The Daredevils of Niagara Falls
Some people take what seems to the rest of us to be insane risks as a way of making a living. And, when we watch them with our hands over our faces and peeking between our fingers are we secretly hoping something goes wrong? It sometimes does.
The Wire Walkers
The roaring cascade of water that tumbles over a 170-foot high cliff at Niagara Falls has an enticing pull for people who don’t mind risking their lives for a big paycheque.
The first to succumb to the lure of the Falls was Jean-François Gravelet, better known as The Great Blondin.
The Frenchman had 1,000 feet of wire strung across the Niagara Gorge below the Falls in 1859. The wire sagged about 60 feet in the middle so there was a fairly steep slope down and back up again. Thousands of people watched but not one of them came forward to take up Blondin’s offer to carry a volunteer on his back.
He confessed privately that, for him, the feat was simple. So he upped the danger factor by doing other crossings blindfolded, in a gorilla suit, pushing a wheelbarrow, and on stilts. On one occasion he stopped halfway across and cooked and ate an omelette.
Blondin’s daredevil career lasted several decades and he died in bed at the age of 73.
The Great Farini (more prosaically known by his real name, William Hunt) pulled off a new stunt in 1860. At the midpoint of his journey, he lowered a 100-foot rope to the deck of the Maid of the Mist tour boat below. He climbed down the rope and joined the passengers for a glass of wine. He then hauled himself back up the rope and completed his crossing.
In 1876, Maria Spelterini crossed the Niagara Gorge with peach baskets on her feet (below).
Many others took up the Niagara Falls challenge and realized simply walking a tightrope was not enough. The crowds were thinning; the spectators wanted more.
In the 1890s, Clifford Claverly made several trips across the gorge. During one he took the washtub he was carrying off his back, lowered a bucket to the water, and laundered handkerchiefs given to him by female fans.
In 1887, Stephen Peer performed a successful crossing. A few days later, he returned with some friends to celebrate his feat by repeating it. It was night time and drink may have been involved. Peer slipped and fell to his death.
The novelty of crossing the Niagara Gorge on a wire soon wore off and daredevils moved on to other exploits.
In 1975, Henri Rechatin came up with a new gimmick. Professionally, Rechatin was known as Henry’s and he compiled a lifetime of death-defying tricks.
The whirlpool below Niagara Falls is a maelstrom of churning water and there’s a cable car above so that tourists can frighten themselves with a ride. Henry’s used the ride’s support cable for his trick without benefit of permission.
His friend Frank Lucas rode a motorcycle along the cable, Janyk Rechatin was on a platform below, dangling from one foot, and Henry’s was on another platform above Lucas balancing to whole apparatus with a pole.
At one point, Lucas, who was not a professional daredevil, started to lose his nerve. Henry’s stopped the crossing until Lucas could gather himself together to complete the trip.
It wasn’t until June 2012 that someone actually crossed the Niagara Falls themselves; all previous high wire acts had been performed over the gorge, which was dangerous enough.
Nik Wallenda became the first and only person to traverse the Horseshoe Falls from the U.S. side to Canada. In our safety-conscious times, authorities insisted he be tethered to the wire. When he stepped onto Canadian soil customs agents checked his passport.
The Barrel Jumpers
Of course, Niagara Falls is famous for another, more dangerous, spectacular act; that of plunging over the falls in a barrel.
The intrepid thrill seekers always use the Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side because it has the greatest flow of water. The American Falls just to south have a lot of jagged rocks visible that look very discouraging to the most courageous of people.
October 24, 1901, was the 63rd birthday of the American school teacher Annie Edson Taylor. What better way to celebrate than climbing into an airtight wooden barrel, with her cat, and then getting shoved into the fast-flowing waters of the Niagara River above the Horseshoe Falls.
At 4.30 p.m. she plunged over the cataract and, a minute later, bobbed up. She floated to the Canadian shore where rescuers pried off the lid and found Annie alive and a little bruised. She became the first person to go over the falls and live. Her cat carries the same distinction.
She planned to make her fortune selling mementos in Niagara Falls; it didn’t work out and she died in poverty in 1921 and was buried in a pauper's grave.
Ten years after Annie’s cat made its successful, but involuntary, voyage, Bobby Leach had a go. He thought wood was a bit risky so he had a steel barrel made. At about 3 p.m. on July 25, 1911 he was released into the rushing Niagara River.
A reporter for The Daily Record really got into the spirit of the event when Leach reached the lip of the falls: “As the barrel approached the brink, the multitude of voices hushed, as if by magic, and the silence was intense as the fearful plunge was made. Not a sound was heard except for the roar of the cataract until ‘there he is’ was shouted by dozens of voices as the barrel reappeared in the seething, bubbling waters below, some little distance below the falls.”
