WHY RED HILL DID IT
For a hundred years the Hills of Niagara have courted, cajoled and defied the cataract with a strange and fatal passion. They've risked their lives to save a swan and all the brutal river ever gave them was a handful of change and heartful of sorrow
ON SUNDAY, AUG. 5, 1951, at ten minutes to three, a stocky red-haired man of thirty-eight, was set adrift, a few hundred yards above the Horseshoe Falls on the Niagara River. He rode a strange craft which had been christened The Thing—a flimsy contraption made up of thirteen rubber inner tubes held together by canvas webbing and fish nets.
Two hundred thousand people who gathered to watch the spectacle saw the rubber craft gain speed, bounce fifteen feet up in the air, then fall a hundred and fiftyeight feet into the roar and mist of the mighty Niagara cataract. Thirteen minutes later The Thing appeared in the pool below the falls a twisted empty jumble.
They found the torn and beaten body of Red Hill Jr. at the foot of The Gave, a ten-foot-square sheltered nook high in the side of the cliff about six hundred yards from the falls. It was a fitting resting place, for if was from this very spot that the Hill family, for three generations, had spent unnumbered hours keeping their mystic tryst with the river.
They buried Red four days later. As the casket
was lowered into the grave his sixty-year-old mother suddenly cried out: “Oh William, my son —why did you do it?” The same question has been asked by thousands who read the headlines about his death. What sort of man would risk his life on such a pointless gamble? Why did Red Hill do it?
The answer can only be found in the strange story of the Hill family itself. For two hundred years the Hills have lived beside the Niagara. For at least seventy-five years of that time and perhaps longer members of each generat ion have felt themselves irresistibly drawn to the river. They have spent their days studying her moods, her currents, her eddies, her rapids and her whirlpools. They could discern subtle whispers above the roar of the cataract and understand their meaning. They grew to know the river so well that they became contemptuous of her and challenged her. If became important to them to prove their mastery more important than family, fame or fortune.
There is an Indian legend that the aura of mist which rises from the falls is actually a beautiful maiden, sacrificed to the Spirit of the Cataract, and that the Maid of the Mist beckons to all who come to the falls to enjoin their lives with hers. The Hills have heard this siren call clearly and strongly for many decades.
Layfield Hill, the grandfather of Red Hill Jr., was seriously worried when his son, William (Red) Hill Sr., had reached the age of five in 1891 and showed no special affinity for the river. One day he swam out into the river with the lad on his back to show him that there was nothing to be afraid of. The next day he shoved his son fifteen feet into the river, fully clothed, and shouted: “Sink or swim!” Red Sr. swam—and he was never again to fear the river.
Red Sr. was to spend practically every day of his life near or on the river. “I was born with the roar of the falls in my ear and that’s how I want to die—as close to Niagara as I can get,” he once said. He deeply felt the hypnotic attraction of the river. “It pulls you like a magnet,” he explained. Once, a man he had saved from the Whirlpool Rapids sent him a note which read: “Thank God you reached me. Why I jumped into those rapids I’ll never really know. There was something about that river that kept calling me — I couldn’t help myself.” For years he carried this note in his breast pocket, showing it to visitors, adding, “That’s what people I pull out are always saying. The Niagara has an intangible something. It’s fierce and cruel.”
Red Sr. learned the ways of the river so well
that he could defy her with immunity. He cheated the river of twenty-nine lives and ended up by being the only man alive who could wear four lifesaving medals. With his sons he recovered two hundred and fifty bodies, the victims of drowning and suicide. He rescued literally hundreds of deer, dogs, swan, ducks and cats from places where no other man dare go. Three times —in 1910, 1930, 1931—he made the perilous sixmile trip through the Whirlpool Rapids to Queenston in a barrel. He swam the turbulent half mile below the falls in 1925, from the American to the Canadian side in eleven minutes. When the Falls View Bridge was being pressured by millions of tons of ice during the winter of 1938, Red Sr. foretold the time of its collapse to the day, practically to the minute: Jan. 27, 4.13 p.m.
From the time that they could walk, Red Sr. took his four sons—Red Jr. (William), Corky (Norman), Major, and Wes (Wessley) to the river, passing on to them all the secrets he had learned during his lifetime. The boys idolized their father. They promised him that they would carry on the Hill tradition and devote their lives to the river. He died happily in this knowledge, in 1942, warning them, “The river will keep you poor but in return it will give you a reward greater than money. I can’t put it into words.”
