Category Archives: Niagara Falls Stories

Niagara by bus

London Transport RM1102, operated by Double Deck Tours, Niagara Falls, Ontario (2001)

London Transport RM1102, operated by Double Deck Tours, Niagara Falls, Ontario (2001)

My explorations on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls were enlivened by the opportunity to travel by London Transport Routemaster bus:

The outside temperature in late July was pushing 100°F (37.8°C) and the nearest a Routemaster goes to air-conditioning is to open the top-deck quarter-drop windows and the rear emergency-exit window and hope for a through-draught.

The red double-deck London bus qualifies for the over-used expression “icon”.  Alongside the San Francisco cable-car and the trams of Melbourne and Hong Kong, it’s instantly recognisable  and  unlike rail-borne icons – easily exportable.

London ran heritage Routemasters running tourists across the West End, though they were removed from ordinary services in 2005, until 2020, when they were discontinued during the Covid pandemic.

It’s possible to ride on genuine London buses in many parts of the world:  my introduction to Christchurch, New Zealand, a few days before the 2011 earthquake, was on a Routemaster that took the steep and sharply curved Mount Pleasant Road without complaint:

Apart from their nostalgia appeal, the Routemaster has the advantage of being an extremely robust, well-designed vehicle with extraordinary longevity, attributable to the maintenance programme which amounted to a full rebuild every five years at the London Transport works at Aldenham.

The Routemaster was an improvement on its predecessor, the RT.  It’s regrettable that when the traditional two-man-operated, open-platform Routemaster was superseded by off-the-shelf vehicles from commercial manufacturers, none of them have lasted so well.

Like the High Speed Train, the Routemaster stands as unbeatable British design that wasn’t directly followed up.

Nearly half of the 2,876 Routemasters built between 1954 and 1968 are still in existence, and there’s no difficulty in obtaining spares.  Indeed, Routemaster owners have an association to call on for assistance and rallies can attract over a hundred vehicles from far and wide:

Niagara Falls stories: “Red” Hill and the runaway scow

Niagara River scow

Niagara River scow

From the Canadian side of the Niagara River, some distance above the Horseshoe Falls, you can see what looks like a rusty iron skip sitting in the middle of the rapids.

It’s actually a scow, a river barge intended to be towed by a powered vessel.  This one was being towed by a tug, the Hassayampa, when it came adrift on the afternoon of August 6th 1918, carrying two deckhands, Gustave Loftberg (51) and Frank Harris (53), helplessly towards the falls until it ran aground on the shallow rocks, where it remains to this day.

Crowds gathered to observe their predicament, but rescuing them by boat was impossible because of the current and the danger of the falls downstream.

It took until nightfall to secure a rope to rescue the men.  Searchlights were installed and a breeches buoy attached but became entangled.  At 3.00am William “Red” Hill Snr, a local Canadian daredevil with a formidable record of lifesaving around the Falls, traversed the rope hand over hand but was unable to disentangle the buoy until daylight.

It took until 10.00am on August 7th to bring Loftberg and Harris, shocked, hungry and suffering from exposure, back to the Canadian bank:

“Red” Hill was awarded the Carnegie Life Saving Medal for his rescue.

By the time of his death aged 54 in 1942, he was credited with saving 28 people, including Loftberg and Harris, in and around the Niagara River.

Update:  In December 2021, after a heavy storm, the scow flipped over and moved fifty metres nearer to the Falls:  101-year-old ship dislodged above Niagara Falls – BBC News.

Niagara Falls stories: Schoellkopf Power Station

Schoellkopf Power Station ruins, Niagara Falls, New York State, USA

Schoellkopf Power Station ruins, Niagara Falls, New York State, USA

I once went to Niagara Falls, to see the waterfalls, as you do.  I stayed on the USA side, in what the cab-driver described as “the best b&b in town”:

Over a couple of days I saw and photographed the Falls from all angles, including the Maid of the Mist and Cave of the Winds.

I spent an afternoon in Canada, because the Canadians have all the best views, while the Americans have all the best close-up vantage points.

One oddity intrigued me on the bus-ride along the Canadian side – a heap of rubble and vestiges of an industrial site on cliffs that form the opposite bank.

I was told that this was the site of the Schoellkopf Power Station, which collapsed in a spectacular manner in 1956.

This was the creation of Jacob F Schoellkopf (1819-1899), the first person to harness the power of Niagara Falls to generate electricity.

He was a remarkable entrepreneur, who built his fortune first in tanneries and later in flour-milling.

He bought the previously unsuccessful Niagara Falls Canal in 1877 and opened the first of a succession of hydro-electric power stations, No 1, in 1881.  No 2 followed in 1891, and after his death Nos 3A and 3B opened in 1904, and No 3C in 1921-4.

Schoellkopf looked for a more efficient way of illuminating the Falls at night than the ineffective calcium flares that had been used since 1860.  In 1881 he made a contract with Charles F Brush (1849-1929) of Euclid, Ohio, to harness sixteen carbon arc lights to his hydraulic power company’s generators.

The Schoellkopf generating stations worked efficiently, but there was a fatal weakness in the construction of No 2 station, which was built immediately in front of its predecessor.

Between the two structures water slowly penetrated until on the morning of June 7th 1956 leaks became evident and increased despite the efforts of forty labourers to pile sandbags against the retaining wall.

At 5.00pm a loud rumble was immediately followed by the collapse of Power Stations 2, 3B and 3C – two-thirds of the entire plant – into the Niagara River, taking out six huge generators and throwing debris as far as the Canadian bank, cutting 400,000 kilowatts of power from the grid.

Only one worker, Richard Draper of Lewiston, was killed.  His companions, Louis Bernstein and Robert Chapman, were picked up by a Canadian Maid of the Mist boat.  All the others escaped without injury.

The destroyed power-stations were replaced by what became the Robert Moses Niagara Power Plant, named after the controversial New York city planner Robert Moses (1888-1981), generating 2,525 megawatts.