Tales of the “Red” Hill Rescuers
With its long history of barrel stunts, tightrope walking and other death-defying acts, Niagara Falls is no stranger to daredevils. It takes a lot for a particular individual to be known around town by name for his or her stunting. It is even more unusual for a family to become notorious for risky acts along the natural wonder. Yet, in the case of legendary riverman William “Red” Hill Sr. and his son, William “Red” Hill Jr., that is precisely what happened.
Father-Son Niagara Falls Legends
William “Red” Hill Sr. and Jr. were no ordinary father-son duo. From the early 1900s to 1951, the pair were involved in many events around the legendary body of water, making them legendary characters in 20th century Niagara Falls history. Here are just some of the stories of William “Red” Hill Sr. and Jr. that you might hear around town.
1887-1910 – William Red Hill Sr., a hero in the making
Although he was known to take on stunts from time to time, William Red Hill Sr., was best known to locals as the “riverman” or the “Niagara Falls rescuer.” His first rescue came in the 1890s, when he was just 9 years old, when he saved his 4-year-old sister from a fire in the family home. In recognition of his heroism, young William awarded a medal from the Royal Canadian Humane Society.
Never one to fear danger, William was always drawn to the powerful rapids of Niagara Falls. As a young adult, he broke a record by swimming from the American to the Canadian side in only 11 minutes. It is unsurprising that he would earn a reputation as a person who could save others from the perils of the water that fascinated him so much.
1911 – William Red Hill Sr. helps Bobby Leach
The early 20th century brought a string of daredevils who attempted various Niagara Falls stunts utilizing a barrel. One of these was Bobby Leach, who became the second person to survive a tumble over Niagara Falls in a barrel. His journey certainly was not a smooth one – Leach broke both kneecaps and fractured his jaw on the way down.
William Red Hill Sr. not only helped pull Leach out of the “glorified septic tank” used for this stunt, but was also present during Leach’s attempts to swim the whirlpool rapids a decade later. His involvement with Leach was the first high-profile rescue of Red Hill Sr.’s career. However, there would be many more to come.
1912 – William Red Hill Sr. saves 23 tourists from splitting ice floes
“Niagara Falls rescuer” wasn’t an official job title back in the 1910s, so Red Hill Sr. found other occupations to keep him financially afloat. One of the occupations he took up was running a winter whiskey hut for tourists, which he positioned on an ice bridge below Niagara Falls.
Needless to say, walking on such ice bridges is extremely dangerous; however, at the time, it was permitted (and with whiskey in hand, too!). One day, the inevitable happened – the ice cracked, floes separated and tourists began floating away from safety.
They were lucky that Red Hill Sr. was on the scene. The strong local man, aged 25, saved a reported 23 different people that day, ensuring they made it to shore. Of the many people present that day, only two of the tourists present were trapped and perished on an ice floe that floated into the rapids.
1918 – The Niagara Scow
Red Hill Sr. performed one of his most famous rescues only a few days after returning home from World War I. He was recovering from poison gas inhalation, tuberculosis and a gunshot wound when he was called upon to help rescue boat crew members James Henry Harris and Gustav Lofberg from a perilous position. The pair were marooned against a rock above Horseshoe Falls, and their hope for escape was dwindling.
From afar, William Red Hill Sr. using a breeches buoy to bring stranded sailor James Harris to land after 19 hours marooned above Horseshoe Falls.
Our article on the Niagara Scow has the full story, but here’s a snippet of William Red Hill Sr.’s critical role in the rescue:
“The hero of the day was legendary riverman William “Red” Hill Senior, who spent hours untangling the breeches buoy and making his way across the water to the stranded men.
Overall, the rescue took 17 hours of trial and error, tangled ropes and a brave rescuer who risked his own life to save two others. Hill was awarded a Carnegie Medal for his efforts.”
Imagine performing such a rescue while recovering from three different and serious war wounds! Red Hill Sr. was already a hero in the eyes of locals, but this feat solidified his position in Niagara Falls history.
The Life and Legacy of William “Red” Hill Sr.
William “Red” Hill Sr. made the perilous journey through the lower rapids of Niagara River several times before his 1942 death, caused by the effects of gassing in World War I. Reporters estimate he saved 28 lives and pulled over 170 bodies out of Niagara’s waters over the course of his life.
Of all the people he influenced, one, in particular, seemed to have taken the most notes from his father’s legacy: His son, William “Red” Hill Jr.
1951 – William “Red” Hill Jr. attempts a never-before-seen barrel stunt
William Red Hill Jr.’s legacy replicates that of his father in many ways. Red Hill Jr. supported over 100 of Red Hill Sr.’s recovery missions, along with completing several of his own. He also took on the dangerous and difficult swim from the base of the American Falls to the Canadian shore, but was unable to beat his father’s 11-minute record. However, he did match his father’s ability to overcome the Great Gorge Rapids and Whirlpool in a barrel.
Following his father’s passing, William Red Hill Jr. began performing stunts around the Niagara rapids as a means of raising money. His goal was to fund a memorial in Red Hill Sr.’s memory. In an effort to entice more contributions, Red Hill Jr. made a fatal decision to increase the danger level of his feats.
On August 5, 1951, Red Hill Jr. attempted to take a barrel over Horseshoe Falls, a stunt not even his father dared take on. The decision would be his last; thousands watched as the barrel shattered and broke from the water pressure. Niagara Falls residents were devastated at the loss of the 38-year-old, a famed riverman in his own right.
The Aftermath of Red Hill Jr.’s Stunt
The seemingly senseless death of Red Hill Jr. shook residents of Niagara Falls, prompting many to advocate for stricter stunting laws. The Premier of Ontario, Leslie Frost, quickly issued a special order requiring the Niagara Parks Commission to arrest any would-be stunters in the area.
This was the beginning of a new era in Niagara Falls stunting – one that was highly regulated and put a stop to dangerous barrel rolls. The result? A safer Niagara Falls, and a host of past stunters that will live forever in the history books.