August 30 the search was abandoned. It was believed the body had sunk into the muddy bottom of the lake. Listed as a drowning, it is possible Emerick was fatally injured in the collision.

Andrew Karalus, 30, Wilkes-Barre, drowned near the Picnic Grounds on August 23, 1924, and a week later Ralph Jones, 23, drowned at the Warden Place stepoff (possibly after a heart attack) on August 31, 1924.

Louis Cappellini, 23, Hudson, cousin of Renaldo Cappellini, United Mine Workers President, District No. 1, drowned on July 27, 1925, at Willow Point when he fell from a canoe. His roommate, John Marinangioli, jumped from another canoe to save Cappellini, but both were lost in the deepest part of the Lake. The Lake was dragged the following day under the supervision of Police Chief John T. Ruth but with no success. Family members offered a $200.00 reward for recovery of the bodies. Divers were also called but were unsuccessful. Finally, on July 30, 1925, Louis Cappellini was recovered by Alex Kocher, Marion Avery and Cornelius Smith, from Alderson, who continuously dragged the bottom with grapplers for 24 hours. Cappellini was located 200 feet off shore from Willow Point, a deep section of the Lake. Apparently, the body of John Marinangioli was never recovered - the second unrecovered victim.

A multiple drowning nearly occurred on July 24, 1927, when a dozen men and women fell into the water at Sunset when a railing around the bathing area boardwalk gave way. But the water was only 3 feet deep. Yale Shapiro, 17, Wilkes-Barre, was found unconscious after he struck his head on the Lake bottom, but he was later revived at Nesbitt Hospital, Kingston. However, he died of head injuries 5 days later on July 29, 1927.

On July 23, 1927, John Ragunis, 26, was struck by a motor boat propeller while swimming from Sandy Beach to Sunset. Ragunis was a well-known boxer from Wilkes-Barre who fought under the name "Johnny Hardy." His swim was followed by two friends in a rowboat. He was struck near the center of the Lake opposite Point Pleasant. There was speculation that he was killed instantly.

Sunset swimming area in 1935. A railing gave way at the boardwalk in 1927, leading to the death of a 17-year-old, who hit his head on the Lake bottom.

A New York City diver was retained to recover the victim. The diver made a dozen descents to the Lake bottom at a depth of 90 feet. With early diving equipment each search of the bottom lasted only 8 to 10 minutes. The unnamed diver stated the bottom consisted of "fine shifting mud which is so oozy and sticky that it is like muck or quicksand. Working while walking on the bottom is difficult and dangerous." The diver was unable to locate the victim. A search of later accounts does not disclose that "Johnny Hardy" was ever found - the third unrecovered body in the Lake. Since no autopsy could be performed, Ragunis may have drowned after an injury or he may have in fact been killed in the accident.

On July 25, 1927, Pious Telelsha, 25, from Baltimore, Maryland, drowned at Warden Place. He was a student priest visiting the area and was to study in Rome in September. He had waded into the Lake to retrieve a drifting rowboat when the wind carried him and the boat into deeper water. A month later Martin J. Noon, 21, Wilkes-Barre, drowned on August 10, 1927, when he fell from a raft.

Another pair of drownings occurred in 1928. Ralph Frey, 19, Wilkes-Barre, fell from a canoe on July 11, 1928, and John Sauer, Jr.,, 8, Wilkes-Barre, drowned on August 30, 1928, while swimming. Andrew Mahler, Jr., Kingston, fatally broke his neck while diving into the Lake from a dock on May 29, 1929.

There apparently were no drownings at the Lake in 1930. But in late August 1931 a dreadful crash of a motorboat into a rowboat caused 3 drownings. Mr. and Mrs. Charles Hicks, of Warrior Run, rented a rowboat at Sunset at Swan's boat rental during the early evening of August 20, 1931. They were taking nephew, Sylvester Shoemaker, 14, with them. As darkness fell Mr. Hicks was returning to Sunset. A motorboat, driven by a 15 year old, collided in the dark with the rowboat and the Hicks family fell into the Lake's 40 foot depths. Mr. Hicks tried to locate his wife and nephew but he likely drowned while trying to reach shore while too exhausted. His body was recovered rather quickly. The next day 40 boats began grappling. Hick's wife and nephew were located clasped in each other's arms.

