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Niagara Falls Stunts & Daredevils: History
In February 2012, NPC approved Nik Wallenda’s application to walk a tightrope stretched between the two countries, in recognition of the role that daredevil performances and stunting have played in the rich history and promotion of Niagara Falls.
At the same time, the Commission has taken steps to ensure that such feats will not come at the expense of public safety and protecting the natural and cultural heritage that millions of visitors every year enjoy on NPC lands on the Canadian side of the river.
NPC has ruled that it will consider proposals by stunting professionals no more than once in a generation, or approximately once every 20 years, as a way to pay tribute to the stunting history that helped make Niagara Falls a top global tourism destination.
The Niagara Parks Commission prohibits stunting on all of its properties under the authority granted under Regulations of the Niagara Parks Act. Stunting now carries a maximum fine of $10,000.
Following is a chronology from the mid-1800s to 1951, of attempts to go over the Falls in a barrel or some other device, to go through the Class 6 rapids of the Great Gorge, or to walk across on a tightrope. Some of these stunters were successful, others died in their attempt:
Stunters at the Falls
ANNIE TAYLOR October 24, 1901 (Survived)
Mrs. Annie Taylor, a 63-year-old schoolteacher, decided that a trip over Niagara Falls was her way to fame and fortune. On October 24, 1901, assistants strapped her (along with her cat as seen in this photo) into a special harness in a barrel. A small boat towed the barrel out into the main stream of the Niagara River and the barrel was cast loose. The rapids first slammed it one way, then the other, then came the drop and a bone-wrenching jar so violent that Mrs. Taylor was sure she hit rocks. Seventeen minutes after the plunge, the barrel had been tossed close enough to the Canadian shore to be hooked and dragged onto the rocks. Mrs. Taylor was dazed but triumphant and being the first person to conquer the mighty Falls of Niagara, she found the fame she sought so desperately. But fortune was a bit more elusive. Twenty years after her brush with death at Niagara, she died destitute.
BOBBY LEACH July 25, 1911 (Survived)
Bobby Leach, an Englishman, successfully made a trip in an all-steel barrel on July 25, 1911, and then spent 23 weeks in hospital recuperating from numerous fractures and other injuries. Fifteen years later on a lecture tour in New Zealand, he slipped on an orange peel, broke his leg and died of complications from the injury.
CHARLES STEPHENS July 11, 1920 (Died)
The next barrel stunter to try the Falls was also an Englishman, Charles Stephens. When his heavy oak barrel hit water after the drop over the Falls on July 11, 1920, Stephens went out the bottom. He was killed and only one arm was recovered.
JEAN LUSSIER July 4, 1928 (Survived)
Jean Lussier, a native of Quebec, designed a six-foot rubber ball composed of 32 inner tubes and a double-wall steel frame. One of the biggest crowds on record saw the stunt on July 4, 1928. The ball took some hard knocks in the rapids but the skip over the Falls was perfect. About one hour after entering his ball, Lussier stepped ashore none the worse for wear. For many years he displayed his ball at Niagara Falls and sold small pieces of the inner tubes for souvenirs at 50 cents a piece.
GEORGE STATHAKIS July 4, 1931 (Died)
On July 4th, 1931, George Stathakis, a Greek chef from Buffalo, went over the Falls in a 2,000-pound contraption of wood and steel. He survived the plunge over the Falls only to die after becoming trapped behind the curtain of water for 22 hours. He had enough oxygen for only three hours.
RED HILL JR. August 6, 1951 (Died)
In the summer of 1951, Red Hill Jr. planned to go over the Falls in a flimsy contrivance he called the “Thing” that consisted of 13 inner tubes held together with fish net and canvas straps. On August 6, Hill and the “Thing” headed into the rapids. It was tossed into the air, upended, thrown from side to side and bounced off rocks. It was starting to disintegrate even before it reached the Falls. When the drop came, the “Thing” disappeared into churning water at the base of the Falls. Seconds later what was left floated into view. The following day, Hill’s battered body was taken from the river.
Stunters at the Niagara River Rapids
CAPTAIN JOEL E ROBINSON – Boater (Survived)
When the second Maid of the Mist was sold by auction, on June 6, 1861, Captain Joel E. Robinson agreed to take the boat through the rapids and deliver it to Queenston. They cast off from the dock and headed toward the rapids. They disappeared from sight in the roughest sections of the rapids but somehow survived the jagged rocks and came safely to the dock at Queenston.
CAPTAIN MATTHEW WEBB – Swimmer (Died)
Captain Webb was the first man to swim the English Channel and he decided to swim the Niagara River. He dove in July 2, 1883 and soon disappeared in the first huge wave of the rapids. Webb’s body was recovered four days later down river near Lewiston, New York.
CARLISLE D. GRAHAM – Barrel Rider (Survived)
On July 11, 1886, Carlisle Graham was the first daredevil to navigate the Whirlpool Rapids without mishap, in a seven-foot hand-made oak barrel. Graham made three more successful trips after that.
