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Sean Kirst: A life barely saved at Niagara Falls, countless ripples felt today

Michael Emendorfer was loading groceries into his trunk for his daughter's basketball team when he took my phone call last week in a Walmart parking lot in Wisconsin. Nothing in the conversation changed his life, even if – in a way – it changed how he sees everything.

I called because I wondered if he knew the story. In 1912, if his great-grandfather had taken another few steps on cracking ice on a frozen river beyond the base of Niagara Falls, then almost certainly that Michael Emmendorfer – the family name spelled slightly differently at the time – would never have made it back to shore.

No, the younger Michael told me. He hadn't heard the tale.

He thought about it. In the Walmart lot, the magnitude settled in.

Who knows how much of his own life that solitary moment might have changed?

Certainly, it is true for all of us. With our grandparents, great-grandparents and all who came before, countless decisions and moments of chance or luck, most of them forgotten long ago, set forces in motion that helped carry us to where we are today.

Rarely are they as vivid as this tale of life or death, at Niagara.

Michael, a Lockport native, is the head football coach at University of Wisconsin-Platteville. At 53, he was aware that he essentially shared the same name as his great-grandfather. That Michael Emmendorfer was a Lockport plumber born in the 1800s who died in 1940, according to an old copy of a family tree kept by the younger Michael.

The Michael of 1912, nearing the age of 50, was part of an unforgettably tragic sequence at Niagara Falls. At 10 a.m. Saturday at De Veaux Woods State Park, environmental educator Carol A. Rogers will discuss one of the most haunting dramas in the history of the legendary, and always dangerous, Niagara River.

Until Feb. 4, 1912, tourists were allowed to wander on the great ice bridge that sometimes formed in bitter winters in the river below the falls, stretching so far that it joined the American and Canadian sides.

Tales of ice's destruction: 3 swept to their deaths, Honeymoon bridge destroyed

On that day, with about 30 men and women on the ice, the frozen river suddenly broke apart. Most of the visitors ran to safety. Seven people, taken by utter surprise, were trapped on a floe of ice that tore away. Three would die, in anguished view of many spectators, when the ice was carried off by the churning river.

Four made for shore through the crumbling ice and barely escaped with their lives, including Philip Wending – some reports had his name as Wendling – identified as a wrestler from either Oregon or Michigan, and the cousin he was visiting, Michael Emmendorfer, a Lockport plumber.

"Michael Emmendorfer of this city and guest jumped in time," cried the next day's headline in the Lockport Union-Sun & Journal.

The paper reported that Emmendorfer, "the well-known plumber," and Wending "were on the great iceberg when it suddenly loosened with a thunderous report and started down the river with its human cargo.

[1912 coverage of the ice bridge tragedy that claimed three lives]

"Mr. Emmendorfer and his friend were 30 feet from shore when the break came, according to Mr. Emmendorfer, when seen today … It was a terrible experience for Mr. Emmendorfer and Mr. Wendling. That they escaped is due to the fact that Providence fortunately held back their footsteps, for if they had gone further onto the bridge, death would have come to them as it did to the unfortunate Toronto couple and the young Cleveland man, whose deaths were enacted in a drama that beggars description."

The saga was recently recalled in a piece by Anne Neville, a staff writer with The Buffalo News. In coverage at the time, the then-Buffalo Evening News reported that Emmendorfer and Wending repeatedly fell through the ice into the river as they made their way to shore, and onlookers pulled them to safety, soaked and failing, "their clothing frozen upon them."

Emmendorfer asked to call his wife, the paper reported, then collapsed. As for those lost on the ice, Eldridge and Clara Stanton of Toronto were said in some reports to be on their knees in prayer when a floe turned over, and they were killed.

Burrell Hecock, a Cleveland teenager, reportedly heard Clara Stanton call for help, and turned back to try and save the older couple. The conditions were too much. He died, thrown into the river, after a frantic effort to drop a rope to him from the Michigan Central cantilever bridge ended in desperate failure.

Burrell Hecock was last seen in this photo, stranded on an ice floe in the Niagara River after attempting to rescue Mr. and Mrs. Eldridge Stanton.  (Courtesy Niagara Falls (Ont.) Public Library)

For the younger Michael Emendorfer, 53, the entire account was lost from family lore, long before his birth. Standing last week in that Wisconsin parking lot, phone in his hand, the full meaning of what happened – and potential family ripples he cannot even imagine – came home to him.

What struck him first is how the names Michael and Edward have been interchanged for baby boys in his family for generations, a pattern that changed only when his own dad, Michael Sr., chose to give his son the same name.

The younger Michael's grandfather was 23 when the great-grandfather nearly died, a young man whose life and choices and responsibilities might have changed dramatically if such a loss overwhelmed his family. Michael's great-grandfather lived another 28 years, dying in 1940. Michael's own father was killed in a 1967 car accident, a few years before his son started kindergarten.

"I'd love to tell you I sat on my grandfather's lap and he told me this story about his father," Michael said, "but it wouldn't be true."

He was the second youngest of four children. One of his sisters, Theresa Salmeri, still lives in Lockport, and she, too, had never heard the story about the day the ice bridge collapsed. If Michael was shaped by family history, it was more immediate. His father, who worked at Harrison Radiator, had been a fine athlete at DeSales High School in Lockport.

"I would run into his friends," Michael said, "and they'd remark on his toughness, his athletic ability."

Michael Emmendorfer and the ice bridge tragedy, front page, Lockport Union Sun & Journal, Feb. 5, 1912. (Sean Kirst/Buffalo News)

That family grit, Michael said, "comes in different shapes and sizes." He was referring to the late Sharon Powers Emendorfer, his mother. She raised her children alone, eventually going to work in a factory for a little extra income, and she did everything she could to create opportunities for her kids.

"I'm very proud of our family name," said Michael, who excelled at football at DeSales, then went on to play wide receiver at William Penn University. Eighteen years ago, he became head coach at Wisconsin-Platteville, where his teams have won almost 80 percent of their games over the last five years, while shattering many records.

His mission, he said, remains focused on one thing.

"We're trying to build men who will be great husbands and great fathers and great human beings," he said.

In 1912, Niagara Falls ice bridge cracks, and three are swept to their deaths

He initially thought last week's call, from a journalist, would somehow involve football. Instead, he was left to wonder what might have happened if his great-grandfather had been another two or three steps away from shore when the ice gave way, more than a century ago, near Niagara Falls.

In a sense, that knowledge doesn't change anything. Michael's life, and the choices he made, are distinct and his alone. He is grateful for his career and the young men he's coached, grateful for his wife, Lisa, and the two children they raised.

Still, he pondered how much of his history – even his potential existence – might be traced to a desperate choice on the crumbling ice below the falls, a place his entire family visited on a winter's day not long ago.

In a Walmart parking lot, like a strong wind, that truth swept across the coach.

"It was very unfortunate for those people who didn't survive," Michael said, "and it gives me the goosebumps to know my great-grandfather was in that situation and went home."

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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