Before stunts were banned, daredevils on a quest for fame titillated audiences with outrageous tricks above the churning waters of the Niagara Gorge. But as they'd come to learn, no one could top The Great Blondin.
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Artist Anthony Crease’s Niagara Falls, circa 1850. Starting in 1859, the falls became a hot spot for daredevils looking to shock their audiences with risky stunts.
Toronto Public Library
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Jean Francois Gravelet, better known by his stage name, The Great Blondin, made history when he became the first to traverse the Niagara Gorge on June 30, 1859 on a tightrope. The Frenchman is seen here in an autographed portrait, sporting decorations he won for his tightrope prowess. He’s the most famous of the Niagara daredevils, and successfully executed a number of crowd-pleasing stunts.
The Canadian Press
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For his first trip, Blondin started his journey on the American side of the Falls. The audience saw him drop a cord to the Maid of the Mist boat and retrieve a bottle, the contents of which he drank while sitting on the tightrope. As Blondin headed toward the Canadian shore, he stopped, adjusted his balancing pole and executed a back flip.
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In 1859, Blondin crossed the gorge nine times on a manila rope measuring 335 metres long and eight centimetres thick. To help keep his balance, he used a nine-metre, 18-kilogram balancing pole. Each stunt was more daring than the last: On separate occasions, Blondin walked the tightrope blindfolded, journeyed across on a bicycle, reached the other side pushing a wheelbarrow and even took the trip with his hands and feet manacled. During one crossing, Blondin cooked an omelet on a small burner in the centre of the high wire.
The Library of Congress
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However, Blondin’s greatest feat was carrying his manager, Harry Colcord, across the gorge on his back. The centre portion swayed violently, and when Blondin tried to run for the first guy-line, it snapped, leaving him fighting to stay balanced. At the next guy-line, a terrified Colcord had to climb off so Blondin could rest. In all, the manager had to dismount six times during the perilous trip. Blondin returned to Niagara in 1860 and continued his treks. His last crossing was Sept. 8, 1860.
The Canadian Press
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William Leonard Hunt, better known as The Great Farini, replicated most of Blondin’s stunts. Farini, who grew up in Port Hope, Ont., made his first tightrope walk at Niagara Falls on Aug. 15, 1860. When he reached the mid-point, Farini attached a rope to the tightrope and lowered himself onto the deck of the Maid of the Mist more than 60 metres below. He drank a glass of wine, chatted with passengers and then ascended back to his tightrope. Farini was committed to outdoing The Great Blondin, but never managed to achieve the same level of fame. His most noteworthy stunt took place on Sept. 5, 1860, when he carried a washtub onto the tightrope, collected water from the gorge using a bucket on a cord, and washed a number of handkerchiefs.
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In 1867, Signorina Maria Spelterina became the first (and only) woman to cross the Niagara Gorge on a tightrope. She also walked backward on the rope, wore a paper bag over her head and put peach baskets on her feet during her performances. She’s seen here in an 1889 souvenir album, Tugby’s Illustrated Guide to Niagara Falls.
Library of Congress
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Many attempted to walk across the gorge in an effort to emulate The Great Blondin. But it was Stephen Peer, a 47-year-old Niagara Falls native who wanted to outdo him. Peer had admired Blondin’s technique and ambition, and on June 22, 1887 he successfully walked across the Niagara River on a wire cable measuring just 1.6 centimetres thick, strung between two railway bridges. This feat brought him much acclaim since the wire cable was much thinner than the ropes used by past daredevils. Unfortunately, Peer’s fame was short lived: he was found dead in the gorge three days later. It was assumed he had fallen while attempting to cross the river at night in his street shoes.
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An unidentified tightrope walker is seen crossing the Niagara Gorge in the early 1890s. The man could be Toronto photographer Samuel Dixon, who first crossed the gorge dressed in terracotta-coloured tights, black silk trunks and wearing a Civil War cap on Sept. 6, 1890. He could also be Clifford Calverley, a Toronto man who made several trips across the tightrope on Oct. 12, 1892. He set the time record when he crossed from one end to the other in six minutes, 32 1/2 seconds.
City of Toronto Archives