Dare Devils of Niagara Falls
While the stunning views and monstrous display of sure strength on behalf of Mother Nature have earned Niagara Falls a reputation as a tourism hotspot, it's not the only thing that draws in the crowds. For roughly two hundred years, nearly as long as the Falls have been considered a national treasure, acrobats, thrill-seekers, and wire-walkers have ventured to the area to test their courage. Over the years many have perished while trying to conquer the Falls, but a few have walked away victorious and with a respectable story to tell, here are a few.
William Leonard Hunt - September 5, 1860
While all of the men and women on this list have remarkable courage and questionable decision-making skills, William Leonard Hunt (also known as Signor Farini) takes the cake. Hunt crossed the Falls on September 5, 1860, while carrying a washing machine on his back.
“He strapped an Empire Washing Machine to his back and walked slowly to the desired place in the centre of the rope,” the Niagara Gazette reported.
Once he got to the middle of the rope he secured his balancing pole and machine on the cable, lowered a bucket 200 feet to the Niagara River below and drew water back up. He had previously collected a number of handkerchiefs from several women and proceeded to wash them hundreds of feet above the tumbling waves below.
Harry Leslie - June 15, 1865
Leslie billed himself as the "American Blondin" to garner some attention when he walked across the Falls on June 15, 1865. While his trip was successful he didn't generate the interest that Jean Francois Gravelet did.
Maria Spelterina - 1867
Maria Spelterina was only a 23-year-old when she ventured out on a tightrope to become the first woman to walk over the Falls on a wire. Not only that, Spelterina walked backward, with a bag on her head and with peach baskets on her feet to "inject some drama," according to a local news clipping from the time. As if walking over one of the world's natural wonders on a wire no wider than an inch isn't dramatic enough.
Andrew Jenkins - August 24, 1869
Andrew Jenkins crossed the same site as Harry Leslie four years later, except when he did it he rode a velocipede.
Stephen Peer - June 25, 1887
Stephen Peer made a number of successful crossings over Niagara Falls (which is why he's made this list) but a few days after his walk on June 25, 1887, his body was discovered on the shore below. It's assumed that while trying to cross the gorge at night, wearing his street shoes, Peer fell to his death on the rocks below.
Samuel Dixon - September 6, 1890
Samuel Dixon made a number of crossing on a wire above the Falls but this one was his most notorious. Wearing terra cotta colored tights and black silk trunks and his "lucky Civil War" cap he crossed the Niagara Gorge on the same wire used by stuntman Stephen Peer.
Clifford Calverley - October 12, 1892
Clifford Calverley made the trip across Niagara Falls by wire a handful of times on October 12, 1892, on a 3/4" steel cable. On one of those crossings, Calverley set a record by finishing in six minutes and 32 1/2 seconds.
James Hardy - July 1896
At only 21 years old, James Hardy became the youngest to cross Niagara Falls on a tightrope wire. During July 1896 Hardy actually made several trips across the Falls, all of which were successful. Hardy's performances were the last tightrope spectacles allowed by Niagara Falls, that is without a long legal battle.
Annie Taylor - October 24, 1901
While not the last to tumble over Niagara Falls in a barrel, Annie Taylor is possibly the most famous. The 63-year-old school teacher settled on the stunt figuring it was her direct route to fortune and fame. On October 24, 1901, she was assisted into a special harness within a large barrel along with her kitten. She was towed out by a small boat to get caught up in the mainstream of the Niagara River and let loose. She and her kitten were tossed around violently before plunging over the Falls. When they hit the water below, Taylor was convinced that they had landed upon the rocks and were destined to die. It took 17 minutes after the fall for the barrel to make its way close enough to the Canadian shore to be dragged in. When Taylor emerged she was a little confused from the rough trip but she was successful. Taylor became the first person to go over Niagara Falls and survive. With that accolade, Taylor found the fame she was so desperate for, but unfortunately, the fortune didn't follow. She died nearly penniless twenty years later.
