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Exploring Buffalo: Tale of the Tewksbury Disaster

Explore Buffalo

Photo courtesy of Explore Buffalo

Imagine it’s winter and you’ve parked your car at the top of a hill. It begins to drift. With a mind of its own, that car picks up speed and cuts corner after corner before it finally collides with another car. Both cars continue barreling down the hill where they crash into a telephone pole and cause over six million dollars in damages.

What a mess you say! Now let’s imagine that the telephone pole is a bridge, the hill is a river, and the cars are two 400 foot lake freighters. Now six million dollars starts to make sense. It all started with an early thaw in 1959. On the evening of January 21, ice began to break away from its post along the Buffalo River, at the Concrete Central Elevator. Miraculously, the Shiras navigated around three river bends without incident, before eventually colliding with the Michael K. Tewksbury freighter, docked across from what is today Silo City. Both freighters continued down river avoiding the Ohio Street Bridge, which was elevated for winter repairs, on a path towards the Michigan Street Bridge.

Now let’s imagine that the telephone pole is a bridge, the hill is a river, and the cars are two 400 foot lake freighters. Now six million dollars starts to make sense. It all started with an early thaw in 1959. On the evening of January 21, ice began to break away from its post along the Buffalo River, at the Concrete Central Elevator. Miraculously, the Shiras navigated around three river bends without incident, before eventually colliding with the Michael K. Tewksbury freighter, docked across from what is today Silo City. Both freighters continued down river avoiding the Ohio Street Bridge, which was elevated for winter repairs, on a path towards the Michigan Street Bridge.

The bridge attendants, finishing their shifts nearby at the Swannie House Tavern, were finally alerted and began raising the bridge. Alas, they were out of time and at 11:17 pm…crash. By the next morning, both towers of the Michigan Street Bridge had fallen, nearby property was damaged, and the First Ward saw extensive flooding. Crews worked for ten days to clear the river and some related lawsuits stretched out for ten years.

For all those who share the tale of the Tewksbury, and we hope you do, you can be sure that it was just as it seemed . . . an incident, a crash, a disaster, a multi-freighter wreckage that Mother Nature set in motion.

Any busy harbor is a dangerous place and Buffalo’s harbor has been no exception. Ships collided, boilers exploded, and fires and explosions were almost commonplace. Join us for an evening cruise aboard the Miss Buffalo and listen to the stories of many of Buffalo’s maritime disasters and enjoy the scenic views of Buffalo’s waterfront!

Do you live for this stuff? Hear more about the Tewksbury and Buffalo’s waterfront neighborhoods on an Explore Buffalo tour! Take in the stories by water on an Elevator Alley Kayak Tour (Saturday and Sunday mornings) or by land on our Riverfront Renaissance walking tour (Friday-Sunday). Get tickets now at explorebuffalo.org.

This tour is being given in cooperation with the Buffalo Harbor Museum. Read more about it here.

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