Died: August 10, 1923
Married: Abbie Wright Thomas
Elmer Erwin Thomas owned the Thomas Boat Line
Lake Placid News, August 17, 1923
WELL-KNOWN BOAT CAPTAIN DROWNED
CAPT. E. E. THOMAS DIES IN EFFORT TO RESCUE HIS YOUNG SON
WOODSMAN, BOATMAN, AUTHOR
Born in Maine— His Book, "Hunting and Trapping in Northwoods 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 his 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 has always been for the safety of his boat and passengers and he stopped the engine immediately. Then seizing two short planks which 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 swam 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 him 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. Evidently the Captain did not come to the surface again and it already appeared certain that he had drowned. It seemed useless therefore to look further for the body at that time. 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 fur 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.
Mrs. Thomas was informed that an accident had occurred and was immediately brought up the river. She did not know however that the Captain had drowned until when on her arrival at the scene her young son told her that his father was still in the river.
The Captain had been a great favorite with the summer visitors in this section. The Lake Placid Club and Whiteface Inn particularly have sent scores of people every summer to make this famous cruise thru the Saranacs. The host of friends this pioneer navigator has made thru this contact is evidenced by the numerous letters and telegrams of condolence which have reached Mrs. Thomas during the interval since the Captain's death.
All his life Captain Thomas had been a lover of the woods and waters and a student of natural history. As a young man he spent two or more winters with his father in northern Maine. This was before the lumberman's axe had changed the face of that vast wilderness. In his later years the Captain never missed an opportunity to spend a holiday or a week-end in the woods.
Captain Thomas was 62 years old at the time of his death. He was a native of Maine and spent his early life in that state. Navigation has been his profession and means of livelihood for the greater part of his life. In the early days he owned and piloted boats on the Maine lakes. Later he came to Boston where he engaged as foreman on the estate of the late Senator W. H. Brigham at Hudson, Mass.
After spending some 10 years on the Brigham estate, Captain Thomas came to the Adirondacks where his first season was spent at the Wardner Hotel on Rainbow Lake, running a small steamer from the hotel. It was in 1900 that Capt. Thomas came to Saranac Lake and one of the first men he met there was the late Stephen Merchant. It was thru Stephen Merchant that the Captain secured the privilege of establishing his boat lines over the route he has traveled for the past twenty years and more.
It is said that the captain made his first trip up the river from Saranac Lake village in a rowboat. His little steam-boat having been launched in the meantime, he began making regular trips which were not discontinued even while the state dam and locks were being constructed. Up to the time of the fatal occurrence last week no accident had ever happened on any of Capt. Thomas' boats.
The days and weeks spent by Captain Thomas in studying the habits of wild life were destined to bear fruit in his later years. Only a short time before his death notice came from his publishers that his book, Hunting and Trapping in the Northwoods of Maine, was just off the press. The Captain had not yet received a copy of the book at the time of his death. The work was published by The World Book Publishing Company of Yonkers, N. Y., as one of their Pioneer Series for School Children, and as such is sure to be successful financially. The publishers say it is one of the best of the series. It is one of the tragic aspects of Captain Thomas' untimely end that he did not live to reap the rewards of his labors. There is also a finished manuscript of another book along similar lines ready for publication.
Captain Thomas is survived by his widow, Abbie Wright Thomas, Captain Harold W. Thomas, age 35 years, and Roland, age 11 years. There were five children altogether but three had died earlier. Mrs. Thomas was a school teacher in Maine in her earlier years. She is a relative of Madame Nordica, the famous operatic soprano, and has appeared on the concert stage with her illustrious kinswoman. Captain Harold Thomas during the World War was in the Naval Service aboard the S. S. Meade out of Boston.
Adirondack Daily Enterprise, July 10, 1993
Adventurer E.E. Thomas tells story of Adirondack hunting trip
"Nearly a half century ago my cousin Frank and I lived along, from September to April, in a wilderness cabin built with our own hands. In after years, when I told my two sons of these experiences, they asked me to write down the story of that winter, so that in the future they might recall to memory the tales of my life in the woods. Thus it was for my own boys that I first wrote this little story. But after I had written it, they persuaded me to go a step further and make a book, that all who love the woods and the wildlife in them might enjoy these experiences, too. And so I offer it to, the boys and girls of today, knowing that they will understand the great love for the open that has led me to write the book." E.E.T. — Saranac Lake, N.Y. — 1923
This brief preface served as an introduction to the very interesting tale of adventure shared by two boys in the wilds of Maine during the winter of 1875-76. The book titled "In the North Woods of Maine" was authored by Capt. E.E. Thomas and was published in 1923, some twenty years after he founded his boat business on Lake Flower in Saranac Lake.
The two boys spent considerable time in the planning and preparation for a hunting and trapping trip to the West Branch of the Penobscot River northwest of Moosehead Lake. They gathered their stores and equipment and packed the gear into a wagon for the first leg of their journey which consisted of a 12-mile ride behind "Old Bill," the Thomas farm's reliable horse. Reaching Livermore Falls the boys boarded the train for Greenville, the jumping off terminal for their big adventure.
From local Penobscot Indians they purchased two birch bark canoes, one 18 and one 21 feet long which they were to load and launch at the southern tip of Moosehead Lake.
E.E. Thomas and his cousin Frank Thomas each shoved off in separate canoes for the 40-mile paddle up the lake to a bay at the northern extremity where an oxcart carry brought them to the West Branch of the Penobscot River. Working their way upstream they had to portage around several boulder-strewn rapids while searching for a likely campsite. Finally they came to where a tributary stream flowed into the river. Paddling a short distance up this brook the boys discovered a clear spring that would supply drinking water and decided that this was the spot for their permanent camp.
Immediately they began to construct a log cabin and from the stream they hauled rocks to build a fireplace which they mortared with wet clay. A wood shed was added to the complex to complete the winter shelter. Up to this time their meals consisted of trout, flapjacks, and hot tea. For hunting the armament consisted of "10 gauge shotgun and a 44 caliber rifle, with a generous supply of ammunition for both guns. A variety of traps completed the necessary equipment to assure a successful campaign.
The very first hunt resulted in the taking of a large doe which furnished venison for the larder and a welcome change from the diet of fish and pancakes. The second hunt, however, was a near disaster' when E.E. decided to go alone for a caribou hunt. In the cane brake by the stream he spotted two animals feeding and opened fire. Both victims went down but upon closer inspection he realized that he had killed two young moose. Suddenly the irate mother of the calves came charging out of the bush and the young nimrod took cover under a fallen tree to avoid the slashing hooves of the cow moose. It soon became apparent that his position was in jeopardy so at the first opportunity he ran for the nearest tree and climbed to the higher branches. Here he clung for several hours while the enraged moose patrolled around the trunk of the tree. Eventually the animal gave up and trotted away. The hunter, who had turned hunted, climbed down, rescued his rifle, and ran for the cabin. Early the next morning he and Frank went to the site and butchered the two calves.
Having secured so much meat the boys decided to build a smoke house and cure the strips into jerky for future use. They first soaked the meat in a brine solution and then smoked it over a chip fire. The smoke house was a log enclosure chinked with moss to contain the smoke and the result of the operation was a supply of chewy morsels with a delectable flavor.
Next on the agenda was the preparation of articles for use during the coming cold weather and the boys were well skilled in the manufacture of implements from the products of nature in the Indian fashion. Snowshoes would be needed to traverse the trap lines so the boys collected white ash for the frames and used deer hide for the webbing and straps. Wood shingles were carved for stretching the pelts and moccasins were fitted from the moose hide. When the season opened the two young trappers would be ready.
One fall morning E.E. was sitting on a log adjacent to a beech ridge when along came a huge black bear snuffing up beechnuts. The bear never looked up but continued on a straight course toward where the young hunter was seated. At first E.E. was not quite certain what action he might take. It was the first bear he had ever seen and he didn't know whether he should climb a tree or stand his ground. He decided on the latter and taking careful aim he fired his rifle. The first shot hit the bear but it kept right on coming toward him. A second shot also failed to stop the angry animal but a third bullet found a vital spot and the bear rolled over on its back. As E.E. approached his prey the bear reared up and a fourth shot was necessary to finish the job. After dressing out the carcass he rushed back to camp to tell Frank about the encounter. The next day they went out to skin the bear and gather the meat. In their opinion the bear weighed over 400 pounds. The boys rendered the fat and used it for several batches of doughnuts.
Next it was Frank's turn to get involved with an exciting incident He was returning to camp late one afternoon after checking his traps. It was getting quite dark when he noticed a movement off to one side. In the poor light he saw what he thought was a partridge walking along a large hemlock log. Thinking that the bird would make a nice dinner he took a shot at it and it disappeared behind the log. Walking over to pick up his 'bird' he found a large wolf shot through the head. The wolf was moving behind the log with only his head showing when in the semi-darkness Frank mistook the movement to be that of a walking partridge. When the two boys went to recover the wolf in daylight, they found, due to the tracks in the snow, that it had been following Frank for some quarter of a mile!
A heavy snowfall had covered their traps and the boys went to clear the separate lines of the excess snow. When Frank was crossing a bog he saw seven caribou coming his way. He managed to shoot one of them and after the two dressed out the animal they carried over one hundred pounds of meat back to camp. Their venison was almost gone so they smoked the caribou meat to be added to the moose and bear meat already cured.
The two cousins proved that they could live off the land and enjoyed every minute of it. They passed the winter in the accumulation of a huge store of furs while encountering many more adventures some of which included a few narrow escapes. Their muskrat hats, deerskin jackets, and moosehide boots kept them warm on the coldest days while their homemade snowshoes made it possible to cover the traplines. They had but one more ordeal to meet.
During their last night at camp they were awakened by strange sounds and upon striking a light were astounded to see that the floor was flooded and the water was rising fast Securing their guns, ammunition, and matches they crawled up on the highest shelf where they shivered until daylight with the spring runoff water at 10 inches below their perch. As soon as the food subsided the boys loaded their furs in the two canoes and headed for home.
Upon their arrival at the Thomas farm the two youths were greeted with a tumultuous reception by their families and friends. All were ecstatic when they viewed the treasure trove of furs and bombarded the pair with questions about their adventures. Each boy was a hero and it was good to be home!
As the years slipped by E.E. Thomas, now an adult, returned to Moosehead Lake where he operated a boat livery and earned the honorary tide of "Captain." From North Hartford, Maine Thomas relocated to Saranac Lake in 1900 and established a home at No. 151 River Street. He soon opened a boathouse on Lake Flower, opposite the present location of St. Bernard's School, which became well-known as the Thomas Boat Landing. It was his primary concern to become the founder of a passenger tourboat business featuring scenic trips along the Saranac waterways. He was instrumental in the construction of the locks that would permit navigation from Lake Flower through to Bartlett's Carry. His boat was hired to carry materials to the two lock sites which were being built by the state.
Ironically this very accomplishment toward which he devoted so much zeal would eventually lead to a great tragedy. It happened on Friday, Aug. 10, 1923, when Capt. Thomas was piloting the passenger boat on its return trip from Lower Saranac Lake. At a point about a quarter mile above the locks, his 10-year-old son, Roland, fell overboard into the water. The father immediately dove to save the boy but he never resurfaced. Passengers pulled the young lad back into the boat but Capt. Thomas could not be seen. A search led by the Captain's older son, Harold, was in vain and the body was not recovered until the following day.
For many years after the death of their father the Thomas Boat Landing was operated by Harold and Roland and the place became an established center of boating activity on Lake Flower and the adjacent waterways. On a large boulder where the accident occurred a memorial inscription has been carved, a final tribute to Capt. E.E. Thomas. His little book was published in the same year of his death.