Today is Halloween. It is often a time for the recounting of old tragedies, gruesome tales and mysteries. Kerry Wood’s popular book, A Corner of Canada, recounts a very old story which contains all three of these elements. Old editions of the Red Deer newspapers from the turn of the last century provide further details. The story involves the disappearance and eventual grisly discovery of N.B. Cottle Colwell.
Cottle Colwell was born in 1879 in New Brunswick. After serving overseas in the Canadian Army during the South African (Boer) War, he decided to try new prospects in the great Canadian west. He arrived in Red Deer in the summer of 1903. After briefly working at the Piper’s Brickyard, he went out to the Tail Creek/Delburne area to find work as a ranch hand.
While there, Colwell met up with Albert Content. Content was a businessman from Innisfail who had decided to establish a town near Tail Creek on the north side of the Red Deer River. Content started a store and post office.
He also sold lumber to the new residents of the village and to the settlers in the area. Content hired Colwell to help with the rafting of lumber downstream from the lumber mills at Red Deer.
On Aug. 27th, 1903, Content, Colwell and a third man named Edward Ferguson were proceeding down the Red Deer River with a raft carrying 24,000 shingles. The river was running high, but the raft ran aground on a sandbar at Wenman’s Island in the Red Deer River Canyon.
The men jumped onto the island to try and push the raft free with their poles. They then started pulling some of the shingles off the raft, when the craft dislodged.
Content and Ferguson were able to leap back onto the raft as it was swept downstream. Colwell was not as quick and was left behind on the island.
Content presumed that since the island was only 30 metres from the riverbank, Colwell would swim ashore and make his way to some nearby farmhouse. However, Colwell was never heard from again. Enquiries were made of the settlers in the area, but none had seen the young man.
After a few weeks, Ferguson put up a large reward for anyone providing word of what had happened to his friend. The following summer, Colwell’s parents came out from New Brunswick to help with a search. Nothing 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 Colwell had finally been found.
A great debate ensued.
It was obvious that Colwell had stayed on the island, awaiting rescue. However, when no one came for him, why did he not try to make it for the shore? Content insisted that Colwell was a strong swimmer, but others claimed that Colwell wasn’t able to swim and that is why he stayed on the island until he starved to death.
Another question was why had Content not gone back to the island, where Colwell had last been seen, as soon as it had become clear that Colwell was missing?
The failure of later searches of the island and riverbanks to find the body may have been due to Colwell’s body being obscured by brush or flood debris.
A public enquiry was held on July 28th, 1905 in Red Deer. After some deliberation, the jury came to the verdict that, “The remains found were those of N.B. Cottle Colwell and that he came to his death as the result of an accident.” The jury added that, “Neither of the persons on the raft are in any way to blame.”
Nevertheless, the controversy continued to dog Content. Despite the verdict of the jury, many people blamed Content for not saving Colwell. Many of Content’s friends insisted that he took the tragedy very hard once he realized what had happened.
Several people, regardless of what they thought, claimed that Content rarely ever smiled again.
There are those, who insist that on Halloween nights, one can still hear the ghost of Cottle Colwell on Wenman’s Island, calling for help in a never ending wait for rescue.