Life and Death on the Niagara River

It was August 6th, 1918. The news sped through Niagara Falls like a flash fire. Two men, the story went, were marooned on a scow that was grounded on some rocks in the Niagara River, not far from the brink of the Canadian Horseshoe Falls.

Both skeptics and believers raced to the scene. The story, which was all too true, had begun around 3 o’clock that afternoon while crews from the Great Lakes Dredge and Dock Company were deepening the Niagara Falls Power Company’s intake canal on the American side of the river, about 1.6 kilometres (a mile) above the Falls. Large scows, towed by tugs, were being used to take the excavated material out into the river where it was dumped.

Suddenly one of the tugs struck a sandbar with such force that the tow line snapped, allowing the scow the tug had been pulling to quickly drift into mid- stream and head toward the Horseshoe Falls.

On board the scow were Gustav Lofberg, 51, and 53-year-old James Harris. Lofberg was a bachelor while Harris was married and the father of five. Despite the almost paralyzing fear that must have gripped the two men, they had the presence of mind to open the bottom dumping doors, flooding the scow’s compartments. This slowed its progress until it grounded on some rocks opposite the Toronto Powerhouse, a hydro-electric generating plant on the Canadian side.

While for the time being at least, Lofberg and Harris were not about to go over the Falls, now they were marooned in the heart of the torturous and deadly Upper Rapids about 255 metres (850 feet) from the Canadian shore and approximately 792 metres (half a mile) from the brink of the cataract.

Word of the stranded men quickly spread throughout the area and great crowds soon gathered along both banks of the Niagara River.

Several employees from the Toronto Powerhouse had witnessed the accident and called the Niagara Falls, Ontario, Fire Department.

Chief Al Newman and his men rushed to the scene, bringing with them a small lifesaving gun. It was carried to the roof of the generating plant and discharged. As the Niagara Falls Review noted, “The rope whirled toward the watching men on the scow. It spun out an estimated 300 feet and fell into the river.” A second attempt brought the same result. The rope was just too short to reach the scow.

The U.S. Coast Guard at Youngstown, New York, was contacted and arrived shortly after with their larger lifeline cannon. This was more successful. When the line was shot from the roof of the powerhouse, it easily reached the scow, prompting a mighty cheer from the large number of spectators.

Harris and Lofberg immediately tied this light rope to a crude windless they had labourously constructed. The Coast Guard team, under the command of Captain A. Nelson, then tied a heavier rope to the lifeline as well as a block and tackle holding a double guy line. While dozens of men on the powerhouse roof held the lines taut, the stranded men began to turn their windlass. It was a difficult and slow job. “In the early evening,” the Review reported, “after hours of torturing progress with the windlass, Lofberg and Harris reached their hands into the water to grasp the heavy rope.”

As darkness fell, powerful search lights were set up on the shore and on the powerhouse roof, eerily illuminating the scene. About 9:30, a breeches buoy (a canvas sling suspended from a pulley) was put in place on the heavy rope. Working the guy lines, the crew on the powerhouse roof began to slowly move the breeches buoy out to Lofberg and Harris.

It looked as though the two men would soon be safely back on land. But it was not to be. Partway out, the breeches buoy suddenly stopped, sending a groan of despair rippling through the crowd. It was soon determined that the line had fouled. For two hours attempts were made to correct the problem by pulling back and forth on the guy lines, all to no avail. While it would not advance, fortunately the breeches buoy could be brought back to the powerhouse. It was now around midnight and Captain Nelson decided to temporarily suspend the rescue operation to allow him time to come up with a solution

to the breeches buoy problem. This information was conveyed to the stranded men by means of a large sign illuminated by one of the lights. Lofberg and Harris rested fitfully, wondering if at any moment the violent water racing past their scow would dislodge it and send them to their doom.

Back on shore, William “Red” Hill Sr. introduced himself to Nelson and told him that he would be willing to go out to try and correct the problem on the lines. Hill, from Niagara Falls, Ontario, was Niagara’s most knowledgeable riverman and a recognized hero who had recently returned home after having been wounded and gassed in France while serving in the First World War. Hill was told the line was presumed safe, although it had not been tested under a weight. He replied that he was willing to take the risk.

Shortly after three o’clock in the morning, Hill went out in the breeches buoy. With the beam from the searchlight following him, he reached the trouble spot and untangled the lines. Problems continued, however, and at 5:30 Hill had to make a second trip out on the lines.

Finally all difficulties were overcome and the breeches buoy reached the marooned men. Harris was first off the scow, reaching the powerhouse roof at 8:50 a.m. after being slowly pulled to safety across the turbulent water. Lofberg arrived about an hour later. With each arrival a great cheer went up from the crowd.

A doctor examined both men but, although weak from hunger and fatigue, they were remarkably fit considering their 19-hour ordeal. Harris later told reporters that he was going to tie himself to a tree well inland so, as he put it, “I’ll know I’m safe.” The following morning, after a solid night’s sleep, the two men were back at work.

A salvage operation to recover the scow was not considered feasible and so, although some deterioration has taken place, the scow still clings to its rocky perch.

