THE swirling waters of Niagara have ever been a challenge to a vast army of adventurers who found in their own daring heedlessness a means here of gaining money and a mushroom glory. Of all these ” Niagara Cranks,” as they are known locally, the tight-rope walkers undoubtedly have the strongest claim to our admiration for the utter daring of their feats, however mercenary may have been the motives. ” Tut, tut! my.friends,” would reply one of these brave, popular heroes if you had mentioned fear, “‘t is nothing at all”; then, confidentially, he would have whispered in your ear: “You can’t help getting across. You get out to the middle of the rope, and there you are. If you turn back you lose your money, and if you go on you get it. That ‘s all.”
It was the great Blondin who stands king of the tight-rope walkers of Niagara, leaving behind him a reputation as the greatest tight-rope walker of the century.
Charles Emile Gravelet was born at Hesdin, near Calais, on the twenty-eighth of February, 1824, and died in Ealing, near London, February 22, 1897. His father, whose nickname, ” Blondin,” from the colour of his hair, descended to his son] was a soldier of the First Empire who had seen service under Napoleon at Austerlitz, Wagram, and Moscow, but died when his son was in his ninth year. The pluck and strength that young Blondin had was displayed as early as his fourth year; when only a few years older he was trained by the principal of l’Ecole de Gymnase at Lyons in many gymnastic feats, and after six months there, was brought out as “The Little Wonder.” He excelled especially at tight-rope dancing, jumping, and somersault-throwing. One of his notable jumps was over a double rank of soldiers with bayonets fixed. The agent of an American Company the Ravelsaware of his success in the French provinces finally gave him a two years’ engagement for the United States, which afterwards was extended to eight years. He came to America in 1855; and it was not long after, when looking across the Niagara Falls, that he remarked to Mr. Ravel:
” What a splendid place for a tight-rope performance”.
The idea was impressive and as a result, after laborious preparations, Blondin was ready to cross a wire, June 30, 1859. Despite the unanimous howl of derision at the idea, people could not resist the temptation to see the rash performer throw his life away; and the crowd that gathered was the largest ever seen at the Falls. It is interesting, from more than one standpoint, to quote the New York Herald of July 1, 1859, on the exploit :
Monsieur Blondin has just successfully accomplished the feat of walking across the Niagara on a tight rope] in the presence of a crowd variously estimated at from five thousand to ten thousand persons. He first crossed from the American side, stopping midway to refresh himself with water raised in a bottle with a rope from the deck of the steamer Maid of the Mist. The time occupied in the first crossing was seventeen minutes and a half. The return from the British to the American side was accomplished in twelve minutes.
According to other sources] the crowd was estimated at fifty thousand. Blondin did considerably more than merely pass over, for he carried a pole weighing forty pounds, and did some extraordinary feats of balancing and came ashore amid the huzzas of the crowd] with the whole country ringing with the news of the daring exploit.
Some little difficulty was always encountered by tight-rope walkers from proprietors of the river banks where the rope was to be attached on their theory that nothing could be allowed to occur at Niagara of a money-making nature unless they were a party to the plunder. One Hamblin stood surety for the payment for Blondin’s rope, which was over fifteen hundred feet long and cost thirteen hundred dollars.
A few months later Blondin carried his manager, Harry Colcourt or Colcord, across on his back. It is said (and also has been denied) that on this occasion Blondin had a quarrel with Colcord. The latter had previously been trained to balance himself in order that he might be let down on the rope in the middle of the river, to permit Blondin to take breath_ The wind was strong, and the manager showed visible signs of nervousness, while the rope swayed in a sickly manner. Then, according to the story] Blondin threatened to leave his manager on the rope at the mercy of the waters underneath, unless he kept himself under control. Needless to say, the threat was successful, and the trip across was safely made. For this special feat Blondin received a gold medal from the inhabitants of the village, as a tribute of admiration, with the following inscription:
Presented to Mons. T. F. Blondin by the citizens of Niagara Falls in appreciation of a feat never before attempted by man] but by him successfully performed on the 19th of August, 1859, that of carrying a man upon his back over the Falls of Niagara on a tight rope.
Of the ordinary run of mortals few would care to attempt Blondin’s feat, but it is not impossible that many an actor envied the daring athlete’s position of utter mastery over his manager.
A few days later the fearless Blondin again crossed the river chained hand and foot. On his return he carried a cooking stove and made an omelet which he lowered to the passengers on the deck of the Maid of the Mist below. At another time he crossed with a bushel basket on each foot, and once carried a woman on his back. On September 8, 186o] Blondin performed before the Prince of Wales, now Edward VII., the rope being stretched 23o feet above the rapids, between two of the steepest cliffs on the river. The cool actor turned somersaults before His Royal Highness] and successfully managed to cross on a pair of stilts. The Prince watched every movement through a telescope and was highly interested, but it is reported that he exclaimed, when Blondin safely reached the end of the rope, ” Thank God, he is over!” and hurried him a check for the perilous feat.
Apparently Blondin did not know what nervousness meant; his secret has been described as confidence in himself, obtained by long practice in rope-walking.
