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Fascinating Stories of the Eiffel Tower

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Built for the 1889 Paris Exposition, the Eiffel Tower has proved to be an irresistible magnet for adventurers and people with money-making schemes.

Climbing the Eiffel Tower and Other Stupid Ideas

You can do it the easy way, well, it's not that easy, by taking the 1,665 stairs to the top; but you need special permission to get access to the stairs from the second stage. Or, you can do it the hard, and illegal, way by climbing up the outside of the structure.

Some of those that choose the outside route are successful in that they reach the top, where they are arrested and face hefty fines for their escapades. Others discover that gravity is an unforgiving force.

Base jumpers are a peculiar breed who like to launch themselves off tall structures and parachute to terra firma, so they are drawn to the Eiffel Tower where the activity is not permitted. In 2005, a Norwegian man decided to celebrate his country's national day by base jumping from the tower. His parachute failed to open and he crashed into the iron beams. He was 31.

Eiffel Tower maintenance workers sensibly wear safety harnesses.

Eiffel Tower maintenance workers sensibly wear safety harnesses.

Pierre Labric used gravity in a controlled fashion in his descent from the first stage of the tower. In 1923, the popular organist rode his bicycle down the stairs that were crowed with people. It's not known why he did this.

Taig Khris used wheels in his descent from the first stage of the tower in 2010. He dropped 12.5 metres (41 feet) in a free fall before his roller blades made contact with a curved ramp. He completed his plunge half on his roller blades and half on his bum and emerged from a pile of foam blocks unscathed.

Khris says he performed the stunt “to give people the desire to reach beyond their limits, follow their passion and their dreams.” Right. Given the media coverage and massive crowd that attended the event it's likely a fair bit of money was the main incentive.

In 1952, the Rose Gold Trio performed trapeze tricks from the tower; 200 meters (660 feet) from the ground, and no safety net. Intrepid cameramen clung to the girders to capture the performance on film.

Hold on to Your Stomach

The Tailor Who Tried to Fly

An Austrian tailor living in Paris had big dreams. At the start of the 20th century, the age of aviation was dawning with dirigibles and hot-air balloons and Franz Reichelt wanted to be part of it.

In 1911, Aéro-Club de France announced a competition for the design of a parachute to save aviator's lives. Reichelt stepped up to the challenge, his enthusiasm no doubt boosted by the 10,000-franc prize that was offered.

Using the skills of his trade, he made some prototype models but they exceeded the 25-kilos the competition called for. Finally, he settled on a “flying suit” made of silk with a rubber lining.

Early tests were unsatisfactory and resulted in a broken leg. Reichelt decided he was jumping in his suit from too low a height for it to deploy properly. He needed a higher platform. Aha! The Eiffel Tower.

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The Paris Gendarmerie took a dim view of the project—“Non, non monsieur c'est trop dangereux.” But, he pestered the police until they relented because they thought he was going to use test dummies. The big day was set for February 4, 1912.

Standing on the 57-metre first level Reichelt turned aside the pleas of his friends to not jump. He said “You are going to see how my seventy-two kilos and my parachute will give your arguments the most decisive of denials.”

With a cheery “À bientôt” (See you later) he launched off the platform at 8:22 a.m. and died on impact 187 feet below. He was 33 years old.

The luxuriantly mustachioed Franz Reichelt showing off his ineffectual parachute.

The luxuriantly mustachioed Franz Reichelt showing off his ineffectual parachute.

Eiffel Tower Sold

Let's meet Victor Lustig. He was born into a humble family in what is now the Czech Republic in 1890; so humble, said Lustig, that he became a thief at a very early age to help support his family. But, he was a good thief, you understand—stealing only from dishonest and greedy people.

Victor Lustig was highly intelligent, speaking French, Italian, English, and German in addition to his native Czech. He travelled using dozens of aliases and many passports.

After numerous hustles in America, including one in which he conned Al Capone, he turned up in Paris in May 1925. He checked into the luxurious and expensive Hotel le Crillon from which he wrote letters to France's major scrap metal dealers. The Eiffel Tower, he told them, was structurally unsound and was going to be pulled down.

Would the dealers kindly attend a meeting at the hotel to learn details of how to bid for the scrap metal that Lustig, as a representative of the French government, was authorized to sell?

