Tragedy At The Falls: The Ice Bridge Disaster Of 1912 | News
The ice bridge that forms at the base of Niagara Falls is a beautiful natural phenomena that helps make the falls such a popular attraction.
The bridge is formed as sheets of ice from the upper river go over the falls and thunder into the rocks below, freezing there and growing larger as more go over. Eventually it grows large enough to become anchored to land on both sides of the border.
No one would dare travel the bridge today, but the ice bridge was not always considered dangerous, and in fact was a very popular draw for tourists. Thousands of people would make the trek down to the base of the falls to enjoy an afternoon out.
"It was a festive thing," says Carol Rogers of New York State Parks Department. "They would put these makeshift shanties on the ice, and they would sell food, hot drinks, as well as alcoholic beverages."
"Kids would go down there and play, and take their toboggans down," says Bob Kostoff, a Niagara Falls Historian. "There would be big mounds of ice that they could slide down. It was an interesting thing that they really promoted."
But all that changed on Sunday, February 4th, 1912, when a tragedy struck that would forever alter the lives of all involved.
The morning was said to be a cold and misty one, the weather and the time of day, about noon, perhaps limiting the number of tourists, and so the scale of the eventual disaster. Crowds on the ice bridge sometimes numbered in the hundreds, but it was said that that day only about 35 people were there. Among them were Eldridge and Clara Stanton, a married couple visiting from Toronto.
"They had been down there before, it wasn't their first time," says Rogers. "They were married seven years, they regularly visited friends in the Falls, so this was just one of their weekend getaways."
Also on the ice that fateful day were Ignatious Roth and Burrell Hecock, two 17 year old railroad clerks from Cleveland who were in Niagara Falls only because of a small twist of fate.
Leda Miller is a relative of Burrell Hecock.
"They were supposed to go to Chicago," says Hecock. "They were waiting for passes to come in, and they didn't come in time for that weekend, and I believe the railroad offered them the option to go to Niagara instead, and that's the only reason they ended up there instead."
William "Red" Hill Sr. was a renown Canadian daredevil, having challenged the mighty falls successfully in barrels and other contraptions many times. That he was there that Sunday ultimately became a blessing for many.
Dan Hill is "Red" Hill's Grandson.
"He had a little souvenir shack on the Ice Bridge back then, just selling postcards and trinkets, little souvenirs," says Dan Hill.
The ice was quite thick that year, almost 40 feet, but a large sheet of ice that plunged over the brink dislodged the bridge and set the wheels in motion for what would be one of the most dramatic events in Falls history.
Red Hill was first to recognize the danger, feeling the rumble of the falling ice and the now shifting bridge. He was credited with saving over 20 people that day.
"He heard the ice before anyone realized it was breaking up," says Dan Hill. "People who knew heard the loud cracking noises and they knew it was going to break up. So they started getting off and getting people off as quickly as they could. Most of the people got themselves off and didn't worry about the others, and I guess my grandfather worried about the rest of them, too."
Burrell Hecock and Ignatious Roth made a mad dash for the Canadian side, but only Roth made it to shore, guided over breaking ice and then being hauled through frigid water by Red Hill.
Hecock stopped after hearing the frantic cries of help from Eldridge Stanton. His wife Clara, had fallen, and frozen with shock, could not go on, and the gap between the shore and the ice they were on was widening. The selfless Hecock turned his back on potential safety, and returned to help the terrified couple.
"Mrs. Stanton got very distraught," says Rogers. "Instead of running to her safety, (Stanton) stood on the ice frozen herself, and her husband didn't want to leave her side and stayed there. Hecock, out of the kindness of his heart, figured he'd save them."
"Hecock, he helped pick up Mrs. Stanton," says Kostoff. "When they got to the shoreline, the ice had floated too far away from the shore, so they couldn't get to the shore. So they turned around and started to go for the Canadian side."
But it was too late. The ice floe holding the three had broken away and began floating down river. The terrified threesome huddled together, and eyewitnesses said they appeared to be talking, perhaps trying to figure out a plan of action.
In the meantime, rescuers scrambled to a pair of bridges down stream, dropping ropes over the side for the frozen trio to grab.
Back on the ice choked river, the floe broke apart, leaving the Stanton's alone on one and Hecock on the other. The courageous Hecock seemed to remain confident that rescue was imminent.
"He didn't panic and start yelling or screaming help or anything," says Miller. "He turned to them and waved, he was very brave, and waved to them and kind of like gave them confidence. He acted like, this is ok, we're going to work this out."
The ropes dangling from the two bridges were their only hope, and Hecock was first to arrive. He grabbed the rope at the first bridge and started to get hauled up by rescuers.
"You can imagine, Hypothermia would be setting in, and it was this frigid water," says Miller. "He got up about 60 feet, and then he just kind of lost consciousness, let go of the rope...fell."
The Stanton's ice floe was right behind and they had two chances to grab ropes. At the first bridge, Eldridge tied the rope around his wife, but it quickly broke. At the second bridge they tried again, and that attempt failed as well. Ahead of them, the raging rapids were poised to claim them.
"They were huddled together on the ice together as if they were praying, and they knew they had met their fate," says Rogers. "By that time they were entering the beginning of the Whirlpool Rapids, just beyond the bridge, and the ice started breaking up even more, and they went under."
The bodies of the Stantons and Burrell Hecock were never found, and after this terrible tragedy, people were banned from walking on the ice bridge. As an eerie and ironic conclusion to this terrible day, there exists a postcard sent by Hecock to his mother earlier that morning, and postmarked February 4th, 4:30 pm...it reads simply: "Having a fine time...Burrell".
There's a wealth of interesting information on the internet and in books on this sad day in Falls history. Leda Miller, Hecock's relative, is in the process of producing a graphic novel on Burrell Hecock. To take a look at it as it progresses, you can go to her blog: http://hecocknovel.wordpress.com/chapter-1/