March 25th, 1922.
Magician Lake, near Dowagiac, Michigan
Wilbur Harper Sr. (W.C. to most everyone that knew him) heard his son shout and then felt a hard tug on his coat sleeve. He looked down to see his son Wayne’s ashen face staring wide-eyed at the lake water.
“That boat is going down, Papa,” Wayne said. W.C. Harper followed his son’s gaze to the choppy water.
Just sixty yards from the water’s edge, a 15-foot flat-bottomed skiff named the Scout Maid floundered weakly. The lake waves lapping at its sides broke over its pathetic 12-inch freeboard. Squinting against the strong wind, Harper could see their terrified faces, all furiously bailing with cupped hands. Five boys and three men. Their sixty-pound outboard motor buzzed uselessly in the high waves. All eight wore drenched Boy Scout uniforms.
That boat wasn’t going to make it, W.C. knew.
Earlier in the day, Harper had driven the group from their homes in South Bend, Indiana, to Magician Lake. The Boy Scouts had all weekend to break ground on Hemlock Island, a ten-acre site in the middle of Magician Lake. It was little more than a wooded hump in the water, but it was all theirs. With a little wood and a little more work, it would be the troop’s new summer camp.
All day, the Scout Maid had jaunted back-and-forth across Magician Lake, carrying Scouts, Scoutmasters, and construction supplies to Hemlock Island. Harper and his son had ridden on it a couple times, perched awkwardly on the low seats. The Scouts had been so proud of their homemade boat, a galvanized iron skiff completed just in time to help with the Hemlock Island camp.
But W.C. didn’t trust the Scout Maid. Their hard but crude work had produced a poorly-designed boat and he had allowed his own son, who was also a scout, from hopping into the 15-foot skiff more than twice. He didn’t like the sloppy welds on its galvanized iron hull or the too-shallow freeboard. When carrying supplies and scouts, the waterline crested only inches from their hands. Flat-bottomed metal boats were common on the lake, but these had built-in air compartments to keep them afloat even if swamped with water.
The Scout Maid‘s float compartments, one at the sharp wedge of its bow and the other straddling the box of its stern, probably wouldn’t keep it afloat in the water if swamped, not with a motor, supplies, and eight bodies.
Words of caution didn’t help. The excited boys and the scoutmasters—thinking more of their future camp than their current safety—kept overloading it. On this last trip across the lake, when the wind had kicked up to a 30 mph gale, eight bodies had piled into it. W.C.’s son had been ready to join his fellow scouts on this trip, but his father kept him back. He didn’t trust the skiff and told the scoutmasters so. Five grown boys and three adult men is too much weight, he said. Harper had warned them about overcrowding the little skiff.
The boys had been so proud of the Scout Maid and now the Scout Maid was going down.
As waves battered the Scout Maid, W.C. Harper stumbled down the shore’s slope to an ancient rowboat tied at the edge, planting one foot in its bow and pushing off into the shallow water with his other. Cold water flooded into his boot and it felt heavy as a sand bag when he swung it in. He plopped down on the boat’s center seat, faced the stern, and twisted the scratched, mismatched oars forward. They dug into the water then flew out, dug in and flew out. The rusty oarlocks squealed in protest with each stroke.
He glanced over his shoulder to steer the rowboat, but the sickening HOP-drop, HOP-drop of the choppy waves made slow going. Crests brought the oars fully out of the water, and the troughs drowned them. Half his strokes dug through empty air, and he’d stumble back, nearly rolling out of the seat. Nonetheless he rowed with rabid effort. His shoulders screamed, his back throbbed, and his forearms burned like numb fire.
He saw his son on the shore, standing, staring helplessly, his arms down limp at his sides. W.C. quickly thought Thank God it’s not my son out here. Then he pushed that thought away. A cruel, selfish thought…and entirely universal for a parent. His son was safe.
He was closer now, Mr. Harper glanced over his shoulder again to make sure he was headed—
The Scout Maid had vanished.
In its place were a cluster of bobbing heads and flailing arms. The scouts and scoutmasters treaded the cold waters in their heavy uniforms, but the each wave seemed to push them under. They were already worn out from the furious bailing. Through the wind, W.C. Harper heard their sputtering, panicked shouts, cut off abruptly as each wave choked them.
