Little Bits of History

Tight Rope

Posted in History by patriciahysell on June 30, 2013
Charles Blondin

Charles Blondin

June 30, 1859: Charles Blondin crosses Niagara Falls on a tightrope. Blondin was born in St. Omer, France in 1824. At the age of five, he was sent to École de Gymnase in Lyon by his gymnast father. After only six months of training, he made his first public appearance with the name “The Little Wonder.” His naturally graceful moves along with learned skills made him a favorite attraction. He also was said to have a charismatic personality, did everything in a grand way, and was a true showman.

Blondin’s showmanship abilities along with fearless daring led him to increasingly dangerous undertakings. By the age of 35, playing to international audiences, he crossed the Falls on a tightrope 3 inches thick, 1,100 feet long and 160 feet above the water. Once he had crossed the Falls, he needed to keep the audiences wowed and devised ever more bizarre crossings. He crossed blindfolded, in a sack, with a wheelbarrow, on stilts, carrying his manager – Harry Colcord – on his back, and stopping midway and sitting down to cook and eat an omelet.

Niagara Falls had already been used in a spectacular feat of daring or stupidity, depending on your viewpoint. Sam Patch in October 1829 jumped from a high tower into the gorge below the falls and survived. Captain Matthew Webb, the first man to swim the English Channel, drowned in 1883 along with two others as a group of men attempted to swim across the whirlpools and eddies downstream from the Falls. Seven others in the fateful group gave up before being killed by the swirling waters.

Going over the falls in a barrel is now illegal from both the US and Canadian side and heavily fined. However, in 1901, 63-year-old Annie Taylor was the first to survive going over the falls in a barrel which she did as a publicity stunt. Since then, 14 others have gone over the falls with or without a device and with or without surviving. On July 9, 1960, 7-year-old Roger Woodward was swept over the falls and was plucked from the waters at the bottom by the crew from the Maid of the Mist, a tour boat cruising under the falls. Roger’s 17-year-old sister had been pulled from the water just a few feet before she, too, would have been swept over the falls.

“No one should ever try that again.” – Annie Taylor, after going over Niagara Falls in a barrel

“In the beginning you must subject yourself to the influence of nature. You must be able to walk firmly on the ground before you start walking of a tightrope.” – Henri Matisse

“If you had a friend who was a tightrope walker, and you were walking down a sidewalk, and he fell, that would be completely unacceptable…” – Mitch Hedberg

“Actors say they do their own stunts for the integrity of the film but I did them because they looked like a lot of fun.” – Steve Coogan

This article first appeared at in 2009. Editor’s update: Niagara Falls is actually three different waterfalls straddling the border between Canada and the US. Ontario is on the Canadian side while New York is on the US side. The Horseshoe Falls is the largest of the three falls and are on the Canadian side. The American Falls are, appropriately, on the American side. The Bridal Veil Falls are also on the American side and separated from the larger falls by Luna Island. The Niagara River drains Lake Erie into Lake Ontario. The combined falls have the highest flow rate of any water fall in the world but there are other measurements to create a variety of biggest and best waterfalls. Horseshoe Falls is the most powerful waterfall in North America measure by both height (165 feet) and flow rate. The average flow rate shows more almost four million cubic feet of water going over the falls each minute with that reaching over six million cubic feet when the water is high.

Also on this day: What Was That? – In 1908, the Tunguska event occurs.
Brilliant – In 1905, Einstein published a paper.
Monkeying Around – In 1860, an Oxford debate on evolution is held.

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