The Old Scow | A Brief History

Updated: Jan 17, 2021

On the afternoon of August 6, 1918, a tugboat was pulling a dumping scow (a barge) toward a in the fast currents on the American side of the Niagara River. The tug suddenly struck and grounded on a rock shoal approximately a ½ mile upriver from the Falls. The taut steel towline that held the barge to the tug snapped string and the scow was set adrift. The powerless barge containing three men and approximately 2,000 tonnes of sand and rock quickly drifted out of control downriver into the Canadian channel and towards the Horseshoe Falls!

One of the three men onboard jumped into the Class 6 rapids and swim to shore. The other two men who were not able to swim were helpless and could do nothing to stop the scow. Despite the mind-numbing fear that must have gripped the two men, they had the presence of mind to open the scow’s bottom dumping doors, flooding its compartments. This slowed the scow’s progress until it grounded on some rocks opposite the large powerhouse adjacent to brink of the Falls. The men were now marooned in the torturous upper rapids, about 200 metres from the Canadian shore and 600 metres from the brink of Horseshoe Falls!

Citizens rushed to the scene by the hundreds and had lined the banks of the river. They were kept a distance away because the power station had been previously sealed off by the military for security reasons using barbed wire and armed guards (WWI). A lifeline cannon was able to shoot a line from the roof of the powerhouse out to the stranded men. It was soon discovered that the lifeline stopped due to a tangle in the ropes.

This problem was not solved until the very early hours of the following morning when William “Red” Hill Sr. offered to go out and correct the problem on the lines. A resident of Niagara Falls, Ontario, Hill was Niagara’s most knowledgeable riverman and a recognized hero who had recently returned home after having been wounded and gassed in France while serving in the First World War. With the beam of a search light following him, Hill courageously went out in a breeches buoy (a canvas sling suspended from a pulley) to untangle the lines. When the sun came up, Hill went back out a second time and successfully untangled the lines. With all problems now solved, the two men were safely brought ashore.

Severe weather conditions on October 31, 2019 caused the scow to shift significantly from the spot it remained in for over 100 years. Remarkably, high winds forced the scow to turn its position and shift further toward the brink of the falls. The news of the scow’s momentous move made national and international headlines with media and public interest continuing days after. While still lodged in the powerful rapids of the upper Niagara River, the future of the legendary scow remains uncertain.

See The Old Scow on the Niagara Falls Bucket List Tour!


Contribution: Greg Woods (Double Deck Tours Guide)

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