Thursday, February 5, 2015

The 1912 Niagara Falls Ice Bridge

Last year while working on genealogy research in Southern Ontario I came across a newspaper story about the 1912 collapse of the Niagara Falls Ice Bridge. It wasn't so much the collapse that intrigued me, but that people were allowed to walk across the frozen river while water was still flowing over the Falls. How dangerous and silly that sounded. Did I understand the facts correctly?

As usual - because I'm a visual person - my research began by looking for images. I quickly found out that two historical events came up under this topic... the 1938 collapse of the Fallsview Upper Steel Arch Bridge... and the 1912 collapse of the natural Ice Bridge, the latter of which is what we're focusing on today.

One of the first images I discovered was this 1910 postcard entitled, Ice Bridge, Niagara Falls, published by the S.H. Knox & Co, printed in Germany.

Ice Bridge, Niagara Falls, 1910, published by the S.H. Knox & Co, printed in Germany. Courtesy of the Baldwin Room of the Toronto Public Library Digital Archives.

It was a nice postcard, but it didn't look real - more like a ski chalet environment, especially with all those people around. Was the image date accurate, or merely the printing date?

Over on the McCord Museum site, I was very surprised to find an actual image from 40 years prior to the above postcard. And even more surprised to see that it was more real than even I imagined for not only did it confirm the image on the postcard, it showed a row of buildings, people sliding down the side of the cliff, and what looks like mist/fog from the flowing falls.

Photograph | American Falls from Ice Bridge, Niagara Falls, NY-ON, about 1870 | MP-0000.1452.186
American Falls from Ice Bridge, Niagara Falls, NY-ON, about 1870. Courtesy of  the © McCord Museum Digital Archives.

I focused my research on the tunnel-like structure on the left side of the images and discovered a reference to the Ferry Stairs in Orr's 1842 Pictorical Guide to the Falls of Niagara: 

Entrance to the Ferry Stairs, Orr's 1842 Pictorial Guide to the Falls of Niagara. Courtesy of GoogleBooks.

John William Orr created his guidebook to be read as if a guide was leading you around. Here's what he wrote about the Ferry Stairs: "...proceed to the Ferry Stairs, descend, take a view of the American Falls from its foot, pass behind the sheet, if you like, and then cross the river."

The ferry which Orr speaks of began in 1846 as a regular ferry to transport people and goods across the Niagara river, but has evolved into the famous Maid of the Mist boat tours with landings on both the American and Canadian sides.

Originally built in 1818, the Ferry Stairs were replaced in 1846 with an incline railway - 2 open cars holding about 15-20 passengers each - going in a different direction at the same time. But in 1907, the cable broke and both cars crashed into the chalet at the base of the incline, killing one person and injuring four others. Instead of repairing the incline railway, they began work in 1908 on an elevator system to reach the top-side Prospect Point. We can surmise then, that all images showing the tunnel-like structure with a chalet at the bottom pre-date July 1907. 

So what of the people and the carnival-like atmosphere on the ice? Unfortunately, that part is true. But before I get into that, I want to show you the area in question. Here's a recent GoogleEarth image of the complete American/Bridal Vail/Horseshoe Falls area with the yellow outline showing the narrowest part of the river which is where the ice bridge forms. The red circle shows the location of the first 2 images in this post, although there is now the elevator and observation tower close to where the stairs and incline railway used to be. 

Niagara Falls, 2014. Courtesy of Google Earth

When the wind blew huge chunks of ice from Lake Erie down the Niagara River and over the falls, the chunks would pile up at the narrow part of the river between the two ferry landings, forming an ice bridge. 

With Niagara Falls already being a tourist destination, local businesses took advantage of the public's eagerness to experience the ice bridge and shanties popped up along the route which provided refreshments, such as hot drinks, liquor, and wienerwurst. Photographers set up stalls for once-in-a-lifetime photo opportunities. And the very bravest could have the supreme boasting privilege of renting a shanty and staying the night. Or should that be the most fool-hardy? I'll let you decide.

This next photograph taken from the Canadian side - probably from the middle of the cantilever bridge - shows the proximity of the shanties to the bombarding water. 

