Ocean City Life Saving Station Museum
Wreck of a Skiff
by Suzanne Hurley
From the 1883 Annual Report of the United States Life-Saving Service

Falls of the Ohio River, Louisville Station, Kentucky

Edited by the Ocean City Life-Saving Station Museum

*Minor editorial privileges were taken to clarify the text and writing style of the period.
The first disaster of the year, involving loss of life within the scope of the service, took place on the 10th of August, 1882, at the Falls of the Ohio, nearly a mile north of the Louisville Station. It appears that a man, named Louis F. Frink, a plasterer by trade, was emigrating with his wife from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Paducah, Kentucky, the journey being made down the Ohio in an open river-skiff. The couple arrived at Jeffersonville, Indiana, on the 9th of August, where they landed and remained until about noon of the 10th, Frink, meanwhile, drinking freely. He had been warned of the danger of the passage over the falls, and before starting took the precaution to secure his wife with a cord to the stem of the boat, and to tie his dog on board in the same way. The day was cool, and a fresh northwest wind 'was blowing. After completing his preparations, Frink headed the boat down the river, and pulled for the Indiana chute of the falls. The catastrophe was not long in following. As the neighborhood of the descent was. reached, the rower failed to get into the current of the chute, and in a few moments the boat was swept sheer over the dam, It capsized, of course, in going over, throwing everybody out; and when it struck the water below it sunk, beaten under, as were its recent occupants, by the force of the waterfall. Before long, some witnesses on the Indiana shore, a hundred and fifty yards distant, saw it come to the surface bottom up, and drift away, with the dog swimming with it in tether. Presently the man emerged, and swam to it. The woman next appeared for an instant, sunk, came up again, floated on her back for a short distance, then disappeared forever.

The disaster had not only been seen, but anticipated at the station. Boatman Farrell, who was on the lookout, saw through his marine glass the boat start away from shore, and judged by the distance above the dam at which it put off that it would go over the chute in safety. But the moment he saw it in proximity to the dam, he apprehended danger, and gave the alarm.

The rapidity with which this station operates for a rescue can hardly be conceived. There is the crash of a gong; through the broad, open doorway, men, pushing a boat, rush down a slanted gang-plank; and in a moment they are in and away, rowing like mad. It was thus that on this occasion one of the station boats, the Reckless, shot out, driven with fury by three rowers, boatmen Gillooley, Smith, and Trager. Keeper Devan, hearing the alarm in his own room at the station, sprang out on deck, and saw the boat already darting headlong on her way. To save time, the rowers took the most direct course, flying straight down The Kentucky chute, and then obliquely across the tumbling, broken waters of what is known as Backbone Reef. In ten minutes after the disaster they had come up to the capsized skiff; then drifting into the breakers of the lower reef, with the nearly exhausted man clinging to it, and the dog swimming in tow. Both were at once hauled into the boat by the life-savers, who then made a desperate effort to recover the skiff, but were obliged soon to recede for their own safety, and saw the capsized waif go rolling over and over down through the broken mass of running water called the Big Breakers, below which it was soon afterward recovered. The rescued man now began to regain his speech, and 'let the crew know that he had his wife attached to the skiff before the plunge over the dam. This was the first intimation given the life-boatmen that there had been another person on board. They at once towed the boat ashore, a mile below the scene of disaster, and made an examination, finding nothing but a fragment of the cord, hanging to the stem, by which the woman had been attached. She had been fastened by the wrist, and it is probable that when all were thrown out as the skiff was flung over the dam, the jerk had broken the cord. Some people who had followed the boat along the river bank were interrogated by the life-boatmen, but averred that they had seen no woman when the catastrophe took place, although, as already related, she had been seen by other witnesses further up-stream. Longer search for her was now impracticable, as the boat was a mile below the scene of disaster, and to return against the heavy current was impossible. The crew therefore put the boat back to the station through the canal which skirts the river, haying first taken off Frink s wet clothing and dressed him in some garments stripped from themselves.

The station was reached at 4.30 p. m., and the wretched man made as comfortable as possible. Keeper Devan questioned him closely, and thinking it possible that the woman might have reached the Indiana shore, alive or dead, or that her body if still submerged could be recovered, he took the hooks and grapnels and started out in one of the station boats with a crew. A number of people, men and boys, were-found on the other side of the river who had witnessed the disaster and had seen the woman s successive appearances in the water. It was found that the grapnels and drags could not be used, owing to the extreme rockiness of the bottom, but Keeper Devan and his men made a vigorous search for the body along the shore, among the drift-piles, and in the eddies. It proved unavailing, and the poor corpse was never seen again.

Frink remained at the station for twenty-four hours under succor. The next day, the keeper provided him with clothing, including a hat and shoes, raised a subscription for him, procured him a free pass, and started him on his way to Paducah by one of the river steamers. His unfortunate wife was not quite nineteen years of age and had been married only a year.