Toward the edge of one of the world’s most powerful waterfalls, a nerve-wracking drama is unfolding. Yes, two men are stranded on board a runaway barge heading for the 170-foot drop of Niagara’s Horseshoe Falls. As the rapids rush violently around them, will they manage to escape a deadly plunge?
On the afternoon of August 6, 1918, James Harris and Gustav Lofberg were busy dredging sandbanks on the Niagara River, around a mile upstream of the famous falls. But when this routine operation went wrong, their vessel broke free. And in the churning currents, it wasn’t long before they found themselves facing a terrifying fate.
Indeed, now less than 2,000 feet from the edge of the falls, the vessel became stuck on some rocks. But how long would this stay of execution last? As crowds of spectators gathered on the nearby shore, a rescue effort began. By nightfall, however, both men were still on board the vessel, facing a terrifying ordeal as the hours ticked by.
At 188 feet high, Horseshoe Falls is the biggest of Niagara’s three waterfalls. Furthermore, with around 90 percent of the Niagara River tumbling over its 2,200-foot curve, it’s certainly the most impressive. In fact, more than 700,000 gallons of water are believed to flow over the cataract every second in high season.
Located on the border between the United States and Canada, Niagara Falls began forming some 18,000 years ago. Back then, experts believe, melting ice carved out a new landscape of rivers and lakes. And ultimately, these waters eroded through the cliffs that form the Niagara Escarpment, creating the famous falls.
In addition to the iconic Horseshoe Falls, Niagara is also home to two smaller waterfalls, the American and Bridal Veil Falls. However, it is the instantly recognizable crescent of the Horseshow that is famous around the world. But while it is almost certainly a beautiful attraction, it is a dangerous and deadly one as well.
In fact, it’s believed that around 40 people die every year as a result of going over the falls. Now, often these will be deliberate suicide bids, but sometimes folk do it as a daredevil stunt. And over a 160-year period beginning in the mid-19th century, workers have retrieved some 5,000 bodies from beneath the cascades. Occasionally, there are those who miraculously survive, but these cases are few and far between.
So over the years, Niagara Falls’ dangerous reputation has inspired various thrill-seekers to stage death-defying stunts near the lip. Indeed, some have tried it by getting inside barrels and seeing where they wash up – if they do wash up. However, one of the most dramatic episodes happened entirely by accident, when two men found themselves edging closer to the drop.
On that fateful day, Harris, 53, and Lofberg, 51, were working on the Niagara River on board a small iron scow. And both employees of the Niagara Falls Power Company, they had been tasked with dredging the sandbanks located upstream from the falls. So with about a mile between them and the cataract, it must have seemed like a relatively risk-free task.
However, things soon took a turn for the worse. According to reports, Harris and Lofberg’s 80-foot vessel was being towed behind the tugboat Hassayampa when disaster struck. Apparently, the tugboat became stuck on a sandbar, causing the cable connecting the two boats to snap.
Now untethered, Harris and Lofberg’s scow was hurtling towards the edge of the falls, violently hitting rapids on the way. Forced to consider the possibility that the vessel might plummet over the lip, they began making whatever preparations they could. Interestingly, however, the pair took two vastly different approaches.
According to reports, Lofberg deduced that his best chance of survival involved sticking with the scow. And to that end, he attached himself to the vessel with a rope, hoping to remain tethered if the worst happened. Meanwhile, Harris decided that he would be better off facing the plunge alone.
For you see, Harris attached himself to a nearby barrel with a rope. Apparently, he hoped that its buoyancy would allow him to float away from the scow and escape the potentially dangerous wreckage if the vessel went over the falls. Thus prepared, the two men could only watch as they inched ever closer to the deadly plunge.
At this point, there are conflicting stories about what happened next. According to some reports, Harris and Lofberg demonstrated remarkably quick thinking, heaving open the doors set into the bottom of the vessel. As a result, water flooded in, slowing the pair’s progress towards the deadly drop.
However, some historians have pointed out that there is little evidence to support this version of events. Instead, they have suggested that Harris and Lofberg simply dropped the anchor of the scow, preventing it from drifting further downstream. In any case, the vessel eventually slowed to a halt – just under 2,000 feet from the lip of the falls.
Now stuck fast in some rocks, the scow was in a perilous position as the violent rapids raged on all sides. And even though Harris and Lofberg were stranded just 650 feet from the Canadian shore, they couldn’t be easily reached. Soon a crowd had gathered outside the Toronto Powerhouse, watching in horror as the episode continued to unfold.
Given the rough nature of the river so close to the falls, it wasn’t possible for rescuers to reach the men by boat. And so, members of the Niagara Falls Fire Department attempted to fire a grappling gun out to the stranded vessel. But even though they took aim from the top of the Toronto Powerhouse, they were unable to reach the scow.
Eventually, the United States Coast Guard arrived, bringing with them a heavy duty grappling gun. And with this, rescuers were able to successfully fire a line out to Harris and Lofberg on board the scow. By fastening one end to the vessel and the other to the Powerhouse roof, a vital lifeline was created.
By that time, it was around 9:30 p.m., and darkness had descended on the fraught scene. To try and winch the men to safety, rescuers mounted a breeches buoy on the rope between them and the shore. A type of harness constructed from canvas, this device is often used to remove people from stranded vessels.
With the breeches buoy in place, rescuers began the arduous task of winching the vital equipment towards the scow. But before it could reach the desperate men, it became stuck on the line. Apparently, the ropes had become tangled, preventing the harness from reaching its destination.