The guardianship of the river was bequeathed particularly to the eldest son, Red Jr., a stockily built man of average height with sandy hair. When he wasn’t actually at. the river’s edge he could be found drinking beer in the Rapids Tavern talking about, it. His friends say that no matter where he was the roar of the falls was pounding in his ears, the spray was within his vision. He asked only one favor from newspapermen: whenever
they printed his name to prefix it with the title Riverman. Like his father he saved lives, rescued animals, recovered bodies. Once, with his brother Corky and a friend Skike Healey, he made an almost impossible trip part way up the sheer side of the American Falls to recover the body of a suicide that had lain on the rocks for two days. He shot the rapids in a barrel in 1945 and 1948—both times for his father’s sake. “There’s no monument to him,” he explained. “I’d do anything to raise the money to buy one.”
Corky Hill was usually at his brother’s side when there was a dangerous assignment. For eleven years he worked for the Maid of the Mist—the steamer that takes visitors near the foot of the falls. One of his jobs was to take a launch out into the choppy waters below the falls each morning and clear away the debris which had been washed over the precipice during the night.
Major Hill shot the rapids in a barrel in 1949, attempted to go over the falls in 1950. His attempt failed when his barrel was caught up in the rapids three hundred yards from the brink. “I took up stunting,” he explained, “to keep up the Hill tradition.”
Three Hundred Dollars for Twenty-nine Lives
Others may have made some real money from such daredevil exploits but not the Hills. Red Sr. first challenged the rapids in 1910 as the result of a ten-dollar bet: he successfully completed the
barrel trip to Queenston but failed to collect the ten dollars. Nor did his fame attract a thriving trade to his souvenir store on Bridge Street. Typical was the time when three buses on a conducted tour brought a hundred and twenty sightseers to his store to gawk at him and his barrel. They asked a lot of questions, took a lot of photographs, but only bought a dollar and eighty-five cents’ worth of knickknacks and souvenirs.
For rescuing twenty-nine people, Red Sr. estimated he received a total of three hundred dollars in rewards. While saving the life of seventeenyear-old Ignatius Roth, an only child, in 1912, Hill risked his life a dozen times, spent three weeks in bed with pneumonia. Yet the boy’s parents didn’t even call to thank him when they came to Niagara Falls to bring their son home to Cleveland.
Red’s sons found the river just as profitless. When Red Jr. shot
SEEKING FAME, WEALTH OR BOTH BY STUNTING AT THE FALLS AND IN THE RAPIDS, SOME LIVED AND SOME DIED, BUT NONE GOT RICH
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the rapids in 1945 to raise money for his father’s memorial he collected exactly three hundred and one dollars and four cents. At that, he did better than his younger brother Major who battled the rapids in 1949. Major’s gross receipts: two dollars and fifty cents.
Police on both sides of the river chased away Hill friends who were taking up collections. The barrel Major used cost several hundred dollars.
Because of their devotion to the river the Hills were seldom ever able to give their undivided and sustained attention to the business of making a living. Red Sr. did many things—he operated a squad of sight-seeing cabs, sold wine and whisky in a shack erected on the ice bridge on No Man’s Land, halfway between the Canadian and American shore lines. Sitting around, drinking beer in the Canadian Corps Association clubrooms on Victoria Street, he would dream up grandiose schemes for making money. One of his favorites involved a giant sweepstake in which a hundred
colored barrels would go racing over the falls. For a time he kept a souvenir store on Bridge Street. As a routine gag he would tell visitors, “I have taken four great risks in my life—three in a barrel on the rapids and one on the sea of matrimony.”
Red Jr. stuck to no regular job either, and many respectable citizens of the area looked down on him because of it. He made no bones about his disinclination to work at anything steady. “I don’t want to be tied down,” he would say. “I want to be free to be near the river.” The local
undertakers paid him twenty-five dollars for each body he recovered. At intervals he guided tourists, worked in an aircraft plant, kept a souvenir shop, did odd jobs for the Ontario HydroElectric Power Commission. He was a poor businessman and had no head for figures. When he was unable to pay back to the government money he had collected for hunting and fishing licenses, Judge H. E. Fuller, who heard his case, said: “Bad bookkeeping and carelessness are to some extent responsible for the fix you’re in.” Judge Fuller sentenced him to sixty days.
