The Mysterious Barge In Niagara Falls
A View Of The Scow
Nightmare Of All Nightmares
On Tuesday morning, August 6, 1918, the weather at Niagara Falls was already heating up. A heat wave had gripped the surrounding areas, with temperatures in the upper nineties, far beyond the norm for this part of the country. The men who worked on the river would be the few who could count on relief from the heat, since the temperature out on the river would naturally be a lot cooler. But, for two men in particular, the joy of working on the Niagara would be changed forever. Seasoned Swedish sailor, Gustave Ferdinand Loftberg, who lived in Buffalo, New York, was a man who had seen his share of rough seas and had survived some of the worst storms, so he was a natural pick to help show the new hire, James Henry Harris, also from Buffalo, how to work safely on the river. The two would be working a sand dredging scow, a type of steel and copper bottomed barge that cannot power itself, and is, instead, towed by a tug boat. Owned by the Great Lakes Dredge and Docks Company, the scow was towed by a company tug named "Hassayampa” and operated by Captain John Wallace. Today, they would be dredging in the faster currents of the American side of the Niagara River across from the Port Day entrance to the Niagara Falls Power Company hydraulic canal. Captain Wallace piloted the tug, towing the scow closer to the site for the day’s dredging, and the men set to work. The sun rose higher into the clear sky, promising another scorcher, and while people on land were suffering, Loftberg was telling Harris how lucky they were to be out on the water. The sun was shining beautifully, the skies were bright blue, and Harris, only a month into his new job, was beginning to think Loftberg was right. They did have the perfect job. Beating the heat, great pay, beautiful scenery, what could be better than this? After lunch, the men were nearing the end of this dredging run, and they gave the sand sucker the signal that the scow was full. Loftberg gave Captain Wallace the signal that it was time to haul the scow to port. And that is when the nightmare to end all nightmares began.
A Runaway Barge
It was around 3:00 p.m. The cable that linked the tug to the scow slowly grew taut as Captain Wallace maneuvered his tug into position ready to tow. Two other tugs, the “Mayer” with Captain Enos White and the “Kinch” with Captain Charles Smith, began to draw closer to assist. Suddenly, the Hassayampa ran aground on an uncharted shoal, slowed, forcefully and with a jolt, then listed to the starboard side. The other tugs rushed in on each side of the Hassayampa to right the tug and push her free, but that action sent a repercussive shock wave down the length of the cable holding the scow securely to the tug. Instantly, the cable snapped like it was made of string, and the unthinkable horror became a reality...a scow with no power to operate on its own, was adrift in the Niagara River less than a mile upstream from the death-dealing and unforgiving Niagara Falls. As if the siren arms of the falls were beckoning, the scow began to pick up speed and headed in the direction of the Canadian channel toward the Horseshoe Falls. This is the area known as “The Point of No Return,” because no one can come after you if you pass this spot. The river drops in elevation fifty feet through treacherous rapids and cascades, and it divides into two main channels separated by Goat Island in the center of it all. Where the scow was heading, the rock strata tilts toward the Canadian side by twenty feet, pulling anyone and anything in those waters toward the faster currents of the deep channel. Once in that channel, it is only minutes before three-thousand tons of water per second are pulling you downward to a certain death over the falls.