There is no doubt some of the victims he has carried across his rope have suffered; it is said that Blondin would talk to his companions on the most indifferent subjects; he would urge them to sit perfectly still, avoid catching him around the neck or looking downward. What he considered as one of his greatest feats was in walking on a rope from the mainmast to the mizzen on board the Peninsular and Oriental steamer Poonah, while on her way to Australia, between Aden and Galle, in 1874. He had to sit down five times while heavy waves were approaching the ship. Blondin’s last performance was in Agricultural Hall, London, on Christmas, 1894, where he appeared as active and nimble as ever. The fact is certainly wonderful that for nearly seventy years he walked the tight rope without accident.
Mr. W. D. Howells was an eye-witness to three crossings of Blondin’s in 1860, which he has graphically described:
The man himself looked cool and fresh enough but I, who was not used to such violent fatigues as he must have undergone in these three transits, was bathed in a cold perspiration, and so weak and worn with making them in sympathy that I could scarcely walk away.
Long afterwards I was telling about this experience of mineit was really more mine than Blondin’sin the neat shop of a Venetian pharmacist, to a select circle of the physicians who wait in such places in Venice for the call of their patients. One of these civilised men, asked: ” Where was the government?” And I answered in my barbarous pride of our individualism: ” The government had nothing to do with it. In America the government has nothing to do with such things.” But now I think that this Venetian was right, and that such a show as I have tried to describe ought no more to have been permitted than the fight of a man with a wild beast. It was an offence to morality, and it thinned the frail barrier which the aspiration of centuries has slowly erected between humanity and savagery.
Enough savage criticism met Blondin in England; his rope-walking in Crystal Palace] Sydenham, upon a rope 240 feet long and at a height of 170 feet, in imitation of the Niagara feat] was considered a sickening spectacle. Said Once a Week:
We wish Mr. Blondin no sort of harm, but if his audiences were to dwindle down to nothing, so as to cause him to retire upon his savings] we should congratulate him upon having escaped a great danger, and the country upon getting rid of a disgrace to the intelligence of the age.
Blondin ended his career as an English country gentleman at Niagara House, South Haling. He was wont to display a profusion of diamond rings and studs, all gifts of admirers, and the cherished gold medal from the citizens of Niagara Falls; he, too, was the proud possessor of one of the two gold medals struck in commemoration of the Crystal Palace in 1854, Queen Victoria having the other_ He had also the cross from ex-Queen Isabel of Spain, entitling him to the title of Chevalier. The athlete’s baggage, when on a tour, consisted of a main rope of eight hundred feet, six and a half inches in circumference, and weighing eight hundredweight; twenty-eight straining ropes, eighty tying-bars, the average weight, not including poles, being five and a half tons. The freight of his outfit, including a huge travelling-tent, which could encompass fourteen thousand people, amounted to five thousand dollars between Southampton and Melbourne. About three days were consumed in making his preparations by the aid of a dozen assistants. The due adjustment of the rope was his principal care, and he superintended every detail.
Like many a Frenchman, Blondin never mastered the intricacies of the English language. In a rather queer and rambling fragment of autobiography written some years ago] he tells us that the rope he generally used was formed with a flexible core of steel-wire covered with the best manila-hemp, about an inch or three quarters in diameter, several hundred yards in length, and costing about fifteen hundred dollars. A large windlass at either end of the rope served to make it taut, while it was supported by two high poles. His balancing poles of ash wood varied in length and were of three sections, and weighed from thirty-seven to forty-seven pounds. He was indifferent as to the height at which he was to perform. Blondin has never confessed to any nervousness on the rope, and, while walking, he generally looked eighteen or twenty feet ahead, and whistled or hummed some snatch of a song. The time kept by a band frequently aided him in preserving his balance. He was something of both carpenter and blacksmith, and was able to make his own models and fit up his own apparatus.
While Blondin yet performed at the Falls there appeared Signor Farini in 1860, and stretched a cable across the Gorge near the hydraulic canal basin. On August 8, 1864, Farini reappeared walking about the Rapids above the American fall on stilts. He was certainly an expert on the rope and commanded much attention, but he was not able to snatch the laurel from the Frenchman’s browhe has been forgotten, while Blondin’s fame has lived. We must, however, chronicle a thrilling incident attached to his performance in 1864. Between Robinson’s Island and the precipice Farini was suddenly delayed. He claimed his stilts caught in a crevice. His brother succeeded in reaching a log between the old paper-mill and Robinson’s Island, from which he threw a line, with a weight attached, to the adventurer, and by this line a pail of provisions was sent to Farini. A larger line was thrown and both reached shore by way of Goat Island.
There has hardly been a year in which some tightrope exhibition has not taken place at Niagara Falls.
Harry Leslie crossed the Gorge on a rope-cable in July and August, 1865. He achieved the title of ” The American Blondin.”
