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|It wasn't until after the war of 1812 that Niagara Falls started to become a tourist destination. At that time there was only 3 hotels in Niagara Falls and the owners of these hotels were the first of several people to perform a documented stunt over the Falls. The stunt was performed to draw attention to the area and to encourage travellers to visit Niagara Falls.
On September 8, 1827 William Forsyth, John Brown, and General Parkhurst Whitney, all hotel owners, purchased a schooner named "Michigan" and sent it over the Falls decorated as a pirate ship. They had also placed several animals on board including a buffalo, 2 small bears, 2 raccoons, a dog and a goose. The 2 bears, which were loose on the schooner, jumped off into the rapids where they swam to Goat Island. The only animal to survive the fall was the goose. This particular stunt drew in a crowd of 10,000.
Many other daredevils performed for an audience including Jean Francois Gravelot. “The Great Blondin”, as he was often referred to as, walked across the falls by tight rope on June 30, 1859. The tight rope stretched from what is now Prospect Park in Niagara Falls New York to what is now Oakes Garden in Niagara Falls Ontario. The walk took approximately 20 minutes to complete. Blondin completed 8 more tight rope crossings in the summer of 1859. One of these crossings had Blondin carry his manager Harry Colcord on his back. Blondin returned in the summer of 1960 to tightrope yet again over the river. On September 8, 1960 Blondin completed his final tight rope crossing of the Niagara River.
The most recent Niagara Daredevil stunt occurred on October 22, 2003. Kirk Raymond Jones went over the Horseshoe Falls unaided and survived. Miraculously he was not hurt, which made him the first human in recorded history to intentionally go over the Falls unaided. Kirk Jones entered the water about 100 yards upstream where he swam into the current and 8 seconds later he was plunging over the Falls. He was treated for minor bumps and bruises at a local hospital. Kirk Jones was fined $2300 and banned from entering Canada for life.
There has only been one other person known to have survived a plunge over the Horseshoe Falls without the use of safety devices or any other contraptions. In a 1960 boating accident, a 7 year old boy wearing a life jacket was thrown into the water.
Those interested in the history of the Niagara Falls Daredevils will enjoy The Imax Theatre and The Ripley's Believe it or Not! Museum. The Imax Theatre have a daredevil museum and show films about the history of Niagara Falls and the amazing daredevils that want to conquer the falls. Visit the Ripley's Believe it or Not! Museum to see some authentic artifacts and actual film footage of Niagara Falls Daredevils.
Niagara Falls' Daredevils
- Henry Bellini – Tightrope Walker
- Henry Bellini was originally born in England. He came to Niagara Falls when he was 32 years old in 1873. He first attempted to tightrope walk across the Niagara River on August 25th, 1873. He walked across a rope that was 1,500 feet, 2.5 inches in diameter and weighing 2,500 pounds. He used a balancing pole weighing 48 pounds and was 22 feet long. He not only tightrope walked across, but combined a daring leap into the rapid Niagara River below. Bellini was picked up by an awaiting boat below. He made three more leaps during 1873. In 1886 Bellini made a leap from the Upper Suspension Bridge. He was pulled out of the winter waters unconscious and faced multiple broken ribs. Though he escaped death yet again, he made his last leap on a bridge in London England and died in 1888.
- Stephen Peer – Tightrope Walker
- Stephen Peer was born in 1840 in Stamford Township. In 1873 Peer signed on as Henry Bellini’s assistant. He helped Bellini string the tightrope across the gorge and made his first public appearance using Bellini’s equipment. Unfortunately, this was without Bellini’s consent and he tried to cut down the tightrope Peer was walking across. Without any success Bellini was chased out of town, leaving Peer to pursue his stunt. By 1887 Peer was becoming more famous and was scheduled to make a performance. On June 22nd 1887, Peer performed a tight rope walk on a five-eighth inch diameter wire cable that stretched between the Whirlpool Bridge and the Penn Central Bridge. He successfully completed a double crossing, starting on the Canadian side of the falls. Three days later he was found dead on the bank of the Niagara River directly below his cable. It has been speculated that he tried to do an unscheduled performance after a night of drinking.
