Where did the attempts to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel come from and has anyone successfully done it?
Illustration by Slug Signorino
What do you mean, where did they come from? They came from the same dread of anonymity that gnaws at us all. (Well, maybe not you.) A better question is where they — that is, the attempts — went. Answer: Straight into the memory hole, for the most part. Someone has gone over Niagara Falls as recently as 1995 — not in a barrel but on a jet ski. (He died.) In fact, of the 15 people who’ve ever made the attempt “in or on a device,” as the tourist Web site InfoNiagara.com puts it, 8 have done so in the past 20 years. Hear about any of them? I didn’t, and I hear about everything. These days even mighty Niagara Falls gets drowned out by the mad media din.
Going over Niagara Falls in a barrel was once the archetypal daredevil’s feat, but it’s hardly the only stunt ever attempted there. The first glory hunter was Sam Patch, who leaped into the churning waters at the foot of the falls twice in 1829, the second time from a hastily built ladder more than 100 feet high. (He survived, but was killed later that year jumping at a different falls.) In 1859 a French “funambulist” (tightrope walker) known as the Great Blondin sashayed across Niagara’s gorge on a specially made rope three inches in diameter and 1,100 feet long. Blondin made several repeat trips that year: for one he carried his manager on his back, and for another he toted a small stove, which he used to cook an omelette halfway across.
Tightrope walking remained popular for the balance of the century, but entrepreneurs were already looking for new ways to dazzle the rubes. The first to try a barrel was a cooper, fittingly enough — English immigrant Carlisle Graham introduced this innovation in 1886. He didn’t go over the falls but rather shot the treacherous “whirlpool rapids” a short distance downstream. Many more followed suit, with activity rising to a peak in 1901 due to the crowds drawn by the Pan-American Exposition in nearby Buffalo. Predictably, on October 24 of that year, somebody decided to take things to the next level. Not so predictably, that somebody was a woman, Annie Edson Taylor, a plump 63-year-old schoolteacher who claimed to be in her early 40s. She used a four-and-a-half-foot oak barrel packed with inflated pillows, a mattress, and an anvil (for ballast). Her ride was fairly uneventful, apart from the fact that she plunged roughly 170 feet over the falls in the middle of it; she was fished out 75 minutes after she’d gone in, bruised and shaken but alive. (She reportedly told onlookers, “No one ought ever do that again.”) As with many Niagara daredevils, her feat earned her fame but not fortune — she made a meager living afterward posing for pictures with her barrel, and died broke.
Others followed. To date ten people have made it, two of them women; five have died (details on early cases from Roll Out the Barrel: The Story of Niagara’s Daredevils by Francis Petrie, 1985):
- Bobby Leach, steel barrel, 1911. The first man to go over the falls, he survived, only to die 15 years later after slipping on an orange peel in Christchurch, New Zealand.
- Charles Stephens, oak barrel, 1920. Stephens also brought an anvil for ballast, but he strapped it to his feet. When the barrel hit the water at the base of the falls, the anvil kept going, breaking through the bottom lid and taking most of Stephens with it (his right arm was found still strapped in).
- Jean Lussier, 760-pound rubber ball reinforced with steel bands, 1928. Survived.
- George Stathakis, 2,000-pound barrel, 1930. The barrel was trapped behind and beneath the falls for more than 14 hours; Stathakis suffocated.
- William “Red” Hill Jr., 13 heavy-duty inner tubes lashed together with canvas webbing and fishnet, 1951. Died.
- Roger Woodward, 1960. Not technically one of the 15, because he used no barrel and didn’t mean to go. Roger was seven years old at the time, and he’s still the only person known to have gone over the falls unprotected and live. (He’d been in a small boat that developed engine problems and capsized upriver.) Observers speculated that he’d survived because his life jacket and light weight brought him back to the surface quickly after the initial plunge.
- Nathan Boya, 1,000-pound steel-frame sphere covered in rubber and sheet metal, 1961. Survived.
- Karel Soucek, metal and plastic barrel, 1984. Survived. Killed the following year attempting a 180-foot barrel drop into a water tank in front of 45,000 at the Houston Astrodome.
- Steve Trotter, two plastic pickle barrels surrounded by inner tubes and covered with a tarp, 1985. Survived; repeated in 1995 with Lori Martin. First coed team.
- Dave Munday, aluminum and plastic barrel, 1985. Survived; repeated in 1993 in a converted diving bell. First person to go over twice.
- Peter DeBernardi and Geoffrey Petkovich, ten-foot steel barrel, 1989. Survived. First team.
- Jessie Sharp, kayak, 1990. Presumed dead, body not found.
- Robert Overacker, jet ski, 1995. Died. Rocket-assisted parachute deployed at brink of falls as planned, but wasn’t tethered to his back.
Tempted? Don’t. Not only is it dangerous, it’s illegal. If the prospect of drowning doesn’t deter you, maybe a $500 fine will.
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.