The sad work on Lake George began at dawn on Friday, Aug. 4, 1893.
Bodies of nine people were in the water at Shelving Rock, near Bolton Landing. Words about the last voyage of the pleasure steamship Rachel were spreading around the Adirondacks.
The story began the night before — Thursday, Aug. 3. Twenty-nine people from the Fourteen Mile Island Hotel had chartered the steamer for transport to the Hundred Island House at Shelving Rock, where a dance had been scheduled. It was the heart of the summer resort season, and big hotels of the lake were centers of activity for people who often spent weeks by the water.
“They were very, very elaborate and probably as comfortable as you could be in those days,” said Margaret Edwards, historian for both the town and village of Lake George.
The Rachel began its journey at 9 p.m.
There were bad omens. A dark night made maneuvering the Rachel difficult. And the regular pilot was home sick. Substitute Claude Granger knew the Shelving Rock section of the lake, around French Point near the start of the “Narrows,” but newspaper accounts said the man was not an experienced pilot.
Granger’s trouble began south of the Hundred Island House. According to Schenectady’s Daily Union newspaper, an unused stone pier extended far into the water. Some passengers knew about the structure and expressed concerns as the Rachel approached shore.
“Who is running this boat?” Granger answered. “I guess I know my business.”
He didn’t. Submerged rocks gashed the bottom of the ship.
“She seemed to hang in balance upon the pier for a moment,” the Daily Union said. “Then she slid off, and at the same time, those on board felt a sensation as if she had broken in two.”
Granger had decided against steaming ahead, the newspaper said, instead throwing engines into reverse. The boat backed into water 20 feet deep, and sank to the bottom. “The passengers scarcely knew what had happened before the boat filled with water and sank,” The New York Times reported. “The ladies on board were laughing and singing when the boat struck.”
A long whistle from the distressed Rachel was heard inside the Hundred Island. Guests alarmed by the unusual sound ran to hotel piazzas and heard shouts and screams coming from the water. “Many of them ran toward the row boats moored at the water’s edge,” read the story in the Daily Union, “but it was so dark that little could be done and some of them ran back for lamps.”
Some on the Rachel drowned quickly. Others put up as fight.
A young man named Harding Benedict, described as an expert swimmer, managed to save his wife. He tried to save his sister Bertha, a gifted musician, and at one point had the young woman in his arms. But he felt himself sinking, and tried to remove clothing to improve mobility. “He attempted to kick off his trousers, but they slipped down and clung to his feet,” the Daily Union said. “He lost hold of his sister, but dived after her twice.”
A man who rowed into the dark saw Harding lose his grasp on Bertha. His boat was surrounded by panic-stricken people who grabbed both his oars. The second rescue attempt never occurred.
Frank Mitchell, 19, of Burlington, Vt., also was gallant. He tried to save his mother, but was unable to. Both drowned.
Frank L. Brown, 18, of Albany, was more fortunate. He was able to keep his sister Maud, 20, from slipping under the surface.
Boats stayed in the water overnight. At first light, rescuers were better able to search for the dead. By the time Dr. F.B. Streeter, the Warren County coroner, reached Shelving Rock later in the morning, nine sheet-covered bodies had been placed on the beach near the Hundred Island House.
In addition to Bertha Benedict, who lived in Montclair, N.J., and the Mitchells, the other victims were identified as Henrietta Barton of Jersey City, N.J.; Clara Black and Lizzie Conley (also identified as Lizzie Corley), both of Burlington; Lizzie Clark of Bridgeport, Conn.; Hattie Hall of Brooklyn; and Edith Harding of Hoboken, N.J. Except for Mrs. Mitchell, all were described as young people.
“That so many lives should be lost at such an early hour of the night and within speaking distance of the land, where two large hotels are situated, can only be accounted for by the fact that the night was unusually dark,” The New York Times observed.