On This Day

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Niagara Falls Public Library
Blondin makes one of his tightrope walks
across Niagara Falls, 1859.

On This Day: Daredevil Charles Blondin Walks Tightrope Across Niagara Falls

June 30, 2011 05:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On June 30, 1859, the “Great Blondin” walked along a tightrope suspended above the rapids of Niagara Falls, becoming the first man to walk across the Falls.

Blondin Becomes First Man to Walk Across Niagara Gorge

In the first of what would be many trips across Niagara Falls, French daredevil Charles Blondin walked over 1,100 feet across a 2- or 3-inch tightrope suspended between 160 and 200 feet in the air.

At 5 p.m., in front of a large crowd estimated at between 5,000 and 10,000 people, the 31-year-old Blondin began his walk from the Canadian side of the Falls while carrying a large pole. He stopped halfway across the wire: “He then laid down on the rope full length with the same disregard and carelessness that a person would have reclined upon a lounge,” described the Buffalo Republic.

A steamer, the Maid of the Mist, traveled below Blondin, who lowered a wire and retrieved a bottle from its deck. Blondin drank from the bottle—accounts differ as to whether it contained water or wine—and continued his walk.

Blondin wasn’t done performing. He “proceeded to do ‘a number of daring antics’ and finally stood on his head ‘a moment at least,’ swinging and kicking his feet in ‘the most reckless and ludicrous manner,’” wrote Niagara historian Lloyd Graham in the August 1958 edition of American Heritage. He concluded his walk with a back somersault.

Biography: Jean François Gravelet, “The Great Blondin”

The “Great Blondin” was born Jean François Gravelet in France in 1824. He began performing in European cirucuses as a young boy and was known then as the “Little Wonder.”

His first tightrope walk across Niagara Falls earned him international fame, and he repeated the walk in many different fashions. According to the Niagara Parks Commission, by his career’s end, Blondin had crossed Niagara Falls on tightrope while carrying a wheelbarrow, cooking an omelet, carrying his manager on his back, and doing a somersault on stilts. The number of times Blondin crossed Niagara varies by account from eight to 21.

Later in his life Blondin moved to England, where he lived until his death at the age of 73.

Other Stunts at Niagara Falls

Since Sam Patch’s base jump in 1829, hundreds have attempted dangerous stunts on the cliffs and in the rapids of Niagara Falls. The Niagara Public Library profiles a few of the more famous daredevils, including Red Hill, who was famous for rescuing people from the dangerous river and falls area.

Perhaps one of the more famous stunts attempted by many at Niagara falls is the attempt to survive a fall over the falls. History.com provides a summary of all of the “Barrel Brigade” who have attempted (successfully or unsuccessfully) to survive the fall.

Niagara Parks contains a list of stunters at Niagara Falls; those who've crossed the falls via tightrope, others who have attempted to survive going down the falls in barrels or other devices, and even those who have braved the river rapids.

Background: Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls is made up of three different falls: the American Falls, Bridal Veil Falls and Horseshoe Falls. Both the American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls are in the United States, and Horseshoe Falls is on the Canadian side.

According to the World Waterfall Database, the average width of Niagara Falls is 3,984 feet, and it releases 85,000 cubic feet of water per second. The volume would be much greater if it were not for a hydroelectric power plant that consumes more than half the Falls’ volume.

Before the arrival of Eruopean explorers in the 17th century, the Niagara region was inhabited by the Iroquois people. Begining in the 1500s and early 1600s, explorers such as Jacques Cartier and Samuel de Camplain began to hear of the falls from the Native Americans they met during their exploration. According to Info Niagara, the English name “Niagara” is a simplification of the Iroquois name “Onguiaahra.”

In the 1820s, ferries began taking travelers from one side of the river to the other, and soon construction of hotels, bridges and other structures around the river and falls began. Niagara soon became a major tourist attraction.

The sheer amount of water that passes over the falls each day creates a lot of erosion of the falls, so in 1929 the United States and Canada agreed to build a series of weirs underwater to protect the falls from erosion. Later, in the 1950s, the two countries agian worked together to harness the power of the falls through a hydroelectric powerplant.

In recent years, some historians have argued that due to all of the construction aimed at preserving the falls, that Niagara falls is not as “natural” as appears to be.

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