The Daredevils of Niagara Falls

Samuel_Dixon_Crossing_on_a_7/8_Inch Wire_1890Photo:
“Samuel Dixon Crossing on a 7/8 Inch Wire, 1890” Image courtesy of Niagara Falls (Ontario) Public Library

Daredevils, lunatics, call them what you will; there’s one thing that unites those folks who attempted the tightrope-walking or barrel-riding stunts that got them dicing with the Grim Reaper: an irrepressible urge to stand out from the crowd. Niagara Falls was their stage, and they intended to fill the show with rapturous applause, even if it meant bringing the curtain down for the final time. These were no pseudo-mystical David Blaine types either; they were regular guys and gals with old school style, their feats now frozen in hues of black and white. Let’s turn our gaze on five of the most legendary daredevils who braved the dangers of these famous American falls.

1. Henry Bellini – Tightrope Walker
Image courtesy of Niagara Falls (Ontario) Public Library

Of English or perhaps Australian origins, Henry Bellini first came to Niagara in 1873, and began serving up regular tightrope performances using a 1,500-foot rope, apparently the longest ever used to cross the Niagara River gorge. Bellini used a 48 pound, 22-foot long balance pole, and to add to the death-defying nature of his exploits, combined his balancing act with a hair-raising leap into the churning waters of the river, many metres below.

Bombs away: Henry Bellini dropping to the water
Image courtesy of Niagara Falls (Ontario) Public Library

After jumping, Bellini was picked up by a waiting boat. He was clearly confident both in his own abilities and those of his rescue team because he made three such leaps in one year alone. The winter of 1886, however, saw his poise freeze over when he leapt from the upper Suspension Bridge and was dragged unconscious from the water, his ribs broken. He died two years later after jumping from a bridge in London.

2. Stephen Peer – Tightrope Walker
Image: Niagara Falls (Ontario) Public Library

Stephen Peer could have been the local boy done good. Born in 1840 in the nearby Stamford Township, he was inspired by the feats of Frenchman Charles Blondin, the earliest of Niagara’s tightrope walkers, and was determined to follow in his steady footsteps across the gorge – while bringing such exploits back home. In 1873, he became Henry Bellini’s assistant, but their ties were severed when he used Bellini’s equipment for his own public stunt without his master’s permission…

Dizzying perspective: Stephen Peer on a tightrope above the lower Niagara River
Image courtesy of Niagara Falls (Ontario) Public Library

Bellini was not amused and tried to cut the tightrope down while Peer was still walking on it, but was run out of town. By 1887, Peer was performing under his own billing. He successfully completed a return tightrope crossing on a 5/8 inch-diameter wire cable stretched between the Pen Central and present Whirlpool Bridges. However, three days later he fell to his death from the same spot, away from the public gaze. Rumour has it he had been drinking that night with friends.

3. Samuel Dixon – Tightrope Walker
Image courtesy of Niagara Falls (Ontario) Public Library

A photographer from Toronto, Samual Dixon crossed the Niagara River gorge in 1890, reportedly using the cable owned by Stephen Peer and a sixteen-foot long balancing pole made of three pieces of gas pipe stuck together. He achieved the feat over the most ferocious part of the famous Whirlpool Rapids, crossing from the Canadian to the American side and back again. He also added to the tension by lying on the rope with the pole resting on his chest, balancing on one leg, and hanging by one hand from the cable.

Vertigo: Samuel Dixon crossing Niagara on a cable beside the Suspension Bridge
Samuel_Dixon_Crossing_Niagara_on_a_Wire_Cable_with_Railway_Suspension_Bridge_in_the_<br /> BackgroundPhoto:
Image courtesy of Niagara Falls (Ontario) Public Library

In 1891, Dixon walked between the Cantilever Railway Bridge and Railway Suspension Bridge, bolstering his standing as one of the last in a legacy of great tightrope walkers to have braved the Niagara Falls.

4. Annie Taylor – Barrel Rider
Image: GG Bain News Service

If the men mentioned were some of the cream of Niagara’s tightrope walkers, Annie Taylor stands as the queen of its barrel riders. In 1901, Taylor stunned the world when she became the first person to conquer Niagara Falls in a barrel and live to tell the tale. A 63-year old widowed schoolteacher from Michigan who claimed to be in her 40s, she arrived at Niagara in search of cold, hard cash, and so promptly got a barrel built from Kentucky oak and iron hoops, with mattress padding inside.

Rescue team: The opening of Annie Taylor’s barrel
Image courtesy of Niagara Falls (Ontario) Public Library

Taylor was towed out into the main stream of the Niagara River, the lid was screwed onto her vessel, and a bicycle pump was used to compress the air inside. Then she was cast loose and sent careering over the Horseshoe Falls. The barrel plumetted into the waters below with a bonecrunching jolt, but Taylor survived relatively unscathed. When the rescuers finally reached the barrel, she was hauled out with just a small cut on her forehead.

Survivor: Annie Taylor being assisted ashore
Mrs_Annie_Edson_Taylor_being_assisted_ashore_the_first_human_being_to_go_over_the_Falls _and_livePhoto:
Image: M. H. Zahner courtesy Francis J. Petrie Collection

Unfortunately for Taylor, fame but not fortune was to follow as she spent the final twenty years of her life eking out a living on the speaking curcuit and later posing for photographs. Her manager made off with her barrel and she died penniless in 1921. Soon after her stunt, Taylor had famously declared, “I would caution anyone against attempting the feat”, but her words were not to be heeded, as at least 14 more people have done so, several at the cost of their lives.

5. Bobby Leach – Barrel Rider
Image: Robert Leach – Library and Archives Canada

The second person and first man to go over the Falls in a barrel was Bobby Leach. A circus stuntman born in England, Leach came to Niagara with the triple goals of a parachute jump from the upper Suspension Bridge into the river, a barrel trip through the Whirlpool rapids, and another barrel ride over the Falls. After completing the first challenge in 1908, he tried out his barrel in 1910 but got stuck in a current and had to be rescued by the famous Niagara riverman ‘Red Hill Senior’.

Proud: Bobby Leach with his barrel
Image courtesy of Niagara Falls (Ontario) Public Library

In 1911, Leach plunged over the Falls in his metal barrel successfully but not unharmed. When he was retrieved from the water, he spent six months in hospital recovering from the injuries he had sustained, including two broken kneecaps and a broken jaw. Unlike his predecessor Taylor, Leach gained some success off the back of his exploits. However, in 1926 he died as a result of gangrene brought on by an injury caused when he slipped on orange peel on a visit to New Zealand.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6