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Captain Thomas drowns — 1923

April 19, 2008
By Howard Riley,
Bill Jandrew, who lives in Wappingers Falls but is a Saranac Lake native, keeps in touch through e-mail on occasion about local happenings. He had discovered this rock on the river above the locks last summer with a “Thomas” name on it, and now has the story that you are about to read. He is retired and rents a place on Duprey Street, so he is a frequent visitor here.

I never met Bill, but I knew his parents, Jacker Jandrew, who married Marie Gonyea — many people will remember them and Marie’s siblings: Jane, Gunder, Gaylon, and there are probably others. Jacker worked at the railroad freight house with Don Ross, who, Bill says, was his little league manager.

The famous boat landing

The Thomas Boat Landing used to be located across from St. Bernard’s School (later Tyson’s Drive-in Restaurant) and some of us who graduated from St. Bernard’s in 1944 — Geneva Perras, Bob Sullivan, George Schaefer, Gloria Parrotte and Tom Quigley, to name a few — can remember running across the street to Thomas’ to buy candy and pop.

Roland Thomas, who we remember as “Captain Thomas,” was the 11-year-old boy in the story. He later built a double-decker replica of a Mississippi river boat, the Nancy Carol, named after his daughters, and the Enterprise staff used to hold our annual summer parties on that boat as we cruised up the river.

On one such occasion, Armand Amell and I nearly caused the publisher, Jim Loeb, to have a stroke, when we grabbed onto and pretended we were going to throw our summer intern, Adam Clymer, later of New York Times fame, over the side from the top deck. Loeb probably realized that in our revelry it could have happened by mistake.

The Lake Placid News:

Aug. 17, 1923

Here is the story Bill sent from the Lake Placid News, leading with these headlines and sub-heads:

“Well Known Boat Captain Drowned — Capt. Elmer E. Thomas dies in effort to rescue his young son.” “Woodsman, Author, Boatman born in Maine; his book, “Hunting & Trapping in the North Woods of Maine” was recently published; navigated Saranacs for 20 years; unique figure whose tragic death shocked Adirondacks.

“The untimely and tragic passing of Captain E. E. Thomas came as a distinct shock to this entire Adirondack region, where the Captain was well known to residents and visitors, and held by all in the highest esteem for his sterling integrity of character. As a raconteur, he had few equals and could always be depended upon to furnish entertainment for his passengers on the trips.

“The tragedy occurred on the Saranac River just above the state dam and lock at the point where the trail to Captain Thomas’ camp, a spot he loved so well, leaves the river. Roland Thomas, 11 years old, who accompanied the captain on the trips, was just leaving the upper deck in readiness to take the bow line for a landing at the locks. In coming down from the upper deck, he grasped the pilot light, as he had been accustomed to do. The light gave way from its fastenings, upsetting his balance and the boy plunged into the river.

“Roland is known to be a good swimmer, but the captain thinking that the sudden fall from that height might have stunned him, and being aware of the rocky channel at that point was fearful for the boy’s safety. The Captain’s first thought, of course, was for the safety of his boat and passengers and he stopped his engines immediately. Then seizing the short planks that he had always kept handy as emergency life preservers, he tossed the first one into the water for the boy and with the other plunged into the river himself. In making the plunge Captain Thomas must have struck his temple on the plank as evidenced by the bruise found after the body was recovered. “This, of course, stunned him so that he went down. In the meantime, the boy had swum to a buoy on a nearby rock and was shouting that he was safe.

“Among the passengers on this particular trip were only two men. They were apparently entirely occupied in trying to keep order among the hysterical women and were unable to get over the side to rescue the Captain. When the boy had reached safety at the buoy and discovered that the Captain had plunged in after and gone down he swam about trying to recover his father whose cap was then floating near the boat but he was finally induced by the passengers to come aboard.

“The boy successfully piloted the boat thru the locks and down the river for some distance but the passengers, afraid that he was not competent to take the boat further, induced him to wait for another pilot. It is reported that later, when another pilot took charge, the boat went aground on a sand bar where it remained at the time. Mrs. Thomas was brought to the scene and did not know until she arrived that her husband had drowned.”

Bill adds some notes revealing that Captain Thomas, age 62 when he died, is buried in Pine Ridge Cemetery, as is his widow, Abbie Wright Thomas, who died in 1946. Bill says Roland Thomas who died in 1965 at age 53, also ran the Miss Saranac on cruises during the summer months and operated the ski tow at Mt. Pisgah in the winter.

Article Photos

This aerial photo was taken in the 1950s. The Thomas Boat Landing is on Lake Flower directly across from St. Bernard’s School, with St. Bernard’s Church in the background. Notice the abundance of trees everywhere but especially on Academy and St. Bernard streets. High to the extreme left in the picture is the beautiful house that was torn down to be replaced by the cement block building that now houses the New York State Department of Health offices.
(Photo courtesy of the Adirondack Room of the Saranac Lake Free Library – 85.12)



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