The Tug and the Scow

August 6th 1918

At about 3 p.m. in the afternoon, a steel sand scow (barge) was engaged in a dredging operation. It was traveling in the fast currents on the American side of the Niagara River, opposite of Port Day, at the entrance of the Niagara Falls Power Company hydraulic canal. The scow was being towed by the tug boat named "Hassayampa". The tug was operated by Captain John Wallace and the two deck hands aboard were Gustave Loftberg, age 51 and Frank Harris, age 53. The tug and scow were owned and operated by the Great Lakes Dredge and Docks Company. During the operation, the tug boat struck a sandbar approximately half of a mile upriver from the Falls. The taunt rope that held the barge to the tug snapped "like a thin string".

The powerless and empty barge drifted out of control into the Canadian channel towards the Horseshoe Falls. Loftberg and Harris were helpless and unable to do anything to stop the scow. They were seen unsuccessfully attempting to slow the swift progress of the scow with the use of makeshift oars. Although some reports indicate they opened the two holes in the bottom of the scow to allow water to enter the barge, but they simply did not have enough time. Loftberg and Harris could only hope and pray for a miracle as they turned and witnessed the rising mist of the great Horseshoe Falls growing closer by the second. The roar of the Falls echoed in their ears. In a twist of fate, the scow became grounded in the shallow, fast moving cascades and lodged on a rock shoal about 2,500 feet (767m) upriver from the Horseshoe Falls.

The news of the scow being swept towards the Falls with two deck hands aboard spread throughout Niagara Falls, New York and the towns on the Canadian side. Hundreds of people crowded the buildings that lined the shore and the riverbanks to witness the human helplessness and the scow’s progress first hand. When the scow grounded it excited the crowd and hundreds of men made their way to the point on the Canadian shore nearest to the ledge.

Employees of the Toronto Power Company, who had watched the scow drifting in the river from the company building, rushed to telephones. Calls were sent to the fire departments of Niagara Falls, New York and Niagara Falls, Ontario. Also calls were made to the Life Saving Station in Youngstown, New York.

Loftberg and Harris began ripping huge timbers from the inside of the barge and were seen throwing some overboard. They were attempting to build a makeshift windlass (a winch device). Their hope was that if a rope line from shore could somehow reach them they would be able to secure the line to the barge in order to hopefully prevent the barge from becoming dislodged and moving any closer to the Falls.

With sheer determination and their own lives at stake, Loftberg and Harris completed building the clumsy windlass. All the two stranded men could do now was wait for rescue. While awaiting rescue, Loftberg thought that he safety tied himself to the barge. Harris, on the other hand tied a rope around himself with the other end tied to a barrel. Harris’ reasoning was that if the barge broke free, he could jump clear and only hope that the barrel got caught up on more rocks.

For numerous reasons, including the distance, the turbulence of the rapids and the proximity to the Horseshoe Falls, a rescue boat could not be utilized to rescue the two men.

The Niagara Falls Fire Department was the first to arrive at the Power Company Building and brought a small life saving gun. It was carried to the roof of the building and Chief A. H. Newman discharged the gun. The rope shot out towards the barge and spun out about 300 feet (91.4m) before falling into the river. A second attempt was made but had the same result. In the meantime an army truck arrived bearing five men from the Life Saving Station in Youngstown and their equipment which included, a larger gun and longer ropes. The truck made the 25 mile trip from Fort Niagara in 35 minutes.

When the men from the Life Saving Station arrived with a gun capable of firing a lifeline to the scow, they mounted their gun on the roof of the Toronto Power House. The first shot to the scow with a light weight rope was successful but shot over the barge. Loftberg and Harris grabbed the rope and began connecting it to the windlass. In the meantime, the rescuers tied a much heavier rope to the end of the first rope. Loftberg and Harris began the long struggle of winding the rope in from the power house to the scow. The weight of the heavy rope was being carried downriver by the force of the water and was threatening to dislodge the barge. At the time more than a hundred men were needed on shore to pull the rope to prevent this from happening.

After many hours of labor under terrifying conditions, Loftberg and Harris were able to bring the heavy rope aboard the barge and secure it to the windlass. By this time darkness had arrived.

With nightfall, huge searchlights were erected and trained on the scow and rescue rope. A breeches buoy (a chair like attachment) followed the line but became snarled half way across.

At 3 a.m. on Wednesday August 7th, Red Hill Sr. went out hand over hand along the rope as his body was tugged by the current of the rapids. Red Hill Sr. reached the tangled breech buoy and worked for hours until he was able to untangle it in order to allow the rescue.

With the arrival of dawn, thousands of people crowded the shoreline watching this drama unfold. At 8:30 a.m., Red Hill journeyed out again. This time Hill got within 130 feet (40m) from the scow. Here he was able to talk to Loftberg and Harris. Hill discovered that one of the small coils of rope on the scow was wound around the big rope from the breeches-buoy, preventing the buoy from getting closer to the scow. Hill tried to shout directions to Loftberg and Harris but both had become so weak that they had difficulty untangling the rope. With Hill giving instructions and the persistence of both crew members, the rope was finally untangled. Hill returned to the roof of the Toronto Power House.

With Charles Possert and Thomas Darrington, both riggers from the Toronto Power Company working the lines, Hill was able to make his way to the stranded scow. Harris, suffering from hunger and exposure was the first removed from the scow to safety. Loftberg followed. It was 10 a.m. by the time Loftberg was brought safely to shore. William "Red" Hill Sr. was awarded a Carnegie Life Saving Medal for his heroic efforts. The crew of the scow had been rescued without any loss of life.

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