When Nik Wallenda starts out across a
cable strung near the brink of Niagara Falls Friday night, he will be walking into history in more ways than one. If successful, Wallenda will add his name to the record books as the first tightrope walker ever to balance on a high wire so close to the falls.
But in a sense, he will also be walking back in time, to an era of larger-than-life daredevils and stuntmen.
After all, it wasn’t just artists like George Inness, Frederic Edwin Church, Thomas Cole, and Albert Bierstadt who were inspired by the falls. From the mid-19th century until well into the 20th, the river was a magnet for men and women willing to gamble life and limb in pursuit of the fame and fortune that could result from a death-defying deed of derring-do.
For sheer spectacle, Wallenda’s feat — an 1,800-foot walk along a 2-inch wire strung 300 feet over the Niagara Gorge directly in front of the falls — will rank among the greatest Niagara stunts ever.
And yet, in another way, it won’t, for visually stunning as his escapade will be, Wallenda won’t confront the same peril as adventurers of old. ABC wouldn’t agree to televise his high-wire walk unless the famous funambulist consented to a safety line that will keep him from tumbling to the river should he fall. Wallenda, who has demonstrated abundant fearlessness in other exploits, is unhappy about that.
“I feel like that’s taking away from it,” he said. “I feel like I’m cheating at that point.”
That he would feel that way speaks to the psychology of grand stunts: It’s not the skill alone that intrigues us. It’s also the chance that a fatal misstep may occur. There, ABC’s safety line is a metaphor for the way modern sensibilities have tamed the age-old spirit of adventure. Certainly it’s hard to imagine the sort of death-risking endeavors that were once a relatively regular occurrence taking place today.
Among tightrope walkers, it was Jean-Francois Gravelet, better known by his nom de dare “the Great Blondin,” who is most associated with Niagara. Blondin, however, didn’t perform in front of the falls, but rather crossed the gorge further down river. That said, the fall of about 160 feet would likely have been fatal.
Blondin didn’t just walk his 2-inch-thick manila rope. During his first trip, on June 30, 1859, he stopped, lowered a piece of twine to a boat below, pulled up a bottle of wine, and had a drink before successfully completing his journey. That year and the next, he made the trip numerous times, always adding new elements to his act. He did somersaults on the rope, pushed a wheelbarrow across, rode a bike over the rope, walked the rope with a sack over his head, made the journey with hands and feet in shackles.
He even did it lugging his manager on his back. Harry Colcord weighed 148 pounds to Blondin’s 144; carrying him so exhausted Niagara’s nimblefoot that he had to stop a half-dozen times to rest. Each time, Colcord dismounted and waited, trembling, on the rope, his hands on Blondin’s shoulders, while the daredevil regathered his strength.
The gorge would see an array of tightrope walkers over the years, but only one whose death-risk daring rivaled Blondin: Signor Guillermo Antonio Farini, or, as he was sometimes less sublimely known, William Hunt. Farini took to repeating Blondin’s stunts, sometimes doing His Greatness one better. After Blondin carried a miniature stove out on his rope and cooked an omelette, his rival brought along a small washtub, lowered a bucket into the Niagara River for water, and washed some women’s handkerchiefs.
Then Blondin walked the rope on short stilts. That Farini would not attempt. But several years later, he did try to walk on stilts to the brink of the American Falls. He had drawn within about 200 feet of the abyss when one of his stilts got stuck in the river bottom and broke. Farini made his way to a small rock near Goat Island, which separates the American section of the falls from the Canadian (or Horseshoe) Falls, where he waited, ignominiously, for rescue.
Farini notwithstanding, the churning, turbulent waters of Whirlpool Gorge, about two miles below the falls, lured true aquatic daredevils before the falls themselves did. One was Englishman Matthew Webb, who in 1875 had become the first person to swim the English Channel. Eight years later, reduced to doing swimming exhibitions at Nantasket Beach, Webb tried to revive his flagging fortunes by swimming the Whirlpool Rapids, where standing waves rise 30 feet or more. It was a fatal mistake.
It was 63-year-old Annie Edson Taylor who broke the courage barrier at the falls themselves, riding a barrel over in October of 1901. Taylor first tested her craft by sending it into the maelstrom with a cat named Lagara inside. (Meow!) Both barrel and Lagara (apparently) survived. Six days later, Taylor put her life on the line and herself in the barrel. Twenty minutes after she plunged over the Canadian Falls, her barrel was dragged ashore and sawed open. Out came Annie, dazed and dripping, but without major injuries. Her feat opened the sluicegates of daredevilry; in the ensuing decades, more than a dozen adventurers would ride barrels or other contraptions over the Horseshoe Falls, some successfully, others at fatal cost.
The most astonishing episodes, however, have not been stunts. On July 9, 1960, 7-year-old Roger Woodward and his 17-year-old sister, Deanne, went for a Niagara River boat ride with a family friend; the trio didn’t realize the trouble they were in until they saw the mist of the falls rising ahead. Caught in the current, their craft soon capsized. Deanne, swimming frantically, made it close enough to Goat Island to be rescued, but Roger was swept over the edge of the Canadian Falls. To the amazement of onlookers, the life-jacketed boy soon bobbed to the surface below the falls, having suffered only bruises. Not so the family friend; he perished.
Since the mid-19th century, hundreds have gone over the falls in suicide attempts. Only three have survived, all within the last decade, one within the last month. That they lived where so many others have died is part of the enduring violent mystery of Niagara.