In spring 1903, more than a thousand men were at work on the final stages of the Spier Falls hydropower project. A large number of skilled Italian masons and stoneworkers were housed in a shantytown on the Warren County (north) side of the river.
Most of the remaining work was on the Saratoga County (south) side, which they accessed by a temporary bridge. But the company feared that the high waters of springtime had made the bridge unsafe. To avert a potential catastrophe, they destroyed it with dynamite.
After that, crossing the river was achieved about a half-mile downstream from the dam, where a cable-controlled scow, 30 feet long and 13 feet wide, served as a ferry. Past loads had included two debris-filled trucks on one trip, and about 150 men on another, so it was considered safe.
On Friday, March 6, all crossings were completed without issue except for one in the evening, when a young Italian boy — known as “Cigarette” because he seemed to smoke nonstop — became scared for some reason and fell overboard, but was rescued.
At six o’clock the next morning, men lined up for the ride, but due to high-water conditions, ferry operator Arthur Crannel allowed only about 75 men aboard for the crossing. Because the craft was controlled by cables, it held its position against the fast current, causing water to splash against the upstream side of the boat. Fearing an accident was about to happen, the same youth, Cigarette, reached precariously for one of the control ropes. Witnesses on shore and aboard the ferry saw several other passengers move towards him, presumably to prevent a repeat of the dunking he received the night before. Instead, the sudden shift of their weight caused the upstream side to dip, allowing the scow to fill with water, which dipped the craft deeper and sent its human cargo into the river.
In the chaotic moments that followed, the scow, relieved of its load and still held by the cable, righted itself, allowing many men to grip the sides until it reached the landing. Those who hadn’t boarded began rushing downstream to help rescue several victims. Others in the water made it to shore on their own.
On the south side of the river, teams of horses carried men to sites downstream where it was believed some victims might be found. Unfortunately, hats, coats, and lunch pails were retrieved, but nothing else. It wasn’t until late afternoon, about nine hours after the accident, that the body of Fred Ferran, a crew foreman, was recovered from a logjam about two miles below the dam. Near that same location, Pasquale Cafarelli’s remains were found. Later, the body of another Italian, said to be Cigarette, was recovered. The only non-Italian among the missing was stone mason Frank Kennedy.
The effort to recover more victims was hampered by high water, floating logs, and general debris carried by the fast current. But that wasn’t the only problem facing survivors and the company, who strongly disagreed over how many men had perished. The company announced that four men had drowned, but said fears of greater loss were allayed when others who were reported missing eventually came ashore within two miles below the dam. Newspapers in dozens of states published that story, but others reported that the Italians claimed nearly 20 men had drowned. The dispute continued for some time until company records, using the employee-identification numbers, confirmed that 19 men had died, 18 of them Italians.
While the search continued, so did the suffering. The body of Fred Ferran, the first to be recovered, was taken to the home of his mother-in-law in Warrensburg on Sunday, March 8, in anticipation of the funeral. His wife, Blanche, was shaken beyond words, but her mother provided comfort and convinced Blanche to take a nap, for she hadn’t slept since the accident. Rising in the early afternoon, she spent several minutes with Fred’s body, then walked past family members to the woodshed and shot herself, dying within the hour. A note contained her final wishes.
To My Family:
I have done all I could for dear Fred. Now it seems that I must go with him. We were so happy together that I cannot live on without him. As a last request of mine, lay us together with Alfred’s baby. I am sure he would want it so, as I could not be buried in the Catholic cemetery. [She had been divorced earlier.]
We loved each other so dearly that we must go together. He said to me many times that if I went, he would go, too. Now that God took him first, I must go with him. Forgive me in this for it is better so.
There was also a postscript:
“Have a priest or minister, but in any case take us together. Bury us in the same coffin.”
Blanche’s mother complied with her wishes, arranging a double funeral held in a church so packed that the crowd spilled outside. She and Fred were buried in the same grave.
While the search went on for more remains, the Italian consul in Albany visited Spier Dam to assess what had happened. He then hired an attorney to investigate further and determine if the company might be liable to the surviving relatives for civil penalties.
Downstream five miles from the falls was a boom at Big Bay containing several thousand logs. (The site of Big Bay is skirted today by the Northway just to the east.) For victims possibly caught beneath the boom, any bodies raised to the surface by decomposition gases would soon sink again, making their discovery very unlikely. Also within that five-mile span were many pieces of trees and other debris swept downstream by the spring melt. Any of those obstructions might keep a sunken body hidden from view.
Some successes were reported by searchers who refused to give up. In late April, one victim was found at Big Bay. In late May, putrefaction apparently acted on the remains of others who had drowned. Over the course of about a week, several badly decomposed bodies were found floating in the river.
There are no clear records of loss or recovery. Various sources claimed that 17 or 19 workers were lost, and about ten bodies were recovered before the search was discontinued. For a couple of days during the third week of August, after the gates of the Spier Falls Dam were closed, the riverbed was nearly dry in some places. Many men took the opportunity to search for victims, but none were found.
In May 1904, the National Leaflet, published monthly by the National Protective Society, a Detroit-based insurance organization that tracked accidents from coast to coast, said that 19 people perished in the ferry accident at Spier Falls. We also know that at least ten other people, seven of them Italians, died in accidents during construction of the dam. And it would be hard to argue against Blanche Ferran’s inclusion among the project’s victims.
While we can only speculate how many lives the dam has saved via flood control, we do know that at least 29 were lost during the construction phase. Had the large depression in the Hudson’s bed not been an issue, the project would have been completed in fall 1902, precluding the terrible ferry accident of spring 1903.