On July 5, 1887 the Queen Victoria Park Commission took over jurisdiction of the land along the Niagara River gorge and the decision was made to address the many tragedies that had occurred at the Falls due to stunts and daredevil acts. The Commissioners decided to prohibit rope and wire walkers from anchoring their ropes and wires on the gorge wall.As recently as 1976, the Commission studied the question of tightrope walks across the Niagara Gorge, meeting with representatives of the New York State Ofﬁce of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation to jointly review this issue. Their recommendations noted that the original purpose for establishing the Niagara Parks was to remove the growing carnival atmosphere adjacent to the Falls. After consideration of items such as allocation of resources, environmental impact and public safety, both Commissions denied permission for these events. In November 1996, The Niagara Parks Commission denied a request for a proposed skywalk by Jay Cochrane. Commission Chairman Gary Burroughs announced, “The net effect of this type of event is to encourage less qualiﬁed individuals to perform stunts or feats that put not only themselves at risk, but also those who may be involved in their rescue.”
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 himself. 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 lime-light from Blondin. 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 washer-woman, 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 the Whirlpool Rapids on a rope, 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.
ANNIE TAYLOR (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 (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 (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 (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 (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. (Died)
In the summer of 1951, Red Hill Jr. planned to go over the Falls in a flimsy contrivance he called the “Thing” which consisted of 13 inner tubes held together with fish net and canvas straps. On August 6, the “ Thing” headed into the rapids with Hill in it. 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.