I recently came across the interesting story of the Niagara Scow and decided to find out more and share it with you. The Niagara Scow, Iron Scow or Old Scow refers to a dredging scow that was marooned upstream of the famous Niagara Falls in 1918.
What is a Scow?
Firstly let’s look at what a scow is. A scow is a flat-bottomed barge with broad square ends. It is used for carrying cargo or bulk materials like sand, from ships to the dockside or around coastal waterways. Their flat bottoms meant they could navigate shallow waters. The word comes from a Dutch word schouw meaning punt pole. Scow’s were usually propelled using a pole similar to punting. Some scows were rigged as sailing scows with a mast and sails.
The Niagara Scow
The scow that is the subject of this article was an iron scow owned by the Great Lakes Dredge and Docks Company. The scow was being used for dredging operations on the Niagara River upstream from Niagara Falls. Measuring 80 feet long and 30 feet wide the barge was attached to the tug boat Hassayampa with a steel towing cable. Work was being carried out to dredge the entrance of the Hydraulic Power Companies’ canal. A sand sucker was taking sand from the bottom of the canal and depositing it onto the scow to be taken away.
At 3:10 pm on Tuesday, August 6th 1918, the tug Hassayampa hit a rock or sand bar and grounded unable to move. This caused the steel towline to snap thus setting the scow adrift. Other tugs working nearby tried to stop the scow but the force of the currents on the river meant they had to turn back. They blew their whistles continuously to raise the alarm and returned to help the Hassayampa. Meanwhile, the scow was drifting out of control down the river towards Horseshoe Falls some half a mile away.
Onboard the Niagara Scow was two deckhands, Gustave Ferdinand Lofberg, age 51 and James Henry Harris, age 40. Lofberg was the more experienced deckhand having spent years working on the Great Lakes, Harris was by trade a rigger and had only just started working for the company. Much controversy surrounds what the deckhands did next. Some believe that they opened the bottom hatches or threw an anchor over to stop the scow. Neither happened. By chance as the scow drifted down the river, it swung around in the current, grounded and then stuck itself on a rocky shoal in mid-stream. Once grounded the deckhands deployed an anchor to secure the scow and started to constructing a windlass to assist in any rescue attempt.
By the time the Niagara scow stuck fast the alarm had been raised. The Niagara Falls Fire Department was first on the scene. They tried to fire a line to the scow with a life-saving gun, but each time the line fell short into the river. Next to arrive were five men from the Life Saving Station in Youngstown with a bigger gun and longer ropes. They set up the gun on the roof of the Power Station nearby and fired a longer rope. This flew over the scow and Lofberg and Harris were able to grab the rope and attach it to the makeshift windlass. A heavier rope was then attached to the shoreside end of the rope and then began the backbreaking task of winching in the bigger rope. After great effort from the deckhands and men onshore trying to stop the larger rope pushing the scow off the rocks, Lofberg and Harris were able to secure the bigger rope to the windlass. Next, a beeches buoy (chair-like attachment) was sent along the rope but became entangled. Just before midnight, the rescue attempt was suspended until the next morning.
A Second Attempt
The beeches buoy was still stuck fast in the morning so Red Hill Snr went out along the rope. After much time, combined effort and many tangled ropes later the beeches buoy was running free. First Harris then Lofberg was slowly pulled back to shore in the harness, both men exhausted but alive.
The wreck of the Niagara scow remained on the rocky shoal for over 100 years. On Thursday 31st October 2019 a severe storm dislodged the scow. She moved 100 feet further down the river coming to rest on her side on another rocky outcrop. She can be viewed on Google Earth.
For more details on the rescue a fantastic resource can be found at Niagara Frontier.
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