There’s little doubt that the Hill name has become legendary. The Niagara Parks Commission, opposed to stunting of all kinds, readily admits the Hill family has been responsible for a surprisingly high proportion of the press notices that have appeared throughout the world about Niagara Falls. Servicemen from Niagara Falls who came in contact with troops from many countries while overseas were surprised by the number of times they were asked about the Hills. They have added color and lore to the falls; they have welded a bond between the cold cruel waters of the Niagara and man.
Old Layfield Hill, who sometimes worked in the park along the waterfront, was fond of the river but he didn’t wear his love on his sleeve. He quietly went about teaching his children about the strengths and weaknesses of Niagara. He was impatient with anyone who feared the river, hence the drastic drenching he gave to his eldest son who was later to become his best pupil. Red Sr. learned his lesson so well that, soon before his death, he told a friend, “I never wanted to live anywhere else; I didn’t even want to travel. The only time I left the falls was to serve in the army.” Even during this absence the river filled his thoughts. Ed Sloggett, a fellow townsman who served with Red Sr. overseas, recalls that no matter how heavy the going Red Sr. was never too distracted to talk about the river.
A Body in the Morning
Red Sr. was born with “a veil” over his face; doctors refer to this rarity as a caul—a membrane enveloping the fetus, which sometimes covers the child’s head at birth. It can easily be removed by surgery. The more romantic people of the last century believed that the person born with a veil was blessed with second sight and a charmed life. Indeed, sea captains were eager purchasers of veils. They would keep them in small oak boxes and never set out on a voyage without them. In the years to come even the sceptical were inclined to believe that Red Sr. was endowed with special gifts.
When he was seven he awoke his parents at three one morning to tell them of a dream he’d just had: a
vacant family property in Chippawa, four miles away, was burning down. They pacified him, tucked him back into bed. Next morning they were amazed to learn that their Chippawa house had burned to the ground just before dawn. When he was nine the Hill home at Niagara caught fire, trapping two-year-old Cora, the baby of the family. The house was a mass of flames and firemen ruled out the possibility of rescue. Red Sr. rushed into the house, barefooted, and emerged with the child. Neither of them was harmed. For this feat he earned the first of the four lifesaving medals he was to win during his lifetime.
Beatrice Hill told me that her husband would often wake up at night with a start and tell her that he was going to find a body in the morning. He was nearly always right. Often he
would sit on the porch of his home, intently listening to the roar of the falls, tien predict the weather for the next two or three days. It is claimed that he had a higher batting average than tie weatherman.
But Red Sr. didn’t depend on clairvoyance for his knowledge of the river. One day the principal of the Buchanan Street School anxiously enquired of his parents why he hadn’t been to school for the past two weeks. It was discovered that he had spent every day, from eight thirty in the morning till four in the afternoon, down at the raver, throwing in bits of driftwood, tien charting the course they took over tie falls and through the rapids. It was a habit that was to stay with the Hill family for the next sixty years. "They were forever throwing things in tie river—logs, cans, old life belts— then studying their progress. They could generally guess the precise spot where a floating object would end its journey.
Beatrice Hill soon learned that the raver was a formidable rival for her husband’s affections. Up at daybreak, ha would grab a cup of coffee, then he off to patrol the waterfront. In tie early years of their marriage she u^ed to keep his evening meal hot for him, but she soon gave that up. Red Sc. would sometimes be gone two or three days at a time, sleeping in The Cave. When she remonstrated with linn he would reply, “There’s nothing to worry about. The river can’t do me any harm.”
His reputation as the guardian of the river quickly grew. The Hill phone number, 717, became familiar to police, firemen, humane society officials, Maid of the Mist officers. Whenever there was a sticky job to be done Red Sr. was called. He was jealous of his reputation. Once he discovered that an old riverman named Johnny was coming down to the water in the darkness each morning, fully an hour ahead of him. He acted promptly. After studying Johnny’s customary route down the gorge, he rigged up a ghostly contraption out of a barrel and three white sheets and strung them on a wire across the pathway. Johnny caught sight of this weird apparition swaying in the wind in the semidarkness the following morning. He shrieked, turned tail and ran. Never again did he venture to the river before broad daylight.
When United States government engineers came from Washington to chart the treacherous Niagara it was Red Sr. they hired as their guide. He was given various titles such as the Wizard of the River and the Master Hero of Niagara Falls. The latter title he richly deserved, for all of Hill’s life rescues were spectacular ones.