Facing The Falls From Upstream
On The Edge Of Death
Two more company tugs, the “Cowles” and the “Helen M.,” saw what was happening and raced to help, but because of the speed of the currents, they had to turn back and watch helplessly as the river dragged the scow from their reach. Gustave Loftberg and James Harris felt a deathly panic as the sound of all five tugboats alarming the entire area with their whistles meant that no help was coming from these five vessels. The chorus of tugboat whistles sounded more like a funeral dirge to them now, as if this was a farewell tune that would be the last sounds of human beings for these men. If anything was going to save them now, it would have to be an act of God. As the tugs frantically sounded their distress signals, Gustave and James prepared for what would be a horrible death. “Look! We’re going over the falls! We’re lost!” screamed James. One month on the water, and now his life was coming to an end. He prayed that Gustave, a Swede who had been sailing since he was sixteen, for decades now, had some seasoned sailor trick that would save the day. They both knew that no one could swim against these treacherous currents. To dive into these raging waters was to guarantee being swept to a faster death at the plunge over the falls. “What do we do? James pleaded. Gustave’s answer destroyed James. “I don’t know,” yelled Gustave over the rapidly increasing roar of the river. They were picking up speed, an alarming bump here and there, a lurch, the scow would turn and move as if a demon were now in control of the scow, towing them gleefully to torture them before delivering them to their certain deaths. “Tie ourselves to the scow,” yelled Gustave. “It’s our only chance.” Harris shivered at the thought of being pulled underwater by any vessel, and he shot a terrified look at Gustave and yelled, “There’s got to be a better way. God help us!” Gustave was not going to argue, because time was running out. The scow turned to face the falls, and the men could now see the mist coming from the place of their doom. They could hear the deafening roar increasing, as if a giant was opening its mouth to devour them both. Gustave began to lash himself into the hole at the stern, figuring that he might get bumped around harshly, but he might survive with the scow taking the brunt of the fall. James was afraid of drowning by being lashed to a sinking ship, so he tied himself to a barrel that he planned on throwing overboard as they catapulted over the falls. He figured that this would help him stay afloat, maybe drift to some nearby rock and cling to life that way. Both men frantically worked to achieve their life-saving act before they reached the final moment of going over the falls. They were picking up speed, rounding the curve in the channel, and they could now see that the falls were only ten-thousand feet away... then nine-thousand feet... then eight-thousand... seven-thousand...the rapids were spraying them with cold water as if to keep them wide awake for their doom, the same demon who was towing them to their death was splashing their faces to taunt them with perverted glee. The men were horrified and resigned to their doom. Six thousand feet... both men had been praying loudly, staring as their fate grew ever closer... then it was rapidly five thousand feet, and their hearts raced with panic, draining what little resolve they had for even fighting to live. Four thousand feet... three thousand feet...then a bump, a skid, a lurching motion, a toe-curling dragging sensation as the scow caught on something in the river bed. James could feel the blood drain from his face, and he gripped the sides of the scow so hard, he broke his fingernails. The scow tilted as if the raging force of the channel was going to overturn the scow right here and drown them without even waiting for the falls to do the job...and, unbelievably, the scow stopped!
Gustave and James were paralyzed, neither of them spoke for a moment. They were both still clutching their respective places in the scow, bracing for the plunge that was now only twenty-five-hundred ahead of them. Unable to believe that it had stopped, it took a moment for the men to accept and mentally process that they were no longer moving. Afraid to move, lest the slightest disturbance start the scow going again, they silently sat and waited, agonizing seconds seeming like eternity. Having already resigned themselves to their fates, it was unbelievable to them that they would be spared the falls. Was this a taunt from some evil force that had towed them this far? Was this the lull before the final storm? Both of them, minds numb with disbelief, fully expected that the scow would not resist the powerful currents much longer, that at any moment now, their journey to death would resume. Yet as they gained the courage to stand and check their situation, they peered cautiously over the railing and could see men running down the street toward the power plant. Unbeknownst to them, Rome Coddington, superintendent of the Hydraulic Power Company, had arrived just as the scow had begun to drift, and he had notified the Niagara Falls Fire Department in Niagara Falls, Ontario, as well as the Coast Guard stations in Buffalo and Fort Niagara. News of their dilemma had spread rapidly throughout the area, and hundreds of people poured out to the river banks to witness the horrifying scene. With each minute that the scow stayed in place, the crowds grew, everyone praying for help in a situation that obviously rendered all of them unable to save the men. The workers at the Toronto Power Company began to exit the building and line the railed walkway that jutted a short distance out into the river’s edge. Some prayed and hoped that maybe the scow would drift close enough that they could grab the men in time, maybe even throw them a rope. They all stood transfixed. Those who were not standing there waiting were calling all of the area fire stations, as well as the Life Saving Station in Youngstown, New York.
