Unknown Stories of WNY: The Tewksbury Disaster

Story of a freak accident that saw two runaway lake freighters demolish the Michigan Street Bridge.

BUFFALO, NY - One of the newer features on Buffalo's newly-rediscovered waterfront, the Buffalo River, is a place that took it's name from the past.

The Tewksbury Lodge is a reflection of ongoing development along the Ohio Street corridor. It sits between new condos and one of the early examples of reclaimed land in the neighborhood, RiverFest Park.  But, whereas the future is as bright as the decor, the name comes from a very dark episode in the history of the Old First Ward .

The date was January 21, 1959.

After days of extreme cold and heavy snow, a sudden thaw and wind-driven rain broke up the ice, and around 10 PM sent the freighter MacGilvray Shiras on its unmanned trip into destiny.


Gene Overdorf often gives talks and delivers this power-point on a maritime disaster that navigated the serpentine waters of the Buffalo River.  "On that fateful day that ship was docked at the Concrete Central Grain Elevator which was owned by the Continental grain company," says Overdorf.

The runaway ship then slammed into 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 construction. A short distance down-river, the Michigan Street Bridge did not fair as well.

The Michigan Street Bridge was a manned lift bridge at the time, but at that moment the crew was not around.   They were taking a break at the nearby Swannie House.

Overdorf says, "In their defense, there was no reason to believe that a ship would be coming down that river in January."

Also in their defense, once they found out what was on the way they bravely jumped into action.

"They did try to raise the bridge and they were heroic in the sense that not a lot of people would have gotten on a bridge with two lake freighters coming right toward you. They did try to raise the bridge, but it was too little, too late."

The Tewksbury smashed into the bridge at 11:17 PM, demolishing it, and wedging itself across the river causing an ice dam.  Some say the flow of frigid water and ice spilled into the neighborhood, flooding an 18-block area, others blame it on the rain, but anyone who lived here at the time remember those images of devastation, and its aftermath.
 

© 2017 WGRZ-TV


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