From an early age, William “Red” Hill Sr. was fascinated with the Niagara River and Niagara Falls. When he was a child, the boy — born in Niagara Falls, Ontario in 1888 –would skip school and spend his time along the banks of the Niagara, studying how the river flowed. These days of tossing sticks, cans and anything else that would sweep over the falls and noting where they would reappear in the rapids below brought Hill notoriety later in life and helped save the lives of many individuals.
A local hero for much of his life, Hill was lauded with his first medal of bravery at the age of eight when he rescued a young girl from a burning house. In his lifetime, Hill received four medals of bravery and was credited with saving 28 people and recovering 177 victims of accidents or suicides from the falls.
The river and the falls were Hill’s haven. Not only did he rescue those in peril there, he was also a daredevil. In 1910, Bobby Leach shot down the rapids in a barrel and survived. Hill pulled Leach from the barrel, and then he climbed in and shot down the rapids himself. Leach would later go on to ride over the Falls in a different barrel in 1911
Fueled with adrenaline from the adventure, he decided to create his own barrel and embark on his own journey down the rapids. The steel barrel was six feet long and three feet wide with a manhole opening covered by sliding steel and sealed with rubber gaskets. Each side was adorned with airholes that were plugged with removable cork.
Weighing more than 600 pounds, the barrel was painted red with gold lettering with the words “William Red Hill, Master Hero of Niagara” inscribed on both sides. He survived his river rapid challenges.
Hill operated a small shanty that served hot beverages and snacks to tourists on the frozen river, where in the early 20th century visitors could venture onto the ice bridge that forms in the pool at the base of the falls during extremely cold winters.
On February 4, 1912, Hill heard the ice below him tremble and sensed disaster. Recognizing that the ice was breaking up below, he frantically guided the spectators to safety on the Canadian side. Four people remained on the ice, and Hill returned to pull a young boy to a safe area. Efforts were made to save the other three, but they were swept to their deaths and their bodies were never recovered.
Not surprisingly, when Hill served in World War I and saw action in France, he earned two medals for bravery before returning to Canada and his beloved Niagara Falls in 1918.
That year, he performed one of his most remarkable rescues. A steel barge carrying two men broke its line and the swift current in the upper river brought the vessel within 300 yards of the edge of the falls. The men opened the latches on the bottom of the barge, which grounded it on the jagged rocks.
With darkness approaching, the United States Coast Guard mounted a gun on the Toronto Power House roof and shot a rope to the vessel, now known as the “Old Scow.” A breeches buoy, which is a rope-based rescue device, was dispatched, but it became tangled and snarled. Hill sprung into action. Using the rope, Hill set out at 3 a.m. to reach the men with spotlights lighting the way. Hand over hand on the rope, Hill battled the fierce current to reach the two men.
Impeded by darkness, Hill was unable to untangle the ropes initially, leaving the two men stranded. When daylight arrived, he set out again to free the ropes and was successful, bringing the men safely to shore. “The Old Scow” is a rusted piece of metal today that can still be seen lodged in the river just above the falls.
During his later years, Hill sold pictures of himself and displayed his barrel in a local souvenir shop. He died at the age of 54 in a Niagara Falls, Ontario hospital from effects of the gassing that he sustained during World War I.
Tragically, one of Red Hill’s sons, Red Hill Jr., died in 1951 when he unsuccessfully ventured over the falls in a homemade barrel.
Hill’s story is just one of many tales showcased at the new Daredevil Gallery at Niagara IMAX Theatre. The daredevil exhibit features the world’s largest collection of Niagara Falls history, including actual barrels and artifacts along with the engaging stories of Niagara’s heritage and tales of the daredevils.