In 1873, when Signor Balleni (Balleni ?) stretched a cable from a point opposite the old Clifton House to Prospect Park, he leaped three times into the river as an extra inducement, aided in his descent by a rubber cord. In 1886 he reappeared, climbed to the iron railing on the upper suspension bridge, knocked the ice from under his feet to secure a footing, and at the signal of a pistol shot jumped into the air. He struck the water in four seconds, broke a rib, lost his senses, and came to the surface some sixty feet from where he entered. This was the same man who jumped from Hungerford Bridge, London, in 1888, and was drowned. In July, 1876, Signorina Maria Spelterini crossed the Gorge on a tight-rope with baskets on her feet. The performance brought out a tremendous crowd, probably because she was the first woman daring to try conclusions with Blondin and his many imitators. She got across safely with her baskets and her name. She won great favour and forever established the fact that a woman is as level-headed as a man. In the seventies of the last century, a young fellow, Stephen Peere, a painter by trade, stretched a cable across the Falls. In 1878 he gave variety to his career by jumping from one of the bridges, and in 1887 he finished it by jumping to his death. He had previously, on June 22, 1887, walked across the Gorge on a wire cable six-eighths of an inch in diameter. This was a wonderful performance, considering the fact that all the others had used a rope two inches in diameter. Only three days later he was found dead on a bank beneath his rope, stretched between the old suspension and the cantilever bridges. It is supposed he attempted to practise in night time, but as nobody saw him he met his fate; this is only supposition. A man, ” Professor” De Leon, aspiring to become Peere’s successor, started out on August 15, 1887, to cross the latter’s cable. After going a short distance he became frightened, slid down a rope, and disappeared in the bushes. He was later seen ascending the bank by a ladder, and thus came back to the bosom of his family. MacDonald made several very creditable attempts] and proved himself an excellent walker. He also went across with baskets on his feet, and frightened the gaping crowd by hanging with his legs from the wire, head downwards.
Another freak, I. F. Jenkins, stretched his cable across the Gorge over the Rapids. With a keen eye for effect and sensation he selected as one of his principal feats, crossing by velocipede. The machine, however, was specially constructed for this purpose; it was a turned-down contrivance, only resembling a bicycle, and had an ingeniously devised balancing apparatus in lieu of a pole attached by a metal framework to the wheels. Thus this piece de resistance was not so remarkable after all. Samuel John Dixon, a Toronto photographer, was on his way to a Photographers’ Annual Convention when he observed Peere’s cable still stretched across the Rapids of Niagara. He remarked that he too could cross on it, but the remark was not taken seriously; to prove that he was in earnest, Dixon, on his return, actually made the dangerous trip on the three-quarter inch cable] measuring 923 feet in length. One of this amateur’s crack feats was laying down with his back on the wire. He has made several other passages since,the first occurring on September 6, 1890 always with great eclat. Dixon has always been vigorously applauded. James E. Hardy has also successful crossings at the Gorge to his credit. He also holds the “record ” of being the youngest man that ever performed the feat. Another Toronto man] Clifford M. Calverley, has been styled “The World’s Champion,” and ” The American Blondin,” but although very clever, many of his feats are just those which made the Frenchman famous over forty years ago. His wheelbarrow feat is certainly middle-aged although it still remains as difficult to perform as it was in Blondin’s days. People never tire of it and Calverley was, indeed, a remarkable gymnast. lie erected a wire cable at about the same point between the bridges at which Peere and Dixon had crossed, and gave public exhibitions on October 12, 1892, and July 1, 1893. He performed numerous stunning feats as high-kicking, walking with baskets on his feet, cooking meals on the rope, and chair-balancing; he also gave night exhibitions, which was original.
One man at least took the tight-rope route across Niagara who had not practised the feat. This was a criminal who escaped his captors near this locality in 1883 ; the sheriff was behind him, the river in front, and only the wires of the old bridge at Lewiston to help him across. hand over hand he began the passage. His hands quickly blistered, and then they bled. Again and again he rested his arms by hanging by his legs, and at last reached the opposite bank where he lay panting fully an hour before he continued his flight.
We have seen that all the tight-rope walkers at Niagara met with extraordinary luck while crossing the Gorge; in fact, we have no record that anybody ever lost his life while performing on the wire. Peere met with an accident, and was killed in night-time ; it is said he was intoxicated and tried to cross with his boots on. Ballini met his death in the Thames River. Many lives, however, have been lost in attempting to brave the waters of the canyon at Niagara.
Attracted by the sensational setting adrift of the condemned brig Michigan over the Falls in 1829, Sam Patch, a man who had won fame at Pawtucket Falls and other Eastern points as a high-jumper, erected a ladder on the foot-path under Goat Island, and announced to the world that he would jump into Niagara River. The hotel keepers patted him on the back, and left no stone unturned to enable him to draw the biggest crowd of the season. Patch rested the bottom of his ladder on the edge, just north of the Biddle Stairs, with the top inclining over the river, staying it with ropes to the trees on the bank. At the top was a small platform, and from this Patch dived ninety-seven feet; he jumped a second time to prove that the first feat was not a fluke. Shortly afterwards he leaped to his death from the Genesee Fall in Rochester, N. Y.
Captain Matthew Webb, of Niagara fame, was born in Shropshire, England, in 184a. He went to sea at an early age and became captain of a merchantman, and first attracted notice by jumping from a Cunard steamer to save a man who had fallen overboard, for which he was awarded a gold medal by the Royal Humane Society. In 1875 he accomplished the feat of swimming the English Channel from Dover to Calais, a distance of twenty-five miles.
The disastrous attempt to swim the rapids at Niagara took place on July- 2, 1883. Webb wore no life preserver and scorned a barrel, depending solely on his own strength to put him through. Leaving his hotel, the old Clifton House, since destroyed by fire, at 4 P.M., before an immense crowd on the cliffs and bridges (for the event had been well heralded), he entered a small boat with Jack McCloy at the oars, and was carried to a point on the lower river several hundred feet above the lower bridges. It was 4.25 when, clad in a pair of red trunks, he leaped from the boat into the water, and boldly swam towards the Rapids. It was 4.32 when he passed under the bridges. He then stroked out gracefully and beautifully. In three minutes more he had reached the fiercest part of the Rapids when a great wave struck himand he disappeared from the sight of the thousands of eyes that watched the boiling waters, praying that his life might be spared. He came once again into view but then disappeared forever in the raging waters.
