The Niagara River Whirlpool

The Niagara River Whirlpool has been a witness to a number of dramatic happenings over the years. One of those took place on an August day in 1934…

A spectacular and popular sight, the Whirlpool is a unique geological formation. Around 60 acres in size and 126 feet deep, here the gorge walls tower some 250 feet above the water.

During peak volume flow, such as during the summer months, the river, having just escaped from the turmoil of the Whirlpool Rapids, roars into the Whirlpool where the water is then swept around in a counter-clockwise motion. Forced down under the incoming stream, the water then reaches the pool’s outlet, having now changed direction from north-northwest to north-northeast.

During lower water periods, as is the case during the winter months, the water flows in and out of the Whirlpool in a clockwise direction.

One of the best ways to appreciate the Whirlpool is to cross it on the Aero Car. Inaugurated in 1916, this popular cable car ride is operated by The Niagara Parks Commission. 

On the morning of Sunday, August 12, 1934, Mrs. Ruth Hyde, 30, of Bradford, Pennsylvania, visited the Whirlpool as part of an extensive tour on both sides of the Niagara River.

At 3:25 that afternoon, she hired another cab, this time on River Road close to where the Canadian end of the Rainbow Bridge is now.  The driver, James Abell, was asked to go to the Aero Car. After arriving there, Mrs. Hyde handed Abell a five-dollar bill, told him to keep the change and not to wait for her.  She then bought a ticket to the Aero Car.  As she was boarding, she gave her purse to the operator, Harold Brooker, asking him to hold it for her until the ride was over. 

Among the other passengers were Arthur McKinley and his six year old daughter Catherine.  They were seated directly across from Mrs. Hyde who McKinley later described as having “bright red hair and a light complexion.  She wore a reddish plaid dress.”

Nothing in the woman’s appearance or actions gave McKinley any hint as to what was about to take place. 

The crossing began. When the car was right over the centre of the Whirlpool, the unthinkable happened.  As it was later reported in the local press:  “McKinley paid no attention to Mrs. Hyde until Catharine, in a shocked voice, pointed out that the red-haired woman was smoking a cigarette.  She appeared to be nervous and fidgety.   Suddenly standing, she threw away her cigarette and, before a move could be made to stop her, stood on the seat and leaped over the safety gate, going over as gracefully as a diver.  McKinley saw the body hurtle through the air and strike the water, the impact being clearly heard.”  The Whirlpool quickly consumed the woman, the powerful undertows dragging her out of sight. 

Later, when the purse Harold Brooker had been holding was opened, the police learned the victim’s identity.  There was also a letter.  Addressed to her husband, it said she intended to end her life and that her car could be found in Niagara Falls on the American side.  When contacted, William was stunned and could offer no reason for his wife’s suicide. 

Four days later, Mrs. Hyde’s body, with most of the clothing ripped away, was recovered by the U.S. Coastguard near the mouth of the Niagara River. 

Early visitors to the Whirlpool were invariably awed by the wild phenomenon. One of them was Elizabeth Simcoe, wife of John Graves Simcoe, Upper Canada’s (Ontario’s) first lieutenant-governor.  In her diary entry for April 23, 1793, Elizabeth notes how she “rode to the Whirlpool.”  She described it as “a very grand scene halfway between Queenston and the Falls,” and having a “wild appearance.”

Thirteen years later, Thomas Cooper, from Williamsport, Pennsylvania, visited the Whirlpool, calling it a “truly picturesque scene….narrow, rapid, foaming…it is an object not to be passed on such a tour. “

While still an exciting, memorable sight, the Whirlpool is obviously not something to be toyed with – getting caught in its iron grip could easily be fatal.   The story of Niagara stunter Maude Willard underscores that.

Originally from Ohio, Maude was entertaining at a Buffalo theatre when she was asked if she would be interested in doing a barrel stunt on the Niagara River.  She agreed. 

At 3:40 p.m., September 7, 1901, she and her pet terrier were placed in a barrel at a docking area just below the Falls.  The barrel was then towed out into the Niagara River and set adrift. 

The plan was to have her barrel shoot the Whirlpool Rapids (one of the most dangerous stretches of white water in the World) and then enter the Whirlpool.  Once she had shot clear of it, the barrel would drift downriver to Lewiston, New York, where it would be brought ashore.

It took only 25 minutes for the barrel to reach the Whirlpool.  From that point on, however, the plan quickly unraveled.  Instead of escaping from the Whirlpool, Maude was trapped in it for almost six hours before two men were able to capture the barrel and bring it ashore. 

The cover was frantically ripped off and the rescue crew peered inside.   Their worst fears were confirmed.  Maude Willard was dead. Her pet dog, however, was alive and well.  It had apparently survived by putting its nose into the barrel’s only air hole, thereby getting air for itself but cutting off Maude’s supply so that she eventually suffocated. 

While Maude’s experience with the Whirlpoool was horrendous and tragic, William Kondrat had an even closer encounter with its wild waters. 

It was July 1933.  A native of Chatham, New Jersey, Kondrat, 18, and a friend were hitchhiking to Chicago that summer. Arriving in Niagara Falls, New York, they asked a restaurant owner where they could have a swim.  The young men were told of a pathway that went down the side of the Niagara River Gorge to an old landing just a short distance upstream from the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge.

Easily finding the spot, Kondrat, a powerful swimmer, stripped and entered the water, unaware that the mighty Whirlpool Rapids were just a short distance downriver. He soon found himself in a very swift current and decided to return to shore.  This, he quickly found out, was impossible to do and moments later Kondrat was shot into the Rapids.  A steady nerve, his outstanding ability as a swimmer and incredible luck saw him through. 

Then came the Whirlpool. As Kondrat later described it: “Three times I was carried into the vortex and pulled 40 or 50 feet beneath the surface.  As I tried to fight my way to the top, I could see immense bubbles and the sun, filtered through the green water, being transformed into all the colours of the spectrum.  Somewhere I had read that the way to escape an undertow was to swim with it.  I tried that and suddenly was tossed 30 feet into the air.”

After several desperate attempts to reach land, he finally caught hold of a rock and pulled himself out.  Kondrat later described his condition at this point:  “My arms were virtually useless.  My lungs were full of water.  I had the worst headache I have ever experienced.  My brain was in a fog and I fell over but didn’t faint.  And the strange part of it was, when help reached me, the first thing I wanted was a drink of water.”

Witnesses to the swim later verified his story.  William Kondrat had accidentally achieved what no other swimmer had ever done.  Wearing no safety gear whatsoever, he had gone through the Whirlpool Rapids and then the Whirlpool itself – and lived to tell about it. 

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