Platt by James Penha

Joseph Avery Stranded on Rocks in the Niagara River. Daguerrotype by Platt D. Babbitt, 1853. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

All night long they heard in the houses beside the shore,
Heard, or seemed to hear, through the multitudinous roar,
Out of the hell of the rapids as ’twere a lost soul’s cries,–
Heard and could not believe; and the morning mocked their eyes,
Showing, where wildest and fiercest the waters leaped up and ran
Raving round him and past, the visage of a man
Clinging, or seeming to cling, to the trunk of a tree that, caught
Fast in the rocks below, scarce out of the surges raught.
Was it a life, could it be, to yon slender hope that clung?
Shrill, above all the tumult the answering terror rung.
–William Dean Howells, “Avery”

Nothing else I could do. It’s my profession after all. Photographing Niagara Falls. Its views. Its visitors. And selling the resulting daguerreotypes. Quite successfully. Because I’m a damn good daguerreotypist. Ask anyone around here. And I’m on duty every day, 365 days a year. This day, July 16, 1853, I was waiting for tourists along the American Channel rapids when I saw three men struggling to maneuver their row boat to shore. They had been working on the big dredging scow anchored in the river. Their oars were broken. Or lost. I turned my lens toward them just as the boat capsized and I saw two bodies cartwheeling over the edge of the American Falls too fast for me to capture them in my camera. There was no sign of the third man — turned out to be a local fellow named Samuel Avery — until he leapt up like a fucking phoenix and sat astride a log cantilevered in a rocky shoal in the middle of the river. The rapids were way too loud for him to hear my hallo, so I waved at him with both arms, but he was likely too afraid to let go of the log to answer. He was riding the river like a scared girl on a runaway stallion, but luckily he kept still enough for me to create an historic photograph. Took an even longer time till someone thought to hitch a lifeboat to the Bath Island Bridge and send the boat down toward the man. Avery caught and climbed into the boat, but before I could re-focus, the rapids turned the lifeboat upside down, and Avery, thrown back into the river, met his fate just as his friends had hours before. Nothing else I could do. I returned to my hotel where I processed the plate and encased a dozen of the images for sale at my Point View stand. They sold well. They still do.

Source: The author, 2021
The prose poem Platt by James Penha was first published in The Ekphrastic Review, March 17, 2016

View the poem Avery, 1853  by William Dean Howells

Getting around.” Luminous-Lint. Web. 15 Oct. 2015.
Niagara River – Life & Death on the River: Accidents & Rescues.” 20 Feb. 2012. Web. 15 Oct. 2015. .
Platt D. Babbitt (Getty Museum).” The J. Paul Getty in Los Angeles. Web. 15 Oct. 2015. .
Weld, Charles Richard. A Vacation Tour in the United States and Canada. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1855. Print.

A native New Yorker, James Penha has lived for the past three decades in Indonesia. Nominated for Pushcart Prizes in fiction and poetry, his work is widely published in journals and anthologies. His newest chapbook of poems, American Daguerreotypes, is available for Kindle. His essays have appeared in The New York Daily News and The New York Times. Penha edits The New Verse News, an online journal of current-events poetry. Twitter: @JamesPenha

Conroy the Brave by Simeon Tucker Clark

Niagara Falls, June 1, 1874 


Guide Thomas Conroy Standing by the Dressing Room of the Shadow of the Rock Building. Photo by George Barker. Image courtesy of Niagara Falls Public Library

The sun looks out of a cloudless sky ;
‡‡The winds are drifting the apple-blows
That over the grass like snow-flakes lie ;
The oriole wooes his mate as they fly ;
‡‡And William McCullough to labor goes.

A prayer is warm in the old man’s heart,
‡‡A song is quivering on his tongue ;
As he busily plies his wonted art
He watches the arrowy rapids dart
‡‡Under his scaffolding, safely hung.

A moment more and under the tide
‡‡Of wrathful waters his form is lost !
The river fiends fasten on his every side —
They pluck at his beard, they gibber and chide !
‡‡He is blinded and deafened and pelted and tost !

Weary and wounded, all breathless and sore,
‡‡More than half dead he is hurried away,
Close to the brink where the great waters pour,
Heedless and headlong with terrible roar,
‡‡Into a vortex where never was day !

What can prevent him ? O Father Supreme !
‡‡Darkness like this thou alone can illume !
See !  What is that in the turbulent stream ?
It is a glimpse — a half-comforting gleam
‡‡Of floating grey hair mid the circling spume !