WILLIAM KENDALL – Swimmer (Survived)
William Kendall, a policeman from Boston, with the help of a good life preserver, successfully made the swim through the rapids on August 22, 1886.
GEORGE POTTS/WILLIAM HAZLETT – Barrel Riders (Survived)
One month later, these two made the first double trip through the rapids in a barrel on August 8, 1886.
CHARLES A. PERCY - Boater (Survived)
An experienced river man designed a special seventeen-foot boat with floatation tanks fore and aft. He made his first trip on August 28, 1887 and two more successful trips, one of them with William Dittrick as a passenger. On the third trip he lost his boat.
ROBERT FLACK - Boater (Died)
On July 4, 1888, Robert Flack, in a boat named “Phantom” filled with a buoyant filling of excelsior and wood shavings, drowned when the boat overturned and stayed upside down while it was pulled around and around in the Whirlpool.
PETER NISSEN - Boater (Survived)
In his boat “The Fool Killer”, the smallest steamboat afloat, Peter Nissen made the trip October 12, 1901 without a head of steam as the smokestack was carried away. Nissen survived and his claim to fame was that his stunt was the first to be recorded on movie film. The Edison Movie Co. filmed the event.
Tightrope Walkers over the Niagara Gorge
JEAN FRANCOIS GRAVELET (THE GREAT BLONDIN)
Professionally known as “The Great Blondin”, Gravelet was the first of many tightrope walkers to appear at Niagara Falls. He was a professional artist and showman trained in the great tradition of the European circus. At age 31 he came to America and made the announcement that he would cross the gorge of the Niagara River on a tightrope.
On June 30, 1859 the rope was in position and at five o’clock in the afternoon, Blondin started the trip that was to make history.
Watchers saw him lower a rope from the tightrope to the Maid of the Mist, pull up a bottle and sit down while he refreshed himself. He began his ascent toward the Canadian shore, paused, steadied the balancing pole and suddenly executed a back somersault.
Never content merely to repeat his last performance, Blondin crossed his rope on a bicycle, walked blindfolded, pushed a wheelbarrow, cooked an omelet in the centre and made the trip with his hands and feet manacled.
Yet even these stunts failed to satisfy Blondin’s urge to test him. He announced that on August 19 he would cross the gorge carrying his manager, Harry Colcord, on his back. It was to be the supreme test of Blondin’s skill and stamina.
According to Colcord, the trip was a nightmare. In the unguyed centre section, the pair swayed violently. Blondin was fighting for his life. He broke into a desperate run to reach the first guy rope. When he reached it and steadied himself, it broke. Once more the pair swayed alarmingly as Blondin again ran for the next guy.
When they reached it Blondin gasped for Colcord to get down. Six times in all Colcord had to dismount while Blondin had to charge the crowd on the brink to prevent the press of people forcing them back in the precipice.
He died in England at the age of 73.
WILLIAM LEONARD HUNT
A resident of Port Hope, Ontario, known as Signor Farini, William Hunt duplicated almost all Blondin’s stunts, but never managed to steal the limelight from Blondin.
The Niagara Falls Gazette reported Farini’s September 5, 1860 washing machine stunt, “He strapped an Empire Washing Machine to his back and walked slowly to the desired place in the centre of the rope”.
He secured his balancing pole and machine on the cable. He then drew water from the river nearly 200 feet below, in primitive style, with a pail and cord.
Several ladies, desiring to patronize him in his character as a washerwoman, had given him their handkerchiefs to wash. Before long his washing was done, the handkerchiefs wrung out and hung up to dry on the uprights and crossbars of the machine. With the washing flapping in the wind, he adjusted his load and returned.
After the 1859 and 1860 performances of Blondin and Farini, there was a lull until June 15, 1865 when Harry Leslie, billed as “The American Blondin”, crossed the Whirlpool Rapids gorge on a rope.
On August 24, 1869 Andrew Jenkins crossed at the same site, riding a velocipede.
A 23-year-old Italian woman, Maria Spelterina was the only woman to cross the Niagara gorge on a tightrope. In 1867, she walked backwards, put a paper bag over her head, and wore peach baskets on her feet to inject some drama into her crossings.
Stephen Peer of Niagara Falls, Ontario made several crossings, but a few days after his walk on June 25, 1887, his body was found on the rocks below. It was assumed that he had fallen while attempting a night crossing wearing his street shoes.
On September 6, 1890, Dixon, a Toronto photographer, attired in terra cotta coloured tights and black silk trunks and wearing his lucky Civil War cap crossed the gorge on the same cable used by Stephen Peer. He made a number of crossings performing various stunts on the wire.
On October 12, 1892, a Toronto steeplejack, Clifford Calverley, crossed several times on a 1.9 cm (3/4") steel cable. On one of his crossings he established a record when he made the trip in 6 minutes, 32 ½ seconds.
James Hardy at 21 years of age was the youngest person to cross the gorge on a wire and made several crossings in July 1896. His performances were the last tightrope walking displays permitted in Niagara Falls.