Monday, January 12, 2009

Beauty...and Disaster, at Niagara

Ask any winter tourist at Niagara Falls if the water ever freezes, and he or she will probably call it impossible. And, strictly speaking, the tourists are correct. But ice frequently forms over the water, especially the relatively tranquil pool at the base of Niagara [the route used by the Maid Of The Mist tour boats]. Before the 1960's, when an ice boom was first installed further up the River, huge chunks of ice from upstream would rush over the Falls, then collect in piles at the base. The constant flow of water would form more ice over them, giving them a solid and massive structure [don't believe ice can form so solidly? During World War II, the Allies actually investigated constructing aircraft carriers out of ice combined with wood pulp]. In fact, before construction of traditional bridges to span the River, the so-called "ice bridges" were the only way to cross Niagara.

Records of ice depth and size have been kept over the years; a look at some of the larger ice bridges can be found here. In years when the ice was thick enough, residents and tourists alike were known to walk on them, play outdoor games on them, even set up shanty-town villages of shacks on them to serve food and drink to those who came to play. Such a year was 1912.

In 1912 the ice bridge began to form in mid-January. By the 20th, it was considered solid enough to allow people on it. Indeed, the bridge that year was said to be particularly solid. Soon, the shacks went up to take care of visitors' needs. One of those huts was operated by "Red" Hill, who sold hot beverages and snacks to passers-by. Business was pretty good the morning of February 4th. By noon, some 35 people were on the densely-packed ice.

Suddenly, Hill felt a small tremor beneath his feet, followed by a creaking, grinding sound that could be heard over Niagara's mighty roar. As noted above, the ice bridges were usually solid. But they were only safe while moored to both sides of the River. If the attachment to either shore became loose, they would rock up and down above the constantly-rushing waters, and the internal tension would force them to pieces. Hill realized that the bridge was about to collapse. Knowing more than thinking about what to do, he began to herd the crowd towards the Canadian shore, which seemed more stable. Most of the people were able to flee the bridge to safety. But four remained: Eldredge and Clara Stanton, regular visitors from nearby Toronto since their marriage six years earlier, and two 17-year-olds from Cleveland, Ignatius Roth and Burrell Hecock. Moments before the groan, they could be seen throwing snowballs and playing leapfrog on the ice. Now, they were desperately running for shore.

Startled by the sudden, earthquake-like rumble, the Stantons headed for the unstable American shore. Just before they reached safety, the disconnected American side of the bridge began shaking wildly, separating completely from the shore. Precious seconds were lost while Eldredge and Clara reversed directions and began a desperate dash for safety on the other side. The struggle must have been horrific, with the two of them forcing their way across the shifting ice, slogging in sleet and trying to navigate sudden gaps in the surface. Just 50 feet from safety, Clara's strength gave out. She fell, exhausted, to the ice. Eldredge tried to lift his wife, but his strength was fading fast. Running out of time, he valiantly tried to drag his wife to shore, screaming for help.

Meanwhile, Hill, along with a friend, William Lalonde, managed to pull Roth to solid ground. They shouted for Hecock to jump the ever-widening gap between the bridge and shore. But he'd heard Eldredge's desperate cries for help. He ran back to the Stantons, and helped Eldredge bring Clara to her feet. But time was running out! The ice bridge was free of both shores now, and rushing headlong for the Whirlpool Rapids.

The remains of the ice bridge rushed down the River. Suddenly, it crossed the path of a strong, man-made current - a waste-water duct from one of the power plants lining the shores. The force of the water acted like a saw, cutting part of the ice away, and forcing the three unwilling passengers to the other side [towards the Canadian shore]. If they could have remained on the cut-away piece, they would have ground to a halt on the American side of the River. Their ice flow, however, continued, faster now, towards the Whirlpool.

But there was still a chance! Further down the River, before the Rapids, two Massive regular bridges crossed the Niagara. Rescuers were forming massive ropes, hoping to lower them to the Stantons and Hecock. Then the ice flow divided again, leaving The Stantons towards the Canadian shore, and Hecock floating in mid-stream. His fragment of ice reached the bridges first. A rope was lowered, and, incredibly, Hecock managed to grab it! The men above desperately pulled on the rope, trying to lift Hecock free. Their first attempt plunged him into waist-deep freezing water. The rescuers pulled harder. Slowly, Hecock rose from the River. Then, about 60 feet up, he lost his grip! Burrell Hecock flailed madly in the air, before plunging into the raging Niagara. No one saw him again.

The crews still hoped to save the Stantons. A rope was lowered as they passed the bridge. Eldredge, seeing Hecock's vain attempt, tied the rope around his wife's waist. But the ice flow continued downstream, the rope,became taut, and snapped. But the Lower Bridge was still ahead! One more chance! The rope was lowered. Eldredge began to secure it to his wife, then suddenly stopped. What must have he been thinking in that moment! It seemed, finally, that Eldredge had had enough. Rather than hope for an unlikely miracle, the Stantons seemed to surrender themselves to the inevitable, two more sacrifices to the angry God that seems to rule Niagara at times.

Eldredge and Clara Stanton were seen by the horrified crowds watching the drama to drop to their knees, likely in prayer. Eldredge put his arms around Clara as they knelt. Then, they reached the Rapids. A giant current spun them around, then flipped their sorrowful craft over. They sank below the water, never to be found.

After the tragedy, officials quickly moved to declare the ice bridges off-limits. They remain so to this day, and probably will forever.

"Red" Hill received his second heroism medal for his quick work getting most of the 35 souls to safety. But he said afterwards that he would carry the sight of the Stantons and Hecock's deaths to his grave.

We will see more of William Hill in future posts. In fact, he again plays a large part in our next entry, a look at the second person to ride the Falls in a barrel to safety. But this daredevil, Bobby Leach, was as un-alike Niagara's first conqueror, Anna Edson Taylor, as two people could possibly be. Till then, be well and happy.

-Mike Riley

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