Construction Barge Crew rescued from certain death …
On a hot August night a century ago, thousands of tourists watched in awestruck silence as a young man shimmied out hand-over-hand on a thick rope to a construction barge at the brink of Horseshoe Falls.
Two terrified construction workers on the barge also held their breath as they feared they were about to plunge to their deaths.
Earlier in the day they were working the barge 18 miles up stream on the Niagara River near Buffalo, cleaning debris away from a water intake pipe at a power plant. But a cable snapped connecting them to the powerful tugboat Hassayampa and the barge got caught up in Niagara’s 109k/hr. current and started heading downstream. The pursuing tugboat couldn’t catch up and various attempts to lasso the runaway barge from shore were unsuccessful.
The hull has airtight walls so its floor can open to dump its load and still keep floating.
The construction crew opened the floor doors, but to no avail. Their barge continued its race towards the loud, wild, deadly precipice.
Just when all hope seemed lost, the scow grounded on some rocks only 760 metres back from the brink. It rested 260 metres from the Canadian shore, directly opposite the Toronto Power Plant.
Still today visitors to Niagara Falls wonder about the rusting iron barge sitting precariously above Horseshoe Falls in the rippling rapids of the Niagara River. Construction workers Gustave Loftberg and James Harris, both 51, lived to tell their harrowing story because of the bravery of William “Red” Hill. He had recently returned to his native Niagara Falls after being wounded as a Canadian soldier in the First World War. He was a renowned river man and daredevil and would save 28 people from drowning in the Niagara River before his death at age 54 in 1942.
Niagara Falls Fire Department was first on the scene about 3 p.m. with its horse-drawn rigs.
From the roof of the Toronto Power Plant they fired a grappling gun, but the rope fell 152 metres short of the barge. A raft was devised to float a rope to the barge from upstream, but that failed, too.
A call went out to the U.S. Coast Guard base at Youngstown, N.Y. on the Lake Ontario shore. Five soldiers responded with a larger grappling gun. From the roof of the Toronto Power Plant they fired out a small rope that draped over the barge.
James and Loftberg used it pull out a larger rope. But the bigger rope was heavy and although the stranded men were able to rig it to the winches that opened and closed the scow’s bottom doors, it was still slow going.
The heavy rope sagged into the river and the rescuers feared it would dislodge the scow from its rocky perch. One hundred men were put on the rope to keep it taunt and out of the water.
By 2 a.m. the big rope was secured to the barge. A bosun’s chair was attached and slid out towards the scow. But it got stuck halfway when it tangled with a smaller attached rope.
When the chair snagged, 30-year-old Hill volunteered to shimmy out on the rope going hand-over-hand to dislodge the chair. He hung above the raging rapids by his feet and one hand for two hours as he worked to clear the chair. Huge floodlights were brought in to illuminate the rescue scene and thousands watched from the river bank. After two hours and no success, Hill reversed along the rope to the power plant roof and waited for daylight.
One-metre-high letters were used to spell out a message to the stranded men that the rescue attempt would continue at daybreak.
At first light, Hill again shimmied out on the rope and was able to free the chair. He got close enough to the scow to shout directions to Harris and Loftberg on how to use the chair.
Hill again came back to the roof and by 10 a.m. Harris, weak and terrified was pulled across on the rope to safety. Loftberg soon followed.
After a hearty breakfast at the best hotel in town, newspaper interviews and a good night’s sleep the two men were back to work the next day, but Harris vowed never again to work on the river. He never visited Niagara Falls again and never spoke of his ordeal.
Loftberg became a media darling and gave lectures in New York State about his adventure on the river.
The defiant scow still sits where it lodged on August 6, 100 years ago.
It has outlived endless predictions, bets and speculation about how long it could resist the tug of the river and 100 winters of ice chunks pounding its hull.
A shrub now grows out of the hull. Some of its river-side wall has disappeared. Niagara Parks Commission officials had predicted the scow wouldn’t survive to celebrate its 100th anniversary.
In 2012, Judy wrote about another Niagara Falls dare devil, Nik Wallenda …