At 11.20 one sub-zero Sunday morning in Feb. 1912, Red Sr. was sitting in his shack on the ice bridge that had formed below the falls. Suddenly he heard a deep rumbling, the meaning of which was unmistakable: the ice
bridge was breaking up. He rushed out and chased about thirty sight-seers out on the ice bridge to safety ashore. There were four people, however, who were not as fortunate — Mr. and Mrs. Eldridge Stanton, a honeymoon couple from Toronto, and two young men from Cleveland, Ohio, Burrell Heacock and Ignatius Roth. The Stantons and Heacock disregarded Hill’s advice to make for the nearest shore as quickly as possible, which happened to be the Canadian shore. After wasting several precious minutes pleading with them Hill and the seventeen-year-old Roth left for the Canadian shore, the other three for the American. By now the giant ice bridge was breaking up into ever smaller pieces which were moving
to the Lower Rapids two miles away. Hill leaped across six-foot crevices, waded in freezing slush up to his chest. He constantly encouraged Roth, helping him with a rope, finally carrying him ashore. “I came closer to death that day than in all my days on the river,” Hill said later.
Once ashore he concerned himself with the safety of the Stantons and Heacock. As he had foreseen, the three of them were isolated on a chunk of ice and were drifting toward the rapids. He rushed to the hundred-andfifty-foot-high Whirlpool Rapids Bridge
and threw ropes down to the water as their ice floe approached. Heacock seized one of them and was pulled fifty feet. But his hands were numb and his body was exhausted. He let go and went crashing into the water between two ice floes. Stanton, clinging tightly to his wife, grabbed another line, and gave the signal to pull. But he too was unable to hang on. When last seen the Stantons were kneeling in prayer, swiftly moving to their doom on a small ice floe.
Hill had been back home in Niagara Falls in August 1918 for only three
days, after serving four years with the army overseas, when he won another lifesaving medal. He had been wounded and gassed and a long stay in hospital had left him weak and underweight. But the news that two lives were in peril sent him hurrying to the river. A half mile above the brink of the falls a scow had broken its tow line. There were two workmen aboard—Jim Harris and G us Lefberg. The scow temporarily settled on some rocks in the rapids, thus giving them a reprieve from death. But how long before it would once again respond to the relent-
less current and pull them to the precipice? The U. S. Coast Guard shot a line to them which the men eagerly fastened Rut the breeches buoy which followed a few minutes later became fouled up and it never reached them. It was at this moment of despair that Red Sr. appeared on the scene. He sized up the situation for a few minutes, plunged into the water and, using the line as a support, worked for hours, patiently untangling the pulleys and ropes of the breeches buoy. The rescue took twenty-four hours. Legend has it that at the end of the ordeal Lefberg’s black hair had turned completely white.
Red Hill Sr. showed equal zeal and courage in rescuing animals. Each spring large numbers of swans, migrating southwards, would land on the deceptively calm water of the Niagara just above the falls. Suddenly they would be swept over the cataract. Some were killed; the confused survivors would struggle amid the ice and slush. Women watching them from the bridge above would often break into tears. Since the authorities declared the ice bridge out of bounds after the triple tragedy of 1912, Hill would regularly go to the help of the swans in defiance of the law. At night, camouflaged in a white flannelette nightgown a gift from his wife which he spurned as bed wear—he would leap from ice floe to ice floe, gathering in swans.
“One night he rescued six swans and three geese,” says Mrs. Hill. “Wo were always living with swan, geese and duck.” The live animals would be released in a safe spot; the dead ones were given to needy families as food.
Red Sr. became expert in recovering the bodies of drowning and suicide victims. By considering the season, the temperature of the water, the prevailing currents and winds, he could often foretell where and when the body of a suicide would appear. Many, many times he saw how cruelly the Niagara treated her victims. The sharp rocks would batter their bodies, strip them of their clothing. Once he swam out and dragged back a body by a necktie—the only article of clothing that remained. Most of the bodies had to be retrieved from inaccessible places, like the bottom of the gorge at the Whirlpool Rapids. Swimming out into the water, or using a boat, Red Sr. would bring the body back to shore and lash it to Dead Man’s Tree a huge fallen tree lying half in the water. (This tree was later to be used by his sons for the same purpose.) Then, transferring the body to a burlap wrapping, he would secure it to a pole, and with the help of another man, laboriously haul it four hundred feet up the sheer side of the gorge. Sometimes the trip up took four hours.
