Postcard of Lake Auburn more than 100 years ago.

Sometimes a tragedy is so awful that the stinging memory of it transcends time.

One of those moments occurred at 4:45 on a Saturday afternoon on July 24, 1869, when youthful joy turned swiftly to horror on Lake Auburn.

The Lewiston Evening Journal noted “the death angel” got busy when, “at one fell blow … the great destroyer bore off four victims, children of love and promise.”

Two days after the accident, the Journal told what happened in detail that was quickly reproduced in newspapers across the country and around the world. It recounted a sad tale of youthful exuberance and the danger of being on the water without the ability to swim, a story that has unfolded time and again in the decades since.

It all began on the shore of the lake with six teenagers, ages 13 to 18, cooking some perch they’d caught for dinner.

Afterward, ready to head home, they hauled out an old, flat-bottomed boat, perhaps 10 feet long and 5 feet wide. Its sun-shrunken planks allowed water to seep in a bit, especially on hot summer days.

The youngsters, four boys and two girls, had often used the craft to fish or just paddle about the lake. Nobody thought much about it.

As Addie Turner, 17, stepped into the boat, she told Eugene Libby, 18, that they ought to bail out water that had collected inside it.

Libby, who had been sitting on the bucket they’d need to use, said he did just that before they set off.

Before the start of the return voyage across the lake, a couple of inches of water sloshed around inside the boat, Charles Turner, 14, said.

Eugene and his 15-year-old brother Julius began “paddling the old hulk slowly through the water,” unaware of any possible danger.

“The little party of six gave themselves up to the fullest enjoyment of the sail,” the Journal reported, based on a survivor’s account.

Though water continued to seep in through cracks in the planking, nobody paid any attention to it.

“The splash of the light wave, once in a while, splattered water into the boat and barely sprinkled the clothing of its occupants,” the paper said, “but this only added a little variety to their sail and aroused no fear.”

“But every drop of water that trickled in or spilled into the uncertain craft was new weight to a fearful prophecy,” it said.

Eugene Libby said that nothing would have gone wrong, except that Charles Turner kept rocking the little vessel from side to side, ignoring warnings to stop. He only meant “to scare the girls,” but little by little, water poured in as the boat went back and forth, Libby said.

About 50 feet from shore, Turner said, “without a moment’s warning, the boat sank beneath them,” going down horizontally as if pressed into the lake.

An astonished Flora Turner, 14, was speechless. Her cousin Addie, along with Cecil Libby, 13, shrieked with terror.

“They had not even time to jump from the boat,” Turner said, and “went down together.”

But the youngsters popped back up to the surface and promptly tried to get hold of something. Two old paddles and bits of debris proved no help.

Addie grabbed hold of Flora, but neither of them could swim.

Charles seized Flora to try to help, but she merely dragged him down under the water in her panic. Ultimately, he said, he pulled away from her desperate grasps.

Addie and Cecil, who also could not swim, got hold of Julius, who could, but as the three held each other in panic, they sank out of sight.

After breaking free from Flora, Charles managed to reach the shore, turning around in time to see Eugene, nearly exhausted, behind him, crying, “Help, I’m sinking.”

A boy watching from the shore, Pliny Caswell, got a long pole and extended it to Eugene, who gripped it, half conscious, as his rescuer pulled him to safety.

Eugene then caught a glimpse of Flora’s hair and her dress out in the water, watching in stunned horror as she vanished beneath the surface.

In just minutes, “four hapless victims had perished,” the paper said, two boys and two girls gone forever on “a returnless journey.”

Their bodies were soon pulled out of the lake by adults who raced to the scene, placed on ice and, a couple of days later, buried.

With the entire community plunged into “heart-breaking grief,” the Journal said that chronicling the “distressing affair” was the worst thing it had ever had to document.

The paper noted that the boat was obviously overloaded, but probably would have made it safely to shore without the horseplay so typical of teenagers.

“The accident is one they could not have foreseen and the lesson drawn from it needs no verbal presentation or enforcement,” the paper added.

“Letting go these little hands forever is like dropping one’s self into an abyss of gloom where it seems the sunlight may never reach,” the Journal said.

It urged readers to “take up life again, newly consecrated by this precious pain.”

The girls were buried in Charlestown, Massachusetts. The two Libby boys were laid to rest in a family cemetery in Raymond, Maine.

Turner apparently killed himself in 1895, when he was found dead of a bullet wound in the side in a Lewiston orchard with his gun lying nearby.

Eugene Libby lived until 1930, a farmer who also served as the postmaster of Dirigo, later absorbed into the growing city of Auburn.


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