The Saturday Review of July 28, 1883,1 voiced the British feeling when it said:
It was unquestionably very appropriate that Mr. Webb should have met his death in America, and in sight of the United States. That country has a passion for big shows, and has now been indulged in the biggest thing of its kind which has been seen in this generation. Nothing was to be gained by successif success had been possiblebeyond a temporary notoriety and the applause of a mob.
As long as there is a popular demand for these essentially barbarous amusements, men and women will be found who are desperate, or greedy] or vain enough to risk their lives and ruin their health for money or applause. . . . The death of Mr_ Webb is shocking in the last degree; but it will not be wholly useless if it at least awakens the sight-seeing world to some sense of what it is they have been encouraging.
It is interesting to compare this just criticism with that passed on Blondin’s exhibition at Crystal Palace previously quoted.
When Webb swam across the channel, the feat was a remarkable instance of strength and endurance. It showed that a powerful man who was a good swimmer could continue to make progress through the water on a very fine day for over twenty hours. Indeed, shipwrecked sailors have done nearly as much under far less favorable circumstances; but as far as it went, Webb’s was a very creditable performance. But in the Channel many vessels were following him and would have picked him up the moment he became exhausted. Yet it was nowise to his credit to throw his life away at Niagara, and render his children orphans, for the ignoble object of pleasing a mob.
It was not long before another swimmer appeared who wore a harness over his shoulders to which was attached a wire running loosely over a cylinder on the bridge, which kept his feet straight towards Davy Jones’s locker; he survived the leap to his considerable personal profit. From bridge to water he went in four secondsthe only time on record. Another foolhardy feat was performed by some of the reckless men who decorate almost inaccessible landscapes with possibly truthful but most annoying, puffs of ague-pills, liver-pads, tooth-powder, and such. A log once lodged forty rods above Goat Island, where for four years it lay seemingly beyond human reach. It touched the pride of certain shameless and professional advertisers, who were famous for their ingenious vandalism, that such a chance should be wasted. So, when the Rapids were thinly frozen over, they made their cautious way to the log, and soon there was a gorgeous sign fixed, twelve feet by four] on the very fore-front of ore of the world’s grandest spots, to-wit:
Nothing daunted by the sad fate of Captain Webb, a burly Boston policeman, W. Kendall, went through the Rapids on August 22, 1886, protected by only a cork life-preserver. All previous trips had been publicly announced, but Kendall slipped through with only a few spectators, accidentally on the cliffs or bridges, to bear witness. For this reason some have felt that the trip was never made, but men of integrity are known who witnessed the performance. On Sunday, August 14, 1887, ” Professor” Alphonse King crossed the river below the Falls and bridge on a water bicycle. The wheel with paddles was erected between two water-tight cylinders, eight inches in diameter and ten feet long.
“Steve” Brodie, who had achieved great notoriety by jumping from Brooklyn Bridge, created a greater sensation by going over the Falls. This occurred on September 7, 1889. Brodie wore an india-rubber suit, surrounded by thick steel bands. The suit was very thickly padded, yet Brodie was brought ashore bruised and insensible. His victories won, he became the proprietor of a Bowery bar-room, and the pride of the neighbourhood.
The cranks that were trying to get through the Whirlpool did not arrive at Niagara until about 1886, but from that on we find an embarrus de richesse of them for a decade or so until the peculiar mania for notoriety died out.
The fate that befell Webb could not discourage others to venture the perilous trip, and, probably, the pioneer of them was C. D. Graham, an English cooper of Philadelphia, who conceived the idea that, though no regular boat could live in the rush of the waters below the Falls of Niagara, it would perhaps be possible for a novel kind of boat, a cask shaped like a buoy, with a man in it, to get clown to Lewiston in safety. He therefore made a series of such casks at an expenditure of a great deal of time and labour; and, at last finding a shape to his mind, filled two or three in succession with bags of sand equal to his own weight, and set them afloat at Niagara. They arrived safely in smooth water, threading the Rapids and the Whirlpool after a journey of some five miles; the inventor thereupon resolved to keep one side uppermost, in which was left an air-hole, and fastened in the cask a long canvas bag, made like a suit of clothes, and waterproof. Getting into this bag on July 11, 1886, he grasped two iron handles fixed to the staves on the inner side of the cask; a movable cover being fastened on, the odd craft was shoved into the rushing waters. The cask, of course, turned over and over; and though water got into the air-hole, it did not get into the canvas bag; the surging waters handled the cask so roughly that Graham straightway fell sick, but clung to his iron staples, and in a space of time exceeding thirty minutesaccounts differ herereached smooth water at Lewiston, five miles away, and was safely taken out, able to boast that he had performed a feat hitherto deemed impossible.
His record trip in a cask was made on August 19] 1886. On this occasion he announced that he would make the trip with his head protruding from the top of the barrel. This was actually done; he went as far as the Whirlpool, but it left him very little hearing] for a big wave gave him a furious slap on the side of the head. Graham made other trips in 1887 and 1889, and his last, probably, in 1901. This nearly ended his life, as he was caught in an eddy where he was held for over twenty minutes; when he finally reached the Whirlpool and was taken out he was nearly suffocated.
