Longtime residents of the Port Herman area know that the Fears family was long known as the proprietors of the Elk River House, which opened in 1888. William Fears, born in 1822, opened this 50-room “summer hotel” and city dwellers flocked to the Elk River resort to escape the heat of summer. Fears and his family had moved to the area from Gloucester, Mass., in the mid-1800s. Fears, a Civil War veteran, was the grandson of a veteran of the Revolutionary War. The grandfather, also named William, was lost at sea in 1798 on the General Starks, a Massachusetts Privateer Ship. The 1822 Fears also had a son, Robert, who was lost at sea in 1812 and a grandson who was lost at sea.
The son of William Fears, Capt. William Fears (born in 1861) was popularly known along the Elk River and had been engaged with his uncle, Henry Webb in fishing. He managed the Elk River House as a summer resort. During the summer, Fears ran a “naphtha” launch, a small motor boat powered by a naphtha engine. He took many parties out of Elkton and down to Port Herman.
On the morning of Dec. 26, 1894, Capt. Fears and his uncle Henry Webb left home in separate skiffs to take up the pound nets they had in the Elk River near Turkey Point. Both men were known as expert watermen. They reached their destination and hauled in their fish and nets. At approximately 3 p.m., the men started for home. According to the Dec. 28, 1894 Cecil Democrat, as the men reached the mouth of the Bohemia River, they were suddenly hit with a violent snowstorm and a high northeast gale force wind. The men became separated as the wind increased, and only Webb was able to successfully maneuver his skiff to shore even though his mainsail and rudder broke.
The Jan. 12, 1895 Cecil Whig contained a terrifying first-hand account by Henry Webb. “Will and I started down the river in two skiffs to take up three pound nets we had set about half a mile this side of Turkey Point. When we got there, the wind was very light from the northeast, but cold. I started to take off the nets and Will took up the poles. When I got all the nets off I put my skiff in near shore, and helped Will to put the poles away. This took all day and got so cold we could not work very fast. The net froze as I took it out of the water. I had to tramp on it to get it into the skiff.”
“It was nearly calm in the cove at the time, the high bank keeping the wind off of us. The snow was so thick we could hardly see 50 yards ahead, but we were used to such weather… As soon as I got out of the point, I got the full force of the storm. I tried to put my boat about and run back into the cove again. I broke my rudder in the attempt and then tried to scull the skiff around with an oar and broke that also. I might as well have tried to turn a schooner with a feather. The wind was blowing a gale and it was freezing cold. There was nothing to do but stand across the river and try to weather it. When about halfway across my sail began to tear out of the club. As I got near shore, the mast broke. Then I turned her with the wind and ran for Cabin John’s Creek and to safety. When I got there I was covered with ice and my nets and boat were thick with it. Reaching shore, I started for a fisherman’s cabin, almost dead, and wet through with sweat from my fight for life. Yet my clothes were covered with ice. While walking along the shore to the cabin, I heard Will call for me and for help, but I could not see him. If I had I could not have given him any help.”
According to the same article, Capt. Will’s skiff was found bottom up about 125 yards from shore near the mouth of the Bohemia River. On Monday of the following week, a party of men including Henry Webb, Joseph Cordray, Alphonso Brown, Edward Brown, and George Pote dragged the river off Foard’s Landing without success.
At the time of his drowning, Fears wore heavy hip gum boots, a heavy overcoat and oil skin coat. His attire would have made it extremely difficult to swim, even though he was known as an expert swimmer. The frigid conditions would have made his body numb as well.
Throughout the winter, the Elk River remained frozen. In March, the Cecil Whig reported that the search for Fears’ body had resumed. It wasn’t until mid-April that his body was found. According to the Midland Journal, Capt. Fears’ body was found floating in the mouth of the Bohemia River by Henry Webb.
The Cecil Whig reported that “an inquest was held over the remains by Squire Vandergrift and a verdict that William Fears came to his death by accidental drowning on December 26, 1894 was rendered.”
The funeral for Capt. Fears was held at his residence at Port Herman. He was buried at Bethel Cemetery. His widow, Mary Jane Smith Fears survived him, along with 2 young sons. At the time of Fears’ death, his wife was expecting. She gave birth to another son a month before the body was found on March 13, 1895.
Elk River House continued to be owned by the Fears family after the captain’s death. Summer cottages were built there and Port Herman grew into a very popular summer destination until the mid-twentieth century. Today, the small cottages have been replaced with condominiums and the Elk River House building has been torn down to make way for a modern waterfront home.