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The Niagara Falls death defiers

Monday, August 20, 2012

Recently (in June 2012), Nik Wallenda, of the famous Wallenda family of death-defying tightrope walkers, thrilled the TV world with the first walk over Niagara Falls in over 100 years. It seems interesting to review some of the spectacular feats that daring people have attempted to compete with the spectacular view of the Falls themselves over the past two centuries.

Niagara Falls has long been the destination of choice for countless newlyweds, embarking on a new life together. (Note: In 1801 Theodosia Burr, the daughter of Aaron Burr and her husband, Joseph Alston, made Niagara Falls their honeymoon destination, starting the popular notion of honeymooning at Niagara Falls.) It is more than a bit ironic that Niagara Falls is, at the same time, the location of choice for a great number of individuals who are intent on tempting fate with death defying stunts, a practice that dates back to the early 1800s. Most of the death-defying thrill seekers (attention grabbers) have performed their stunt by going over the Falls in barrels or other similar vehicles, but a few, beginning with The Great Blondin, in 1859, have crossed over the Falls, or the Gorge just below the Falls, by traversing on a tightrope.

Crossing the Falls on a tightrope is a spectacularly dangerous feat to watch. For the last 116 years it has been illegal for an individual to cross Niagara Falls via tightrope. However, in June of 2012, Nik Wallenda, of the famous aerialist family of Wallendas, was granted permission by both the Canadian an US governments to make the walk. Record numbers of viewers witnessed Nik's crossing via television--but more about the Wallendas next week.

In 1829, Sam Patch, who was known as the "Yankee Leaper", from Rhode Island, became the first (recorded) person to leap into Horseshoe Falls, when he dove, head first, 85' from a platform on Goat Island into the angry waters below the Falls.. Though he had let it be known that he would jump, he was disappointed in the size of the crowd, so 10 days later he jumped again, this time from a platform some 135'high, into the roaring maelstrom below. He survived, though later that year perished in a 99' high dive into the Falls on the Genesee River in New York State. Couldn't leave well enough alone.

In 1901, Annie Edson Taylor, a 63-year-old school teacher, became the first person to go over the Falls in a barrel. Ms. Taylor was strapped into an old pickle barrel with leather straps. The barrel was lined with a mattress to ease her fall, and air was pumped into the barrel with a bicycle pump. A boat towed her to the middle of the river above the falls, and another boat picked her up 20 minutes later in the swirling waters below the falls. Her descent was over the center of the Falls, a drop of some 170'. She was battered a bit, but otherwise unhurt. Her quote was interesting, "If it was with my dying breath, I would caution anyone against attempting the feat. I would sooner walk up to the mouth of a cannon, knowing it was going to blow me to pieces than make another trip over the Falls!" Her idea of making money from her daredevil trip did not materialize, and she apparently made no more trips in barrels.. She died broke, but from natural causes in 1921, at the age of 83.

Ms. Taylor was the first to survive a trip over Niagara Falls in a barrel, but certainly not the last. Barrels became increasingly more sophisticated and more comfortable and safer over the years (safer is a relative term). To date there have been 10 individuals who have survived trips over the Falls in vessels roughly defined as barrels. In 2012, it is not only dangerous to go over the Falls, it is also illegal, carrying a $500 fine, but some still try it, the last in 1995.

Bobby Leach was the first man to survive a trip over the Falls, in a steel barrel, in 1911, only to die 15 years later when he slipped on an orange peel in New Zealand.

In 1920 Charles Stephens, from England, arrived at the Falls. He professed to know all about a descent over the Falls -- to the extent that he snubbed Bobby Leach when Leach tried to help him with his preparations. He had devised a heavy oaken barrel, in which he was securely strapped. His innovation was an anvil, for ballast, that would keep the barrel upright in the water. He strapped this anvil to his feet. When the barrel hit the water, the anvil, along with most of Charles Stephens kept right on going, right through the bottom of the barrel. The barrel was eventually recovered, with Chas. Stephen's right arm still securely strapped in. Stephen's arm was buried in cemetery in Niagara Falls, the only part of his body ever recovered.

A tightrope walk over Niagara Falls took longer, and people had a longer time to watch than to see guys in barrels. In the late 1800s, watching tightrope walkers traverse the Falls proved to be a great spectator sport, beginning with the Great Blondin, in 1859.

Jean Francois Gravelot was born in Northern France in 1824, but was orphaned at an early age and brought up in the company of circus performers. He became adept at tightrope walking, and indeed, almost all of the circus feats by the time he was a teenager. By the time he joined a French Circus troupe on a tour to North America, in 1851, he was billed as "The Great Blondin", and dazzled spectators with his performance wherever he appeared. Touring Northern New York, he immediately fell in love with Niagara Falls. He later remarked, "To cross the roaring waters (via a tightrope) became the ambition of my life".

In June, 1859 Blondin realized his life's ambition. A dozen others would also walk across the Falls on a tightrope, but Blondin was the first, and perhaps the greatest. For his trip across the Falls Blondin used a 1,300 foot 3" diameter manila rope, stretched tight and joining Prospect Park, on the New York side, and Oakes Garden, on the Ontario, Canada side. His first walk, from New York to Ontario, took about 20 minutes to complete. Blondin used a 30' long balance pole, which weighed about 40 pounds. There was quite a bit of play in Blondin's rope and by the time he reached midpoint in his journey he was some 50' lower than were the two ends of the rope. At midpoint he took out a small bottle tied to a string and lowered it to the "Maid of the Mist" tourist boat. There a member of the crew filled the bottle with water from the Niagara River -- Blondin retrieved the bottle with his string, took a long drink of the River water, and finished his uphill walk to the Canadian side, to great applause by spectators in New York, Ontario, and aboard the Maid of the Mist.

But that day in June, 1859 Blondin was not finished. After a glass of champagne he walked back to the New York side, this time performing a little dance on his manila highway. The walk back too just eight minutes to complete.

The rest of the summer of 1859, and again in 1860, Blondin was obsessed with walking over the Falls on his tightrope, and was constantly thinking up new, more spectacular (and dangerous) ways to cross the Falls. On various performances Blondin crossed the Falls on a bicycle, on stilts, blindfolded, and at night. He swung on the rope with just one arm, he turned somersaults, and stood on his head, on a chair, which had but one leg on the rope. Once he pushed a wheelbarrow with a stove aboard. At midpoint he lit the stove and proceeded to cook an omelet and eat it. One time he crossed blindfolded, in a heavy sack made of blankets.

Probably Blondin's greatest feat occurred in 1860 when he carried his manager, Harry Colcord, on his back across the Falls. When asked about his trip, a terrified, sweat soaked, Mr. Colcord stated, "Blondin was a piece of marble -- every muscle tense and rigid." When Blondin invited Colcord to accompany him back across the Falls aboard his back, Colcord politely declined, saying he thought he would give someone else the opportunity.

Blondin's last trip across the Falls came on Sept. 8, 1860. To make this last rip memorable Blondin sat at a table, balanced on the tightrope, ate cake and drank champagne. Blondin never performed in the US again, but continued to perform in Europe for the next 36 years. He died -- in bed -- in 1897. He was 73-years-old.

Source: Who is Chas. Blondin? Niagara Falls Daredevils

Blondin and Manager crossing Falls

Annie Taylor, First Person to go over Falls in a barrel.

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Walt Sehnert
Days Gone By