Thursday, January 1, 2009

William "Red" Hill Sr.; The Riverman

Few names are as inexorably linked with the history of Niagara as the Hill family, and especially the father, William "Red" Hill, Sr. The photo at left is from his display at the Daredevil Hall Of Fame (A larger version of this photograph is available here; it's worth a moment of your time, if only to see some of the information about Hill painted on his barrel). Hill is credited with saving the lives of 28 people. He was also honored by the Canadian Humane Society, for rescuing birds that went over the Falls and survived. He remains the most-honored rescuer in Canadian history. Many of those courageous efforts are connected with the River. When Bobby Leach made his successful plunge over the Falls in a barrel [more about Mr. Leach in a future post}, it was Hill who brought his barrel to safety and helped free Leach. When the Niagara scow became trapped just above the brink of the Falls, Hill rescued the two men aboard [another story for a future post]. Hill was also frequently involved in recovering the bodies of accident or suicide victims from Niagara, a task he performed some 177 times.

William Hill was born in 1888, in Niagara Falls, ON. His distinctive red hair soon gave him the nickname "Red", which he would carry for the rest of his life. Even as a child, Hill was brave; at the age of eight, he received his first medal for heroism when he rescued a young girl from a burning house. Also from a young age, Red was obsessed with the River. To the consternation of his mother, he would regularly skip school to study Niagara. In time, he gave up all formal education, choosing instead a life-long course of study on the River. He would throw sticks, tin cans, rope, whatever came to hand, and watch how they travelled in the water. Did they flow smoothly? Did they spin because of underwater currents? Did they sink, or float, or even fly out of the water? Red Hill could tell you, and where. It's believed that no person has ever known the intricacies of the Niagara River around the Falls better than Red Hill.

But William Hill was not just a hero of Niagara. During World War I, he served with the Royal Canadian Army, and was wounded four times by sniper fire. He also faced mustard gas in the field, which severely damaged his lungs. A doctor treating him suggested that he would fare best in a warm, dry climate, having no idea that Hill was from the cold, damp region of Niagara. But Hill came home, bearing two medals for bravery under fire, and spent the rest of his life as he'd spent the years before the war; always studying, watching, pondering the River.

Someone once asked Red Hill what he called himself. He responded that he was just a "riverman". In time, news stories began to use the term to describe him. So, too, will we refer to him. He will appear throughout many of the stories ahead, and stars in our next entry, a snapshot of a long-gone time, and the circumstances under which he received his second bravery medal. Until then, be well and happy.

-Mike Riley


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