It isn’t mid-January, but the images of a solid wall of storm-powered ice that shoved a massive lake freighter into the Michigan Avenue lift bridge, destroying it and causing a huge flood of icy water into homes in South Buffalo, the Old First Ward and the Valley, will be on everyone’s minds Saturday.
A program of story, songs and displays called “Ghost Ships and the Flood: Remembering the Tewksbury Incident” will commemorate the community-wide crisis that happened on Jan. 21, 1959. The event, which is free and open to all, will be held from 3 to 7 p.m. Saturday in Buffalo River Fest Park, 245 Ohio St.
“The weather is a bit more friendly than mid-January,” said Margaret “Peg” Overdorf, executive director of the Valley Community Association, which is sponsoring the event. In 2009, the association’s program marking the 50th anniversary of the event at the Elk Street location of the Waterfront Memories and More Museum was well-attended, Overdorf said. “It was a terrible day, bitter cold and with a howling wind, and we still had 70 people,” she said.
The Tewksbury Incident remains an unforgettable event to those who lived through it on Jan. 21, 1959. After days of extreme cold and heavy snow packed the Buffalo River and Cazenovia Creek with ice, a sudden thaw and wind-driven rain on Jan. 21 broke up the ice, and about 10 p.m. the pressure of the shifting floes snapped the mooring lines of the freighter MacGilvray Shiras, which was tied up for the winter beside the Concrete Central Elevator at the foot of Smith Street. The MacGilvray Shiras, the length of a football field, drifted downriver, somehow navigating the sharp turn opposite Smith Street before ramming the Michael K. Tewksbury, which was tied up at the Standard Elevator, near the foot of St. Clair Street. Both boats passed beneath the Ohio Street bridge, which was raised for the winter, but the bridge crew, taking a break in the Swannie House, could not raise the Michigan Avenue bridge in time. The Tewksbury smashed into the bridge at 11:17 p.m., demolishing it, and wedging itself across the river. The flow of frigid water and ice spilled into the neighborhood, flooding an 18-block area.
Msgr. Al Clody, who was 18 and serving as an auxiliary Buffalo fireman, was one of many who turned out to help residents with flooded basements and other damage. Clody said he was surprised to see an ice floe in a garage on Lorraine Avenue, fully three blocks from Cazenovia Creek. In a basement at the corner of Abbott Road and Cazenovia Street, he and others discovered a recently deceased fish. “It’s tough to fight Mother Nature,” he said.
Clody cannot attend the event Saturday due to a funeral in Pennsylvania, but Overdorf hopes to have someone else read Clody’s narrative poem, “The Demise of the Michigan Avenue Bridge.”
Saturday’s event will begin with an hour of people’s eyewitness recollections of the Tewksbury Incident and its aftermath. “If that part goes to an hour and a half, that’s fine too, I want to hear the stories,” said Overdorf, who hopes to have the statements videotaped and preserved.
The folk rock band The Larkin project, led by singer and songwriter Peter Burakowski, will perform next. Burakowski, whose day job is communications manager for Visit Buffalo Niagara, was the driving force behind the “Ghost Ships and the Flood” event. “He wrote a song about the Tewksbury, and he wanted to do it right next to the place where the bridge collapsed, so people can see what was and what is,” said Overdorf.
In addition to that song, called “The Tewksbury Incident,” The Larkin Plan will perform other tunes inspired by local events. “We have other songs about what today is the Canalside District, and we have a song cycle about the Pan-American Exposition and the assassination of President McKinley,” said Burakowski. “I’m fascinated by our city’s history, and River Fest Park is a great spot because it’s bringing people in contact with Buffalo’s industrial history in a fresh new way.”
Local favorites The LeftOvers will also perform their song, “The Tewksbury Saga.” In addition to an extensive repertoire of Irish songs, The LeftOvers are also known for such local songs as “Heart of Buffalo,” and “The Scoopers’ Last Dance,”
Historical photos and articles about the Tewksbury Incident will be displayed by Bert Hyde, curator of the Waterfront Memories and More Museum. Food and drink will be sold; those who wish to stay for the entire program should bring lawn chairs.
It took years for the Tewksbury case to work its way through the courts, with plenty of lawsuits filed and finger-pointing. Besides the two bridge-keepers who had to scramble from the Swannie House to the bridge in an attempt to raise it, investigators found that the Tewksbury’s watchman was away from his post and on shore with a lady friend when the freighter broke free.
At the event in 2009, Overdorf said, a “little lady came in and told her, “‘You know the guy who was supposed to be tending the boat that broke loose? That was my husband! He was up on land with the girlfriend!’ It was 50 years later, and she was as bitter as she must have been when she found out. She said she couldn’t stay, and she walked out. I never got her name, and I have no idea who she was.”