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Nov. 26, 2020 | Thursday
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Niagara's History Unveiled: Daredevils drawn to challenge Niagara Falls
An artist's rendering of what the first barrel might have looked like. (Sourced)

Niagara Falls is the place where daredevils test their luck against the odds, where the desperate take their lives and where miracles happen.

The answer to why people are so attracted to Niagara Falls seems so obvious, the sheer magnitude of the water, the thunderous sound, the smell and the always promised rainbow.

A question that one might ask though is, why do some people feel they must test the limits of the human body against Niagara Falls?

The first recorded daredevil was in 1829 when Sam Patch aka “Yankee Leapster” jumped from an observation tower over the falls, leaping into the water below. Somehow, he survived.

The first person to go over the falls in a barrel, on purpose, was 63-year-old Annie Edson Taylor. Born on Oct. 24, 1838, in Auburn, N.Y., Taylor was a retired teacher who had lost her husband and infant son in the early years of their marriage. Finances were a problem and she hoped that should she survive the falls, fame and good fortune would follow.

Taylor was not a stupid woman and decided to first test the luck of a cat in a barrel over the falls. The cat survived so Taylor decided she would as well.

On Oct. 24, 1901, Taylor lowered herself into a simple wooden barrel. She had a cushion at her feet, cushions around her body and one on top of her head.

Her feet were hooked to a rope loop in the bottom and her hands had two rope loops to hang onto.

There was a weight attached to the bottom of the outside of the barrel. The barrel with Taylor in it was pushed into the river above the falls and onlookers watched as it reached the brink then disappeared over the edge.

The barrel was retrieved down from the falls and opened. Taylor survived the adventure and has been recorded as the first person, and the first woman, to go over the falls and survive. Her words upon getting out of the barrel “No one ought ever to do that again” were not heeded by several others in later years.

Taylor, unfortunately, did not achieve the fame and fortune she sought. Her manager absconded with all money that came in and her barrel was stolen. She died on April 29, 1921.

It was 10 years after Taylor’s success that the next attempt was made. Bobby Leach, on July 25, 1911, successfully went over the falls in his custom steel barrel.

Unlike Taylor, Leach toured Canada, the United States and England after his feat, making a living by showing his barrel and bragging about his conquest of Niagara Falls. Incredibly, Leach died on April 26, 1926, after slipping on an orange peel while on a publicity tour in New Zealand. His injured leg had to be amputated and he died later of complications.

Starting with Taylor, 15 attempts were made to ride over the falls in a barrel. Not all were successful. On July 11, 1920, Charles Stephens had the honour of being the first person to die in a barrel going over the falls.

His was a gruesome death, one that even the papers were reluctant to report on. His partial remains are buried in Drummond Hill Cemetery in Niagara Falls.

On July 4, 1928, the weirdest object went over the falls with a man inside. Jean Lussier had constructed a six-foot rubber and steel ball. It is said that once the ball reached the bottom of the falls it bounced several times before finally coming to a rest. Lussier survived the fall and spent many years later selling pieces of his rubber ball to tourists in Niagara Falls.

Then on July 5, 1930, George A. Stathakis made plans to go over the falls in a specialized steel barrel. He bragged how he was taking his 100-year-old turtle with him for luck. Unfortunately Stathakis’ luck was not very good; he died in the plunge but his turtle “Sonny boy” survived.

The last barrel over the falls (so far) was on Sept. 28, 1989. Two young men, Peter De Bernardi and Jeffery James Petkovich, took the plunge in a reinforced steel barrel. They survived and used the stunt to bring awareness to an anti-drug campaign.

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