- Samuel Dixon – Tightrope Walker
- Samuel Dixon was a photographer from Toronto. He made his first tightrope walking attempt on September 6th, 1890. He walked across a seven/eighth inch diameter rope that stretched across the widest part of Whirlpool rapids. He used a 16 foot balancing pole made up of three gas pipes. He did a double crossing starting on the Canadian side. On his return trip from the American side, he added thrill and suspense as he lay on the tightrope balancing the pole on his chest. He also balanced on one foot and hung on the rope with one hand. He was one of the most memorable tightrope walkers that has ever crossed Niagara Falls.
- Annie Taylor – Barrel Rider
- Annie Edson Taylor was born on October 24th 1855 in Auburn, New York. By the time she was 46 years old, she was a school teacher at Bay City and a widow. She came to Niagara Falls seeking fame and fortune. On October 24th, 1901 she rode a barrel over Niagara Falls. She started her journey north of Little Grass Island just off the Niagara River on the American side. Her barrel was built with white Kentucky oak held together by seven iron hoops. The barrel was four and a half feet long and weighed the same amount as Taylor. There was a 100-200 pound anvil placed at the bottom of the barrel for balance. It was also filled with padding and a small mattress. The lid was screwed on and she flowed down the Niagara River and over the Falls onto the Canadian side. About thirty minutes later, a rescue team could get close enough to cut off the top of the barrel. This revealed Taylor with only minor scratches and bruises. She continued to pose in photographs for livelihood after her fame faded, and went down in history as the first woman to challenge Niagara Falls in a barrel.
- Bobby Leach – Barrel Rider
- Bobby Leach was an English stuntman, who wanted to complete the triple challenge. This included making a barrel trip through the rapids to the whirlpool, going over the Falls in a barrel, and parachuting from the Upper Suspension Bridge into the river upstream of the rapids. On July 1st, 1908, he became the first person to parachute off the Upper Steel Arch Bridge. In 1910 he returned to Niagara Falls and rode his barrel through the great whirlpool. He was rescued from the barrel unconscious, and made three more successful attempts through the Whirlpool rapids. On the afternoon of July 25th 1911, Bobby Leach went into a steel drum measuring eight feet at Navy Island. It took eighteen minutes for the drum to reach Horseshoe Falls and twenty-two minutes for the drum to be recovered. The drum had been stuck in the river under the Falls before Fred Bender, an Ontario power company employee, risked his life to recover it. Leach suffered two broken knee caps and a broken jaw. On July 1st 1920, and October 10th, 1925, Bobby Leach jumped out of an airplane and attempted to parachute into the Falls. He was unsuccessful, and ended up landing in cornfields in Canada near the Niagara Gorge. In April of 1926, Bobby Leach died at Christchurch, New Zealand, at the age of 70. He slipped on an orange peel on his daily walk, fracturing his leg which became infected and had to be amputated. He died in the hospital two months later.
- Carlisle Graham- Barrel Rider
- On July 11th 1886, Carlisle Graham was the first person to attempt a barrel stunt in Niagara Falls. He was an English Barrel maker who recently immigrated to Philadelphia. He came to Niagara Falls with his own five and half foot homemade barrel. He survived his trip from the Whirlpool Bridge through the great gorge rapids and the whirlpool. He became extremely ill and dizzy from the ride, but announced he would make a second attempt on August 19th, 1886. His second attempt was more daring. He left his head outside of the barrel and because of this, he became hearing impaired. He made a new seven foot barrel in 1887 and successfully completed his third attempt on June 15th 1887, and fourth attempt on August 25th 1889. On September 7th 1901, Graham partnered up with his friend Maude Willard. She was to ride the barrel to the Whirlpool and both she and Graham were to swim the rest of the way to Lewiston. Unfortunately she brought along her pet, fox terrier and its nose was caught in the only air supply for the barrel. The barrel was caught in the whirlpool for several hours before she could be rescued, and she suffocated to death inside. On July 17th, 1905, Graham swam a race in the lower rapids against William J. Glover Jr. Glover won the race and this was Graham’s last stunt at the age of 45. Graham’s death is unknown, but he left a legacy behind him.
- Peter DeBernardi and Jeffrey Petkovich- Barrel Riders
- In September of 1989, Peter DeBernardi and Jeffrey Petkovich challenged the Niagara River. DeBernardi had originally planned to go over the Falls with another friend, but he backed out. He then met Jeffrey Petkovich. DeBernardi built a barrel that was worth fifteen hundred dollars. It was made of steel plating an 3/16th inch thick, and measured twelve feet by four and half feet. The barrel also had a two way radio system ninety minutes of oxygen supply with a ballast control and a double hatch assembly. Two Plexiglas windows were also added so both he and Petkovich could see outside. They went over the Falls in twenty-five seconds after being launched two hundred feet away. They were recovered by the Maid of the Mist dock uninjured. They were found wearing only neck ties and cowboy boots. DeBernardi and Petkovich were the first pair to go over the Falls.