Dentures Stayed at Home
To recover submerged bodies Red Sr. invented an ingenious grappling device which wouldn’t get stuck on rocks and debris on the river’s bottom. When local authorities throughout the Niagara Peninsula failed to recover a body they would call in Hill and his special equipment. It was so effective that enquiries were received about it from places as far away as Kansas. Manufacturing this invention in quantity might have been a profitable venture but Red Sr. and his sons didn’t do anything about it. They weren’t businessmen-they were rivermen. Their talents and energies were reserved for the river.
In the world outside Niagara Falls, Red Sr. was principally known for his river stunts. When he swam the river on Sept. 7, 1925, finishing up as fresh
as he went in, the multitudes who watched him that day didn’t know that he had swum the same course secretly the night before “just to get the feel of it.” Before the swim Red Sr. had taken the precaution of leaving his false teeth at home. He remembered that one of his friends, Bobby Leach, while engaged in a similar venture, almost choked to death when a strong wave shoved his dentures down his throat.
Of the three barrel trips that Red Sr. made through the rapids the last one in 1931 was the most eventful. He defiantly used a barrel in which a man had suffocated to death a year earlier while attempting to go over the falls. On the morning of the attempt Mrs. Hill noticed that seventeen-year-old Red Jr. had his bathing suit on under his shirt. When asked why, he explained, “That barrel is jinxed. I’m not just going to hang around and watch Dad die.”
With a Rope in Ilis Teeth
His premonition came true. Within sight of one hundred thousand spectators the barrel was captured by a whirlpool and tossed wildly around in a circle for five hours. A further pounding might mean death for the occupant. Red Jr. stripped, plunged into the water with one rope attached to his waist and another in his mouth, and set out for the barrel. For twenty minutes he fought the jagged waves and surging currents. Finally a giant wave Junged him against the barrel where he could hear his father cry, “For God’s sake, get me out of here.” He tied the line to the barrel and signaled the shore to heave. It took twelve strong men to pull the barrel and the two Hills to safety. Red Jr. always cherished the few words spoken by his father after his heroic gesture: “Son, you’ve got more pluck than I have.” Red Sr. nonchalantly returned to his barrel the next day and completed his journey to Queenston.
There were five attempts to go over the falls in a barrel during Red Sr.’s lifetime. Because of his knowledge of the river his advice was generally sought. The first attempt was made on Oct. 24, 1901, by Anna Edson Taylor, a buxom widow of forty-three. She was a neurotic woman and took the gamble because she urgently needed money. Life had been unkind to her. She was twenty when her husband, a New York physician, died, leaving her penniless with an infant. She started a dancing - and - music school but it burned down. She salvaged seventeen hundred dollars which she entrusted to a clergyman for investment but he lost every penny of it in a real estate bubble in Chattanooga. At forty-three she was threatened with the loss of her last remaining property -a small house in Texas. So in a desperate gamble to raise funds she sold her furniture and had a barrel built. She survived the trip over the falls, which took an hour and fifteen minutes. When Red Sr. helped her out of the barrel she was raving; blood flowed from a three-inch gash behind her right ear. When sufficiently recovered she went on a lecture tour which was not particularly successful. Ironically, the trip over (he falls failed to give lv¿r what she wanted. She died friendless and penniless in the poorhouse in Loekport, N.Y., at sixtythree. Shortly before her death she confessed, “For years I dreamed of the horror of that trip. I wouldn’t do it again for a million dollars. I was seared for life by the experience.”
Bobby Leach, on July 25, 1911, became the second person to successfully defy the falls. Hill helped carry the injured Leach from the barrel after the trip and gave him a few heavy
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Continued from page 40 slugs of whisky, after -taking him to a nearby building and tucking him under a blanket. “When I came here fourteen years ago,” he told Hill, “my ambition was to go over the falls. I’ve done it. Now I’m through taking chances with my life.” But it was only idle talk. After twenty-three weeks in hospital Leach was stunting again. He shot the rapids, he took parachute jumps. Fate treated this plucky little Englishman in a capricious manner. He died in Christchurch, New Zealand, after slipping on an orange peel.
In 1920, Charles C. Stephens, a fifty-eight-year-old barber from Bristol, Eng., came to Niagara Falls with an oak barrel to conquer the falls. A warm friendship grew up between Hill and Stephens. The Englishman, the father of nine children, told Hill that he found barbering dull and that he would like to make a living by appearing in music halls. Going over the falls was the quickest way to achieve that ambition. Stephens wore several rows of medals on his red velvet vest. One was for jumping off the Firth of Forth Bridge, another for allowing a sword thrower to split an apple that had been tied to his neck, and still another for shaving in a den full of lions.