Graham’s performances] possibly, were also of some practical value_ It was proven to the observant that a particular shape of cask might, under certain conditions, be used to draw feeble or sickly passengers from a wrecked ship in bad weather, for a woman or a child could have lived in Graham’s machine as well as the cooper himself; however, the circumstances are few under which it would be useful, and Graham, by his own account, had no idea of applying his contrivance in any such way.
It is a question whether the barrel-cranks made any money by their foolhardy feats. That nothing interests callous men like the risk of a human life is undoubtedly true and has been proved by the whole history of amusement. The interest must depend on sight. Nobody would pay merely to know that at a specified hour Blondin was risking his life a hundred miles off. The man in the cask would not be seen, and to see a closed cask go bobbing about clown five miles of rapids would not be an exciting amusement, more especially as, after two or three successful trials, the notion of any imminency or inevitableness of actual danger would disappear from the spectator’s mind. Captain Webb, of course, expected his speculation to pay him; but then, it was in a somewhat different way. He did not expect any money from those who gazed from the shore] but believed,as did also the speculators who paid himthat if he swam Niagara, he would revive the waning interest in his really splendid feats of customary swimming.
Copying somewhat the idea that Graham had developed so successfully, George Hazlett and William Potts, also coopers of Buffalo, made a trip through the Rapids in a barrel of their own construction on August 8, 1886. The barrel they used more closely resembled the familiar type of barrel] having no unusual features of form. In this same barrel used by the two coopers, Miss Sadie Allen and George Hazlett made a trip through the Niagara Gorge on November 28, 1886. There was then, I believe, a cessation of the barrel-fiends, who, nevertheless, re-appeared in the twentieth century.
At the end of the summer of 1901, Martha E. Wagenfuhrer, the wife of a professional wrestler, announced that she would go through the river in a barrel, the date of September 6th being selected, possibly because the woman believed that she might have a President of the United States in her audience, for on that day President McKinley visited Niagara. Quite a crowd collected, for she was the first woman to try the feat alone. She was rescued after being in the water over an hour.
It was nearly six o’clock in the afternoon [to quote the New York Times of September 7, 1901,] when the barrel containing Martha E. Wagenfuhrer was set adrift on the lower Niagara River] to be carried by the currents into the rapids and vortex of the Whirlpool. The trip through the rapids was quickly made, but the rescue from the Whirlpool was delayed. Night fell before the barrel was recovered] and the woman’s friends had availed themselves of the help of a powerful searchlight to illuminate the rushing tossing waters of the pool. She started at 5.56 o’clock] and it was 7 o’clock when the barrel was landed. The head of the cask had to be broken in in order to get the woman out. She was in a semi-conscious condition_ Before entering the barrel she had indulged freely in liquor, but when she got out her first call was for water.
Female barrel-fiends now followed in rapid succession. Maud Willard of Canton, Ohio, lost her life on the 7th of September, in navigating the Whirlpool Rapids in Graham’s barrel. Graham, as we have seen, had made five successful trips, and Miss Willard desired to attain fame by doing the same. She and Graham were good friends, and to please her he was to swim from the Whirlpool to Lewiston following her trip through the Rapids. The barrel was taken to the river in the morning. It was an enormous affair, made of oak, and at 4 o’clock Miss Willard got into it, accompanied by her pet dog. The cover was put over the manhole, and she was taken out into the stream in tow of a small boat, and left to the mercy of the currents.
Miss Willard passed safely through the Rapids, but the mighty maelstrom then held her far out from shore, where her friends and would-be rescuers could not reach her. From 4.40 o’clock until after 10 o’clock at night she was whirled about in the peculiar formation of the Niagara here. Messengers were sent to Niagara Falls to have the searchlight car of the electric line sent down the Gorge; huge bonfires were built to warm the spectators, and likewise to illuminate the river. Soon a beam of white light shot across the waters from the American to the Canadian side; now and then the tossing barrel could be seen tumbling and bobbing, and rolling in the currents. The latter were then suddenly changingfirst a piece of wood came in drifting toward shore within a short time the barrel hove in sight within the light of the beacons, and men swam out to catch it.
When the manhole cover was removed, Miss Willard was limp and lifeless. Death probably came gradually, and possibly without much suffering. The little dog came out alive, and none the worse for the perilous trip.
While she was tossing in the Whirlpool, Graham made his trip to Lewiston, the only person who ever swam from the pool to Lewiston. When he returned up the Gorge he found the barrel and Miss Willard still in the terrible pool.
A widow, Mrs. Anna Edson Taylor, safely passed over Niagara Falls in a barrel on Friday, October 24] 1901, the trip from end to end being witnessed by several thousand people. The fact that Mrs. Taylor failed to appear, as advertised, on the Sunday before, and again on Wednesday, did not lessen the confidence of the public. It was beyond belief that she would live to tell the story, but she came out alive and well so soon as she recovered from the shock.
This initial voyage over Niagara’s cataract began at Port Day, nearly a mile from the brink of the Falls. At this point the daring woman and her barrel were taken out to Grass Island, where she entered ; at 3.50 she was in tow of a boat speeding well out into the Canadian current. Soon after the barrel was cast adrift on the current that never before was known to spare a human life once fallen in its grasp. From the spot where the rowboat left the barrel the current runs frightfully swift, soon boiling on the teeth of the upper rifts; the barrel was weighted with a two hundred pound anvil, and it floated nicely in the water, Mrs. Taylor apparently retaining an upright position for the greater part of the trip down the river and through the rapids. Fortunately the cask kept well within the deep water, and except for passing out of sight several times, in the white-crested waves, it was in view for the greater part of a mile. In passing over the Horseshoe Fall the barrel kept toward the Canadian side at a point three hundred feet from the centre.
