Samuel Michael Bingham, 1845-1905, folk hero, former mayor and benefactor of Ottawa, Canada, practically lost connection to his descendants but a persistent great-granddaughter of his older brother John couldn’t leave things alone.
Karen Bingham grew up in Ottawa, where, all her life, she was aware that her name was the same as the former mayor but she was unsure of her connection to the man who had a street, a school and a park named for him. In 2000, the city voted to move a big cast-iron fountain inscribed to Samuel Bingham from a city storage building to a house her grandfather had built. It still sits there where it is used as a flower planter.
At times, Karen looked at the impressive gravestone in Notre Dame Cemetery, with its statue by sculptor Hamilton McCarthy, a copy of the medal Pope Leo XVII gave to Bingham when he was made a chevalier, and wondered.
Every old-timer in Ottawa knew the story of how Bingham died. It was a poignant mystery. He was a logger on the Gatineau River and an avid athlete who loved horseback riding, ice skating, snowshoeing, bicycling and canoeing. He was a powerful swimmer and a master at untangling logjams. He also was a micromanager and a workaholic.
One day he learned that a string of logs, destined for the paper mill, had jammed on the Gatineau River. He drove himself to the site of the jam in his buggy and worked all afternoon and all night, not leaving until the logjam was cleared.
On the way home he drowned when his carriage overturned in the Gatineau River. Some suspected foul play but the authorities thought it was more likely that he fell asleep and the buggy overturned when the horse walked into the river for a drink.
His funeral, the largest Ottawa had seen in recent memory, was attended by members of the city council and employees of the Gatineau River. Newspapers recounted his legacy to the city. His nine-page will left bequests to his wife and daughters, his brothers and sisters and their children and to Catholic and Protestant orphanages and hospitals.
He was still semi-famous in Karen’s day. Thus begun a family history quest that eventually connected Karen to Pacific, Mo. She learned through Ancestry.com that she was indeed connected to the Ottawa folk hero. Samuel’s older brother John was her 2-g grandfather. So her family must have cousins somewhere. Karen and her Uncle Dan, a Canadian CBS employee who now works in Alberta, and fellow family history buff, began a search for Samuel Bingham’s descendants.
He and his wife Ellen had six children but only two survived to adulthood, Helene and Mary Rose Mount Carmel, called Carmel by the family. Helene married Andrew Livingston Masson and the couple had three children, Walter Bingham, Edward and Andrew. Census records and ship’s manifests placed the family in New York and Michigan. Then the trail stopped.
Finally in early 2012, Karen, who was gaining skill at family history searching, placed a query on the Ancestry message board, “I’m searching for the descendants of Walter Bingham Masson.”
For my husband Bob, sitting at his laptop in Pacific, that was a bolt from the blue. He had not heard anything of his father since 1938, when his father disappeared. At first he was dubious about the message, thinking it was a teaser to get him to pay something or join Ancestry.com. Finally, the lure was too great, he placed an answer on the message board, “If you are who you say you are, I am the son of Walter Bingham Masson. Who is Carmel?”
Karen was sitting at her computer in Ottawa when the answer was posted. She had placed her query months earlier. She couldn’t type fast enough. “Carmel was your Grandmother Helene’s sister.”
Later that day, a man on the phone identified himself as Dan Bingham. “This is amazing,” he said. “We’ve been looking for you for so long.”
This chance encounter changed the itinerary of a driving trip Bob and I had been planning to Massachusetts to do family history research on my 6g-grandfather William Kerley, an interesting guy in his own right, returning by way of Detroit to visit Bob’s brother and his family. It wouldn’t be that much trouble to drive from Massachusetts into Canada and back track to Detroit.
When we arrived in Ottawa it was raining. I had caught a cold in Quebec City where I walked two blocks to Mass at the cathedral so I missed the visit to family sites. Karen took Bob to all the family landmarks and monuments, including those on the Masson side.
Karen’s father Garry had always supported her hobby of family history. He remembered his own grandfather who lived with his family when he was a boy. They used to walk to the Rideau River together to fish but he had little interest in family history beyond that. He was understandably a little dubious to learn that this supposed third cousin was coming from Missouri because Karen typed something into her computer. “If you’re sure about this, I’ll have them over for lunch,” he said.
Meeting Garry Bingham was a shock for both Bob and me. First the two men looked enough alike to be brothers, they not only sounded alike, their speech patterns mimicked each other. Within a few minutes they were finishing each other’s sentences. There was a lot of laughter. Karen and her brother Scott did the serving and the two cousins talked about work careers, fraternal organization and shared pictures of each other’s children and grandchildren.
Aside from the snippets of Bingham memorials Ottawa, which sits on the south bank of the St. Lawrence River, is a beautiful city, a great travel destination. There are lots of bridges over the St. Lawrence and Rideau rivers, and like all Canadian cities, church steeples in all directions. The Capitol building is one of those sights you’re sure you’ll never forget.
But as late great Samuel Bingham reminds us, you can forget historic things if you don’t stay in touch.
Pauline Masson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 314-805-9800.