The drowning of Joseph Bradbury, age 20, a graduate of Luzerne High School, on June 27, 1934, was especially tragic. Bradbury was experimenting with a homemade diving helmet. The following account is taken from the Wilkes-Barre Record, June 28, 1934:

Experimenting with a homemade diving helmet in Harvey's Lake yesterday afternoon while his parents watched from the shore about 15 feet away proved fatal to Joseph Bradbury, 20, of 361 Walnut Street, Luzerne. He died, physicians informed Chief of Police Ira M. Stevenson, of asphyxiation, resulting, they explained, from the helmet's lack of provisions for the escape of carbon monoxide generated by the young man's breathing. It was the first fatality of the season in Harvey's Lake.
Bradbury's death cast gloom on members of Luzerne Presbyterian and Luzerne Methodist Episcopal Sunday Schools who were having a joint outing at the Lake yesterday.
He was a member of the Methodist Episcopal Sunday School and with his parents, Mr. and Mrs. W.H. Bradbury, had arrived only about 15 minutes before he went into the water. The helmet was made of a hot water heater which fitted over his head. A piece of garden hose was attached to it and holes were put in the front of the helmet and glass inserted so that vision would be unobstructed when submerged.
Before wading to the point where he was to submerge for the test, the young man tied a thirty-five pound stone to his body for a weight. The test was made in about nine feet of water at a point below the Picnic Ground beach.
Orville and Lawrence Atherholt, brothers and companions of Bradbury, reported that he had been under water for about seven minutes when George Lutz, life guard, seeing bubbles arising on the surface of the water at a point where Bradbury had submerged, suspected that the young man was in danger. Lutz dove into the water and discovered Bradbury lying on the bottom of the lake. He attempted to raise him to the surface but was unable because of the stone weight. Lutz enlisted the aid of Sidney Ganaposki, another Harvey's Lake life guard, and after removing the stone Bradbury's body was taken to shore.

A month later the famous "American Tragedy" murder of Freda McKechnie occurred at the Sandy Beach area. While her body was recovered from the Lake her death was not a drowning.

Stephen Yachna, age 19, of Duryea drowned when his boat, too full of picnickers, capsized on June 30, 1935. On August 16, 1936, Nellie Barbonis, Plains, drowned.

A double drowning of two ice skaters during the winter on March 7, 1937, was prevented by Ruth Jackson, 23, a Harvey's Lake school teacher. There were an estimated 5,000 skaters on the Lake ice at the Picnic Grounds and Sandy Beach on this Sunday. Two unidentified girls at Sandy Beach fell through the ice in the mid-after noon. Jackson threw a long scarf to the girls, and aided by a cousin, Ruth Jones, the girls were pulled out. A large crowd was at the beach to watch Henry Deater and Andrew Lotusky, clad only in bathing suits, as they skated on to the ice and then dove into an open area of water created by ice harvesters. There were also ice boats, home made ice scooters, and even bicycle riders on the ice.

Iris Stevenson, the nearly three year old daughter of Police Chief Ira C. Stevenson, drowned on May 6, 1937, when she fell from a dock in front of the police station. She had wandered from the family's Sunday dinner and Chief Stevenson saw her in the lake. He swam the 40 feet into the lake and recovered his daughter. But despite an hour-long effort by famed Lake swimmer and lifeguard Elwood “Woody” Davis and other help, Iris could not be revived. Even after two physicians, G.H. Rauch and F.B. Schooley, declared Iris dead, Woody Davis and other lifeguards from around the lake tried to revive the girl. A lengthy and moving tribute to Iris was published in the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader on May 6, 1937, by Kay Dangerfield, a local columnist.

Three other drownings followed in 1937. Anthony Wozniski, died on June 9, 1937, when his canoe upset. Frank Meighan, known as the lake hermit, drowned after a fall into the lake on June 28, 1937. A separate article on Meighan's drowning is posted on this website. John Kelly, 23, formerly a salesman for Macy's in New York City, was at a family gathering near the Lake police station on August 15, 1937. He drowned in 8 feet of water. His brother, Harry, and sister, Mary, were unsuccessful in a rescue attempt. Mary was fully clothed when she ran into the Lake and had to be rescued herself. Harry Kelly, too, also had to be helped from the Lake. John Kelly was recovered from the Lake after 20 minutes under water, but despite two hours of artificial respiration efforts by Woody Davis, Kelly could not be revived. Dr. Benjamin Davis pronounced Kelly dead. Kelly was a 1932 graduate of GAR High School and attended Brooklyn College.

