The Quick 10: 10 Niagara Falls Daredevils
On June 30, 1859, a French acrobat added something new to the already-dangerous trend of performing crazy stunts at Niagara Falls: he crossed its gorge on a tightrope. We'll get to him in a minute, but first, a few other people decided to seek their fame by risking their lives at the Falls (and one who didn't mean to).
1. Sam Patch was kind of the first Evel Knieval. In early October of 1829, Sam, AKA "The Yankee Leapster," jumped from a 125-foot ladder that was extended out over the river. He was supposed to jump at noon, but just before he was scheduled to jump, the wind snapped a piece of the ladder off. It was rescheduled for 4 p.m., and that time, it went off without a hitch. He jumped and the crowd waited with bated breath, staring at the spot where he was supposed to appear - but he never did. Finally, he crawled to shore in an unexpected spot and his short-lived daredevil career was born. Sam did the same jump again several days later - to a bigger audience, of course - and then went on to jump into the Genesee River. The first time worked, but the second time was his undoing. Just a month after his Niagara Falls jump, Sam Patch leapt into the Genesee and never came out. His frozen body was discovered in the thawing river in the early spring of 1830. The epitaph on his gravestone reads, "Sam Patch - Such is Fame."
2. Annie Edson Taylor was the first person to ever go over the Falls in a barrel and survive. In 1901, the 60-something-year-old schoolteacher commissioned a custom-made barrel made of oak and iron and lined with a mattress. To test it out, Taylor sent a cat over the Falls five days prior to her jump - and it made the trip intact. Annie made the same trip several days later, and she made the trip intact as well, although she did suffer a gash on her head. She made it quite clear that the trip was anything but fun and that she never intended to do it again: "I would sooner walk up to the mouth of a cannon, knowing it was going to blow me to pieces, than make another trip over the Fall."
3. Blondin (Jean Francois Gravelet) was a French tight-rope walker who shimmied his way across the Falls in 1859. At 160 feet above the water (some reports say 190 feet), Gravelet walked 1100 feet from one side to the other. It took him 17 and a half minutes. And he wasn't content to do it just once - he did it blindfold, he did it on stilts, he did it carrying his manager on his back, he did it at night with locomotive lights shining the way and he did it carrying a table and chairs. The plan was to sit down and enjoy a piece of cake and some champagne, but when he lost the chair, he sat on the cable instead and had his snack before finishing the journey. The American people loved him and he was known as the hero of the falls, but there was at least one person who was unimpressed: Mark Twain. He referred to Blondin as "That adventurous ass." He died of complications relating to diabetes at the age of 72.
4. Maria Spelterini proved that women can do anything men can do by repeating Blondin's tightrope stunts in 1876. To date, she is the only woman to ever do so. Like Blondin, she crossed several times after the first time, with each trip getting more and more complicated. The second time she crossed with a peach basket strapped to each foot, the third time she was blindfolded, and the fourth time she crossed with her ankles and wrists handcuffed.
5. Captain Matthew Webb was the first person to ever successfully swim the English Channel without any help from artificial means. You would think that would mean he would have somewhat of an advantage when it came to swimming through the Whirlpool Rapids below Niagara Falls, but sadly, that wasn't the case. Reports say it looked like he survived the first half of the swim but may have met his match when he tried to cross into the entrance to the whirlpool.
6. Karel Soucek, a stuntman from Canada, went over the Falls on July 3, 1984. He went the Annie Taylor route, designing a custom barrel that was bright red, insulated with foam and emblazoned with the words "The Last of Niagara's Daredevils" and "It's not whether you fail or triumph, it's that you keep your word... and at least try!" He tried... and he succeeded. But he didn't have permission and was fined $500. Soucek decided that it was the beginning of a career and managed to get a stunt scheduled at the Houston Astrodome where he would be dropped from a barrel from the top of the building - 180 feet in the air - into a tank of water. But the stunt went wrong - the barrel started flipping around in midair and the landing was compromised. Instead of falling cleanly into the water, the barrel hit the side of the tank, severely injuring Soucek. He died the next day.
7. Steve Trotter followed in Soucek's footsteps the next year. He, also illegally, went over the Falls in two pickle barrels attached end-to-end. They were insulated with the same foam used to pack nuclear warheads and Trotter was equipped with a lifejacket, flashlights, oxygen tanks and a two-way radio. Unlike Annie Taylor, Trotter loved his ride, telling people that it was "like the best roller coaster ride you ever had as a 10-year-old." Being a 10-year-old probably wasn't too distant of a memory for him - at 22, he was the youngest person to ever go over the Falls in a barrel. He went over again 10 years later, this time joined by fellow daredevil Lori Martin. Trotter didn't get permission for that stunt either, nor his "Tarzan" stunts off of the Golden Gate and Sunshine Skyway Bridges.
The first Tarzan stunt occurred the same year as his first Niagara stunt - he jumped off of the Golden Gate Bridge while attached to a cable with a wooden disk at the end of it. He stood on the wooden disk and swung back and forth before he was caught and arrested. The Sunshine Skyway incident happened in 1997 and didn't go as smoothly: Trotter and five others attempted the same stunt but didn't test the weight; the cable snapped and at least two of the other jumpers were severely injured.
8. and 9. Peter DeBernardi and Jeffrey James Petkovich were the first people to do a two-person "jump." They went over the Falls in a barrel equipped with rudders to help them steer through the rapids and a video camera to record the entire event. DeBernardi apparently wanted to discourage people from getting addicted to drugs like he was and especially wanted to set a good example for his then-two-year-old son. How going over Niagara Falls in a barrel was going to do that, I'm not sure... anyway, both of the men in the barrel survived. No word on if his son ever became a drug addict or not.
10. Roger Woodward was a seven-year-old boy when he went over the Falls - but it wasn't on purpose. In July 1960, Roger was doing the tourist thing with his sister when the private boat they were in capsized, dumping both of them and the driver out into the river. Roger went over the Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side and, miraculously, came out totally unharmed. One of the Maid of the Mist tourist boats spotted Roger's bright orange life jacket and pulled him aboard. His sister was rescued before she went over the Falls and ended up with just a cut hand. The driver of the boat, however, died.