So as the hours ticked by, Harris and Lofberg were no closer to leaving their precarious perch on the stranded vessel. Then, at around 3 a.m., a hero emerged in the form of 29-year-old William ‘Red’ Hill. A lifelong resident of the Canadian town of Niagara Falls, the young man already had a reputation as a lifesaver.
In fact, Hill was just a teenager when he received a medal for saving his sister from a burning building. And in 1910, he had retrieved daredevil Bobby Leach after his death-defying plunge over the top of the falls. With the outbreak of World War I, however, Hill had been put to use elsewhere, fighting with U.S. troops in France.
By the time that Harris and Lofberg found themselves stuck near the falls, Hill had been sent home from the front. Apparently, he had been wounded and had also suffered from a gas attack. But after a few days rest, he put his life on the line again, offering to help the stranded men.
With a spotlight to guide him, Hill used the line to slowly inch his way out towards the scow. But the night was dark, and the would-be rescuer was unable to untangle the twisted ropes. Instead, he was forced to return to shore defeated while Harris and Lofberg waited uneasily for the dawn.
Helpless against the rapids, rescuers reportedly put up an electric powered sign to provide the stranded men with a little comfort. But while the message “REST” lit up the night, it seems unlikely that Harris and Lofberg were able to do so. Eventually, however, morning came, and Hill attempted to untangle the ropes a second time.
And this time Hill was successful, and rescuers were able to send the buoy all the way to the scow. But with an end to their ordeal finally in sight, Harris and Lofberg appeared to get into a row. In fact, reports at the time claimed that the two men fought before the older man eventually strapped on the harness. So what just had gone on?
Well, after he was winched to safety, Harris revealed the true nature of the disagreement. According to a 1918 article in The New York Sun, he told rescuers, “Get that buoy back as quick as you can. That damn fool Lofberg said he was the skipper and I’d have to come ashore first.”
Thankfully, Lofberg did not have to wait long for his turn, and soon both men were safely back on land. For the scow itself, however, a different fate was in store. At the time, officials decided that it was too dangerous to attempt to salvage the vessel. So instead, it remained on its rocky perch.
And amazingly, for more than 100 years, the wreck of the scow remained a staple of the Niagara landscape, a stark reminder of the perils of the river. You see, while its iron rusted over the years, it stayed stuck fast on the same rocks that saved Harris and Lofberg. But then, in November 2019, something changed.
Yes, on the evening of October 31 Niagara Falls was struck by violent storms that raged across the northeast United States. Overnight, the winds reached speeds over 50 miles per hour, while powerful rain lashed the area. And in the morning, the people of the town woke up to a staggering sight.
That’s correct, because the scow had broken free from the rocks and drifted downriver. And now, it was lodged some 165 feet closer to the edge of the falls. Not only that, onlookers observed, it had also flipped over in the water. Understandably, some residents were shocked by this new development after so many years.
“I thought it would be there for all time,” the Niagara Parks Commission’s chief executive David Adames told The New York Times in November 2019. “The wreck has been out there for 100 years. It’s just part of the Niagara Falls story.” However, it seems as if that story is now being rewritten.
“It has been a monument to the bravery and the teamwork and the cooperation that went into rescuing the two American gentlemen who were stuck on it,” the Niagara Parks Commission’s Jim Hill explained. “Maybe this little story, this monument to that event, is leaving us.” But if the scow does continue its journey downstream, what could that mean for the town?
“It could be stuck there for days, or it could be stuck there for years,” Hill explained in a video posted on Twitter by the Niagara Parks Commission in November 2019. However, officials have begun making plans for what to do if the boat comes lose once more. If it does, experts have warned, it could tumble over the falls – and pose a threat to the businesses downstream.
“We are confident now that it’s lodged where it is, but we’re going to look at all our options if we think there could be a safety issue,” Adames told The New York Times. And to that end, officials are keeping a close eye on the wreck. In fact, plans were being floated to mount cameras on a nearby power plant in order to monitor any movement.
“With the river current and more wind, it could move again and it could go to the Falls,” Adames told The Globe and Mail in November 2019. And if that happens, he explained, the town would be facing one of two scenarios. Apparently, one is that the scow could get lodged in the rocks that lie at the bottom of the waterfall.
If that doesn’t happen, Adames explained, the scow could continue to float downstream, where safety precautions would necessitate its removal. And even if the vessel breaks apart, it’s possible that pieces could still cause trouble further down the river. But whichever scenario plays out, it seems that the future of the iconic wreck is in doubt.
For the family of Hill, who made his name saving Harris, Lofberg, and many others like them, it’s a sad development. According to Kip Finn, the great-grandson of the Niagara Falls hero, the remains of the scow are more than just a wreck. “We have a personal attachment to that thing and will be sad when it’s gone,” he told The Globe and Mail.
Unbelievably, Hill went on to save a total of 28 people at Niagara Falls over the course of his life. However, his love of the river would end on a tragic note for one of his children. For in 1951, nine years after his passing, Hill’s own son attempted to go over the waterfall in a barrel – and did not survive the fall.
In a heartbreaking twist, Finn claims that the stunt was only done to raise money for a monument to Hill. And now, he is attempting to gather funds for the same cause. For the family of the late hero, it helps to ensure that his name is remembered – even if the relic of his boldest rescue disappears.