From our house on South Street, in Buffalo’s First Ward, directly across from the Lake & Rail Elevator, we had the best view of the Buffalo River.
On Jan. 21, 1959, looking right, we could see the Michael K. Tewksbury freighter, moored for the winter at the Standard Elevator. Looking left, we could see the MacGilvray Shiras, tied up for the winter beside the Concrete Central Elevator.
After weeks of extreme cold and heavy snow, ice packed the Buffalo River and Cazenovia Creek. A sudden thaw and wind-driven rain broke up the ice. The pressure of the shifting ice floes snapped the mooring lines of the Shiras.
The Shiras, loaded with grain, traveled stern first, navigated two right turns, heading toward our house. It then had to make a 90-degree left turn, around the Lake & Rail Elevator. My uncle Willo Sullivan, who lived all his life on South Street, saw thousands of lake freighters come and go in the Buffalo River. He never saw one moving in the dead of winter.
He thought he saw a “ghost ship” when the Shiras successfully made the turn, but failed to make the next left turn and rammed the bow of the Tewksbury, knocking it free of its mooring. The Tewksbury night watchman was not on the freighter – he was on shore visiting his girlfriend.
With no pilots aboard, and guided only by storm-whipped 15-18 mph currents in the river, the two “ghost ships” navigated one of the most difficult waterways on the Great Lakes. As a boy, I watched hundreds of freighters navigate the river turns with Great Lakes tugs on the bow and stern and with the aid of the freighter rudder and power supplied by the freighter captain. The most skilled pilots wouldn’t try it without help.
In recent years, as an assistant rowing coach at Bishop Timon-St. Jude, I had many practices on the river, from Cazenovia Creek down the river to the Naval Park. I know every turn in the meandering river and how narrow the passage is under the Ohio Street lift bridge.
The Ohio Street bridge was raised for the winter. Both vessels then did the impossible by negotiating the difficult, narrow Ohio Street bend. The Tewksbury, loaded with grain and fuel oil, traveling stern first, led both freighters as they headed toward the Michigan Avenue lift bridge.
The watchman at the Standard Elevator called the bridge crew to raise the bridge. The bridge crew, taking a “break” in the Swannie House, could not fully raise it in time. The Tewksbury smashed into the bridge at 11:17 p.m., demolishing it, collapsing the center span, and wedging itself across the river. The south bridge tower collapsed on impact and the 130-foot north tower collapsed the next morning.
Lawsuits took years to settle. Kinsman Marine Transit Co., the owner of the Shiras, ultimately was ruled negligent for failing to properly secure the freighter. The owner of the Tewksbury was held partly liable because the boat’s watchman was AWOL.
The storm caused no deaths, and it turned out to be the most expensive Great Lakes accident in history. Property damage was estimated at more than $1 million and the damage to the Michigan Avenue bridge exceeded $5 million.