Stephens spent July tenth with the Hills. Red Sr. warned him that his barrel was a crude affair, improperly ballasted, and begged him to postpone his trip and have it rebuilt. When Stephens refused, Hill did all he could to help him. He loaned him eight dollars to pay express charges on the barrel, since Stephens only had English money with him. He padded the inside of it with four of Mrs. Hill’s finest wild duck-feather cushions; the outside he painted bright colors so it could be easily identified for rescue purposes.
“Forget Me Not, Anne”
Stephens climbed into his b irrel at 8.30 the next morning after handing Hill the Plnglish equivalent of twenty one hundred dollars for safe keeping. “Don’t worry,” he said, “I’ll be back to get it in a short time.” “Good luck, Charlie,” replied Hill jokingly. “I’ll be waiting down below for you with a doctor and an undertaker.”
Previously, Stephens had arranged with the local telegraph office to cable his wife in Bristol, FEAT ACCOMPLISHED; TELL DAN (his manager). The telegrapher had to revise the message to PROFESSOR STEPHENS LOST IN THE ATTEMPT. The barrel hit the rocks below the falls and remained there. Red Sr. made several perilous trips to the foot of the cataract in the hope of helping his friend but gave up at noon when a few staves from the barrel were washed ashore at the Maid of the Mist dock. At dawn the next day he recovered all that remained of the Bristol barber: a right arm tattooed: Forget me not, Anne.
After Stephens’ death Hill returned the twenty one hundred dollars to his widow along with a small list of expenditures he had made: eight dollars for express charges, six dollars for painting the barrel, eight dollars for trucking, eight dollars for Mrs. Hill’s duck-feather pillows. The widow replied with only a thank-you note. “You can grow broke living by the river,” commented Hill.
The next attempt, made on July 4, 1928, by Joseph-Albert (Jean) Lussier, was more successful. Lussier’s craft was a large cleverly constructed rubber ball lined with rubber tubes filled with oxygen under thirty-five pounds of pressure. Less than an hour after Lussier started the trip he was sighted below the falls moving down river. When it was feared that he might be
carried through the Whirlpool Rapids, Red Sr. jumped into a small rowboat, battled his way to the ball, slipped a rope through its iron ring, then banged on it to let Lussier know that he was in tow. Thousands of spectators watched Hill, bending and swaying, working the boat back to the Maid of the Mist dock with his ungainly load in tow. Lussier was rescued not a minute too soon. The ball had been gashed by the rocks below the falls and water was trickling through. If the rescue had been delayed the ball might have sunk. In gratitude, Lussier, who is now working as a machine operator in Niagara Falls, N.Y., visits Red Hill’s grave every July 4 the* anniversary of his rescue.
The last stunter Hill befriended was a bizarre character, forty-six-year-old George Stathakis, who referred to himself as “an author, philosopher, poet and chef.” After working in the kitchens of Buffalo restaurants for twenty-one years Stathakis believed he had unraveled the mysteries of life and wanted to share his discoveries with all mankind by publishing a book to be called The Secrets of Life. What easier way was there of raising the necessary five thousand dollars than by going over Niagara Falls?
Red Sr. shuddered when he saw Stathakis’ cumbersome barrel. The Greek chef was unconcerned. He told Hill that he would be accompanied by Sonny Boy, a sacred green turtle a hundred and five years old. “If I perish,” he said, “the turtle will tell you what happened in the barrel during the last minutes of my life.”
Stathakis plunged over the falls early in the afternoon of July 4, 1930, and disappeared from sight. After keeping vigil on the river till five the next morning, Hill went home for some sleep. No sooner had he crawled into bed than his phone rang telling him that the barrel had been thrown out from below the falls. He rushed back to the waterfront, launched a boat and spent the next five hours towing it to the foot of the Falls View Bridge. Inside, Stathakis lay dead of suffocation but Sonny Boy was very much alive. Hill adopted the turtle as a pet, and later used to say, “That turtle wasn’t as sacred as Stathakis thought. I had him for a year and a half, and he never said a damned word.”
Because his body was weakened by war injuries Red Sr. had to take to his bed frequently after he reached his fifties. Looking up from his pillows he wistfully told his sons, “I guess I’m all washed up as far as fighting the river is concerned, but I still feel the same about it.” He died on May 14, 1942, in his fifty-sixth year, with his boots off.