Ice bridge from the Canadian side - Niagara Falls in Winter, ca 1890. Courtesy of the Niagara Falls (Ontario) Public Library

A road to the ferry landing on the Canadian side enabled horses for riding and pulling sleighs to make their way down to the bottom and journey across the frozen snow pack. In one photo, I even saw a woman pushing what looked like a baby's pram, except the quality was too poor to show here. 

Horse and Sleigh rides were available to cross the Ice Bridge in the Niagara River, ca 1890. Courtesy of the Niagara Falls (Ontario) Public Library

This next photo is undated and it's not clear whether these two women left the path and went exploring, or took a chance when others didn't. Regardless, you can see the mist from the American Falls in the background. 

Ice Bridge Niagara / Niagara Falls in Winter, undated. Courtesy of the Niagara Falls (Ontario) Public Library

Take a good look at this next photo as it was taken just minutes before disaster struck at noon on Feb 4, 1912. On the left is the Maid of the Mist boat launch building which leads to the Prospect Point elevator. You also see refreshment booths along the path to the Canadian side. According to the records, approx 35 people were on the ice bridge at the time.

Frozen Niagara River with American Falls in the background just before the fatal disaster of February 4, 1912. Courtesy of the Niagara Falls (Ontario) Public Library

According to the website, Niagara Falls Info, "William "Red" Hill was opening the little refreshment stand he built every year as soon as the ice was thick enough…Hill suddenly felt a small tremor under his feet. At that same moment came a loud groaning sound from the base of the Falls which made the roar of the distant Falls faint. Immediately Hill recognized the danger and began running towards the Canadian shore as he shouted for the others to follow him..." 

And from The Toronto World, we find this...

At the top level Observation Deck of the Hornblower Plaza in Niagara Falls, Ontario, the Burrell Hecock Memorial plaque is set into a stone wall. It reads: "To the memory of Burrell Hecock of Cleveland Ohio aged 17 years who lost his life in an heroic attempt to rescue Mr. and Mrs. Eldridge Stanton of Toronto Ontario when the ice bridge in the gorge immediately below was swept down the Niagara River and into the Whirlpool Rapids, February 4th, 1912".

Burrell Hecock last seen in this photo, stranded on an Ice Floe in the Niagara River after attempting to rescue others.  Courtesy of the Niagara Falls (Ontario) Public Library

Several rescue attempts from the two bridges above were aimed at Eldridge and Clara Stanton without success until finally, Niagara Falls Info states, "Stanton took his wife in his arms, kissed her and let her down. They both knelt together with his arms around her. The remaining piece of the ice bridge remained intact until it reached a giant wave in the rapids. It spilled over throwing both of them into the raging water to their deaths."

Niagara Falls attracts twelve million tourists annually and the ice bridge continues to form, but since 1912, the frozen river isn't the winter playground it used to be, and no one is allowed to use it as a route across. 

It doesn't mean they don't try...just that they shouldn't. But that's another story...

So...adventure or folly? Would you try it?


Anita Mae Draper is retired from the Canadian Armed Forces and lives on the prairie of southeast Saskatchewan, Canada with her hubby of 30 plus years and the youngest of their four kids. Anita's historical stories are set in the western prairies and Ontario. She is blessed to be included in Guideposts Books A Cup of Christmas Cheer collection. Anita is represented by Mary Keeley of Books & Such Literary Management. You can find Anita Mae at


  1. Anita Mae, this is one of the most fascinating stories I've read recently. I've been to the Falls a few times, and the power of them is awe-inspiring. I can't imagine standing on that ice bridge eating wurst!

  2. You and me, both, Rebecca. I always have polish sausage/smokie whenever I eat at Costco and to think they were eating something similar back at the turn of the century and in such an atmosphere gives a new twist to my Costco memory.

    Thanks for visiting. :)

  3. Hi Anita, Brrr. Looking at all those photos made me cold. I would not have tried. I'm truly a chicken when it comes to things like that. I won't even go out on the Grand Canyon glass observation deck and that's probably a lot safer than an ice bridge. I like solid (and I do mean solid) ground beneath my feet.

    Thank you for sharing!

    1. You're welcome, Margaret. You know, I was so excited to finally go up in the Calgary Tower 2 yrs ago because I wanted to check out the glass observation deck. And yet when I got within a foot of where the tiles ended and the glass began, I got dizzy. So I stood there taking photos of my hubby and teens as they stood ON the glass, iphones in hand, taking pics of the street waaaaaay below their feet. Ugh.

