Tuesday, August 09, 2016

He Drowned in the Potomac

Sometimes an ancestor or relative seems to call out to you, wanting their story to be told.  Before yesterday, all I knew of William H. Cunningham was his year of birth (1905) and date and place of death (1929, Washington D.C.).  While working on updates on his father, John W., I was drawn to search old newspapers to see what I might find.  It turns out this led me on an interesting search.

John W. Cunningham (1868-1947) was my paternal first cousin 3 times removed, the son of William E. Cunningham and Rachel Lemasters.  Our common ancestors were the Rev. Luman Walker Lemasters and Nancy Young.  While updating his death certificate information from Ancestry.com, I found out that at one time he was the Sheriff of Jay County, Indiana.  Curious to see what stories might mention his service as Sheriff was what led me to the unknown story of his son, William H. Cunningham.

The Daily Reporter (Greenfield, Indiana), May 13, 1929, page 1
The story that grabbed my attention was a news report that appeared in several newspapers across the state, telling the tale of William's death by drowning:

Young Man Drowned.
Portland. - This city city was shocked today to learn that William Cunningham, 24-year-old son of Mr. and Mrs. John W. Cunningham here, a student at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. was drowned in the Potomac River while canoeing Sunday.  According to reports from Washington the body has not yet been recovered.
What a sad fate.  I immediately began searching for more information, and found a little more detail in a similar news report:

Indianapolis News (Indianapolis, Indiana), May 13, 1929, page 14

Hoosier Student Drowns.
Potomac River Has Not Yielded Body of Portland Young Man.

Portland, Ind., May 13 (A.P.) - Mr. and Mrs. John W. Cunningham, of this city, have received a message telling of the death of their son, William Cunningham, age twenty-four, by drowning in the Potomac river at Washington.  The body has not been recovered.

The young man, a student at Georgetown University, was riding in a canoe with two other students when the craft was upset by a whirlpool.  He told his companions to swim to shore and he would bring the canoe in.  They swam to safety, but Cunningham was carried under the surface by another whirlpool.

The parents, one brother and one sister survive.  His father is a former sheriff of Jay county.

 Looking for a death record, I searched FamilySearch and located a record of his death, which gives the date as May 18, 1929.  This may be the date when his body was recovered.  I was unable to obtain an image of the record, only the following:

This record gives me William's middle name as Harvey.  He was named for his grandparents - William Cunningham being his paternal grandfather and Harvey Drake being his maternal grandfather.

Knowing that he was a student at Georgetown University, I went online to see what they had in the way of digital archives.  They have their old yearbooks and newspapers available for viewing.  In the May 16, 1929 edition of the student newspaper, the Hoya, I found the following article:

Hoya, Vol. 10, no. 28 (May 16, 1929), page 1

W.H. Cunningham loses Life in Potomac as Canoe Capsizes Below Chain Bridge
W.H. Cunningham, 24-year-old junior at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service, was drowned in the Potomac River last Saturday afternoon when a canoe in which he was riding with two companions turned over in the swift water about half a mile below Chain Bridge.
Cunningham, with Willard Burkett and W.W. Stevens, his roommates and fellow students, started up the river for an outing early in the afternoon.  At Dempsey's boat house they were joined by a friend, George Davlin.
In two canoes they stared to paddle up the river.  About half a mile from the bridge they came to a swift stretch of water and Cunningham and Burkett tried to make their way through in their canoe.  Unable to force their way through the rapids, they paddled to an island where they were joined by Stevens and the three of them resumed the attempt.
They had progressed about 100 yards into the swift water when the canoe was caught broadside in the rapids, the water spinning the frail craft around and tipping it over.  Burkett, who had been kneeling in the bottom of the canoe, was nearly drowned when his leg was caught in a seat.  All three of the boys came to the surface and seized the canoe.
Unable to right it, they began drifting downstream.  Stevens swam to shore.  Burkett and Cunningham continued to drift with the canoe, calmly discussing the best means of reaching shore without damage to themselves or the craft.  Burkett, at Cunningham's suggestion, removed the pillows from the canoe and seized one of the paddles which was floating alongside.  With this burden he released his hold and started for the Virginia short [sic], calling to Cunningham to steer the canoe into shallow water if possible.  Cunningham answered that he thought he would be able to bring it ashore.
Burkett, on reaching the shore, looked around for his companion.  He saw the canoe bobbing in the current, but Cunningham had disappeared.
Burkett ran back up stream to the point where Davlin was in the other canoe.  They paddled down the river in a futile search for their friend.
The drowned youth, said to have been a strong swimmer, lived in Portland, Ind.  With Burkett and Stevens, he attended Western Reserve University before coming to Washington.  The three boys lived together here at 2410 Twentieth Street.
This article not only gave me the important details of how William died, but also gave me avenues of additional research - the fact that he had attended Western Reserve University as well.  I will need to research local newspapers in Jay County on my next trip to the library.

There is much more to research on this young man and his life, but at least now the story of his untimely death will be known.

William is buried in Green Park Cemetery in Portland, Jay County, Indiana.  A memorial page for him exists at the FindAGrave site.

No comments: