Looking back on some Halloween tragedies

Another Halloween is rapidly approaching. It is a time of year when people’s fascination with the supernatural, long-standing mysteries and all kinds of tragic events, comes to the fore.

One old tragedy took place in Red Deer 100 years ago in August 1915. A young teenager, Richard ‘Dick’ Collins, lost his life in the Red Deer River on a hot summer’s afternoon.

Collins had been born in Ireland in May 1900, the third child and eldest son of James and Margaret Collins. In 1903, the family emigrated to Canada, settling on a farm near Ruddell, Saskatchewan.

In August 1914, the First World War broke. Collins was too young to join the military. However, in 1915, he decided to try a different kind of adventure and joined the World At Home carnival while it was in Saskatoon.

On Aug. 16th, 1915, World At Home arrived in Red Deer as one of the main attractions at the annual Red Deer Fair. While the carnival was setting up, he slipped away with another young teenager for a dip in the Red Deer River.

Unfortunately, young Collins was not a good swimmer. He waded out into water well over his head, and began to sink. His companion tried to pull him back to safety, but soon had to give up in order to save himself.

The police and Fire Department were quickly called, but arrived too late to save Collins. For the next several days, attempts were made to locate the body. The river was dragged with grappling hooks. Dynamite was detonated in the hopes that the explosion might force the body to the surface. Unfortunately, these efforts proved unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, heavy rains in the west country caused the river to rise rapidly. By the end of the week, it was obvious that the body had now been swept downstream. No trace of Dick Collins’ body was ever discovered.

Another tragedy on the Red Deer River occurred 12 years earlier in August 1903. N.B. Cottle Colwell was a young man from New Brunswick, who had gotten a job with a local lumber company.

While a crew was taking a load of shingles down the river from Red Deer, their raft got caught on Wenman’s Island, near the mouth of the Red Deer River Canyon.

While most of the men were able to jump back onto the raft when it was finally dislodged, Colwell was not quick enough and was left behind on the island. The foreman presumed that since the island was only 30 metres from the riverbank, Colwell would swim ashore and make his way to a nearby farmhouse. However, foreman inexplicably never went back to make sure.

After a few weeks, one of Colwell’s friends began to make inquiries about what had happened to him. The following summer, Colwell’s parents came out from New Brunswick to help with a search. No trace was found. A presumption was made that Colwell had been swept away while swimming for shore and had drowned.

In March 1905, some workers at a sawmill in the Canyon were shocked when a dog showed up with a human bone with a shoe and a sock on it. They investigated and found another leg bone, several ribs, a thigh bone and a piece of upper jaw with a gold-filled tooth on Wenman’s Island. The police were contacted and determined that Cottle Colwell had finally been found.

An inquest was held and determined that Cottle Cowell had died “as the result of an accident” and had likely starved to death while waiting for rescue. The jury added that no one who had been on the raft with him was, “In any way to blame.”

Despite the verdict, a debate raged for many years as to why Colwell had not attempted to swim for shore and why had no one gone back to the island much sooner to look for him.

Moreover, there are those who claim that on some nights, such as Halloween, one can still hear the ghost of Cottle Colwell, on Wenman’s Island, calling for help in a never-ending wait for rescue.