Ever since Niagara Falls was settled, people have been trying to conquer the mighty Falls. Many have tried but few have succeeded. People have used barrels, jet-skis, boats, parachutes and tightrope-wires to defy the rushing waters. The fame and fortune of successful daredevils inspired many others to try their own variation of stunts. Due to the high risk of these stunts for both the performer and the rescue crew, they are now prohibited.
Famous Niagara Falls Daredevils
The Great Blondin
Perhaps the most widely known daredevil to cross the Falls is the Great Blondin. A French acrobat by trade, Blondin made his first of several crossings in June 1859 and would go on to complete eight additional walks that summer. A performer through and through Blondin elevated the difficulty of tightrope crossings by adding stunts including pushing a wheelbarrow as he crossed, cooking an omelette, and carrying his manager on his back. The Great Blondin would soon see his greatest Niagara Falls rival emerge in the Great Farini.
The Great Farini
The Great Blondin may be the best known tightrope walker to cross the Falls, however William Leonard Hunt (The Great Farini) would hands down have to be the most spectacular. Farini’s first performance would grace the Falls in 1860 and would amaze the crowd that drew to see it. Spectators watched as Farini walked to center of the rope while carrying a balancing pole and a second coil of rope, which he then used to lower himself to the deck of the Maid of the Mist 61 feet below where he enjoyed a glass of wine before climbing back up and continued the crossing. Each crossing became a performance to rival the Great Blondin with acts growing to include doing laundry, balancing on his head, crossing blindfolded, and wearing baskets on his feet. His last act in Niagara Falls saw an attempt to cross the brink of the Falls wearing specialty stilts, but ended after one of the stilts broke in a crevice on the brink. He was able to make it to Robinson Island where he was rescued, but he never performed in Niagara again.
Annie Edison Taylor celebrated her 46th birthday by taking on the mighty Falls. The first woman to successfully go over the Falls in a barrel, Taylor constructed her vessel from Kentucky Oak, seven iron hoops, and a 100 lbs anvil for a ballast. To make the journey comfortable, the barrel was lined with padding, a mattress and she carried a heart shaped pillow on with her. She famously bobbed for nearly half an hour at the edge of the Canadian shoreline before being rescued without serious injury. In the end, Taylor survived the plunge over the Falls, but was denied her true goal of fame and fortune.
The first to perform the ”The Triple Challenge“
- Successfully navigate the rapids to the whirlpool in a barrel
- Go over the Falls in barrel
- Parachute from the Steel Arch Bridge into the river upstream of the Falls
His first task of the challenge was July 1, 1908 making him the 4th person to parachute from the Steel Arch Bridge.
It would be 2 years before Leach would attempt the second feat in the challenge when he attempted to navigate a barrel through the Rapids. This act nearly cost him his life as the anchor that was attached for stability got caught and was cut loose. This barrel and Leach would bounce through the rapids until he was rescued by William “Red” Hill Sr. who swam out to save him. Leach was knocked unconscious by the violent rapids, and the trip would be completed by Hill. Leach completed the ride 3 more times that summer to keep the challenge alive.
The Triple Challenge came to fruition in 1911, when Leach made the harrowing trip over the Falls, but it was not without injury or great risk. He was once again saved by a courageous spectator – this time an employee of the Ontario Power Company named Fred Bender who swam out to fetch the barrel from the base of the Falls. Leach was rushed to the hospital with a broken jaw, and two broken kneecaps and would spend 23 weeks (nearly six months) in hospital recovering.
Out of tragedy comes triumph. Jean Lussier had not considered himself a daredevil until the story of Charles Stephens’ failed attempt to ride the Falls piqued his interest. The story lit a flame and inspired Lussier to challenge himself to the act. Adverse to the idea of traversing the Falls in a wooden contraption, Lussier became the first to navigate the Falls in a rubber ball. Built in Ohio by a rubber manufacturing company, steel reinforcement beams, the ball had a large air pocket for cushioning. The design proved successful as his 1921 ride over the Falls resulted in only minor bruising. Lussier would become a celebrity posing for pictures, signing autographs and even selling small rubber pieces of the ball. He dreamed of becoming the first person to ride over both Falls and was well into the process of creating his second rubber ball which was double the size of the first, however retired at the age of 67 before making the second journey.
The most remarkable trip over the Falls has to go to Kirk Jones. He did not have a barrel, safety or floatation device and is the only recorded person to survive a trip over the Falls unaided. Jones, jumped into the river above the Falls and was quickly swept over. The attempt, later described as very unscientific and very unsophisticated. Jones was able to pull himself onto a rock before being rescued and treated at local hospital for minor rib injuries. Jones was charged by Niagara Parks Police with Mischief and Performing a Stunt after those close to him stated that his actions were in the hopes of finding fame and fortune. He was fined $3000, and was ordered to reimburse the Niagara Park’s attraction Journey Behind the Falls $1408 for the revenue lost during the 45 minute rescue.
Nik Wallenda had dreamt of walking across the Horseshoe Falls in Niagara Falls since his childhood, and in 2012 he got his chance. The wirewalk on June 15th, 2012 made history as the first sanctioned tightrope walk across the Falls in more than century. The walk was also the only crossing in history performed directly over the brink of the Falls.
Wallenda’s crossing on the 2” custom built steel cable stretched 1800 ft from Goat Island on the American side to the Table Rock visitors centre on the Canadian side. It’s thought to have been the longest unsupported cable walk in history and left Wallenda with the challenge of a dip in the centre of the cable of nearly 30ft. After months of training for the elements, he took only 25 minutes to cross, nearly half of the time he projected. In a show of international goodwill, Wallenda carried his passport with him and presented it to border officials when he stepped off the wire in Canada. The walk was broadcast live in Canada and the US to a huge television audience making it the most watched non-sports event of the summer. Wallenda was born with a pedigree for highwire acts. He is a 7th generation descendent of the famous Flying Wallenda Family of tightrope walkers.