Monday, June 8, 2009

The Old Scow

"Have you ever heard the story of the old scow?" I asked my group. "When did you meet my ex-wife?" says an anonymous voice from the back of the bus.

re were a few laughs and as I looked back I saw one tour member whispering a translation of the joke to her husband, who then laughed as well. We pulled to the side of the parkway near the Toronto Power Station building and exited the vehicle. Ugly and obstinate the old rusting scow sits about 1,000 feet upstream of the horseshoe falls, pretty much in the same spot it has occupied since 1918.

The scow is a barge that was hauling dredge material from the river bottom on August 6th of that year when its tow cable broke and sent the vessel towards the brink. Aboard were two workers, both aged 51. James Harris was a local man who lived in Buffalo. His companion was Gustave Loftberg, a Swedish sailor.

Quickly the men deployed the scow's anchor, but to no avail. The smooth rocky river bottom afforded no obstructions for the anchor to grab. Frantically t
he men opened the the doors on the bottom of the dredge that were used for dumping its load. These slowed the scow while the men opened valves on the airtight compartments of the boat--allowing it to sink. Luckily the trailing anchor managed to grab something on the river bed allowing the airtight compartments to fill with water. The barge was marooned. But so were the two men aboard.

Quickly a crowd gathered on shore, but people did not know what to do. A boat rescue was impossible. Several attempts to launch a rope to the grounded scow fell way short. A crew of Americans from a post at Youngstown, NY arrived at the scene with a cannon that could shoot a rope a great distance. This gun was positioned on the roof of the Power Station with the aim of sending a rope to the men. The aim was true and a rope landed across the scow on the first attempt.

When the rope from the rooftop to the scow was properly secured, a crude lifesaving device was attached via pulleys. It's called a breeches buoy and looks like a pair of pants sewn to a flotation ring; a pulley allows the contraption to be sent from shore to a marooned vessel and back again (see picture). Night was falling and tensions were rising as the crowd grew, for they feared that the scow could give way at any moment and plunge over the Falls killing both of the men who were stranded. Some bad luck led to the tangling of the lines used to propel the breeches buoy. Somebody would need to climb out over the raging waters of the Niagara and attempt to untangle the ropes.

A member of the crowd, Red Hill, stepped forward. He would climb hand over hand along the rope to allowing the buoy to do its job and rescue the two men. Bravely he set out, but came back to shore as night settled in. At first light Hill finished his task, dangling above the rapids that would easily take his life should he show a moment of weakness or make a minor mistake. Hill safely climbed to shore.

Thanks to the heroics of Red Hill, both men were pulled to safety. News reports say that James Harris shortly left his job working on the river, while Gustave Loftberg exploited his brush with death by giving lectures and appearances in which he retold the harrowing tale. It is rumored that Loftberg eventually lost his life at sea, aboard a merchant marine ship torpedoed in World War II.

And now for the rest of the story. Red Hill's bravery that day was compounded by the fact that Hill had recently returned from serving in WW I. At the time of the old scow rescue, he was still recovering from a mustard gas attack he survived while serving on the front lines in France.
If you'd like more images and the exact location of the old scow, click here--you'll find more info plus a link to the old scow's location on Google Earth. The old scow can be viewed from Goat Island on the US side, but is best enjoyed from the Canadian shore near the Toronto Powerhouse.


Post a Comment