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The ‘iron scow’: Why an old boat stuck above Niagara Falls dislodged Friday

A rusting, 80-foot schooner weathered more than 100 years at the brink of the Horseshoe Falls – only to dislodge, unexpectedly, during Friday’s windstorms.

Canadian officials say the wreck of the “iron scow” or “Niagara scow,” an iconic sight for falls-goers since 1918, flipped on its side and moved “noticeably” this week. That has raised lots of questions on social media – chief among them, what the heck is a scow? Below, we have some answers.

1. What’s the 'iron scow,' and how did it get there?

First things first: A scow is, per the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, “an important yet largely unstudied vessel type that operated on the North American Great Lakes” at the end of the 19th century. This scow – our scow? – dates to a slightly later period. It has been trapped roughly 650 yards from the brink of the falls since August 1918, when the 80-foot schooner broke from its tugboat with two men aboard and began hurtling downriver.

Luckily for those men, the boat ran aground as it neared the Horseshoe Falls. They were rescued in a high-stakes, overnight mission. Unluckily for the scow, officials decided against retrieving it, and it’s deteriorated in the rushing current ever since.

2. What happened to the scow during this week’s storm?

Canadian officials – the main point people for all things iron scow, since it rests 220 yards off the Canadian shore – said Friday that the boat moved about 55 yards downriver from its longtime location. (You can view it from space on Google Maps.) Wind speeds gusted to 52 mph in Niagara Falls, according to the National Weather Service, and the scow is much lighter than it once was. Last year, The News' Sean Kirst described it as little more than "a rusty L-shaped wall."

“It appears to have sort of flipped on its side and spun around,” said Jim Hill, the superintendent of heritage at the Niagara Parks Commission, in a video posted to Facebook. In an interview with Canada’s CBC News, Commission CEO David Adames said his agency planned to confirm exactly how far the boat moved using geolocation.

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3. Does this mean the scow is headed over the falls?

Probably not right this minute. Officials say the boat “looks secure” – though it probably won’t stay that way forever. Adames told the CBC the scow may shift again when severe weather strikes next. And Paul Forcier, chief of the Niagara Parks Police, told the Niagara Falls Review his agency had notified Hornblower Niagara Cruises, the Maid of the Mist, Ontario Power Generation, the New York State Power Authority and the New York State Park Police in case pieces of the scow broke off and headed downriver.

For now, the park commission says its staff is closely monitoring the scow with both photographs and a live video feed. “It could be stuck there for days or stuck there for years,” Hill said.

4. What happens if the scow goes over?

While the notion of an 80-foot boat hurtling over the falls sounds scary – especially with a name like “THE IRON SCOW” – it’s perhaps noteworthy that other large boats have made the trip before. One of them, a steamer called the Caroline, actually prompted an international incident 182 years ago. Another, the Michigan, was reportedly sent over with a number of animals aboard.

Of course, the base of the falls is considerably more crowded today than it was in, say, 1837. But so far, tour operators don’t seem concerned. Both Hornblower and Maid of the Mist, who are closing out their 2019 seasons now, operated as usual Friday and Saturday, with Maid of the Mist opening just one hour late Friday because of continued high winds from the storm.

Still, interested locals might want to check the scow out sooner rather than later: Even before the latest movement, historians predicted the worn-down boat would eventually collapse. It's best viewed from the Canadian side of the falls near the old Toronto Generating Power Station, where the parks commission installed commemorative markers and signage last year to make the 100th anniversary of the incident.

'I think the scow moved': At Niagara, storm threatens an iconic memory

Sean Kirst: A century after scow rescue, medal for Red Hill Sr., legend of Niagara

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