By Linda McK. Stewart
July 9, 1960. Senator John F. Kennedy was running for president and Alfred Hitchcock’s film, Psycho was dealing a deathblow to America’s motel business. All front page stuff. But not in Tonawanda, NY. There the big news was Deanne Woodward’s 17th birthday. Deanne and Roger, her 7 year old stringbean of a brother, lived with their parents at Lynch’s Trailer Park. Plans to celebrate the birthday that evening, cake candles and all were already underway. But the morning was free so Jim Honeycutt, 42, a family friend, invited Deanne, Roger too, for a birthday boat ride on the Upper Niagara River. Jim’s boat, an aluminum 12-footer with a 7.5 hp outboard motor, had a pair of oars and a couple of ancient, orange kapok life jackets. As Roger couldn’t swim he was bundled into one of the life jackets even though it was far too big. It took a lot of tugging and tying but finally it was tightly snugged around his 50 pound frame.
It was a flawless summer day. The river was placid. The sky blue-blue. With the outboard putt-putting along the boat moved gently downstream. In the far distance
the sunlit mist that shrouds Niagara Falls could ever so faintly be discerned. They passed under Grand Island Bridge. The current picked up, licking white caps. Jim turned the boat around and headed back upstream. Just a short while later Roger asked if he could try steering. Obligingly Jim swapped seats, taking the middle seat so he could easily reach the 7-year old if he had to. At first all went well. Then, suddenly, the boat gave a tremendous jolt as it struck hard against a rock or maybe a submerged log. The impact sheared the propeller pin. The motor died. Within seconds the boat was caught by the current. At once Jim tossed the second life jacket to Diane in the bow. “Put it on,” he yelled as he fitted the oars into the oarlocks and bent to row the fast-drifting boat towards shore. He had taken no more than a few strokes when the boat was swamped by the roiling waters. It capsized. The three were flung into the river and swept helplessly downstream towards the falls.
The Niagara River marks the international line between the US and Canada. The river and the gorge through which it flows were gouged out by the Wisconsin ice sheet 10,000 years ago. The river provides, in non-poetic terms, the bathtub drain for the upper Great Lakes and serves as the conduit that carries the waters of Lake Erie into Lake Ontario and on into the St. Lawrence River. Three-thousand tons of water per second pour over Niagara Falls. It’s the highest volume of water of any falls in North America, and some say, in the world. (Victoria Falls is the other contender but seasonal drought can diminish Victoria’s flow to a near-trickle.)
For a few seconds Jim kept a grip on Roger but the waters were too turbulent. They were torn apart. As bystanders on both side of the river looked on in horror, Jim disappeared and Roger in his orange life jacket was swirled to the brink of the falls.
Year round six to ten times a day, weather permitting Dan Beck lifts his Bell 408 helicopter from the helipad of Niagara Helicopters Ltd. carrying six passengers over Niagara Falls. Viewing the falls from a height of 1000 feet, the roaring of the waters replaced by the hum of the rotor blades, imposes a surreal perspective on the natural order of things. Gone is the visceral chill that grabs us all when we stand at the brink of the falls… replaced by an ill-defined unease at finding ourselves so improbably positioned. Niagara Falls is Canada’s number one tourist attraction. Eleven-million visitors a year flock to the Canadian side of the Falls. Thanks to the Niagara Parks Commission (NPC), founded in 1895, commercial encroachment along the Canadian side has been strictly limited. NPC maintains a beautifully landscaped park and Welcome Center in the vicinity of the falls in contrast to the U.S. side which is considerably less scenic.
More than 50 years later Roger Woodward vividly remembers being lifted high aloft as he swept over the brink, falling 160 feet into the rock-strewn cauldron at the base of the falls. Miraculously he landed between the massive boulders. Almost immediately he was swept out by the current and came bobbing to the surface just in front of the Maid of the Mist II, a regular excursion boat that carries visitors to the base of the Falls. The skipper, Clifford Cleech, spotted Roger’s orange life jacket. Not without considerable difficulty he maneuvered the boat against the swirling current for just the few seconds required to fish Roger out of the roaring river. Above the falls, no less a miracle was simultaneously unfolding. Deanne, also in a life jacket, was desperately trying to swim ashore. She was less than 20 feet from the brink when a bystander at a lookout point was able to catch her extended hand and haul her to safety. Jim Honeycutt was swept over the falls to his death.
IF YOU GO: Porter Airlines provides new and user-friendly service, Newark-Toronto. It’s an hour’s drive Toronto- Niagara. For detailed information call 905-353 5441.