Paul Willis was seated up front near the motor launch pilot just as it was about to collide with a rowboat.

“Great God, get out of the way,” Willis shouted to John Graham — minutes before the Carlisle man would drown in seven feet of water trying to save his son, Charlie.

The Evening Sentinel reported how Graham made some sort of reply while he was in the rowboat, but the witness at the coroner’s inquest could not recall the exact words. It may have been “I can’t.”

Just then the Bellaire hit the rowboat with such force that the parent and child were knocked into the water. The time was about 5:40 p.m. on Saturday, July 15, 1911.

“Jump on my back, Charlie” were the last reported words of John Graham, 41, the father of two boys and two girls and a well-known employee of the Lindner shoe company in Carlisle.

Teen saves boy

Charles Diller, boat launch engineer, saw John Graham swim two strokes, desperate to hold his 7-year-old son above the water. Instead the father sank beneath the surface near where the creek flows past Cave Hill at the entrance to Pike Pond.

The boy could have drowned, too, were it not for the heroism of 17-year-old Sterrett Parkinson, a passenger in the Bellaire on the port side of the motor launch near the steering wheel.

Without hesitation, Parkinson took off his trousers and shoes before jumping into the water. The teen swam 40 to 50 feet from the launch to where he could grab hold of the outreached hand of Charlie Graham.

Parkinson then carried the boy over to a waiting canoe where he loosened Charlie’s grip on his shirt and lifted the child to safety. The rescue was over in minutes.

The body of John Graham was recovered from the creek around 11 p.m. that same day, about 50 feet downstream from where he went under. There was a cut on his lip made by a fishhook in the line of Joseph Straw who found the victim.

Coroner Dr. Thomas Preston also found a gash on the back of John Graham’s head that investigators believe was caused by a grappling hook. The cause of death was ruled an accidental drowning.

“It is believed that after sitting in the hot sun most of the afternoon fishing, the plunge into the water to save his boy produced severe cramps, which prevented him from swimming to safety,” The Sentinel reported. “Graham was an excellent swimmer. It is said.”

During the inquest, funeral director Hastings Ewing told Preston the right arm and leg of John Graham were very stiff and “could be bent with only the greatest difficulty,” according to the newspaper.

The drowning victim

A Carlisle resident, John Graham was married to Carrie Spangler for about 18 years prior to the crash. The couple had four children – Grace, Charles, John and Carrie, ages 13 years to six months.

“A brother resides in the west and John D. Graham of Shippensburg is an uncle,” The Sentinel reported. “When a boy, he (John) was a pupil in the Loysville Orphans’ Home.”

The newspaper described Graham as a “genial, whole souled young man” with “good traits of character.” Several years before, the drowning victim lost his home on Franklin Street to fire.

Witnesses testified the boating crash took place when the rowboat crossed the path of the motor launch that was shuttling passengers between summer resorts at Cave Hill and Bellaire Park.

The collision described

A former North West Street grocer, Diller had been running on the Bellaire as its engineer for three weeks prior to the collision. He told the coroner’s jury the launch was cruising on its usual course down the middle of the creek at a speed of about four miles per hour.

“He did not see the Graham boat until it crossed stream to go in front of the launch,” the newspaper reported. “It was the only three feet away. He (Diller) threw on the reverse at once.”

Willis testified he believed the Bellaire was on course when the launch hit the rowboat, causing it to lift under and away from 7-year-old Charlie Graham. The boy would later say his father’s oar was broken.

J. Harvel Line was a passenger on the motor launch when he first saw the rowboat about 500 feet away. When the launch closed to about 200 feet, Line saw Graham start to move the rowboat across the creek toward the opposite shore. For some reason, Graham stopped partway across the creek but directly in the path of the Bellaire.

Line called to Graham, who replied but Line could not understand what he said. The motor launch was moving at a “pretty good rate,” the newspaper reported. “The engine was not reversed until after the collision. It appeared that Graham was doing nothing practically to get away from the motor boat.”

The broken oar

J.P. Culbertson, who managed Bellaire Park, testified a motor launch at full speed takes at least a boat length to stop. “Operators can see small boats in full view, but not when they ‘hug’ the launches,” said Culbertson, calling Diller the best operator he employs.

Graham was in a boat 11 feet in length and pointed at both ends. “Launches have frequently been struck by people who seem determined to run in their course, but they have never struck a boat,” Culbertson said.

Culbertson had with him the broken oar John Graham used. “It had been broken some time, but from appearances there was a fresh break in it,” the newspaper reported. “Mr. Culbertson believes that when it could no longer be used to get out of the way of the launch the other oar caused the boat to swish around the other way putting it in the course of the launch at the time of the collision.”

There was sadness over the loss in the Carlisle community. On July 18, The Sentinel reported the Carlisle Elks baseball club announced all the ticket proceeds from an upcoming game will be donated to John Graham’s widow.

“The club feels itself fortunate to be placed in a position where it can be a medium through which the charitable inclinations of our people may express themselves,” the story reads. “Mr. Graham was not an Elk and the interest of the local players has been aroused solely by the merits of the case.”

Email Joseph Cress at jcress@cumberlink.com.

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