When it came time to research, I turned to my collection of books surveying Niagara’s history and with trepidation─my formal education in history ended in grade nine─cracked the cover of the book at the top of the stack. Yet, as I read, the bits of lore I had gathered as a child reignited, and I found myself reading late into the night. I had seen the rusted-out hull of the old barge lodged in the rapids just above the falls and, for as long as I can remember, knew two men had been rescued from that precarious perch. But as I pored over the history books, I found out that a life line gun had been shot out to the barge, and that when the lines of the breeches buoy meant to rescue the stranded men became snarled, a brave soul headed out to them in the black of night, trusting the lines anchored to that uncertain barge. I had always known about the convent school atop a bluff a stone’s throw from the falls, but I discovered that it was built at that spot because an early archbishop of Toronto had seen a picture of the falls as a boy and conjured up prayers floating heavenward with the mist.
What I was seeking, as I read, was the time period and narrative that best showcased Niagara’s wondrous and quirky past. The story of William “Red” Hill, Niagara’s most famous riverman, came up time and again, and with each telling I became more certain my main male character─Tom Cole─would be loosely based on him. Red Hill had an uncanny knowledge of the river and during his lifetime (1888-1942) hauled 177 bodies from the river, rescued 29 people and assisted a handful of stunters. In the early 1900s his beloved river was threatened by the massive diversion of water away from the falls for the production of hydroelectricity. While I came across no evidence of diversion causing him heartache, I knew I could incorporate it to thicken the plot.
To learn more about Red Hill, I spent afternoons in the Niagara Falls (Ontario) Public Library, perusing newspaper accounts of his rescues and self-published essays and leaflets commemorating his heroism. Along with the details of his life, I began to grasp the elusive nature of history, something every real historian must know in their bones. Newspaper accounts from a mere hundred years ago and published the day after an event conflicted with one another with startling regularity, and plenty went unsaid. As a writer committed to getting the known details right, such imprecision was a frustration but, I’ll admit, sometimes also a relief.
Once I’d decided my riverman’s love interest─Bess Heath─would come from a privileged background, I sequestered myself in the Loretto Archives, learning all I could about Loretto Academy, the prestigious convent school at Niagara Falls. I toured the academy, sat in the library where the students would have spent study hall and peered from dorm room windows as the boarding students surely had.
I scoured the internet, finding an abundance of gorgeous, historical images of Niagara Falls in the online databases of Library and Archives Canada, the Library of Congress, the Niagara Falls (Ontario) Public Library and the Toronto Archives. I was smitten and so were my editors, and many of the images found a home in The Day the Falls Stood Still.
In Niagara Falls, with Tom Cole and Bess Heath becoming ever clearer in my mind, I traipsed the hydroelectric installations and wandered the wooded pathways of the glen and walked the recreation trail that runs the length of the gorge and strode the streets of Silvertown, gazing up at Glenview where Bess would live upon her return from Loretto Academy. I stood at the brink of the falls, filling with wonder, wishing that I could, just once, glimpse the falls as it was before the massive diversion of water for hydroelectricity.
Picture captions and credits:
American Falls ─ Library of Congress, 3b15325r
Thank you for such an amazing guest post Cathy! Be sure to check back tomorrow for my review of The Day the Falls Stood Still! :)