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Stephen Peer walking tight rope over Niagara Falls, 1887NIAGARA FALLS:
A TREACHEROUS PLAYGROUND

by Penny Gumbert

Stephen Peer, 1887.
Photo courtesy the Niagara Falls Public Library

During the retreat of Ontario’s last ice age 12,500 years ago, torrents of water from the melting ice ran from the upper Great Lakes, carved out the Niagara River—actually a strait joining Lakes Erie and Ontario—and poured over the Niagara Escarpment at what is now Lewiston, New York. Father Louis Hennepin, the first man to write about the amazing cataract in 1678 described the Falls as “frightful” and that he “could not behold them without a Shudder.” He wrote, “The Waters which fall from this horrible Precipice, do foal and boyl after the most hideous manner imaginable, making an outrageous Noise, more terrible than that of Thunder; for when the Wind blows out of the South, their dismal roaring may be heard more than Fifteen Leagues off.” Niagara Falls is indeed a “thunder of water.”

The Great Lakes basin is the world’s largest fresh-water system. Niagara Falls carries the water from four of these Great Lakes into the fifth, Lake Ontario, draining a total area of 684,000 square kilometres. There are six cubic million feet of water going over the Falls every minute—about one million full bathtubs. The American Falls are 10 metres higher than the Canadian Horseshoe Falls, but ours are twice as wide at 675 metres, with nine times as much water falling. This downpour of water has its downside. The Falls have moved 11 kilometres upstream because of erosion, thus creating the Niagara Gorge. In 1969 the American Falls were “dewatered” and its erosion studied by the Army Corps of Engineers. No water flowed over the American Falls that summer until autumn. The bottom line of the study was that their falls were seriously eroding, but the engineers chose to let nature take its course for fear of interfering and making things worse. Erosion has slowed somewhat by the diversion of water upstream for the generation of electricity.

Niagara Falls is not turned off at night, though some people think so. However, the flow does vary. The 1950 Niagara Treaty, the basis for determining the amount of water that can be diverted for power generation, sets limits. During daylight hours of the tourist season, the flow over Niagara Falls must not be less than 2832 cubic metres per second. At all other times it should be at least 1416 cubic metres per second.

Niagara Falls hasn’t always been a thundering waterfall, in fact, it once dried up. On March 29, 1848 there was barely a trickle. Mills relying on water power fell silent, adding to the eerie hush. The curious were drawn to the edge of the precipice to see fish and turtles floundering on the dry river bed. The flow of water to the Falls stopped for nearly 40 hours all because an ice jam was blocking the river. Eventually the forces of nature released the blockage, letting the waiting water crash through.
Chunks of ice and slush often try to form makeshift bridges across the Niagara River below the Falls thus joining Ontario to New York State (a risky attempt at unification). Years ago, people used to toboggan on these slippery slopes, then saunter over to booths to buy photos, curiosities and refreshments. When a triple drowning occurred in 1912, the treacherous playground was closed to the public.

FOR THE BRAVEHEARTED

Niagara Falls has been a questionable challenge for some people. In 1827 a partially dismantled schooner, the Michigan, was scheduled to go over the Falls with a cargo of animals on board. Luckily, the ship broke up before it reached the Falls giving the animals an escape route before it went crashing over the edge. William Lyon Mackenzie, then editor and publisher of the Colonial Advocate, traveled from Toronto with his family to report on the incident.

On October 7, 1829 Sam Patch took the plunge. Three times this funambulist walked out on a 40-foot ladder projecting from Goat Island to leap over the Falls. He wasn’t always so lucky. He drowned after leaping into the Genesee River at Rochester, New York.

June 30, 1859 Blondin (John Gravelet) walked along a tightrope stretched across the Gorge about 1200 metres below the Falls. He teased his audience by lying down on the rope for frequent rests. To add to the drama he’d motion to the Maid of the Mist far below, let down a twine to retrieve a bottle of liquor, and satisfy his thirst before throwing the empty bottle into the river below.

Ontario’s reigning pangymnastikonaero-stationist was Bill Hunt of Port Hope (born in Lockport, N.Y.). This multi-talented man, a painter, historian and inventor of the circus cannon was married to Anna Muller, pupil of Franz Liszt and niece of Richard Wagner. Maybe he had something to prove. Known professionally as Guillermo Antonio Farini, Hunt repeated many of Blondin’s feats. The dashing aerialist was not content to just cycle across the Falls. While on the tightrope he washed clothes, ate meals, and descended by rope onto the deck of the Maid of the Mist after performing feats on the perpendicular cable. Both Blondin and Farini’s managers must have believed in their clients because they allowed themselves to be piggybacked across the Falls.

In 1873 Henry Bellini bungee-jumped, taking a flying leap into the Falls from his tightrope while hanging onto a rubber cord fastened to the rope. On one jump the cord came away, wrapping around his legs as he went under the turbulent water. That was his last jump because the water was too cold, he claimed.

Maria Spelterini at 23 years of age was the first woman to perform on a tightrope at Niagara. The report of her feat on July 8, 1876 was accompanied by photographs showing her “attired in flesh coloured tights, a tunic of scarlet, a sea-green bodice and neat green buskins.” She often crossed with baskets on her feet. Typical woman—a multi-tasker.

None of these danger-seekers ever lost their lives while performing as did Stephen Peer, a young man from Drummondville and assistant to Bellini. Successful during his daytime crossings he tried it one night and drowned. Reports vary as to the cause. Some say he’d been drinking. Others assert his attempt failed because he was wearing street shoes. Captain Matthew Webb, the first man to swim the English Channel, died in an attempt to swim the rapids below the Falls. His death marked the beginning of the era of the “barrel-cranks.”

The Niagara Parks Commission today prohibits stunting, with a maximum fine of $10,000, but this isn’t always a deterrent. In the last decade, 28-eight year old Jessie Sharp, a white-water kayaker, attempted to kayak over the Falls, with tragic results. He never showed for his dinner reservation booked for that evening in Lewiston. An attempt on a jet ski by 39-year old Robert Overacker failed as well. As he reached the brink of the Falls, his rocket propelled parachute failed to discharge.

Though there are about 500 waterfalls higher than Niagara, its height and volume of water maintain its stature as a truly natural wonder of the world—and an Ontario heritage treasure.

This is an original story, first published in The Country Connection Magazine, Issue 47, Autumn 2004. Copyright Penny Gumbert.

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