For a time Mrs. Hill, who had come to the falls from her native St. Catha-
riñes when only six years old, hoped that her sons would settle down to steady jobs. (“I hate the river,” she told me. “I’m afraid of it. I begged my children to stay away from it.”) But her hopes were soon shattered. Red Jr.’s pattern of life soon became identical with that of his father. Accompanied by his black spaniel. Pal, he was down at the river every morning at dawn. Like his father he was forever throwing things into the water, studying the currents. Whenever a chunk of rock crashed off the ledge into Niagara, or when there was a new piece of hydro-electric construction, he tried to discover how the water’s course was affected.
Like his father he began to build a reputation as a lifesaver. At seventeen he saved his father’s life in the Whirlpool Rapids. At eighteen, while vacationing in Muskoka, he rescued a woman from drowning. A few years later he dragged ashore an eight-year-old boy who had fallen into the river near the Maid of ihe Mist dock.
They say he was on speaking terms with every fish in the river and every animal on its banks. When his cronies refused to believe that bass could come over the falls and survive, he caught large numbers of them at the very foot of the cataract, using soft-shelled crabs as bait. They could not have come upstream because of the turbulent rapids. Once he spent every evening for a week watching an eel return to the same spot to feed on sand flies while standing on its end. Shortly before his fatal plunge he told a bartender friend, Danny White, where and how he could catch it. “I remembered about it the day after Red’s death,” says Danny. “I followed his directions and caught it.”
He found an effective way of catching turtles. He would search out a stagnant
creek, rig a line across it between two trees, extend from it a series of hooks containing fragrant rotting meat just two inches above the water. Red Jr. enjoyed nothing more than eating freshly caught fish and wild game. He could readily recognize the part of a turtle he was eating: the front shoulders were pink like veal, the rear quarters rich and red like beef, the neck meat tender as chicken. He would sometimes make a hot boiled stew out of squirrel and woodcock, adding bay leaf and wine. Friends sometimes found him crouched in front of an open fire, roasting a wild duck liver on the end of a stick. He always knew where to find rabbits, pheasant, woodcock, duck and deer. In spite of the fact that he used an old Winchester 12-gauge pump gun, whose stock was kept together with black electrician’s tape, he could down a bird at eighty yards.
He loved animals. “He was a beautiful lad,” says Arthur McMillan, inspector of the Niagara Frontier Humane Society. “Night or day Red was willing to risk his life for an animal.” Once, at 6 a.m., a police dog was trapped on a ledge in the gorge opposite Dorchester Street. Red wouldn’t let McMillan make the rescue because the ledge was crumbly and dangerous. Instead, he borrowed three hundred feet of rope from the fire station on Main Street, donned a steel helmet, and went down himself. Another day he almost lost his life retrieving a frightened two-hundredpound eight-point deer. After two hours of struggling with the animal on the sheer side of the cliff he was able to tie it up and have it pulled up by a bucket and crane. Later the same day he climbed down forty feet of ledge to retrieve a one-hundred-and-twentyfive-pound deer that had been chased there by a dog. Stray dogs instinctively
found their way to him; he turned them over to the humane society.
For his rescue work with animals Red Jr. refused to take a cent. “Just buy me a beer sometime,” he would say to Art McMillan. Clad in white sheets, Red Jr. and his brother Corky would spend many hours each spring on the ice bridge rescuing a variety of birds—herring gulls, swans, horned grebes, American mergansers, goldeneye ducks, double-crested cormorants, baldpates and canvasbacks. One of Red’s fondest ambitions was to have a zoo in Niagara Falls. “We get millions of visitors,” he said, “we should show them the wonderful wild life we have in this country.”
He was adored by the people who knew him well. He spoke softly, never swore, smoked or got drunk. Honeymoon couples he guided around were so attracted to him that they generally ended up by drinking beer with him at the Fox Head Hotel. He was always doing favors for people. He suggested to a friend, Bob Orr, a young chiropractor just starting up in Niagara Falls, that he meet him on the Maid of the Mist landing after the barrel trip over the falls. “I’ll pose with you for the photographers,” he said. “It might help you get established here.” He wanted Art McMillan to hold a tag day for the humane society on the day he took his fatal plunge, because there would be thousands of prospective tag purchasers on hand. Often he would build a fire near the Maid of the Mist landing, fry up a mess of fish and bring it to the boys who worked on the boats. He was usually carrying a gift for someone wrapped in newspaper or brown paper—a fish, a bird or a turtle. When out on a fishing or hunting trip Red told his friends where the game was to be found. Usually he would be content to clean the fish or dress the game.