Sunset Beach in 1935. The public facilities here were popular not only for swimming, but also row boat rentals and ice skating , both of which have contributed to drownings and a few close calls in the area.

The close of the 1930s drew considerable publicity for drownings at the Lake. On August 16, 1938, William Morgan, age 16, from Ashley drowned at Warden Place, a particularly dangerous area to swim. About 30 feet beyond the shore there is a severe drop in the lake bottom. The ledges at this point prevented the larger steamboats from docking here. Morgan was swimming when he found himself suddenly in deeper water. He panicked and drowned. A large rescue group could not find the body. Finally, grappling hooks were used and Morgan's body was recovered after 30 minutes of trolling for him.

On August 26, 1939, John E. Cule, 17, from Scranton, was in a rowboat with his two sisters when the boat was struck by a motorboat. Cule wore an iron leg brace from childhood due to infantile paralysis. One sister was unable to hold on to her brother and he drowned in 75 feet of water. Both sisters were rescued, but a score of volunteers using a large underwater searchlight, aided by a Shickshinny diver with a homemade diving suit, failed to recover Cule. The State Governor, Arthur H. James, from Plymouth, had a Chester, Pa. diver George Hughes, Jr. brought in by the State Police. A diving platform was placed in the water near the Picnic Grounds. The scene drew thousands of onlookers creating a traffic mess.

Hughes remained at the Lake, with his 70 year old father and a younger brother (also experienced divers), for several days. Finally, after 8 hours of diving on September 1, 1939, Hughes recovered Cule from heavy tangled weeds at the lake bottom. Hughes had made about 50 dives in the recovery effort. An autopsy disclosed Cule died from a fractured skull in the boat collision not from drowning.

The Cule recovery was immediately followed by the drowning of Millard “Slim” Haefele, 34, of Wilkes-Barre, when he fell from a motorboat on September 2, 1939, near Warden Place. The diver, Hughes, was returning to the Philadelphia area when he was recalled by Governor James. Hughes failed to recover Haefele despite numerous dives over several days. Again crowds lined the shore and special traffic details were handled by the police.

Warden Place Beach, near the Lakeside Inn (in the distance) about 1935. The lake bottom drops off suddenly about 30 feet from shore, making the area dangerous for swimmers and boats alike.

During the rescue efforts, Eugene Wahl, 30, of Wilkes-Barre, swam out to the scene. The police waved him off and as Wahl swam back to shore he disappeared under the surface. Thomas J. Donnelly, age 18, pulled the 200 pound Wahl from the lake. He was unconscious for 30 minutes until he was revived under the supervision of Dr. Benjamin S. Davis.

Finally, on September 10, 1939, Slim Haefele was recovered by grappling hooks. By this time Hughes had concluded his diving efforts. He found the 4 foot layer of mud at the bottom at Warden Place too difficult to search. Hughes performed contract work for Sun Shipbuilders in Chester. He had wide experience in ocean and fresh water. He told Police Chief Ira Stevenson, "Chief, this is the most treacherous body of water I have ever worked in." A further account appeared in the Sunday Independent, September 10, 1939:

"Mud, mud, mud, was the way Hughes described the bottom," Chief Stevenson said. "Hughes told me the mud is more than four feet deep at the bottom - probably a lot more - because Hughes on his dives carried ‘gaffe,’ which is only four feet long. Hughes told me he pushed this into the mud its entire length and it could have been pushed still deeper.
Hughes told me how he "worked blind" at the bottom because the mud raised a deep cloud as soon as the diving boots touched the bottom. He told me he had absolutely no vision.
Interesting was Chief Stevenson's disclosure that Hughes did most of his search on this hands and knees.
"Hills and dales" at the bottom of the lake were described to Stevenson by Hughes, who said he started on a decline at one point and walked downward for a distance of 30 feet, but at that point was 80 feet below the surface of the water and did not go any further because of his equipment.
Haefele's body was recovered by a crew in John Hanson's speedboat, the same boat from which the victim fell last Saturday afternoon at 1. It was noted that Haefele was recovered exactly a week from the time he was lost, less one hour.

© 2002 F. Charles Petrillo (Revised 2018)
Copyright 2006-2007 F. Charles Petrillo