One thing for certain in this world is that there will always be daredevils. Although now it is often referred to as “extreme sports”, there is always someone in need of the thrill of death-defying adventure.
Beginning at the turn of the 20th century, Niagara Falls’ Horseshoe Falls became the focus of these daredevils who, usually for financial reasons, took to barrel riding over the Falls.
The first to attempt the dangerous ride was Annie Edson Taylor.
She had a barrel made out of iron and oak and outfitted with a mattress inside. She had difficulty constructing the barrel due to the fact that few wanted to aid the 63-year-old in such a dangerous undertaking. When the barrel was finally finished, a test run was completed by launching her cat over Horseshoe Falls.
The cat survived with only a cut on her head, prompting Taylor to launch herself on October 24 1901. Armed with her lucky pillow, Taylor entered the barrel and had her team screw down the lid and compress the air in the barrel with a bicycle pump.
The hole was plugged with a cork and the barrel was launched just south of Goat Island on the American side of the Falls. Taylor survived the twenty-minute plunge with only a cut on her head, much as the cat had done.
When she later spoke with reporters she is quoted as saying, “If it was with my dying breath, I would caution anyone against attempting the feat… I would sooner walk up to the mouth of a cannon, knowing it was going to blow me to pieces than make another trip over the Fall.”
Ten years later, the first male to attempt the feat was Bobby Leach, a former circus performer with Barnum and Bailey. Known to have boasted that anything Annie could do, he could do better, he launched himself over the Falls on July 11, 1911.
Leached survived the trip but spent the next six months in the hospital recovering from a broken jaw and two broken kneecaps. Afterward, he capitalized on his stunt by touring Canada, the United States and England with his barrel, giving lectures recounting his adventure and posing for pictures. In 1920, Leach attempted another risky effort to swim the whirlpool rapids when he was in his sixties.
Unsuccessful, he was rescued by riverman, William “Red” Hill Sr. a World War I veteran who was well known for his knowledge of the area and whose son, William Hill Jr, perished in his own attempt at plunging the Falls in 1951.
The first person to unsuccessfully ride the Falls was Charles Stevens, an English barber known as the Demon Barber of Bedminster.
Stephens, the father of eleven children, was a known daredevil who frequently performed dangerous stunts to help support his family.
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Ignoring warnings from Leach and Hill, Stephens refused a test run and launched his barrel using an anvil for ballast. The weight of the anvil caused the barrel to be dragged under when the bottom was broken out and only Stephens’ severed arm was recovered and later buried in Drummond Hills Cemetery in Niagara Falls, Ontario.
Jean Lussier, a thirty-six-year-old from Springfield, Massachusetts, decided he would attempt the feat by using a six foot inflated rubber ball that included oxygen tubes to provide air for forty hours in case he became trapped.
The ball was created by tire manufacturers in Akron, Ohio and had steel bands around the exterior and interior to maintain the round shape. On July 4 1928, Lussier tossed himself into the Niagara River and over the Falls.
The steel bands were badly damaged, but Lussier survived the trip with only minor injuries. He later sold pieces of the ball to tourists, substituting rubber from tires when all of the parts of the ball had sold out.
In an interview with Bob Curran of The Buffalo News Lussier he described his stunt as “just like making a sharp descent in an airplane” and “three [inner] tube[s] explode. Now as [the] ball start[s] over the precipice it overturns, and I plunge headlong – 170 feet I plunge headlong. Now water pressure tear[s the] first cover off ball. Water begin[s] to leak in. Now [the] ball is washed behind cataract. Inside I know nothing of where I am. I am stunned. Then strong current[s] catch [the] ball and wash me out, I am rescued. And as I am taken from ball, I have only strength to say, ‘I am happy to be here,’
“Inside I know nothing of where I am. I am stunned. Then strong current[s] catch [the] ball and wash me out, I am rescued. And as I am taken from ball, I have only strength to say, ‘I am happy to be first man to carry Stars and Stripes over Niagara Falls.” Lussier considered another attempt when he was in his sixties but never completed the stunt and died of old age when he was eighty.
Lussier considered another attempt when he was in his sixties but never completed the stunt and died of old age when he was eighty.
William Fitzgerald became the first African American to ride the Falls in his rubber ball designed after Lussier’s model and named the “Plunge-o-Sphere”. The interior frame was made by the Hudson Fixtures Co. in the Bronx and the exterior rubber was completed by the Rubber Covered Products Co. in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.
On July 15, 1961, Fitzgerald climbed into the Plunge-o-Sphere and floated toward the upper rapids. In an interview after Fitzgerald was pulled from the water he noted, ““I felt like I hit a stone wall, two stone walls. The ball landed upside down, then righted itself. The hatch on the top started to open and I held onto it by a hook inside.
I held onto the hatch for dear life. After I went over the Falls, I landed upside down again. The ball righted itself and the hatch whipped off completely. The people on the dock were cheering me as I came in. I have integrated Niagara Falls”
The youngest person to make the plunge over the Falls was twenty-two-year-old Steve Trotter who performed the stunt not once, but twice.
His first attempt on August 16, 1985, was thwarted by police but two days later he successfully became the youngest person to survive the deed in two pickle barrels that had been attached end-to-end and reinforced with fiberglass, truck tire inner tubes and balsa wood.
Trotter also carried a lifejacket, flashlight a two-way radio and oxygen tanks. He survived with only minor injuries, but was fined $500 by the Niagara Parks police.
His second stunt was on June 18, 1995. He, again, survived but suffered a compression fracture to his back, spent two weeks in jail and was fined $14,700 by the park police. Trotter, now 54, is planning a third attempt but at this time is unable to find sponsors to help pay for the new barrel.