Red Jr.’s thoughts were never far away from his father. During his first barrel trip through the rapids in 1945 the going became rough. A wave tossed his craft thirty feet in the air, dashed it on the rocks. The water started trickling in. “I was scared,” said Red later. “Then somehow I felt that Dad had slipped in the barrel beside me and all fear left me.” Both the barrel trips he took were motivated by a desire to raise a monument to his father.
Major Hill, Red’s impulsive brother, shot the rapids in 1949, but failed to go over the falls in 1950. Intimate friends say this unsuccessful try influenced Red Jr. to take his fatal plunge on Aug. 5, 1951. He was jealous of the Hill reputation and didn’t want it to be associated with failure. Openly he gave other reasons for making the trip. “I’ve been watching the falls for years and I know I can take care of them. There won’t be any mistake.”
The crazy flimsy craft in which he planned to risk his life was built for him by a tinsmith friend, Norman Candler. When he first saw it he seemed to be disappointed and said, “I thought it would be different.” He consulted his father’s old friend, Jean Lussier, who told him. “I wouldn’t even go on the Chippawa Creek in a rig like that.” Red Jr. shrugged his shoulders: “That’s as far as my money would go.”
During the last week of his life Red Jr. seemed to be exhilarated by the sense of risk. “It will ride high over the water,” he said. “Ul get wet but nothing more will happen to me.” A friend suggested that he could easily send his barrel over the falls empty, then climb into it unseen; thus he could still gain notoriety and make money by exhibiting the barrel and by
personal appearances on radio, stage and television. Red Jr. was outraged. “It’s the falls I want to go over,” he said. “I want that more than the fame and the money.”
His mother went down on her knees and pleaded with him to wear a lifebelt. He refused, saying, “That would take the kick out of the show.”
Late that Sunday afternoon, as Red’s body lay in the embrace of the fabled Maid of the Mist, his brothers and a group of cronies sat around a table glumly drinking beer. One said, “The sweetest guy that ever lived— why did it have to happen to him?” Another said, “He knew the water. He came over in the exact spot he said he’d come over.” A third added, “It wasn’t his fault. It was that lousy barrel.” The men rose and went outside to look at the tangled wreckage of the rubber barrel. In a fit of blind rage Major Hill whipped out his knife and slashed some of the rubber tubes.
I found the same bitterness when I visited Mrs. Beatrice Hill and her family a few days after her son’s funeral. She now lives in a modest frame house on Peer Street, for the river has been stingy with the Hills.
“We Won’t Give Up!”
“It’s a lot of foolishness risking your life for somebody else’s pleasure,” said Mrs. Hill. “They don’t care what happens to you.” She was thinking of the people who lined the gorge to watch her son Red. They were a festive, gay crowd. The news that Red had perished had no visible effect on them. They gaily returned to their picnicking and sight-seeing, leaving the Hills alone with their burning heartache. Corky Hill said, bitterly, “They didn’t come to see Red live; they came to see him die.”
The Hills are bitter because others— through no fault of their own—have made a handsome profit from Red’s blood sacrifice. There is some truth in this. An official of the Niagara Parks Commission estimated that there were two hundred thousand visitors in town on August 5—twice the normal traffic on a summer Sunday. Souvenir dealers, refreshment stands, restaurants, hotels and cabins did a land-office business. A clerk at Henri’s souvenir store told me that they did twice the normal turnover that day. They cleared out a slow-moving line of cups and saucers that they had expected to be stuck with at the end of the season. Instead of the usual closing time of 11 p.m. they stayed open till 1 a.m. but, even so, they had to literally force dozens of eager customers out of the door to lock up. Four hundred extra cases of one brand of soft drinks alone were sold along the waterfront, according to the estimate of a deliveryman. A baker increased his sale of apple, raisin and cherry pies by fifty percent.
I asked the Hill boys if they were through with the river. It was Major who replied, after a short pause. “As far as giving up the river, none of us ever will. No matter where you go, what you think, what you want to do, you always come back to it. It’s the heart that decides, not the mind.”
There’s another William Red Hill alive today—the four-year-old son of Corky. Like the two men whose name he bears he’s sandy haired, energetic and fearless. Last May 14 he suddenly disappeared. After a frantic two-hourlong search he was found at the Fair View cemetery, four miles away. It was the ninth anniversary of the death of William Red Hill Sr., and the boy was laying a bunch of wild flowers on his grave. Ever since he has been able to walk, little Red has idolized his famous grandfather, ir