All night long they heard in the houses beside the shore,
Heard, or seemed to hear, through the multitudinous roar,
Out of the hell of the rapids as 'twere a lost soul's cries,--
Heard and could not believe; and the morning mocked their eyes,
Showing, where wildest and fiercest the waters leaped up and ran
Raving round him and past, the visage of a man
Clinging, or seeming to cling, to the trunk of a tree that, caught
Fast in the rocks below, scarce out of the surges raught.
Was it a life, could it be, to yon slender hope that clung?
Shrill, above all the tumult the answering terror rung.
--William Dean Howells, "Avery"
Nothing else I could do. It’s my profession after all. Photographing Niagara Falls. Its
views. Its visitors. And selling the resulting daguerreotypes. Quite successfully. Because
I’m a damn good daguerreotypist. Ask anyone around here. And I’m on duty every day,
365 days a year. This day, July 16, 1853, I was waiting for tourists along the American
Channel rapids when I saw three men struggling to maneuver their row boat to shore.
They had been working on the big dredging scow anchored in the river. Their oars were
broken. Or lost. I turned my lens toward them just as the boat capsized and I saw two
bodies cartwheeling over the edge of the American Falls too fast for me to capture them
in my camera. There was no sign of the third man — turned out to be a local fellow
named Samuel Avery — until he leapt up like a fucking phoenix and sat astride a log
cantilevered in a rocky shoal in the middle of the river. The rapids were way too loud for
him to hear my hallo, so I waved at him with both arms, but he was likely too afraid to let
go of the log to answer. He was riding the river like a scared girl on a runaway stallion,
but luckily he kept still enough for me to create an historic photograph. Took an even
longer time till someone thought to hitch a lifeboat to the Bath Island Bridge and send the
boat down toward the man. Avery caught and climbed into the boat, but before I could refocus,
the rapids turned the lifeboat upside down, and Avery, thrown back into the river,
met his fate just as his friends had hours before. Nothing else I could do. I returned to my
hotel where I processed the plate and encased a dozen of the images for sale at my Point
View stand. They sold well. They still do.
A native New Yorker, James Penha has lived for the past quarter-century in Indonesia. He has been nominated for Pushcart Prizes in fiction and in poetry. Snakes and Angels, a collection of his adaptations of classic Indonesian folk tales, won the 2009 Cervena Barva Press fiction chapbook contest; No Bones to Carry, a volume of his poetry, earned the 2007 New Sins Press Editors' Choice
Award. Penha edits TheNewVerseNews, an online journal of current-events poetry. @JamesPenha
"Getting around." Luminous-Lint. Web. 15 Oct. 2015.
"Niagara River - Life & Death on the River: Accidents & Rescues." 20 Feb. 2012. Web. 15 Oct. 2015.
"Platt D. Babbitt (Getty Museum)." The J. Paul Getty in Los Angeles. Web. 15 Oct. 2015.
Weld, Charles Richard. A Vacation Tour in the United States and Canada. London: Longman, Brown,
Green, and Longmans, 1855. Print.
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