Looking From The Walkway At The Old Power Plant
Hoping For A Lifeline
Gustave could sense by the throngs of people along the banks that somebody with the Coast Guard would try their best to save them, and he and James would have to be ready. If this scow held out long enough, they might just be saved, but they would have to act fast while they waited. The first thing they did was throw out the heavy anchor. “God let that hold us!” James said. “They will have to send a breeches buoy to get us,” said Gustave. We don’t have a second to waste. Come on, let’s get some of these timbers and build a windlass. They are going to need a stable point for the winch to tie onto when they get here. Let’s pray we’re still here when they arrive with the line.” Gustave knew that they would try to fire a lifeline out to the scow. If that could be established, they would then need to tie the cable that would follow it onto a secure, stationary hold on the scow, so a windlass that could support a lot of weight and force had to be built...fast. People on shore could see them ripping timbers out of the bottom of the scow, throwing smaller pieces overboard, as they focused on the lifesaving maneuver with a frenzy. If nothing else, Gustave was hoping that a cable could be attached to the scow and tied off to some point on shore so that the scow could go no further.
View Of The Horseshoe Falls
Another View Of The Horseshoe
Army To The Rescue
Soon, Gustave and James could see the horses pulling the fire wagon of the Niagara Falls Fire Department. They had brought a small life-saving gun, and Chief A. H. Newman carried it up to the roof of the power company’s building to give him the extra elevation. The scow was only 850 feet from shore, but with these powerful currents, nothing human, nor mechanized, could enter these waters without being swept away. Their only hope was to get a line out to the men and begin from there. Chief Newman fired the gun, the rope streamed hopefully toward the scow, Gustave and James looked skyward and prayed, but the rope only went to three-hundred feet, then disappointingly fell into the water. Chief Newman hurriedly tried again, but to no avail. He was feeling extremely sad and hopeless that he could not get the lifeline to these desperate men. A half an hour had passed since the phone calls went out, and miraculously, the scow had not moved. Just as soon as Chief Newman fired that second unsuccessful round, an army truck driven by Private Fred Daubney and carrying four other men from the Life Saving Station in Youngstown, twenty-five miles away, arrived. They had the right equipment...a larger gun and longer ropes.
Mounting their larger gun to the roof of the Toronto Power House, they fired the rope toward the scow, overshooting by enough distance that it draped over the scow, thus enabling Gustave and James to grab the rope and pull it into the scow. Rapidly, they fastened it to the windlass, and signaled the men on the roof that they were ready for the heavier rope that would follow. However, when the heavier rope was tied onto the lighter rope, the weight of hundreds of feet of thick rope, pulled downstream by the steady torrent of that current, made the task of getting the rope to the scow nearly impossible for Gustave and James. There was also deep concern that the force of the water against the heavier rope might dislodge the scow. More men were ordered to grab the rope at the roof top and pull it up out of the water. The task required more than a hundred men to accomplish. After what seemed like forever, the heavier rope was now attached to the scow and the makeshift windlass. A tentative hope was building. However, the next chapter was just beginning. It had taken hours of terrifying work for Gustave and James to bring the heavier rope to the scow. Now, to add to their worries, nightfall had begun.
A Thunderstorm Threatens
Large floodlights were brought out and aimed at the scow and the life lines, in some ways to reassure the men on the scow that they were not being forgotten, that all that could be possibly done to save them would continue, and with those floodlights illuminating the treacherous scene, the work continued. A breeches buoy was next to be sent to the scow. With everyone hoping that this nightmare would soon be over, that these men would be quickly saved and taken off that barge of death, the lines snagged and, halfway out across the waters, the breeches buoy would not move. By midnight, the situation had not improved. Gustave and James were tired, worn out, hungry, wet and freezing from the constant spray of water. They were weakening by the minutes, and now, it was beginning to look like it was going to storm. Lightning flashed in the skies, and the men on the roof argued as to what to do next. No one in his right mind was going out in those waters, and they had to somehow get those ropes untangled, but it had taken hours to get the heavier rope to the scow. By now, Gustave and James would be too weak to repeat that maneuver if the men on the roof pulled the ropes back in and started over. It was an impasse, a life imperiling impasse, and now a storm was threatening to bring even more danger by dumping rains into the Niagara River. A higher water level would be all it took to dislodge that scow and finish these men off. All that people along the banks could do was watch and pray.