Taylor's trip is also the source of legend, well more so her kitten. It's said that when Taylor and the cat were loaded into the barrel that the kitten was completely black, but once the barrel was opened after the fall the kitten was said to be stark white.
Bobby Leach - July 25, 1911
Englishman Bobby Leach may have conquered Niagara Falls but that's where his luck ran out. Leach followed in the footsteps of the legendary Annie Taylor by concocting a barrel to plunge over the Falls in. On July 25, 1911, Leach took his trip over the Falls in his all-steel barrel. He may have survived the fall but he spent the next 23 weeks in the hospital recuperating with numerous fractures and other injuries. Fifteen years later, while on a lecture tour in New Zealand, Leach slipped on an orange peel and broke his neck and leg. He died from complications due to his injuries.
Jean Lussier - July 4, 1928
Jean Lussier might win for the most creative contraption to take him over the Falls. The six-foot-wide rubber ball was made up of 32 inner tubes and had a double-wall steel frame. Lussier drew one of the largest crowds on record for his July 4th spectacle. About an hour after entering the rubber ball Lussier emerged completely victorious with no noticeable injuries. He went on to showcase his rubber contraption in Niagara Falls for many years, selling tickets to inquisitive tourists and sold small pieces of the inner tubes for 50 cents each as souvenirs.
Jean Francois Gravelet - June 30, 1859
Jean Francois Gravelet is one of the most famous individuals to cross Niagara Falls, having made the journey many times, one-upping himself with each trip. Known professionally as "The Great Blondon," Gravelet made a career of his eccentricities.
Having been trained to walk a tightrope in a number of European cities he brought his talents to the U.S. when he was 31. Throughout his career walking over Niagara Falls, Gravelet crossed on a bicycle, blindfolded, pushed on a wheelbarrow, cooked an omelet and made the trip with his hands and feet handcuffed. He even crossed the gorge while carrying his manager, Harry Colcord, on his back. While it seems like an incredible stunt, and it was, according to Colcord it was a nightmare. Gravelet seemed to have taken on more than he could handle and struggled the entire time.
Philippe Petit - September 28, 1986
It was in the early 1970s when famous French wire-walker Philippe Petit, then 37, first made his way to Niagara Falls with the hopes of performing high above cheering crowds. In this picture he surveys the natural wonder, trying to figure out the best place to make his journey but unfortunately wasn't able to secure permission from the New York State Parks Commission so his dream went unrealized, at least for the time being. It wasn't until nearly 10 years later that Petit was allowed to take to the skies over Niagara in front of a roaring crowd. The French national had earned a reputation as quite the daredevil after illegally walking between New York City's Twin Towers from the 110th floors.
Petit first walked 50 feet out on the line to the delight of spectators and photographers before taking to the line again later in the day for an appearance in a movie. He stood 170 feet above the Falls and walked from the edge of the gorge to the boom of a crane before dismounting.
Petit's success was later documented in a movie "The Walk" in 2015 with Petit played by Joseph Gordan Levitt.
Nik Wallenda - June 15, 2012
While there's no shortage of daredevils who have attempted to cross the Falls, it turns out that it wasn't until 2012 when Nik Wallenda, then 33, made his voyage that anyone walked directly from one side of the Falls to the other. Many have crossed portions of the Falls, but Wallenda earned himself a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for walking a wire from the American side to the Canadian side in one go. Unfortunately, Wallenda will never be able to claim the Guinness Book record for making the first walk across the Falls as that designation belongs to Jean Francois Gravelet who made an earlier appearance on our list.
Wallenda's walk took nearly two years to begin as he waged legal battles with both the American and Canadian side before being allowed to take to the wire. The walk was broadcast live during an ABC special with millions tuned in to watch the feat. A lucky 4,000 ticket holders were lucky enough to witness the spectacle first hand as Wallenda walked the 1,800-foot span, 200-feet in the air.
Wallenda is a seventh-generation tightrope walker with nine Guinness World records under his belt, including the stunt that he pursued right after Niagara, walking across the Grand Canyon. Wallenda dedicated his walk across the Falls to his grandfather who fell to his death while walking between the 10-story Condado Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1968.