Tempting Fate: A Look at Niagara’s Daredevils

By: Megan Pasche

Some people look at the thundering waters of Niagara Falls and may think about the power and beauty of nature, or maybe about how big the universe is and how small humans are by comparison; who knows, all sorts of deep thoughts can rise up in you when gazing at such a formidable sight. For the daredevils though, beauty takes a back seat. Their first thought is about conquering the waterfall. Many have tried and many have failed. Deciding to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel would seem a questionable decision to most, but for these select few, the challenge simply fuels them, and ignites their sense of determination.

It’s known in psychology by a couple of different names: Freud referred to it as the “death drive”, the idea that humans have an innate drive towards death, self destruction and a return to the inorganic form. Another term is known as sensation seeking. Essentially, the pursuit of crazy, dangerous stunts without any real regard for the risk involved. Some scientists have even found similarities between the brains of drug users and those of high sensation seekers. It is also known as excitement seeking, and it is a general personality trait that shows up in varying degrees in people who love novelty, complexity and intense situations. They seek out new experiences, just for experiences sake.

Creating the Spectacle
Niagara Falls did not become a tourist attraction until after the War of 1812. Within a couple of years, hotels began to build up around the Falls and the hotel owners were keen to promote the area, so sought to draw crowds by creating a spectacle. And a spectacle they created, one that nowadays would not even be fathomed due to its cruel nature. A condemned schooner was obtained and it was to be sent over the Falls, and onboard were to be what was promoted to be ferocious wild animals, but which in reality ended up being: a dog, a bear, some raccoons and some geese. The animals were caged and tethered, and were essentially condemned to death. The boat went over the Falls, broke apart, and killed all the animals on board with the exception of one goose that managed to fly away. However crude the stunt was, it did what the hotel owners wanted: it put Niagara Falls on the map. Hotels were booked and restaurants were filled. It was officially a destination. And somewhere, someone was thinking, ‘if a boatload of animals can go over Niagara Falls, then I can too. Perhaps in a barrel’.

The first person to take on the Falls was Annie Edison Taylor, on October 24, 1901. Taylor was a schoolteacher from Michigan who decided that going over the Falls in a barrel would pave the road to fame and fortune. She was the first person to attempt this, and against all odds, she survived. The feat did not gain her fame and fortune though, and she eventually died penniless.

The Falls were clear of barrels until 1911, when 54-year-old Bobby Leach decided he would make the trip over the Falls in a steel barrel. He survived, but spent 23 weeks in the hospital recuperating from his injuries. He eventually went on tour to support his trip, but in a horrible twist of irony, during this tour he slipped on an orange peel, broke his leg, and died of complications after surgery.

Charles Stephens was the first daredevil to die at the hands of the Falls. He went over in a barrel and never came back up again.

Jean Albert Lussier was next to go over the Falls, and he did so in a contraption of his own making. It was a 758-pound rubber ball. The police chased him and tried to stop him from entering the Niagara River, but he made it in, and survived the trip without any injury.

George Stathakis went over the Falls in a wooden barrel in 1930 and ended up being suffocated after he was trapped behind the wall of water and his three-hour supply of oxygen ran out.

The next daredevil, William (Red) Hill Jr. drowned after attempting to go over the Falls in a rubber contraption. William Fitzgerald, the next to attempt the plunge, went over the Falls in a large ball made of metal and rubber.

Karel Soucek headed over the Falls in a barrel in July of 1984. He was a stuntman who was well known for his daring escapades, and his trip over the Falls was well publicized. He survived with only a mere cut on his forehead.

Steven Trotter went over the Falls in August of 1985 in a barrel he made himself. Dave Munday went over in October of 1985. Both men survived and lived to tell their tales.

The next daredevils took things to a whole new level: Jeffery Petkovich and Peter DeBernardi were the first two-person team to go over the Falls in a barrel together.

Jessie Sharp attempted to go over the Falls in a kayak, but sadly his body was never recovered. Dave Munday was the next to attempt, and his situation was unique because he was the first person to go over the Falls twice. This time he went over in a used Canadian Coast Guard 660 pound diving bell that he had converted into an appropriate vessel.

Next up was the first couple team: Steven Trotter (who was making his second trip over also) and Lori Martin. They both survived. Martin was the first female to attempt the trip since Annie Edison Taylor almost 100 years before.

Robert Overacker had the idea to go over the Falls on a jet ski in an attempt to bring awareness to the homeless problem that was happening in his home state of California. Unfortunately he drowned when his parachute failed to deploy.

It should be noted that Niagara Parks absolutely prohibits any stunting on its property and anybody who attempts to do so will end up with a fairly hefty fine. This was put in place in 1951 as a deterrent, and while enacting the law didn’t stop daredevils from going over the Falls, every one of them that went over and survived since the 1950s has been saddled with a fine. Niagara Parks will allow one daredevil a generation (approximately every 20 years or so), which is a nod to the “sport” that made Niagara Falls a tourist destination to begin with. This generation had their daredevil when Nic Wallenda walked on a tight rope over the Falls in 2012.

Many daredevils have said there is just something about the Falls that calls to them, an almost hypnotic power. Whether that is a good enough reason to risk their lives and tempt fate, who knows. Many called themselves heroes after their plunge, and spent the rest of their days posing with barrels and giving autographs. While the “hero” moniker is pushing it, and a more appropriate name might be, “insane person with a death wish”, I suppose there is something to be said for being so gutsy as to look death straight in the face and basically say, “just try it”. Commendable? Not really. Impressive nonetheless? Definitely. Recommended? Absolutely not.

What A Trip Over the Falls Really Entails
• A 170-foot free fall into icy waters and then an additional 180-foot drop underwater to the base of the Falls.
• Thousands of dollars spent on customizing a barrel.
• 600,000 gallons of water per second crashing down on top of you.
• A high chance of a concussion and broken bones from being violently knocked around in a barrel (or whatever your vehicle of choice is).
• The chance that the barrel will hit the jagged rocks at the bottom and break open where you will likely drown or be battered to death by said rocks.
• The chance of getting caught behind the waterfall and running out of air before being rescued.
• Experiencing a free-fall sensation that many surviving daredevils have said was similar to a big drop on a roller coaster.

That’s a lot to risk only to end up with a hefty fine, internal bleeding and public interest that diminishes fairly quickly once the stunt is over.

Daredevils have always been a source of fascination for people. People turn out in droves to watch them (this might be akin to slowing down on the highway to gaze at a car crash), and there are always more stunters in the wings, waiting to pull off bigger and more intense stunts. It’s an ingrained part of Niagara Falls history.

So it only makes sense that Niagara Falls has their very own daredevil museum that is part homage, part cautionary tale. Located inside the IMAX theatre, the museum lets you read the in depth stories about all the daredevils, as well as see and touch the actual barrels that brought stunters over the brink.

The IMAX Theatre itself has a 60-foot high screen, and a 620-seat auditorium that puts you smack dab in the middle of the action. There are usually a couple of different films playing, including Niagara: Miracles, Myths and Magic, which delves into the history of Niagara Falls.

The exhibit alone is $8 for adults and $6.50 for children, though there are combo deals if you wish to see a movie as well. The IMAX Theatre and Daredevil Exhibit is located at 6170 Fallsview Blvd and more information can be found at http://imaxniagara.com

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