Michael Clarkson grew up along the banks of the Niagara River. As a young reporter, he collected stories of people who challenged the river’s dangerous 165-foot Falls, including the first three to do so:
"Annie Edson Taylor went over the falls in a wooden whiskey barrel in 1901. Annie was a bored 63-year-old teacher. She went over the falls, had some bumps and bruises, and she did it.
"In 1911, Bobby Leach, a stunt man from England, went over in a glorified septic tank. He went on a Vaudeville tour, and unfortunately for him, when he was on tour in New Zealand, he slipped on an orange peel and died of gangrene in his leg.
"In 1920 a barber from Bristol, England, Charles Stephens, went over in a Russian oak barrel. Unfortunately for him, he tied an anvil to his leg, and, in the descent, the anvil pulled him through the barrel, and they only found body parts of him later on."
Clarkson also heard of a heroic river man and his family, whose tales are interwoven with the history of daredevilry and rescue at the Falls. Here's their story.
William "Red" Hill Sr. was born on Oct. 27, 1887 in Niagara Falls, Ontario. His career saving lives began when he carried his 4-year-old sister, Cora, out of their family’s burning home. For his bravery, he was awarded a medal from the Royal Canadian Humane Society. He was just 9 years old. But it was in the perilous waters of the Niagara River, not fire, where he saved the most lives.
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Hill became a powerful swimmer. As a young man, he swam the Niagara’s lower rapids from the American to the Canadian side in a record time of 11 minutes. In 1911, it was Hill who rescued Bobby Leach from his “glorified septic tank.” The following year, Hill made international headlines.
"In 1912, it was allowed for tourists to go below the Falls on these big, formed ice bridges," Clarkson says. "In fact, Red Hill Sr. had a whiskey hut. He would sell whiskey and other liquor on the ice bridge, right below the Falls. But one day, the ice cracked and the floes parted and the tourists were separated and screaming and running for help. Red Hill Sr. was able to get 23 of them off to shore. Unfortunately, a man and his wife were trapped and died in an ice floe, which went down the rapids and into the whirlpool."
Hill fought in France during World War I with the Canadian Army’s Fourth Division, which helped the Allies capture Vimy Ridge from the Germans. He suffered poison gas inhalation, tuberculosis and a gunshot wound during his tour of duty. He was given six months to live by a doctor and was sent home to die. But a couple days later …
"I think one of the incredible rescues of all time in North America was when Red Hill plucked two men off a scow above Niagara Falls in 1918," Clarkson says.
A small dredging scow with two men aboard broke free of its tugboat and grounded on rocks 1,500 yards above the Falls.
"When he got there, soldiers from both sides of the border, firemen, police were there, but nobody knew what to do because the scow was about 1,200 feet offshore," Clarkson says. "And the only man who had the expertise was Red Hill. So he went out and crawled along these lines which were shot out to the scow from a building on shore. It took him many hours, but he was able to scramble and rescue these two men, these two sailors, off the scow, one at a time, and received a lifesaving medal for that."
Red Hill Jr.: 'Newest Hero' And Tragic Daredevil
But as Red Hill Sr. made headlines for his daring rescues, the river brought out the daredevil in him. In 1920, Hill jumped in Bobby Leach’s barrel — yes, the same "glorified septic tank" — and rode it about 10 miles through the perilous lower rapids to Queenstown, Ontario. He repeated that journey in 1930 and again in 1931, before about 25,000 spectators.
"He got trapped in the Whirlpool, and his teenage son Red Hill Jr. became the newest hero," Clarkson says. "And he swam out with a rope around his waist and saved his father from the Whirlpool. After that, Red Sr. did not try any more daredevil feats.
"Red Hill Sr. died in 1942 of natural causes," Clarkson says. "He was only 54 years old, but his wife, Beatrice, thought the river and World War I wore his body down."
During his lifetime, Red Hill Sr. recovered the bodies of 177 people who died from accident or suicide. He’s officially credited with saving the lives of 28 people from drowning. He received more lifesaving awards from the Canadian government than any person in history.
"Red Hill Sr., I think he was a true hero," Clarkson says. "The Red Hill family, I think, was the first family of Niagara Falls."
Red Hill Sr. had planned several times to go over the Falls, but he never attempted it. He called it a "fool’s game." His sons Corky and Wesley limited themselves to rescue and recovery missions. Another son, Major Hill, tried going over once but ran aground before he reached the Falls.
And nine years after his father’s death, Red Hill Jr. started planning.
"People still wonder and ask questions about why Red Hill Jr. went over the Falls," Clarkson says. "After researching it for 40 years, I can’t put one answer to it. In Red Hill Jr.’s case, his life was a bit of a mess at the time in 1951. He’d just become separated from his wife and daughter. His father had died nine years prior to that — he really missed him. He had been charged as a game warden with misappropriating funds and spent a little time in jail. The family’s reputation was sullied a little bit. I think Junior wanted to bring that back."
But Clarkson thinks Junior rushed through the planning.
"He thought he knew the river better than anyone and put together a barrel of 13 inner tubes lashed with fish net," Clarkson says. "And he was warned by his friends and other river men that he, at 150 pounds, weighed more than the barrel, and that he would be thrown out of the barrel if it got into trouble in the upper rapids."
"People still wonder and ask questions about why Red Hill Jr. went over the falls. After researching it for 40 years, I can’t put one answer to it."Michael Clarkson
Red Jr.’s one and only attempt came on Aug. 4, 1951.
"There was a tremendous crowd at the brink of the Falls," Clarkson says. "There had been a lot of publicity over this. And newspapers estimated the crowd anywhere from 100,000 to 300,000 people. So it was a really big event. He got into the river probably a mile above the Falls at Chippewa. And he slowly went down the river with all these people watching, cheering and then, finally, aghast at the barrel coming apart. And I think he was probably dead before he went over the Falls."
Niagara's Enduring Allure
The grieving Hill family mostly stayed away from the river after that. Their mother and Red Hill Sr.'s widow, Beatrice, passed away in 1974, after a life of heartbreak. She simply couldn't understand why she had been unable to keep her men away from the river and why it held such allure for them.
After talking with many other people fascinated by the river, Clarkson has a theory.
"I think the Niagara seems to draw people. It seems to pull them," he says. "William Fitzgerald, who went over in 1961 in a rubber ball, he told me that when he was 5 years old, he went to Niagara Falls with his parents, and that roar of Niagara Falls stayed with him, haunting him for years. 'That damn water wouldn’t shut up. The raw power,' he said, 'that unleashed power.'"
The Hills never shut out that roar. And their story didn't end in 1951, with Red Jr.’s death. Because the Hills inspired daredevils who still admire them and remember their stories.
"As a teenager in the 1950s, Dave Munday, the stories of the Hills really enraptured him," Clarkson says. "He knew the Hills had never gone over the Falls and lived. And in 1985, yes, he did it. And he survived. The Red Hill family, I think they made it over the Falls in a way, because they inspired Dave Munday."
Peter DeBernardi, who went over the Falls in 1989, started a campaign in 2016 to raise money for a memorial at Niagara Falls.
"To date there is no memorial for the Red Hill family," Clarkson says. "Red Hill and his sons did not get the credit that they deserved for everything they did on the river — the rescues, the daredevil acts, bringing attention to Niagara Falls. And, yes, there needs to be some sort of memorial for the Red Hill family."
You can learn more about the Red Hill family in Michael Clarkson's book, "The Age of Daredevils."
This segment aired on November 11, 2017.