H is for history

of Niagara Falls and the daredevils that challenged it.

Three Sisters Island (Niagara Falls State Park, Niagara Falls, N.Y.)

“And after all, what’s the point of being Daredevil if you can’t leap before you look?”

Charles Soule, Daredevil: Back in Black, Volume 1: Chinatown

As one of the Seven Wonders of the World, Niagara Falls attracts people from all over the world to view it, both in the United States and in Canada. It is an amazing sight, with massive quantities of water rushing down the Falls every day. Amazingly enough, there was the day when Niagara Falls stopped, apparently spontaneously. That occurred on March 29, 1848. People woke up and were startled by the fact that Niagara Falls had stopped running altogether. The reason that the Falls stopped running was because of strong winds that pushed ice along Lake Erie. The ice actually formed a dam that prevented water from flowing in the Niagara River. People checked out the site and found a massive amount of memorabilia from the War of 1812, including muskets, bayonets, and swords that had been thrown out by American troops after the Battle of Chippewa in 1814. Finding all of that stuff 30 years later must have felt like opening a time capsule, although this one was unintentional. Niagara Falls was actually turned off on purpose in 1969 for geological studies. And, during a few winters, the American Falls froze over and came close to stopping. The Horseshoe Falls, which carries a much larger volume of water, has never frozen over. Niagara Falls will never stop running by accident again, as, each year, an ice boom is placed in Lake Erie to prevent that from happening.

By the way, the Niagara River isn’t actually a river; it’s a strait that connects Lakes Erie and Ontario. Nevertheless, it is called a “river.”

Niagara Falls no longer attracts people searching for memorabilia. Instead, it attracts daredevils, who are determined to challenge the cataracts and win. In a presentation, Kelly Sieman, who works for New York State Department of Parks and Historic Preservation, shared with members of the Grand Island Historical Societystories about people who challenged the Falls. Some of their challenges were very bizarre. There were the funambulists of the 19th century, otherwise known as tightrope walkers. They did wild and daring things. For example, Jean Francois Gravelet Blondin of France didn’t just walk on the tightrope; he performed such tricks as riding a bicycle and pushing a wheelbarrow. The most recent tightrope walker was Nik Wallenda of the famous Wallenda family of daredevils. His walk on June 16, 2012, was televised. A year later, he became the first tightrope walker to walk across the Little Colorado River Gorge near Grand Canyon State Park in Arizona.

Many of the Daredevils chose to go over the Falls in a barrel. In 1901, Annie Edson Taylor went over the Falls in a barrel. She had been a schoolteacher and she was 63 years old at the time. She was hoping that the Grand Adventure of being the first human to go over the Falls in a barrel would lead to fame and fortune. She did a lot of research, some very unorthodox, before she took the plunge. In fact, she sent her cat over the falls before she herself took the plunge. The cat survived the trip. Annie, however, did not become famous, and she died in poverty in 1921. Sad irony also was the fate for Bobby Leach, who went over the Falls in a steel barrel on July 25th, 1911. He survived that, but, later, died after slipping on a orange peel in New Zealand.

Over the years, people have gone over the Falls in a strange variety of enclosures, including Jean Lussier, who went over on July 4th, 1928, in a big rubber ball; William “Red” Hill, who went over on August 5th, 1951, in something called “the thing” because no one could describe the object; Steve Trotter and Lori Martin, who went over in June 18th, 1995, in two water heaters that were welded together; and Jefferey Petkovich and Peter Deberadi of Niagara Falls, Ontario, who went over on Sept. 28th, 1989, in a converted tank. Two people went over twice: Steve Trotter, a bartender from Rhode Island, and Dave Munday, from Canada. Unfortunately, some of the attempts to challenge the Falls ended in death. After William “Red” Hill died when “the thing” broke apart upon landing, both Americans and Canadians banned public stunts at Niagara Falls. Jessie Sharp’s method of going over the Falls in a kayak on June 5th, 1990, unfortunately, resulted in his death. Because of the fatalities and because of the need to send out rescue crews to people who were stranded in the rapidly churning waters, law enforcement got involved. People who performed stunts were arrested and fined for their actions. Nik Wallenda, however, was neither arrested nor fined, as he had managed to obtain permission for his stunt from both governments. Despite the fact that challenging the Falls is illegal and can result in very large fines, the daredevils are worthy of storytelling for years to come!

I can’t recommend going over the Falls in a barrel. As for the tightrope walking, Nik Wallenda is a professional. It’s better to be an audience for his feats. I did watch him traverse the Falls on television, and it was an amazing sight, to be sure. He was very calm and seemed to enjoy the journey.

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