The West River Gravestone – A Genuine PEI Mystery

Here is an interesting story submitted by Eric MacPhail.

Dunedin Bridge in Fall

Dunedin Bridge

In 2009 the old wooden-plank West River Bridge was replaced by a modern bridge to accommodate present time traffic. At one point during this construction, it was necessary for divers to examine the footings at the bottom of the river at the bridge site at the crossing of the Channel. During this work, one of the divers spotted a relatively small gravestone about 28” in width, 34” in height and about 5” in thickness. Here is a photo of the stone:

The engraving used a different font for each name indicating that each was inscribed at a different time.

This stone posed a problem for there is an existing gravestone in Shaw’s Pioneer Cemetery at St. Catherines,  P.E.I. which is obviously a memorial to these same persons. The engraving on that stone is as below.

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Photo by Elizabeth Warwick [2012] – Appearing on site – CanadaGenWeb’s Cemetery Project

There were other children born of which I now have no definitive listing. I am simply trying to establish a link between Donald M(a)cNeill and Christina Darrach M(a)cNeill, married Feb. 1855  and currently known members of that part of the MacNeill family. I have a clear recollection of one surviving son of Donald and Christy, Alexander (Alex) who was born in January, 1865. d.1942  m. Emma MacCallum ..b. 1865 d. 1904. He lived on the land parcel now occupied by Dunedin Estates followed by his son Kenneth and Grandson Alexander (Sandy).

Alex had three sons: Hector b. August, 1896. d.1915 . Daniel b. 1898. .d. May 27, 1984 Hector  m. Doris Newson. b 1900. d.2004.. Son. Howard  b.1934  d. 1995. Unmarried.  Kenneth. b 1902  d  1986  m. Mary Cameron b. 1899  d. 1962   Children: Kenneth Jr.  b. Oct. 9, 1936   m. Joan Frizzell.  No children.  Alexander (Sandy).  b. 1929. d Dec. 2010. m. Laura MacNevin. b. Sept. 3. 1932  d. 2007  Children:  Donald, .b. 1951. Sandra.  b. 1953.  Terry  b. 1954.  Karen  b. 1956. Ruth b. 1958. Alexander b. 1960.  Allan  b. 1962. Angus b. 1965. The above children of Sandy and Laura MacNevin MacNeil would be Great-Great-Grand children of Donald and Christie Darrach McNeill.

So now we have the relationship but what about the two gravestones? Let us look for possible gravesites. In Dr. Angus Beck’s “Darrach Genealogy” he states that Alexander and Emma McNeill are buried in the Clyde River Baptist Cemetery and in actuality Plot 14, Grave 3 shows Alexander O. MacNeill, Grave 4 Hector MacNeill and Grave 5 Emma L. MacCallum. Graves 1. 2 and 6 are apparently unused. This cemetery was not opened until 1902, so I would not expect Donald McNeill’s burial to have taken place in it although Christina’s death date of 1922 would have made her burial there possible but unlikely.

Scenic 4 4

Pioneer Cemetery

The Pioneer Cemetery located farther West on the Clyde River Road on the present day Brian and Mark Livingston property, on the river side, might have been the site and Donald McNeill’s 1881 death date would have fitted that site since that Cemetery continued to be used until 1902 when the Cemetery close to the Baptist Church was opened but the 1922 death date of Christy McNeill would not fit. It is possible that when Donald was interred, a grave site was left for Christy and she was buried there. In the listing of known burials in this river side cemetery there is no indication of any McNeills being buried there.

Another possibility is the Shaw Pioneer Cemetery in St. Catherines close to the bridge under which the stone was found. This idea may have additional credence since the replacement gravestone is still in place at what might be assumed to be the original site of the missing and later recovered stone.

There are perhaps two or more reasons why that the wandering stone could have gotten from Shaw’s Cemetery to its discovery site under the bridge. The first reason is that it could have been a deliberate act of vandalism. Could there have been a schism between or among some family members concerning this stone and one decided to settle things by removing the subject of the dispute and dumped it under the bridge from where it would have been unrecoverable at that time. Game over!  In those days there was a greater respect for property and the word, “vandalism” was probably unknown. Then, too, Cemeteries were a place of  solemn doom which most would hesitate to enter at night which would have to have been the time if this nefarious scheme was to be enacted undetected.