- Clifford Calverly- Tightrope Walker
- There are very few records pertaining to Clifford Calverly. He was born in 1870 in Thornbury, Ontario. He lived in Clarksburg, Ontario where he worked as a steeplejack. In 1887, Clifford Calverly came to Niagara Falls to perform his tight rope act. He was successful in crossing and set a speed record by crossing the gorge in two minutes and thirty-two seconds compared to the usual fifteen to twenty minutes required by many others. During some of his crossings he skipped rope, hung by one arm and foot, sat on a chair and used a wheelbarrow. He was notorious for the excitement and thrill he brought to the tightrope and created a spectacle beyond the ordinary tightrope walker.
- Nathan Boya- Barrel Rider
- Nathan T. Boya, aka: William A. Fitzgerald, was an African American man from Bronx New York. He challenged the Falls on July 15th, 1961, unannounced and came forth unscratched. He built a steel sphere frame with a six foot diameter. Covering the steel frame was a six ply rubber cover followed by a sheet metal cover and another ply of rubber. He also installed an oxygen system that could provide oxygen for up to thirty hours. He took off in an undisclosed location on the American shoreline. He was suppose to go over the American Falls, but veered toward Horseshoe Falls instead. After what Boya described as a while since his departure, he realized he went over the Falls after hitting a rock at the bottom. He then opened the hinged door to see his progress when the Maid of the Mist launched the "Little Sister" and a police officer arrested him for making an unauthorized journey down the Falls without the permission of the Niagara Parks Commission. After cross-listing his address Boya was identified as William A. Fitzgerald. He only returned to Niagara Falls once, on the first anniversary of his journey.
- Jean Francois Gravelet a.k.a. Blondin- Tightrope Walker
- Jean Francois Gravelet, also known as “The Great Blondin” was the most famous daredevil in Niagara Falls. He was born on February 28th 1824 in St. Omer, Pas de Calais in France. He first came to Niagara in 1858 and made his first successful tightrope walk on June 30th, 1859. The rope was 1,100 foot long with a 3 inch diameter. He used a balancing pole that was nine metres long, weighing about forty pounds. He began his walk on the American Side of the Falls, which is now Prospect Park in Niagara Falls, New York, and ended his walk on the Canadian side of the Falls, which is now, Oakes Garden in Niagara Falls, Ontario. During the summer of 1859 he made eight more successful attempts and on August 19th he made a daring attempt by carrying his manager, Harry Colcord on his back. He made a return to Niagara Falls for another successful season of tightrope walking for thousands of sightseers, and one of his acts included him pushing a wheel barrow across the tightrope. On September 8th, 1860 Blondin completed his last tightrope walk. Many others followed Blondin, but none were more daring or famous as Blondin. Blondin died at the age of 73 in 1897.
- Lincoln Beachey- Pilot
- Lincoln Beachy was born in San Francisco in 1887. He was an American pilot, employed by Curtiss Aircraft Company of Nebraska. The Curtiss biplane was a two winged plane that had an open cockpit. On June 28th 1911 he took off from an airfield in Niagara Falls, New York climbing high into the sky. He circled the Falls many times before diving quickly into the mist, within twenty feet of the water. He piloted the plane under the arch of the Falls View Honeymoon Bridge and continued along the surface of the water along the gorge before he flew back up into the air. He was the first person to fly a plane under a Niagara Falls bridge. He was killed in an accident in San Fransico, during a flying exhibition. His aircraft crashed into the San Francisco Bay.
- Sam Patch- Diver
- Sam Patch was the first Daredevil to challenge the Niagara River. He was born in Rhode Island in 1807 and at the age of twenty-two came to Niagara Falls for his magnificent dive. He set up his platform between the Luna Falls and the Bridal Falls on Goat Island. On October 7th, 1829, he dove 85 feet into the churning waters of the Niagara River. He survived his headfirst high dive unscratched. On October 17th, 1829 he made a successful second attempted high dive from 130 feet. Following the succession of his dives in Niagara, he went to Rochester, NY where he attempted a 100 foot dive into the Grenesee River and drowned to death.