He wasn’t even halfway there. He gritted his teeth and tore into the oars. A minute or two passed. When W.C. glanced over his shoulder again, only five or six heads bobbed in the water. The others had gone. Drowned.
A hundred feet away now. Maybe less. His muscles tore and stretched with adrenaline. For weeks afterwards, W.C. would find lifting his arms above his chest impossible.
The location and the suddenness of this horror magnified its tragedy. It was like drowning in a kiddie pool. Magician Lake was nothing more than a shallow, recreational lake. You fished. You swam. You learned basic sailing. That was it. Nothing larger than a skiff or small pontoon boat rode over Magician Lake’s waters; the shallow lakebed would bog down anything with more than two feet of draft. Hell, most of the lake wasn’t even above a grown man’s head. You could stand in the middle of the lake and have the water below your shoulders!
But not everywhere. A few spots were deeper. Deep enough to hide the lake bed even on the stillest, sunniest days. When they arrived, a couple locals pointed out the deep spots and the scouts had remembered, not for caution but because those dark waters would be great spots to fish.
The scouts now fought for their lives just above one of those deep recesses of the lake. Forty feet deep.
W.C. rowed, ignoring the water seeping into the old rowboat between the planks of sunbaked hull. This boat hadn’t been maintained in years, maybe decades. but that didn’t really matter because it was wood. Wood floats. Had the Scout Maid been constructed of wood…
Now only fifty feet away from the scouts, W.C. glanced over his shoulder one more time and froze. He saw something so horrible he would remember it every day for the rest of his life. Sadness and horror would tattoo this into his waking life and into his dreams.
A pair of pale arms belonging to Scoutmaster Jo Taylor, a middle-aged Boy Scout executive, jutted out of the water, hooked around the collar of his son, James Taylor. Only nine years old, James’ little body had exhausted quickly in the cold lake, but his father had kept him afloat.
Now water buried James’ still face. Only the top of his head poked out into the air. The boy’s blue lips hung open, and his eyes were closed. W.C. watched helplessly as this father—a father no different than himself—used the last crumbs of his strength to save the life of a son who was already dead.
W.C. cried out to no one.
Then the boy’s face faded as he slipped from his father’s desperate grip and then disappeared. Mr. Taylor’s arms rose out of the water one last time, the bone-white fingers reaching for the boy and finding nothing but empty air. In that last desperate strain, it seemed W.C. could hear the father’s anguished cry, as he died with the terrible knowledge that he failed to keep his boy safe. Then those hands slipped under and vanished.
W.C.’s finally reached the site. His rowboat, now half-filled with water, bobbed silently. He could see nothing in the water. No faces. No arms. Nothing but the midnight blue of deep lake water below a stormy sky. The stillness and silence was too cruel. He pulled the oars in, hunched over them, and wept.
It would be a full day before volunteers and police recovered all eight bodies. Jo Taylor and his son would be the last ones found. The grappling hooks also found the Scout Maid herself. Reporters snapped a few photos of the murderous skiff before tossing it aside.
The tragedy made national news, and W.C. Harper and his son found themselves the center of attention. The two answered reporters initial questions, but cringed away from any accolades. Newspapers called W.C. a hero for his efforts to save the scouts, but he didn’t feel like a hero. No one can feel like a hero with the memory of those piteous pale fingers in the lake water.
When the news spread to the regional and national papers, editors thought it must be some kind of mistake. Eight people drowned in a recreational bathtub? It couldn’t be true. After the awful confirmations came in the story spread.
The seven funerals were simple, but thousands of people attended them to pay their respects. As the bodies went to their final rest, troops of scouts in immaculate uniforms stood at attention by the roadside, not flinching in the chilly weather or the rain battering northern Indiana.
Sadly, the story of these eight South Bend scouts has largely been forgotten in both Indiana and Michigan history. Outside of the original 1922 newspaper articles, a packet entitled “Introduction to the Northeast Illinois History Project” and a lone mention on Wikipedia, their story has never been retold.
Age might be one reason, since it was almost a century ago. In my opinion, the story hasn’t been retold because it’s too terrible to tell. There’s no lesson to be gained, and no person to be blamed. It’s just terrible circumstances, as sudden and destructive as a tornado.
And that image of the boy’s father, dying to save a son who was already dead…a haunting picture and terrible in its truth.