The Scow Is Just Upstream To The Right
The Falls With The Scow In Sight
Red Hill, Sr., To The Rescue
Because there was no way for the men on the scow to be heard, or for the men on the scow to hear anyone from the shore, large letters were cut out and held up to the searchlights for Gustave and James to see. The message was for them to hold tight until the morning. Easy for the men on shore to say. It was beyond disheartening for two frightened men on a scow in the middle of a raging Niagara River. They tried to sleep, but there was a slight movement of the scow every few minutes, just enough that it would instantly wake the men in terror, causing them to think that they were going over the falls. If ever there was such a thing as fitful sleep, this was its ultimate definition. By midnight, the men on the roof of the power station were convinced that they would have to try to figure this out in the morning, but there was one man in the crowd who was not willing to wait. That man was Red Hill, Sr., a man who was virtually synonymous with Niagara Falls, a legend in his own time for having daringly saved many lives there. Red insisted that he be allowed to go out on that rope and try to untangle the mess. He was not taking no for an answer, and when the powers that be finally gave in, it was around three in the morning. With the searchlights trained on Red, he began to crawl out over those treacherous, rapid currents. Reaching the breeches buoy, he was dragged into the water several times, but he miraculously held on to those ropes. Unbelievably, Red Hill, Sr., was out there for several hours before he could return. It took not one, but two trips out there for Red to finally secure the situation and make the breeches buoy work. On the second trip out, the ropes actually got entangled behind him, making it impossible for him to get back to the power station until he got that straightened out. By eight-thirty in the morning, they were ready to try to retrieve Gustave and James. By now, the men had been stranded on that spot for eighteen terrifying hours, all that while fearing that, any minute, the scow would begin moving again, taking them to their untimely deaths.
Safe At Last
Miraculously, the thunderstorm that had threatened that night did not materialize, and as the sun came up, everyone could see that the lifelines were being held above the waters on a trajectory that ran from the windlass on the scow to the rooftop of the Toronto Power House. It was time to bring the men in off that scow. “You go first,” said Gustave to James. “I’m alone, no family. You have five children who need you. Go on. Get out of here.” And with that, he helped James slip into the breeches buoy. Charles Possert and Thomas Darrington, who worked as riggers for Toronto Power House, worked the lines while over one hundred men pulled the lines taut. It was a slow and arduous process, and several times the slack in the lines dipped James perilously, the water spinning him and threatening to take him out of the breeches buoy. Too weak to stand up in the chair, he desperately clung onto the sides all the more. Shortly before ten on that Wednesday morning of August 7th, 1918, James Henry Harris cleared the wall of the roof top on the Toronto Power House. His first words were, “I’m going away back on land somewhere, and I’m going to lash myself to a tree. Then I’ll know I’m safe.” The men there tried to take him for medical treatment, but he pulled away and ran to the railings. He had to see them get Gustave off that scow. Gustave took a different approach to riding the breeches buoy to safety and stood up in it the entire way. His feet never touched the water. Around 10:20 a.m., Gustave was brought to the safety of the rooftop, and the long ordeal was over. Loftberg and Harris were taken to the famous Cataract House Hotel where they were treated to hot baths and a large dinner. Later, Loftberg told the press, “I was on the barge Constitution when she broke away from the tug in the great storm of 1905 on Lake Superior, and for 18 hours, we were tossed about in mountainous waves in the hurricane. But we weathered it then, and now we've weathered this run down the rapids and escaped the cataract. I guess I’m a lucky man.”
James Harris Being Pulled To Safety
Gustave Loftberg Being Rescued
July 18, 1992 At Niagara Falls
Where They Went
Gustave Loftberg would spend a while speaking to packed audiences at local theaters about his experience, but he eventually drifted out of the limelight and disappeared completely. James Harris never went back to work on the river, and he never went back to see the falls that nearly claimed his life. He never wanted to talk about it ever again and refused to do so even till the day he died in 1939. William Red Hill, Jr., was awarded the Carnegie Life Saving Medal for his heroism. He would go on to become a legend in the annals of Niagara Falls history.