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Heritage Moments: Cotter fireboat comes to the rescue in Port Colborne

Niagara Falls, Ontario Public Library
The Buffalo fireboat Edward M. Cotter fighting the Maple Leaf Mills blaze in Port Colborne, after making a nighttime voyage across Lake Erie and the U.S.-Canada border on Oct. 7, 1960.

On Oct. 5, 1960, an enormous explosion and fire broke out in the Maple Leaf Mills grain elevator, the largest in Canada, at the entrance to the Welland Canal in Port Colborne. Two days later the catastrophic blaze was still out of control when the city of Port Colborne, which did not have a fireboat of its own, requested assistance from the Buffalo Fire Department.

In response, the B.F.D. fireboat Edward M. Cotter set out from Buffalo for Port Colborne, some 25 miles away on Lake Erie. The nighttime voyage took two hours, because the Cotter lacked navigational equipment for deep-water sailing and had to be accompanied by a U.S. Coast Guard cutter. Finally arriving at Port Colborne, the Cotter trained its four powerful pumps on the flames. After more than four hours the fire was finally extinguished, in large part because of the Cotter.

It was believed to be the first time an American fireboat crossed an international border to fight a fire. “The fact that your help was needed in a foreign country was not important to you,” the mill’s manager wrote to Buffalo Fire Commissioner William M. Daly. “Your quick response shows more adequately than words the bond of brotherhood which exists between your country and ours.”*

The Cotter was already 60 years old when it helped put out the big Maple Leaf fire. It remains a working fireboat today -- believed to be the oldest anywhere still on active duty. And every summer, Port Colborne’s Canal Days festival invites the old red boat back to the entrance to the Welland Canal, in appreciation for what it did on that desperate night more than half a century ago.

* It was not, however, the first time the Buffalo Fire Department crossed the border to give aid. Fifty-six years earlier, the B.F.D. sent 27 firefighters and 2,000 feet of hose to Toronto, helping to put out the Great Fire of 1904 in that city.

Cast (in order of appearance)
Port Colborne Firefighter #1: Jeff Z. Klein
Port Colborne Firefighter #2: Jesse Tiebor
Buffalo Firefighter: Mike Dugan
Narrator: Susan Banks

Sound recording: Micheal Peters and Connor De Junco (WBNY, Buffalo State)
Sound editing: Micheal Peters
Post-production: Kim Ferullo (Chameleon Communications)
Piano theme: Excerpt from “Buffalo City Guards Parade March,” by Francis Johnson (1839)
Performed by Aaron Dai
Produced by the Niagara Frontier Heritage Project
Written by Jeff Z. Klein
Assistant producer: Karl-Eric Reif
Casting: Darleen Pickering Hummert (Pickering Hummert Casting)
Jesse Tiebor (Casting Hall Productions, Buffalo State Theater Dept., 2014-15 academic year)
Webpage written by Jeff Z. Klein

Special thanks to:
Brian McDermott, WBNY general manager, 2014-15 academic year
Connor De Junco, WBNY production director, 2014-15 academic year
Anthony Chase, assistant dean, School of Arts and Humanities, Buffalo State
Ronald Smith, professor, and Thomas McCray, assistant professor, Buffalo State Communication Dept.