He got a taker, one Andre Poisson, who paid $70,000 for the iron. When Poisson arrived to start demolishing the tower, Lustig was nowhere to be found; he was living in Austria under one of his many fake identities.

A month later, he returned to Paris and pulled the same con again. This time though, police got wind of his scheme and he escaped to America.

He ran numerous counterfeiting swindles until he was finally caught and imprisoned in Missouri in 1935. He died behind bars in 1947.

The end of the road for Lustig (centre) as he's under arrest and questioned by federal agents.

The end of the road for Lustig (centre) as he's under arrest and questioned by federal agents.

Daredevil Flyers

Henri Deutsch de la Meurthe (aka the Oil King of Europe) offered a prize of 100,000 francs to the first person to fly from Saint-Cloud in the western suburbs of Paris, around the Eiffel Tower, and back. The Brazilian balloonist Alberto Santos-Dumont scooped up the cash in October 1901. But, there were far more exciting exploits to come.

Lieutenant Léon Collet, 30, could not resist the temptation; there were the four massive tower supporting legs begging for plane to fly between them. A $100 bet from an American movie cameraman who planned to record the stunt was an added inducement. Collet flew his biplane under the structure but pranged into some radio antenna wires, crashing in a fatal fireball.

In the spring of 1944, U.S. fighter pilot Captain William Overstreet was in pursuit of a Luftwaffe Messerschmitt Bf109. They were flying over Paris and, in an evasive manoeuvre, the German pilot flew under the Eiffel Tower. Overstreet, flying a P-51B Mustang, followed and shot down the enemy plane before returning to his base in England.

Overstreet was modest, saying his exploit was “no big deal. There’s actually more space under that tower than you think.” He's right; the arch is as tall as a 12-storey building and as wide as a soccer field.

There have been several unauthorized flights through the arch. Shortly after the liberation of Paris in August 1944, a Royal Canadian Air Force pilot flew under the tower in celebration. In 1984, former U.S. marine pilot Robert Moriarty filmed his daredevil flight in a Beechcraft Bonanza.

Hold on to Your Stomach again

Bonus Factoids

  • In 1967, Montreal's flamboyant mayor Jean Drapeau struck a deal with French President Charles de Gaulle to have the Eiffel Tower dismantled and shipped to Canada. The idea was to have it reassembled temporarily on the Expo 67 site. The company operating the tourist attraction objected on the not unreasonable grounds that they might not get their tower back.
  • Twenty-thousand lights, plus numerous projectors, were installed on the Eiffel Tower by lighting engineer Pierre Bideau in 1985. The illuminations are considered an artwork that is protected by French copyright law. As such, it is illegal to publish photographs of the tower at night when the lights are switched on.
  • When Gustav Eiffel's engineering company built the tower it was supposed to be a temporary structure that was to be taken down in 1909, but it proved to be valuable as a radio mast. Although it carries his name, Eiffel had little input in the design of the tower most of which was done by two of his employees, Maurice Koechlin and Émile Nouguier. Eiffel acknowledged that the inspiration for the tower came from New York's wooden Latting Observatory that had been built in 1853 and which burned down in 1856.
  • Summer temperatures cause the iron to expand raising the height of the tower by 15 centimetres (six inches).
  • Painting the Eiffel Tower is an arduous task and it's necessary to prevent the iron from oxidizing. The work has been done 18 times and the weight of paint on the structure is the equivalent of 10 elephants.

Sources

  • “Victor Lustig.” ourbiography.com, October 23, 2018.
  • “Franz Reichelt: The Man Who Died Jumping off the Eiffel Tower.” vintagedailynews.com, October 26, 2017.
  • “Aviator Killed in Attempt to Fly Under Eiffel Tower.” Henry Wales, Chicago Tribune, February 24, 1926.
  • “Questions from the Cockpit: Daredevils and Fools.” William E. Dubois, General Aviation News, December 22, 2019.
  • “Captain William Overstreet: Pilot Who Claimed to Have Chased a German Fighter Plane Under the Base Arch of the Eiffel Tower in 1944.” Phil Davison, The Independent, January 26, 2014.
  • “23 Eiffel Tower Facts You'll Be Surprised to Read.” Christopher McFadden, interestingengineering.com, September 20, 2021.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor

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