It dropped over the Fall at 4.23 o’clock, the bottom well down. In less than a minute it appeared at the base of the Fall, and was swept down stream. The current cast it aside in an eddy, and, floating back up-stream, it was held between two eddies until captured at 4.40 o’clock. As it was grounded on a rock, out in the river, it was difficult to handle, but several men soon had the hatch off. Mrs. Taylor was alive and conscious but before she could be taken out of the barrel it was necessary to saw a portion of the top away. Her condition was a surprise to all. She walked along the shore to a boat, and was taken down the river to the Maid of the Mist dock, where she entered a carriage and was brought to Niagara Falls. The woman was suffering greatly from the shock, and had a three-inch cut in her scalp, back of the right ear, but how or when she got it she did not know. She complained of pains between the shoulders, but it is thought that this was due to the fact that her shoulders were thrown back during the plunge, as she had her arms in straps, and these undoubtedly saved her neck from breaking.
She admitted having lost consciousness in passing over the Falls. While thanking God for sparing her life, she warned every one not to repeat her foolhardy trip. So severe was the shock that she wandered in her talk, with three doctors attending her; she, however, soon recovered.
Mrs. Taylor was forty-three years old when she made this marvellous trip. She was born in Auburn, N. Y., and was a school teacher in Bay City, Mich., before she came East. She had crossed the American continent from ocean to ocean eight times, and during her stay East impressed everybody with her wonderful nerve.
The barrel in which Mrs. Taylor made the journey was four and one-half feet high, and about three feet in diameter. A leather harness and cushions inside protected her body. Air was secured through a rubber tube connecting with a small opening near the top of the barrel. Her warning evidently has been heeded.
To our knowledge no barrel-fiend has reappeared at the shores of Niagara within the last five years.
In the year 1846, a small steamer was built in the eddy just above the suspension bridge to run up to the Falls, and very appropriately named the Maid of the Mist. Her engine was rather weak, but she safely accomplished the trip. Since she took passengers aboard only from the Canada side, however, she did little more than pay expenses, and in 1854, a larger, better boat, with a more powerful engine, a new Maid of the Mist, was put on the route and many persons since have made this most exciting and impressive voyage along the foot of the Falls.
Owing to some change in the appointments of the Maid of the Mist which confined her landings to the Canadian shore she too became unprofitable and her owner having decided to leave the place wished to sell her as she lay on her dock. This he could not do, but having received an offer of more than half of her cost, if he would deliver her at Niagara-on-the-Lake, he determined a consultation with Joel Robinson, who had acted as her captain and pilot on her trips under the Falls to make the attempt to take her down the river. Mr. Robinson agreed to act as pilot on the fearful voyage; the engineer, Mr. Jones, consented to go with him and a courageous machinist by the name of McIntyre volunteered to share the risk with them. The boat was in complete trim] removing from deck and hold all superfluous articles and as notice was given of the time of starting] a large number of people assembled to watch the spectacular plunge, few expecting to see either boat or crew again. About three o’clock in the afternoon of June 15, 1861] the engineer took his place in the hold, and, knowing that their drifting would be short at the longest, and might be only the preface to a swift destruction, set his steam valve at the proper gauge and awaited not without anxietythe tinkling signal that should start them on their flying voyage. McIntyre joined Robinson at the wheel on the upper deck. Self-possessed, and with the calmness which results from undoubted courage and confidence] yet with the humility which recognises all possibilities, Robinson took his place at the wheel and pulled the starting bell. With a shriek from her whistle and a white puff from the escape-pipe to take leave, as it were] of the multitude gathered at the shores, she soon swung around to the right, cleared the smooth water and shot like an arrow into the rapid under the bridge. She took the outside course of the rapid and when a third of the way down it] a jet of water struck against her rudder, a column dashed up under her starboard side, hurled her over] carried away her smoke-stack, threw Robinson flat on his back, and thrust McIntyre against her starboard wheel-house with such a force as to break it through. The little boat emerged from the fearful baptism] shook her wounded sides, and slid into the Whirlpool riding for the moment again on an even keel. Robinson rose at once, seized the helm] set her to the right of the large pot in the pool, then turned her directly through the neck of it. Thence, after receiving another drenching from its combing waves] the craft dashed on without further accident to the quiet of the river at Lewiston.
Thus was accomplished one of the most remarkable and perilous voyages ever made by man; the boat was seventy-two feet long with seventeen feet breadth of beam and eight feet depth of hold, and carried an engine of one hundred horse-power.
Robinson stated after the voyage that the greater part of it was like what he had always imagined must he the swift sailing of a large bird in a downward flight ; that when the accident occurred the boat seemed to be struck from all directions at once] that she trembled like a fiddlestring and felt as if she would crumble away and drop into atoms; that both he and McIntyre were holding to the wheel with all their strength, but this produced no more effect than if they had been two flies; that he had no fear of striking the rocks, for he knew that the strongest suction must be in the deepest channels, and that the boat must remain in that. Finding that McIntyre was somewhat bruised and bewildered by excitement on account of his fall, and did not rise, Robinson quickly put his foot on him to keep him from rolling round the deck, and thus finished the voyage.