Yes ! he is clutching with half palsied hand
‡‡Yon God-given guerdon — a pillar of stone —
He whispers with Death and looks toward the land
Where he never again with his fellows may stand’
‡‡Who powerless must leave him to perish alone !

But lo ! who is coming with masterly stride,
‡‡Pride on his forehead and strength in his frame ?
Tom Conroy, the guide, who was never defied,
He laughs at the danger — and braving the tide
‡‡Is bound with a cord to the chariot of Fame.

Strong was the rope that was fast to the shore,
‡‡And under the coil was a heart big and brave —
Aye, braver to-day than ever before,
He reaches the rock — and like Perseus of yore —
‡‡He rescues his friend from the fiend of the wave !

When the names of our heroes are written or sung,
‡‡We will chant your name Conroy in musical stave
When palsied your arm and silent your tongue,
The child now unborn, shall hear how you flung
‡‡Yourself in the wave, a comrade to save !

Source: Niagara Gazette, June 10, 1874

Read an article on the rescue of William McCullough by Tom Conroy from the Buffalo Evening Courier & Republic, June 2, 1874

Sam Patch. Words and Music by Cornelius Eady

I’m the king of the Rochester Falls
Sam Patch has answered the call
This morning you’ll see it all.

The whirl of the water
That don’t bother me
Blood-thirsty crowd
That don’t bother me
Wind at my back
That don’t bother me
False friends cheering
That don’t bother me

Poster Announcing Sam Patch’s Last Jump. Courtesy of Wikipedia

I’m the king of the Genesee
Every eye here is planted on me.
Roll up and see what you’ve
Never seen

The whirl of the water
That don’t bother me
Blood-thirsty crowd
That don’t bother me
Wind at my back
That don’t bother me
False friends cheering
That don’t bother me

Fall and move on
Fall and move on
Fall and move on, boy,
Fall and move on
Fall and move on
Fall and move on,
Fall and move on, boy
Fall and move on.

The word has spread
The time has come
Come watch me leap
Into kingdom come
Come watch a day
That’s never been done.

The whirl of the water
That don’t bother me
Blood-thirsty crowd
That don’t bother me
Wind at my back
That don’t bother me
False friends cheering
That don’t bother me

The platform wobbles
Like a dancing bear
The foam and the spray
Rise like ghost in the air
Soon I will dance between
Here and there

The roar of the water
That don’t bother me
Blood-thirsty crowd
That don’t bother me
Wind at my back
That don’t bother me
False friends cheering
That don’t bother me

Will I fall and move on?

Cornelius Eady: Loops, and Vocals
Mitizie Collins: Hammered Dulcimer
Marvin Sewell: Electric Guitar
Emma Alabaster: Bass
Concetta Abbate: Violin

Source: The author.  First published in his music chapbook Book of Hooks, Kattywompus Press, 2013

About Cornelius Eady

Sam Patch jumped from a ladder at the base of Goat Island twice in the fall of 1829, and was killed later that year jumping at the Genessee Falls. Read more about Sam Patch.

Read Eady’s poem The Death of Sam Patch

Dedication of “The Miracle and Other Poems” by Virna Sheard

Frozen Niagara River with the American Falls in the background just before the fatal disaster of February 4, 1912. Image courtesy of Niagara Falls Public Library





No tears for thee, no tears, or sighs,
Or breaking heart —
But smiles, that thou so well that bitter hour
Didst play thy part !

Source: Virna Sheard. The Miracle and Other Poems. Toronto: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1913

A dedication to Eldridge Stanton, Junior, who died alongside his wife, Clara, and Burrell Hecock when the ice bridge across the Niagara River just below Niagara Falls broke up suddenly, leaving them adrift. Read Brian Busby’s account of the tragedy and the dedication in Virna Sheard’s book in his posting “A Dedication Born of Tragedy” in The Dusty Bookcase blog, November 7, 2019.

Untitled by Anonymous

As on the stormy beach I strayed,
‡‡Where frowning rocks prevailed,
O! thus my own, my dearest maid,
‡‡My hard, hard fate bewailed: —
“O! Harry, dear, you’ll break your neck —
‡‡Upon my soul you will;
And if you do, you precious fool,
‡‡I’ll lick you — so I will!”

Source: Table Rock Album and Sketches of the Falls and Scenery Adjacent. Buffalo: Steam Press of Thomas and Lathrops, copyright by Jewett, Thomas & Co.,1856c.1848

This link takes you to the scanned version of  the 1855 version of Table Rock Album from the Hathi Trust

See the Table of Contents of the Table Rock Album on this site.