Monday, September 22, 2008

Joel Robinson: Ulysses and the Sirens

"And having come to Circe he was sent on his way by her, and put to sea, and sailed past the isle of the Sirens. Now the Sirens were Pisinoe, Aglaope, and Thelxiepia, daughters of Achelous and Melpomene, one of the Muses. One of them played the lyre, another sang, and another played the flute, and by these means they were fain to persuade passing mariners to linger; and from the thighs they had the forms of birds.
Sailing by them, Ulysses wished to hear their song, so by Circe's advice he stopped the ears of his comrades with wax, and ordered that he should himself be bound to the mast. And being persuaded by the Sirens to linger, he begged to be released, but they bound him the more, and so he sailed past. Now it was predicted of the Sirens that they should themselves die when a ship should pass them; so die they did."


What motivates people to do what they do is frequently a mystery. Indeed, if we were to know the real reasons for people's actions, we would probably shake our heads in disbelief. Consider the strange story of Joel Robinson. In 1861, he placed himself in a graver peril than Ulysses; unlike the myth, Robinson's challenge was very real. And he did it, as far as anyone can discern, for [the admittedly princely sum, at the time, of] five hundred dollars!

A little history: before the construction of the great Suspension Bridge {itself a fascinating story, and one that will be addressed in another posting], it was difficult for those living on either side of the Niagara River to cross the waters. In 1846, a ferry service was instituted, under the name Maid Of The Mist. In 1848, with the completion of Suspension Bridge, the ship's owners converted the ferry to tourist use, mapping a route through the surprising tranquil waters near the base of the Falls. The new attraction proved very successful, as it has remained to this day. It was so successful, in fact, that a second, larger vessel was introduced in 1854.

The Maid Of The Mist II was a solid 72 feet in length, steam powered, and soon became an attraction in its own right. Business was better than ever. Unfortunately, the good times would not last. Early in 1861, due to an economic downturn [and where have we heard that before?], brought on in part by the impending American Civil War, the tourist boat business failed, and the Maid Of The Mist II was sold at auction.

Its purchaser, a Canadian company, put a reasonable condition on the acquisition; the boat had to be delivered to them at the Lake Ontario port of Queenston [in Ontario, across a narrow inlet of the Lake from the American village of Lewiston]. Impossible!, cried the tour boat owners. To deliver the vessel at Queenston, it would have to cross three perilous stretches of water; the Great Gorge Rapids, the Whirlpool, and the Lower River Rapids. There may have been a more dangerous stretch of water elsewhere in the world, but no one could imagine it. The purchasers were polite, but firm. Unless the boat could be brought to Queenston, it was of no use to them. The tour boat operators considered their options: given the ship's immense size, there was no way to move it by land. But who would pilot the vessel through the most dangerous waters in the world? In desperation, they offered five hundred dollars to anyone who would take on the challenge. Finally, they found a taker.

Joel Robinson was 53, and a long-time ship's captain. Somehow, two men were found who would serve as crew: James McIntire, who acted as ship's mechanic, and James Jones, who would spend the voyage below decks as engineer. For those who've never been at Niagara, it may be hard to imagine just what these three had signed on to accomplish. I've found a short clip, taken from the Spanish Aero Cars that cruise above the River. It shows the Whirlpool, the mid-way point of Robinson's journey...

...and probably the least perilous of the three dangers.

On June 6th, 1861, the Maid Of The Mist II was readied for its last cruise on the Niagara River. A sizable crowd lined both sides of the River, waiting to see a miracle, or what they expected to see.About 3 pm, a single blast from the boat's whistle indicated that the trip had begun. Ulysses had been able to spend his time with the Sirens lashed to the mast. But Robinson needed to operate the ship's wheel. He had to be unencumbered. The first buffeting wave knocked him, and McIntire, to the floor of the wheel room. In the Engine room, Jones was also knocked to the floor. He desperately grabbed a pipe stand and pulled himself to his knees. And this was merely the first blow! How could they get the ship through the gauntlet that awaited?

The boat moved faster and faster, reaching an incredible-for-the-era speed of 39 MPH. Robinson and his crew could do little more than hold on, and pray that they would pass through the Gorge Rapids. Incredibly, they did! During a moment of relative calm, Robinson noted that the ship's smokestack had wrenched free and been lost overboard. What else might be damaged before the journey was over?

Safely passing the first Siren, Robinson and his crew next challenged the Whirlpool. As noted above, this was, compared to the Gorge Rapids, a relatively calm sequence. The captain and crew righted themselves, just in time to find their ship trapped in the swirling waters of the Whirlpool. It took all of the captain's skill and strength to break free of the ghoulish grip of the Whirlpool, but finally, the vessel was free.

Now came the third Siren, and perhaps the most dangerous of all, the Lower River Rapids. It was said that one of three Sirens played a lyre, another entranced mariners with her flute, while the third sang so beautifully that sailors would steer their vessels closer to hear her, only to be smashed by the rocks near the Sirens' island. There are some who say they hear songs in the water of Niagara. Did Captain Robinson and his crew hear the songs of the Sirens? Did they hear the voices of those who had died in those waters, calling them to join their company? Who can say? Robinson was facing the most difficult peril of all, trying to steer a badly-battered ship through the perilous waters. He could do little more than try and move to the center of the channel, perhaps following Homer's advice to travellers; "You will go most safely through the middle".

Then, suddenly, it was over. The boat moved through calmer waters, past the three Sirens. The rest of the voyage was without notice. Robinson docked the Maid Of The Mist II at Queenston, and turned it over to its new owners. Surprisingly, the ship was in good shape, considering the course it had taken. The only major damage was that lost smokestack. Robinson and his crew returned home with their money, and went on with their lives.
Ulysses, the Ancients relate, eventually made it to his home port, and a happy reunion with his wife and son. Joel Robinson's life after his mythical voyage was, sadly, not as joyous. He never captained another boat. The formerly gregarious sailor took to his bed much of the time, and was seldom seen in town. Captain Robinson, the conqueror of the Rapids, died two years later, at the age of 55. Joel Robinson survived his day with the three Sirens. But it is probably fair to say that the River had killed him, as surely as if he had died in the encounter. And, unlike the Sirens, the two Rapids and the Whirlpool did not die once they were beaten; they can be seen to this day by visitors to Niagara.
Next time, an entry I'm sure you've been waiting for; the story of the first person to go over the Falls in the barrel. Until then, be well and happy.

-Mike Riley

1 comment:

S. A. Hart said...

Thanks for sharing this tale. Quite fascinating!