But, was Leach alive? Yes, but in poor shape. The adventure cost him two broken kneecaps, a fractured jaw, and numerous cuts and bruises. He might have wondered if a wooden barrel was a better choice.
Fifteen years later, Bobby Leach was walking down a street in Auckland, New Zealand when he slipped on an orange peel. He fell and broke a leg. Gangrene ensued and he died while his leg was being amputated; a rather ignominious end for a brave but foolhardy man.
May They Rest in Peace
Others have tried the stunt and failed.
In July 1920, Charles G. Stephens, an English barber, went back to the tried and true wooden barrel and added an anvil for ballast. He ignored the advice of “experts” such as Bobby Leach to test his barrel to see if it could withstand the tremendous forces generated by the falls.
No. The barber from England, and father of 11, thought he knew all there was to be known about the death-defying feat. Bad move Charlie.
For security, he tied his feet to the anvil. When the barrel hit the bottom of the falls, the anvil broke through the Russian oak and took Charles Stephens with it. All that was ever found of Charlie was his right arm; the limb was buried in a Niagara Falls cemetery.
George Statakis, (or perhaps Stathakis) a 46-year-old chef from Buffalo, was another casualty. He is described as a “mystic” who aimed to spend the money he earned from his exploit to fund his book about “the secret of life.”
His massive barrel was of wood and steel construction and weighed nearly a ton. Too big and heavy said the experts. The experts were right.
On July 5th, 1930, George and his pet turtle, Sonny Boy, went over the rim of the falls. However, the barrel became trapped behind the curtain of water for many hours. When the barrel, largely intact, was finally recovered the next day, George Statakis was dead. He had died of suffocation, but Sonny Boy, though dazed and a bit wobbly, survived.
Jessie Sharp, 28, from Tennessee took a novel approach in June 1990. Being an experienced white water kayaker, he reasoned that if he gained enough speed he would jump into the roiling water below the falls. He was so sure of his success that he booked a table for dinner that evening. Jesse’s body was never recovered.
Californian Robert Overacker probably thought Jesse Sharp’s error was not enough speed. How to go faster and land in the water below the falls? Aha, a jet ski.
But, just in case, he planned to fire a rocket-propelled parachute on his back. The charge went pfft. His October 1995 stunt ended badly and his lifeless body was recovered by the Maid of the Mist.
Robert Overacker is the fifteenth and, so far, last to attempt to go over the falls voluntarily in some sort of device. He is the fifth to have died.
Kirk Jones of Canton Michigan may or may not be the sixteenth. In 2003, he jumped into the Niagara River in his street clothes and survived the trip over the falls. It’s speculated that this might have been a failed suicide attempt.
Fourteen years later he was back for a second try, this time clutching on to a seven-foot boa constrictor. Neither Kirk nor the snake survived.
Discouraging Falls Jumpers
The Niagara Parks Police are always on the lookout for folks planning a jump. The whole point of hot-dogging it over the falls is to gain publicity. (Although, there might be an element of unacknowledged suicidal ideation involved). To get publicity advance warning is needed and that alerts the police.
Occasionally, people slip through the law-officer cordon, in which case they face fines of several thousands of dollars – if they survive.
Tom Detenbeck is with the Niagara Parks Police. He says “When you’re hitting water, it’s like hitting cement at that height.” By the time an object reaches the bottom of the falls it is travelling at just over 350 km/h (218 mph).
Tom Detenbeck adds that people completely underestimate the power of the falls: “You’re talking a million gallons of water going over the falls in a second. That’s a lot of force, a lot of power.”
The technical term for a tightrope-walker is a funambulist.
The word “Daredevil” seems to appear first in 1797 and refers to a “recklessly daring person.” It might mean that the person dares the devil to take them.
Matthew Webb was the first man to swim the English Channel. In 1883, he tried to swim across the Whirlpool Rapids and drowned.
In June 2017, Nik Wallenda’s wife, Erendira, performed a series of acrobatic moves while dangling from a hoop attached to a helicopter over Niagara Falls. Part of the performance involved her hanging from the apparatus by her teeth.
- “9 People Who Crossed Niagara Falls on a Tightrope.” B&B Niagara, August 16, 2017.
- “Blondin’s First Tightrope-Walk Across Niagara Falls.” Richard Cavendish, History Today, June 6, 2009.
- “Daredevils of Niagara Falls.” Niagara Falls Live, undated.
- “Bobby Leach.” Sherman Zavitz, Niagara Falls Museums, undated.
- “Henri Rechatin: Tightrope Walker Who Traversed Niagara Falls and Once Spent Six Months 66 Feet Above a Supermarket.” Chris Maume, The Independent, January 7, 2014.
- “Daredevils of Niagara Falls.” Niagara Imax Theatre, undated.
- “Californian Killed in Niagara Falls Stunt.” David R. Baker, Los Angeles Times, October 2, 1995.