      Glad you had a chance to stop in today. :)

  4. I've visited the falls twice in warmer weather, and it's such a majestic site. But would I walk out there in winter? Probably not. I think in this instance people were lured into a false sense of safety. So many people walked out there that they thought it must be safe. I hadn't heard about the ice bridge collapse. That must have been so scary.

    1. Vickie, I've had the pleasure of seeing the Falls in the summer, too, and I still remember the roar of all that water thundering down. I agree that the folks back then must have felt secure - especially the guys putting up the refreshment and photo booths, which takes away the reasoning that only tourists felt safe.

      Red Hill's account of the collapse says that he recognized danger from the tremor and groaning sound. I wonder how many times that had happened before but didn't make the news because no one was caught in it.

  5. What a fascinating post, Anita! Just seeing pictures of Niagara Falls frightens me, and I can't believe people so nonchalantly roamed around on the ice nearby. Thanks for posting such an interesting post and including some great authentic photos for those of us who couldn't imagine such a scene.

    1. Thank you for commenting, Marilyn. I was worried that the post would be too long because I had so many photos, but chose these as I felt they accurately explained the events.

      And this would be a good time for me to thank Cathy at the Niagara Falls (Ontario) Public Library for getting me permission to use many of these photos. They have so many in their collections and I originally asked for permission for several, and after that was taken care of, I found better - and more powerful photos and then needed to bother her again for more permission.

  6. Anita I love the pictures! What a fascinating glimpse into the past.

    In response to your question, I can rest in the assurance that one of the ways I will never die is by scrambling about on ice.

    1. Haha. I'll take that as a yes for the folly side. And thank you. :)

  7. That was incredible. I did not even know about this ice bridge or about the collapse. Thanks for the research and press tation, sm. wileygreen1( at)yahoo(dot)com

    1. You're very welcome, sharon. I'm glad you found your way here today and stayed long enough to read it. Comments like yours make it easy to dig deeper for fascinating research. Thank You. :)

  8. Hi Anita Mae, What a great post--really fascinating history. I had no idea! And so sad, though. Did you know the Thames also used to freeze over and the shops and merchants set up on a much larger scale--I believe 1814 was the year of the biggest freeze. Now I'll have to refresh my research to find out when they stopped doing that, or when it stopped freezing over. Thanks for such an interesting post!

    1. Thanks, Linore. No, I didn't know that about the Thames. Actually, I never thought of it. I suspect climate and population changes as well as progress has a lot to do with it? And I know the Dutch used to skate on their canals, but never looked to see if they still do.

  9. Very interesting! Thanks for posting.

  10. You're very welcome, KayM. Thanks for dropping by. :)

  11. The photo of the Falls from the bridge is from the Fallsview (Honeymoon) Bridge). The Cantilever bridge is located 2 miles down river just south of the Whirlpool Bridge and where our famous Whirlpool Rapids begin. After the bridge disaster it was officially against the law to venture out there (even though now and again many did). One person though, was given a licence by the N.Y. State Park to be out there legally any time he wanted to. His name was Carter (son of Maid of the Mist Captain). His expertise skating and sliding down the Ice mountain was second to none and on many weekends before the disaster he had wowed the crowds gathered with his antics.

    1. Thank you for sharing your information. You've piqued my interest on Carter, who would make a great topic for the HHH blog, especially being that he was the son of the Maid of the Mist Captain. My fingers are itching to begin research. :)

      I really appreciate you stopping by. Thanks again.

  12. Hi Anita,
    I have visited the falls many times over the past 50 years but really never took a lot of interest in their history. Our favourite spot is the Niagara Glen Park close to the Butterfly conservatory. This time we also visited the white water walk and I was completely dumb founded by the power of the water surging through the Chanel . That’s were I came across the plaque Showing the tragedy of 1912. After searching on google about the history I came across your post which I found to be very educational. I know there are tragedies happening all the time and most of the time we don’t take an interest in them but this particular story affected me so much that the night following the visit I could not sleep and saw these poor people in my head standing on the ice in the freezing cold in unimaginable panic. I think what makes this story so appealing is the lack of actual film and photos showing this event. Everything is kind of shrouded in mystery just like the misty black and white photos. Thanks for your account of this tragedy!