The river carries me here
As a babe on its island’s shores I play
Palms and fingers squish soft sand, feet kick,
On my back, sun warmed laps of waves.
Currents change with the seasons
Moody green, then blue; milky, then grey
Factory polluted in a haphazard way.
In autumn steam rises after first frost
Buckhorn’s creek freezes over in white
Our skates’ steel cuts crust to granules of light
We hear the creak of the sheet unable
to bear our weight; it cracks, we lie on the ice
crawl to shore; imagine the classmate trapped
head under the lip of ice, face turned blue
frozen in his boots, red cap and jacket;
first of our generation to pay the price
like deer seeking to drink fresh water
stranded on ice floe; eyes wide in fear
headed for the Rapids, then the Falls.
Sooner or later the current carries us all.
Source: Kathy Gilbert, 2021
Award winning poet Kathy Gilbert grew up in Niagara Falls, NY, attending St John de La Salle, Prince of Peace, and 66th Street schools before moving to Grand Island. She currently resides in Northern California where she received an MFA in poetry from San Francisco State University. In 2020, she published a poetry collection, Aprils Three. Other poems have appeared in Transfer, Anomalous, Swampwriting, The Steel Toe Review, The Community of Writers, and,Vistas & Byways. She is currently working on a book about Niagara Falls.
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.
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
‘T WAS evening, and Niagara’s tide ‡‡Like giant serpent crawling,
Its varnished skin, in moonbeams dyed, ‡‡With hissing voice was calling,
Upon the cataract below, ‡‡Which hoarsely was replying.
E’en thus when fiery rivers flow
Along the sky, and with their glow,
The black couch of the thunderer show, ‡‡We hear his stern voice crying.
It was a night of loveliness, ‡‡A white cloud had been veiling
The moon, but now, with silvery dress ‡‡Athwart the sky was sailing ; —
The bright eyed sentinels that stand, ‡‡Upon the walls of Heaven,
In glittering robes, a radiant band,
With myriad wings the forest fanned,
Whose branches whispered of a land, ‡‡Where endless joys are given
It was a night of loveliness, ‡‡A shallop, old reclining
Beside the shore, seemed in distress, ‡‡Neglected and repining ;
Upon her thwart I set me down, ‡‡And watched the gliding water,
That sparkled like a Monarch’s crown,
And clustered trees, whose shadows brown,
Lay on the landscape, like a frown ‡‡On cheek of beauty’s daughter.
Before me soon, a vision rose, ‡‡An Eden landscape glowing,
Like that which some magician shows, ‡‡All red with roses blowing ;
Where flashing like a sunbeam swift, ‡‡Bright rainbow-tinted wings did quiver,
But soon the fairy-land did drift
Like cloud away, the scene did shift,
I woke, and found myself adrift ‡‡Upon the rushing river !
Oarless, adown the current went ‡‡That boat and I together,
As from their boughs red leaves are rent, ‡‡In Autumn’s stormy weather !
Now in some whirling eddy borne, ‡‡Now bending tree-tops under,
And all the time from silver throne,
As if in mockery, on me shone
The Queen of Night — and solemn — lone, ‡‡Arose the cataract’s thunder !
Down, down we flew ! — no help was near, ‡‡Dark clouds came o’er the water,
As the black wings of Death appear ‡‡O’er crimsoned field of slaughter !
I thought upon my early doom, ‡‡Of hopes once brightly glowing
The golden skies now hid in gloom,
And still the cataract’s solemn boom,
Came like a message from the tomb — ‡‡” To Spirit-Land thou’rt going ! ”
O how the scenes of early days, ‡‡With Memory’s wings, came round me !
It seemed as if some gentle Fays ‡‡In dreamy spell had bound me.
Fond ones were by my side once more, ‡‡Their eyes with kindness beaming,
And ‘ mong them her who ever wore
For me a smile. The cataract’s roar,
Grew louder — but on island shore ‡‡I saw a beacon streaming.
My boat drew near that rocky isle, ‡‡Which for a moment caught her ;
That rugged island still doth smile ‡‡Amid the boiling water ;
For, on its crags, with nimble feet, ‡‡Like frighten’d deer I darted,
While downward, on its course so fleet,
As porpoises at sea retreat
Toward the storm — so Death to greet, ‡‡That boat flew as we parted.
Source: E. Curtiss Hine. The Haunted Barque, and Other Poems. Auburn, NY: J.C. Derby & Co., 1848
In the preface Hine wrote: “Most of the following Poems were composed at sea, while the Author was attached to an American Frigate cruising in the Pacific Ocean, to while away the tedious hours — the monotony and ennui of a life on board a ship of war.”