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Ghost Ships and The Flood

By Brett DeNeve:

Imagine for a moment that you are driving downtown, coming off the Kensington and down Oak Street’s ongoing succession of traffic lights heading towards the ballpark area for example, and you have just made three lights in a row. You travel this route at least twice a day and have the timing of the light switches practically down to a science. The fourth light is staring you right in the face and its red beam is shining straight into your ego; the yellow from the opposite side of the traffic light combines with this crimson red to create a sunburst orange reflecting the ever-growing hell to pay via your significant other upon your, yet again, late arrival from work to home, her, and what is left of dinner. What do you do? Run it? It’ll turn green, right? It has to. It’s just like any other night… You know these lights like the back of your hand, right?

I was in a situation like this a few weeks ago, but something came over me to adhere to the red light last second. As my tires came to a slightly rubber burning halt, a Mack Truck of freight-like proportions came flying through the intersection. After realizing my life almost just passed before my eyes, I thought of how he too may have someone waiting for him at home.

People often times explain phenomena like this with things such as chance, luck, higher forces at work, Religion, etc.. but regardless of how you view events like this, the fact remains that we truly do not know what is going to happen. Driver safety courses, for example, discuss how most accidents occur within a mile of that person’s house because that is where they are most comfortable and, likewise, most lax. On the brisk night of January 21st, 1959, members of the Michigan Avenue bridge crew also came to find out how the end of an ordinary work day could turn into anything but ordinary in a matter of seconds.

The MacGilvray Shiras, one of many great lakes freighters routinely moored up for the winter, patiently waited the annual thawing of the waterways. Owned by The Kinsman Marine Transit Company (which is, yes, owned by the Steinbrenner family), Shiras sat in the Buffalo River by the Continental Grain elevators at the base of Smith Street just like any other night.

The clock approached 11 P.M. as the Michigan Avenue bridge crew allegedly finished up their drinks at the nearby Swannie House, one of the oldest taverns in Buffalo (Est. 1886 and still serving). There was a staff shift to take place on the hour. Whether it be a significant other, an entire family, or even something as humble as a bed to rest their backs on after a long day’s work, it can be assumed that these men were looking forward to getting off work and going home. The roots of St. Clair Street moored another freight, named The Michael K. Tewksbury. For the owner of the ship, as well as the men about to get off work, it was just like any other night: the freights were unmanned, the river was tranquil, and anyone with a financial stake in the freighting industry could not ask for the ice to melt any quicker.

Sometimes, unbeknownst to you at the time, for better or for worse . . . you get what you ask for.

Three miles from the Shiras, five miles from the Tewksbury, six miles from the bridge, an ice jam in Cazenovia Creek broke loose, literally dumping excess water and fragmented ice right out into the Buffalo River.

First, the Shiras. This massive influx of everything cold had its way with the freight upon impact, causing the ship to “dead-man.” In old Irish sea terminology, this commonly refers to the wires and cables securing anything from the masts to, in this case, the vessel itself coming undone. Back when thick ropes where implored, you could picture the ensuing chaos of one of the main masts starting to collapse, giving the term “dead-man” some validity (because if the crew did survive, whoever’s poor skills where behind the lazily secured ropes and cables were as good as dead). Alas, this is not the time of the explorers such as Columbus; we use extremely high-tension cables. And, just like those ropes that held up those masts, these came undone. They flailed through the cold Buffalo night air by no one’s will other than physics, one after another. Each powerful whiplash of freshly snapped high-tension wire allowed the monster to descend that much faster down the river.

Next was the Tewksbury. Shiras hit her just right, merely uprooting her and taking her with him. The sound of the collision was the gunshot that commenced the head-to-head race between the two freights to the Michigan Avenue Bridge.

Word finally began to spread about these unmanned ships careening down the Buffalo River and local authorities were notified. Naturally, Mother Nature already plotted the ship’s trajectory; the only thing anyone could do was make sure that nothing was in its path.

The Buffalo Fire Department called the bridge station to inform them that they needed to raise it. The phone rang but to no avail as the staff was finishing up their drinks across the street.

When efforts were finally made to try to raise the bridge it was just too late. Shortly after 11 P.M. the two freights collided head on with the structure, causing a pile up of gargantuan proportions.

Two banged up ships, both over 400 feet long, and the remains of a bridge now sat in a channel roughly 175 feet long. The water and ice quickly overcame this accidental dam and proceeded to flood out the entire historic “Old First Ward District.” Thankfully there were no casualties.

This Saturday, September 7th from 3 P.M. to 6 P.M. at River Fest Park on Ohio Street in Buffalo, with the rebuilt Michigan Avenue lift bridge in sight*, the Valley Community Association will present “Ghost Ships & The Flood: Remembering the Tewksbury Incident.” The public is invited to come participate in the scheduled activities to commemorate this dark night on the River. The scheduled events are as follows: first-person accounts of the incident from 3 P.M. to 4 P.M., performances by local bands “The Larkin Plan” and “The Leftovers,” and a traveling exhibit on the Tewksbury Incident courtesy of the Waterfront Memories and More Museum.

Something noteworthy about the musical acts is that they actually have incorporated the history of Buffalo, this event for example, into their songs. From popular drinking songs to lyrics reminiscent of President William McKinley’s assassination to a waterfront once askew with ships, sailors, trains, and prostitutes, these two bands cover it all and will definitely help set the tone of this memorable event as destructive, sure, but overall positive because there were literally no casualties in a freak accident whereas water and ice proceeded to take reign over three miles of Buffalo concrete.

This event is free and open to the public. For more information, feel free to visit

Next time you are one light short of getting home that much quicker, or your friends ask you to get a drink when your shift is coming to a close, just remember that sooner or later, every other night can only be every other night for so long. If I hadn’t stopped at that red light, if the Michigan Bridge crew hadn’t gone to wet the whistle, there is a good chance neither of us would have made it home to whatever was waiting for us that night. Come enjoy the festivities and celebrate the fact that even in the face of an event such as the Tewksbury Freight-Flood, Buffalonians of the “Old First Ward District” came out unscathed; every last one.

Side note: For those wondering, it is the South Michigan Avenue Bridge that is still missing, which was at one point in time a key connector from the Inner Harbor to the Outer Harbor. That bridge (traversing the City Ship Canal) was dismantled due to faulty mechanicals that became too expensive to fix (see here).


Written by Buffalo Rising

Buffalo Rising

Sometimes the authors at Buffalo Rising work on collaborative efforts in order to cover various events and stories. These posts can not be attributed to one single author, as it is a combined effort. Often times a formation of a post gets started by one writer and passed along to one or more writers before completion. At times there are author attributions at the end of one of these posts. Other times, “Buffalo Rising” is simply offered up as the creator of the article. In either case, the writing is original to Buffalo Rising.

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