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The Daredevils of Niagara Falls

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For centuries, be it by diving, tightrope, barrel, or rubber ball, daredevils have risked their lives for fame and fortune at majestic, powerful Niagara Falls.  Some miraculously survive their stunts—often narrowly escaping disaster—while others end up paying the ultimate price.

“Charles G. Stephens in His Barrel,” The Topeka State Journal (Topeka, KS), July 12, 1920

Sam Patch, October 7th and October 17, 1829
The first of the 19th century daredevils jumps the Falls not once, but twice! On October 7th, Patch takes the plunge from a 120 ft. platform from Goat Island and survives.  Ten days later, he succeeds again, this time from an even greater height.

An eyewitness account. Phenix Gazette (Alexandria, DC), October 26, 1829
“M. Blondin at Niagara Falls,” The Jeffersonian (Stroudsburg, PA), August 25, 1859

The Great Blondin, June 30, 1859 – summer season
The seasoned acrobat—wearing wig and outlandish costume—crosses the Niagara River on tightrope nine times, culminating with the most spectacular performance of the season carrying his manager on his back!

The Great Farini, August 15, 1860
Widely publicized as the “Most Daring Feat ever Witnessed in the World,” Farini provides a death-defying tightrope walk, lowering himself to the Maid of the Mist to drink a glass of wine, then making the return trip blindfolded with baskets on his feet. 

“Rival Madmen,” The Daily Dispatch (Richmond, VA), August 15, 1860

Henry Bellini, August 25, 1873
Combining Blondin’s tightroping skills and Sam Patch’s diving skills, the 32-year-old Australian walks along a tightrope to the middle of the river, then jumps into the foaming water, where he is picked up by a waiting boat. 

“Mr. and Mrs. Graham,” The Evening World (New York, NY), September 2, 1889, EXTRA 2 O’Clock Edition

Captain Matthew Webb, July 24, 1883
A Niagara Falls constable threatens to arrest the champion swimmer, calling his intention to swim the rapids and whirlpool at the base of the Falls a suicidal plan. “Don’t care. I want money and must have it,” is Webb’s retort. 

Carlisle Graham, July 11, 1886 – July 14, 1901 (5 trips)
Equipped with air valves and weighted with ballast, the 2-metre-long barrel is towed into the river and set adrift.  The first barrel stunt to go over Niagara Falls. 

“A THRILLING EXPLOIT,” The Abbeville Press and Banner (Abbeville, SC), September 15, 1886

George Hazlett and William Potts, August 8, 1886
Became the first pair to to travel through the rapids in a barrel.

William Kendall, August 22, 1886
Wearing a canvas vest lined with five thick cork squares, the Boston policeman plunges into the rapids and disappears beneath the churning surface.  Will he survive?

Robert Flack, July 4, 1888
Flack wagers his life on a boat filled with wood shavings to keep it afloat, equipped with a number of harnesses to keep him from being tossed out of the vessel.  He does not anticipate that the boat can turn turtle.

Peter “Bowser” Nissen , July 10, 1900
Nissen challenges the Falls several times with specially built boats equipped with air compartments, steam engine, and large rudder.

“Through the Whirlpool Rapids in the ‘Fool Killer,'” The San Francisco Call, July 29, 1900

Annie Edson Taylor, October 24, 1901
Former school teacher becomes the first woman to challenge the Falls in a barrel as a birthday present to herself. 

“WENT OVER NIAGARA FALLS IN A BARREL,” Marshall County Independent (Plymouth, IN), November 8, 1901

Lincoln Beachy, June 28, 1911
The first airplane to fly over the Falls. Beachy dives down into the mist of the Falls within 6 meters (just under 20 feet) of the water’s surface, then flies under the arch of the Falls View Honeymoon Bridge.

“BEACHY A POPULAR BIRD MAN,” The Southern Herald (Liberty, MS), September 22, 1911

Bobby Leach, July 25, 1911
Leach plunges over the Falls in a steel barrel, breaking both kneecaps and jaw from the stunt. 

“World’s Prize Fool,” The Daily Missoulian (Missoula, MT), August 8, 1911

Charles G. Stephens, July 11, 1920
The barber from Bristol, England goes over the Falls in a barrel made of Russian oak, equip with electric lights and padded interior.

Jean Lussier, July 4, 1928
First man to go over the falls in a rubber ball, equip with a system of valves to provide air from tanks containing enough oxygen to keep him alive for up to forty hours. 

Red Hill, May 30, 1930
Red sets out just before 1:30 p.m. and spends more than 90 minutes caught in the current.  When the barrel reaches the whirlpool, it whirls round and round for three and a half hours.

George L. Stathakis, July 5, 1930
The Greek waiter from Buffalo, along with his pet turtle Sonny, plunges over the Falls in a barrel and is stuck in the whirlpool for twenty hours.

“NIAGARA FALLS CLAIMS NEW VICTIM,” Evening Star (Washington, DC), July 7, 1930

Discover more:

Search Chronicling America for more newspaper coverage of these Niagara daredevils and more!

Read the Headlines & Heroes blog post “The Last Leap of Sam Patch.”

Cheryl MacDonald, Niagara Daredevils: Thrills and Spills Over Niagara Falls (Alberta: Canada, Altitude Publishing Canada Ltd., 2003)

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