Dramatic events at Niagara Falls were nothing new. In fact, it is very likely that some of those who witnessed Harris’s and Lofberg’s deliverance from death recalled another rescue attempt just six years earlier in which William “Red” Hill Sr. had also played a major role.

Sunday, February 4, 1912, was a clear, windy and very cold day in Niagara Falls. Nevertheless, hundreds of people both residents and tourists were on hand that morning to view the gorgeous winter scenery around the Falls and to take a walk on the ice bridge.

One of Niagara’s most spectacular wintertime creations, the ice bridge is much like a huge, thick suspended glacier stretching across the Niagara River Gorge directly below the Falls.

Beginning in the 1880s, the ice bridge became a popular playground. Local businessmen even set up concession shanties out on the ice where one could buy drinks (including whisky), hot dogs, souvenirs, and get a tintype picture taken.

Among the visitors to Niagara Falls on that fateful Sunday were Eldridge and Clara Stanton of Toronto. The 36-year-old Eldridge acted as secretary-treasurer for his brother’s printing firm. After leaving their Niagara Falls, New York, hotel around mid-morning, Eldridge and Clara, 28, took an elevator into the gorge and began exploring the hills and valleys of the ice bridge, which was estimated to be around 300 meters (1,000 feet) long and 18 meters (6o feet) thick.

As noon approached, the crowd began to thin as people headed indoors to get warm and have some lunch. Only the Stantons and a handful of other visitors were left on the ice. Included in this small group were Ignatius Roth and Burrell Hecock. Natives of Cleveland, both were 17 years old and had been lifelong friends. Also still on the ice was William “Red” Hill.

Suddenly, a few minutes before noon, a loud ominous crack like the lash of a huge whip was heard. Seconds later the ice bridge began to break up and move downstream. Hill yelled a warning and ran for the Canadian shore. Most of the others also reacted quickly and made it safely to either the Canadian or American side.  However, the Stantons, Roth and Hecock, standing on a huge moving ice floe in mid-river, hesitated, not sure which way to go.

The two youths then made a dash for the Canadian shore. The Stantons went in the opposite direction, only to find their escape cut off by a wide channel. Hill, at great peril to his own safety, rushed back onto the moving ice and yelled at the couple to head for the Canadian side. With the riverman helping them, the Stantons made it to within 15 meters (50 feet) of the riverbank when they suddenly encountered another slush-filled channel. Paralyzed with fear, Clara and Eldridge would not go on even though Hill told them the gap could be crossed. Instead, they turned back, with Hecock and Roth following. With extreme danger at his very feet, Hill had no choice but to leave them and scramble ashore.

By now, the large floe carrying the marooned quartet was passing under the Upper Steel Arch Bridge, which was located close to where the Rainbow Bridge currently stands. Officials at the bridge phoned the police and fire departments which raced to the scene.

Roth and Hecock ran on ahead of the Stantons who were now exhausted from the exertion and tension. Clara soon collapsed, telling her husband that she couldn’t go on. Not able to get her up, Eldridge shouted to the two youths for help. Hecock responded, leaving Roth and going back to help get Clara on her feet.

Roth kept moving and managed to get a little closer to the Canadian shore. “Red” Hill, who was running along the riverbank, felt there was a chance Roth could be saved and began to shout instructions to him. The young man jumped over openings when and where he was told and struggled over the hummocks of ice. When he was close enough, Hill threw him a rope and pulled him ashore slightly over 1.6 kilometers
(a mile) below the Horseshoe Falls. Roth had cheated death.

Meanwhile, the ice floe carrying the three remaining helpless victims was racing down the river and would soon be in the grip of the Whirlpool Rapids, one of the most violent stretches of white water in the world. Their last chance at rescue would be the ropes that had been lowered by the police and firemen from the Cantilever Bridge and the adjacent Whirlpool Rapids Bridge.

Just before reaching the bridges, the large floe broke into two sections, leaving the Stantons on one piece and Hecock on the other. It was Hecock who reached one of the ropes first. He grabbed it and grimly hung on. As the men on the bridge began to haul him up, the young man tried to help himself by climbing hand-over-hand. Frozen fingers and exhaustion conspired against him. As he began to lose his grip, he tried to get his legs around the rope. When this failed he made a desperate but futile attempt to hang on with his teeth. With the rope now spinning like a top from the wind, Hecock’s head fell back, he let go and plunged into the river. He was seen for a few seconds and then vanished forever.

Moments later the Stanton’s floe reached the Cantilever Bridge. Eldridge seized a rope and tried to tie it around Clara’s waist. The ice was moving too fast, however, and he had to let go of the rope before he had time to tie a knot. The same thing happened with the rope hanging from the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge. There was no hope now. An eyewitness reporter described the final moments of the drama: “He raised the woman to her feet, kissed her and clasped her in his arms. The woman then sank to her knees. The man knelt beside her; his arms clasped close about her. So they went to their death. The ice held intact until it struck the great wave. There it was shattered; there the gallant man and the woman at his side disappeared from view.”

Their bodies were never found.

By Sherman Zavitz

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