Secondly, there could have been a more benign reason. It has already been noted that Donald’s inscription appears to have been done at a different time than Christie’s using a different font. Donald was buried some time in 1881 while Christie’s burial was after her death in 1922. Is it possible that sometime, following Christie’s passing, the family decided that her lettering should be done and removed the stone from its cemetery site and moved it to Charlottetown to be engraved. The simplest way to make this move would be to put it in a horse-drawn cart in the Cemetery, move it from there to the nearby wharf attached to the bridge and transfer it to one of the gas engine powered boats which made regular trips from there to Town. These boats took passengers, farm produce or any cargo that needed transport which was  much shorter, quicker and more comfortable journey than continuing with the horse and cart whose top speed was the walking speed of the horse.

On arrival at Paoli’s Wharf in Town one of the local truckers, with a horse-drawn sloven, which was a four-wheeled wagon that was built close to the ground for ease in loading and unloading heavy cargo, would haul the monument to its destination for the engraving. The return trip would be by the same route with the horse and cart waiting as the boat tied up. The monument would be raised up from the boat by manpower pulling it up by ropes attached to it. But something went wrong. Perhaps one of the ropes broke, a man’s foot slipped or a wave rocked the boat resulting in the stone dropping into the river and sinking like – well – a stone. It was lost forever until the alert Scuba Diver saw it in 2009 when working on the new bridge and it was successfully brought to the surface.

There are many questions unanswered:

  1. How and why did the monument get in the river?
  2. Who had the new monument prepared and set in place?  And when was this done?
  3. How was the assumed correct burial location found?
  4. Does anyone have any record of these events on paper or in family memory?
  5. Why was the spelling on the replacement stone changed from McNeill to MacNeill? This is probably because of the change that many of the McNeills and most of the other Mc’s made in the 1920’s in the belief that Mc denoted Irish Catholic while Mac denoted Scotch Protestant so most of the Scotch Protestant Mc’s changed to Mac. This is not necessarily true.

There is one more significant part of this MacNeill mystery that should be recorded and it is regarding the marriage of Donald McNeill to Christina Darrach which is still held in family recollections. Donald lived on the farmland now owned by Dunedin Estates while a family of Darrach’s lived in Long Creek.

Donald happened to be visiting there shortly after a baby girl had been born. Donald was 20 years old and some of the family members were teasing him about not having a girlfriend. Donald responded by saying that he did not need a girlfriend because he was going to marry that new-born baby girl in twenty years time. And this he did in 1855 and both of their names are forever inscribed together on, not one but two,  gravestones.

After note:

The foregoing does not belong to any part of a MacPhail family but it is all of such profound interest to any native of  P.E.I. particularly considering all Islanders’ well known conviction that any Islanders’ business is their business, too. The ‘The West River Gravestone’ is an intriguing tale leaving so many unanswered questions. It is my hope that someone may recall a buried memory or even find some written record which will provide more information than is now presently available.

I thank Sandra MacNeill MacDougall for providing much of the information and apologize for any errors I probably have made. I am pleased to have been associated with this family in this project..

Eric P. MacPhail, January 27. 2014

Editor’s notes:

  • Link to site featuring photo of headstone has been added, click here. (CanadaGenWeb’s Cemetery Project)
  • Photos added by Editor.

No Comments

  1. Shirley MacNevin-Wood on May 15, 2015 at 6:05 pm

    My name is Shirley MacNevin-Wood, formally from Bonshaw. My mother, Mary (Lyle) MacNevin. My mother was Edna & John MacPhee’s daughter, her mother was Edna, daughter of Charles and Madora (Dora) MacPhee, St. Catherine’s. I remember my mother telling me about the young man who saw the baby and said he would wait 20 years and then would marry her. My late Uncle Donald MacPhee had an amazing memory. He mentioned about a Donald MacNeill who drowned in the West River, just below where my grand-parents were burried. If I can find my mom’s diarys’, I will certainly be in touch with you.

  2. Victoria MacPhail on May 20, 2015 at 4:16 pm

    I have a photo that Eric took of the original headstone that was recovered from the water in 2009. I’ll send it to Vivian.

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