The effect of this trip upon Robinson was decidedly marked. To it, as he lived but few years afterward] his death was commonly attributed. ” He was,” said Mrs. Robinson in an interview, “twenty years older when he came home that day] than when he went out. He sank into his chair like a person overcome with weariness. He decided to abandon the water] and advised his sons to venture no more about the Rapids. Both his manner and appearance were changed.” Calm and deliberate before, he became thoughtful and serious afterwards. He had been borne, as it were, in the arms of a power so mighty, that, its impress was stamped an his features and on his mind. Through a slightly opened door he had seen a vision which awed and subdued him. He became reverent in a moment. He grew venerable in an hour.
As an illustration of the lengths unscrupulous sensationalists will go at Niagara to satisfy the curious throngs, in September, 1883, several enterprising citizens of Niagara Falls purchased a small boat which they fitted up to represent the Maid of the Mist, and sent it through the Rapids. Men were stationed about the boat in effigy, but no human beings were allowed on board, although, indeed there were many applications for passage. The boat passed through the Gorge in good shape.
On August 28, 1887, Charles Alexander Percy, a waggon-maker of Suspension Bridge, went over the Rapids to win fame. He had conceived the idea of constructing a boat, and, having been previously a sailor he knew how to build a staunch craft. The vessel was of hickory, seventeen feet long and four feet ten and one-quarter inches wide. It had sixty-four oak ribs, and an iron plate weighing three hundred pounds was fastened to the bottom. The boat as completed weighed nine hundred pounds, and was covered with white canvas. At 3.30 o’clock in the afternoon on the day mentioned, Percy, having with great difficulty transported his craft to the old Maid of the Mist landing above the cantilever bridge, took off his coat and waistcoat, put them in a valise and stowed it away in one of the compartments. Then he sat in the middle part of the boat, which had no deck, rowed out into the Niagara, just above the cantilever, unshipped his oars and fastened them to the boat and then crawled into one of his air-tight compartments. Many people watched his white craft from the bridges and banks, but the excursion had not been advertised and many visitors to the Falls knew nothing of it. The boat shot down toward the Whirlpool. On the theory that there was an undercurrent which ran stronger than the surface current, Percy had attached a thirty-pound weight to a ten-foot line, which he threw overboard to act as a drag; this had no apparent effect; the two-mile trip to the Whirlpool occupied less than five minutes, and while the boat was submerged repeatedly, it did not turn over. When near the Whirlpool it drifted close to the American shore, Percy, thinking he was in the quiet water on the further side of the Whirlpool, stuck out his head, but closed the aperture just in time to escape a tremendous wave. The boat passed straight across the Whirlpool and on the other side Percy crawled out of the compartment, took his oars, and rowed leisurely around to the foot of the inclined railway on the Canadian side, where he landed, his voyage having lasted twenty-five minutes. He gave much the same account of the adventure as was given by Graham of barrel fame, and Kendall, the Boston policeman, who swam into the Whirlpool in 1886. He thought he struck rocks in the passage down, but the boat showed no marks.
Percy and a friend, William Dittrick, repeated the trip on September 25, 1887, through the lower half of the Gorge from the Whirlpool to Lewiston, having a thrilling experience. Dittrick occupied one of the air compartments, while Percy sat in the cockpit.
Finally, on September 16, 1888, Percy again risked his life in making a voyage through the waters of the Gorge near Lewiston. In this trip he narrowly escaped death and the boat was lost.
Elated by his success, Percy now made a wager with Robert William Flack of Syracuse, ” for a race through the Whirlpools in life-boats for five hundred dollars a side.” The race was set for August 1, 1888, but on July 4th, Flack was first to show that his craft was seaworthy. The boat was of the clinker pattern, had no air-cushions, and was partly constructed of cork. In the presence of an immense concourse of spectators it went first along gaily, but in three minutes the boat was upset and carried into the Whirlpool bottom upwards. It was a frightful spectacle, witnessed by thousands of people. The boat capsized three times; the last time it tossed high in the air. It stood on end for an instant and then it toppled over on poor Flack, who was strapped to the boat helpless and floated about the pool upside down for about an hour, until captured on the Canadian side. Flack’s body was only a mass of bruised flesh. Percy meantime, having witnessed the tragedy from the American side, jumped into a trap, and drove to the Whirlpool on the Canadian side where, throwing off his clothes, he leaped into the river and swam for the boat which was now approaching the shore. But he was too late. His courageous feat could not help Flack, who was found dead, hanging on the straps he had placed there to aid him to save his life.
In 1889 Walter G. Campbell tried to make the perilous trip in an open, flat-bottomed boat, which he launched above the Rapids. His only companion was a black dog. Campbell, with a life-preserver about his body, stood up, using his oar as a paddle, and boldly drifted with increasing speed toward the seething pool. The trip took about twenty minutes, but, fortunately, the boat capsized before the worst water was reached, and Campbell just managed to struggle to the shore. The poor black dog paid the penalty of his master’s folly.
