Old scow wrecked in 1918 just above Niagara Falls
Aerial view of the Toronto Power Plant and the Upper Rapids of the Niagara River
The Niagara Scow (also called “The Old Scow”) is the unofficial name of the wreck of a small scow that brought two men perilously close to plunging over the Horseshoe Falls, the largest of the Niagara Falls. The wreck can still be seen, upstream of the falls.
On August 6, 1918, Gustave Luffberg and Frank Harris were aboard the scow dredging up sand banks from the Niagara River upstream of the waterfall. When tugboat captain John Wallace brought the Hassayampa over to bring the scow back to shore however, it broke loose and began floating downriver rapidly towards the falls.
There are conflicting reports whether Luffberg and Harris were able to release the false bottom of the scow to dump their load of sand and silt – but regardless, the boat got caught on a rock shoal 838 yards (766 m) from the edge of the falls, leaving the two Niagara Falls Power Company employees stranded in the middle of the raging torrents of water. Later reports suggest that Luffberg had tied a rope between himself and the scow as a safety precaution lest he fall overboard while the scow was still beached, while Harris tied one between himself and a free barrel.
Since a rescue boat was out of the question, the Niagara Falls (Ontario) Fire Department tried using a grappling gun to shoot a life line out towards the barge, from atop the roof of the Toronto Power House while awaiting the arrival of the US Coast Guard from Youngstown, New York to bring a heavier grappling gun. When the US Coast Guard did arrive, they managed to send a lifeline over to the barge, and both marooned men made it safely back to shore via breeches buoy, 17 hours after they first found themselves drifting towards the falls. The hero of the day was noted riverman William “Red” Hill Sr., who tirelessly ventured out to free the tangled breeches buoy line several times throughout the night, and eventually assisted the men to safety. Hill was awarded the Carnegie Medal for his efforts. Hill and his sons would be involved in many other river rescues and recoveries in the next several decades.
At present the scow still remains in place, highly visible, caught on the shoal just out of reach of the Niagara Falls. There is now a plaque across from it on the Canadian side, explaining the history of the wreck.
A similar wreck, involving a wooden vessel, occurred in June 1923. The craft, previously a World War I submarine patrol boat called the Sunbeam, had been returned to its owner, a New Yorker, after the war ended. The owner sold the boat to a new owner, and the boat was taken west on the Erie Canal, to be docked at a port in Lake Erie. The crew made a navigation mistake and found themselves well into the Niagara river, though still several miles upstream from the falls. They retired for the night in a nearby hotel. During the night, the unmanned boat came loose from its moorings.
The current carried the craft to the vicinity of the scow, and it likewise became caught in the shoals. The owners sold the wreck to Red Hill for a nominal sum, but Hill decided that the salvage cost was too high, so the boat remained marooned and by the late 1930s had broken apart. Some of its metallic parts are still visible at times when a significant quantity of water is being diverted for hydropower production.
Although the source information is not completely definitive, this wreck appears to have been the USS Sunbeam III (SP-251), which was a subchaser during World War I, and was returned to its New York-based owner after the war concluded.