For generations of visitors to Niagara Falls, the sight of a century-old shipwreck in the rapids was almost as mystifying as the waterfalls themselves.
Many parents have taken their children to the rapids and told them about how in 1918, a team of volunteers saved two sailors after their boat had lurched dangerously close to one of the waterfalls’ edges. All that remained 101 years later was the rusted metal shell of the scow that clung to the rocks like a statue — until last week.
On Thursday night, after a storm that thrashed the Northeast brought winds of more than 50 miles per hour, the schooner broke free. By Friday morning, stunned officials found that the boat had rolled 160 feet downriver.
“I thought it would be there for all time,” said David Adames, chief executive of the Niagara Parks Commission, of the boat’s old position. “The wreck has been out there for 100 years. It’s just part of the Niagara Falls story.”
The rusty scow has long commemorated the courage of several local residents, who on Aug. 6, 1918, saved the two sailors from near-certain death after the schooner broke free from its tugboat. The rescue operation lasted two days and involved volunteers from nearby Youngstown, Ontario, as well as fire departments from the United States and Canada and the United States Coast Guard.
“It has been a monument to the bravery and the teamwork and cooperation that went into rescuing the two American gentlemen who were stuck on it,” said Jim Hill, superintendent of Heritage at Niagara Parks Commission. But now, he says, there is a sense that “maybe this little story, this monument to that event, is leaving us.”
Niagara Park officials believe that the combination of high waters, strong winds and the boat’s rusting exterior, which has loosened it from its previous position over the years, caused it to dislodge on Thursday night.
In the coming weeks, the Niagara Parks Commission will evaluate whether the boat is likely to move again. If it determines that the scow could pose a threat to structures downstream, like boat tours and power plants, workers may try to remove it from the water, officials said.
“We are confident right now that it’s lodged where it is, but we are going to look at all our options if we think there could be a safety issue,” Mr. Adames said.
Over a century ago, the 80-foot-long scow was dredging for a tugboat along the Niagara River, upstream from Niagara Falls. But when the boat ran aground on a sandbar, the steel cable connecting the two snapped, sending the scow — and its two crewmen — hurtling.
Tossed between the rapids, the schooner hit a shelving rock and jolted to a stop, a mere third of a mile from the 167-foot drop of Horseshoe Falls.
The fate of the two men, James Harris and Gustav Lofberg, rested on an American and Canadian rescue team that coalesced about 650 feet from the scow on the Canadian shore.
From the roof of a powerhouse, rescuers shot a rope line to the boat from a cannon and constructed a pulley system. Then they attached a breeches buoy, or a canvas sling, to the pulley, which they hoped could carry the men ashore.
It was a risky gambit: The strain on the line from the first man to cross might have pulled the scow from its ledge and sent it plunging over the falls.
As darkness fell, and a knot in the pulley’s ropes blocked the buoy from the marooned men, the rescue team abandoned its efforts for the evening. But the rescuers erected a large electrical sign to comfort Mr. Harris and Mr. Lofberg through the night, according to news reports at the time. It read, “REST.”
The next morning, after a Canadian volunteer, William “Red” Hill Sr., braved a trip across the pulley to untangle its ropes midair, the buoy finally reached the scow.
Onlookers saw a scuffle break out between the two men, according to news reports, until Mr. Harris climbed into the buoy. As the rescue team pulled him to safety, the line sagged into the unforgiving rapids a half-dozen times, soaking Mr. Harris.
When he reached land, the sailor gasped for air.
“Get the buoy back as quick as you can,” he told the rescue team, according to The New York Sun. “That damn fool Lofberg said he was the skipper and I’d have to come ashore first.”
The team sent the buoy to Mr. Lofberg, whom they pulled to shore.
The iron scow they left behind remained lodged among the rocks, reminding residents of the feat and their ancestors’ bravery.
But if the scow dislodges from its new location, Mr. Adames warns it could wind up behind Horseshoe Falls’ base, and out of sight.
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