Peter Nissen, of Chicago, made a successful trip through the Whirlpool Rapids of Niagara on July 9, 1900, being the first man to go through in an open boat and come out unharmed. He entered the Rapids at 5 P.M.] the boat gliding down easily bow first, entering the first wave end on, and going partly over and partly under the water, drenched its occupant completely. The second wave struck him with terrific force almost broadside, the boat being partly turned by the first wave, smashing Nissen against the cockpit, knocking off his hat and nearly smothering him. A moment later he entered the frightful mass of warring waters opposite the Whirlpool Rapids station, and for a few moments it looked as though his end had come, the boat being tossed with terrific force out of the water, broadside up, the iron keel, weighing 125a pounds, being plainly seen. Boat and occupant then disappeared altogether, not being again seen for several seconds until the worst was feared. Suddenly both man and boat reappeared farther down the stream, and the hundreds of onlookers gave vent to their feelings in cheers. The hardy navigator now went under the waters again receiving a crushing blow as he entered every succeeding wave when the staunch craft and its master raced into the Whirlpool. But Nissen was not yet safe. Having no means of guiding or propelling the boat, Nissen was compelled to sit in the water in the cockpit for fifty minutes, being carried around the Whirlpool four times. Once the boat approached the vortex and was sucked down about half its length, the other half standing out of the water in an almost vertical position. It was immediately thrown out, however, and resumed its course around the pool. When at the farther end, where the current has the least strength the boat then being about fifty feet from shore, three young men swam out with a rope and fastened it to the boat, which was then drawn in by very willing hands. Nissen, when questioned, said he was not injured in the least, only feeling cold and weak. He was stripped and given dry clothing, and he then declared he felt all right. In making the trip he wore his usual clothing, pulling on an ordinary life-preserver to aid him if he should be thrown out. He did not intend to fasten himself in the boat, but at the last moment passed a rope over his shoulder, which probably saved his life.
The boat] which he had named the Fool-Killer, was twenty feet long, four feet wide, and four feet deep. The deck was slightly raised in the centre, gently sloping to the gunwales. In the centre of the deck a cockpit four feet long and twenty inches wide extended down to the keel] a distance of four feet. The side-planking of the cockpit was carried above the deck, forming a combing six inches in height ; six water-tight compartments were built in the boat, two at each end and one on each side of the cockpit ; three hundred pounds of cork were also used, so that the boat was unsinkable. The main feature of the boat was the keel. This was a shaft of round iron, four inches in diameter and twenty feet long, hanging two feet below the bottom of the boat, and held in position by five one-inch iron bars.
Our record of sensationalism at Niagara would be lacking in fulness, at least, if mention were not made of the many gruesome suicides that have occurred here, but we forbear. A story of what a dog endured, however, is quite in place:
A large dog lately survived the passage over Niagara Falls and through the rapids to the whirlpool. He was first noticed while he was within the influence of the upper rapids. As he was whirled rapidly down over the Falls, every one imagined that that was the last of him. Shortly afterwards, however, he was discovered in the gorge below the Falls vainly endeavouring to clamber up upon some of the debris from the remains of the great ice bridge which recently covered the water at this point] but which had nearly all gone down the river. The news spread rapidly through the village, and a large crowd gathered at the shore. Strenuous efforts were made to get the struggling animal on shore, for an animal which had gone safely over the Falls would be a prize worth having, but without success. Finally the dog succeeded in getting upon a large cake of ice, and floated off upon it down towards Suspension Bridge and the terrible Whirlpool Rapids. Information of the dog’s coming was telephoned to Suspension Bridge village, and a large crowd collected on the bridge to watch for the coming wonder. In due time the poor fellow appeared upon his ice-cake, howling dismally the while, as if he appreciated the terrors of his situation. An express-train crossing the bridge at the time stopped in order to let the passengers witness the unusual spectacle. Round and round whirled the cake] in a dizzy way] and louder and more prolonged grew the howls of the poor dog. As the influence of the Whirlpool Rapids began to be felt, the cake increased in speed, whirled suddenly into the air, broke in two, and the dog disappeared from view. No one thought that he could possibly survive the wild rush through the rapids. When, therefore] word was received that the dog was in the whirlpool, still living, and once more struggling vainly to swim to land, it was received with marked incredulity. This story was substantiated by several trustworthy witnesses. It seems incredible that an animal could go through the upper rapids] over the Falls, through the Gorge] through the Whirlpool Rapids, and into the whirlpool itself] a distance of several miles] and still be alive. The poor animal perished in the whirlpool.
In various instances dogs have been sent over the Falls and survived the plunge.
As early as November, 1836, a troublesome female bull-terrier was put in a coffee sack by a couple of men who had determined to get rid of her, and thrown off from the middle of Goat Island Bridge. In the following spring she was found alive and well about sixty rods below the Ferry, having lived through the winter on a deceased cow that was thrown over the bank the previous fall. In 1858, another dog, a male of the same breed, was thrown into the Rapids, also near the middle of the bridge. In less than an hour he came up the Ferry stairs, very wet and not at all gay. He was ever after a sadder, if not a better dog.
The Niagara River:Niagara River – Buffalo And The Upper NiagaraNiagara River – From The Falls To Lake OntarioNiagara River – The Birth Of NiagaraNiagara River – Niagara Bond And FreeNiagara River – Harnessing Niagara FallsNiagara River – A Century Of Niagara CranksNiagara River – The Old Niagara FrontierNiagara River – From La Salle To De NonvilleNiagara River – Niagara Under Three FlagsNiagara River – The Hero Of Upper Canada