While visiting the lovely Canadian city of Toronto in 1987, Pat and I took time out to see the Niagara Falls, 75 miles to the south east. These falls are located on the Niagara River, which is part of the international border between the United States and Canada. A little distance upstream, the river forks to create two Niagara Falls. The smaller one is the Bridal Veil Falls on the American side. The much larger one is the Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side. The land in the middle is Goat Island, downstream of which the two branches of the river re-unite. The Canadian falls are far more impressive. At that time, I had yet to become a US citizen, so I teased my dear American wife by constantly pointing out to her the superiority of the Canadian falls. When my juvenile behavior failed to irritate her, I told her that it was as well that we had arrived in daytime because the falls were switched off at night. Then I falsely claimed to everyone that she had believed me.
In fact, in 1969, the American falls were “switched off” for five months for repairs. The US Army Corps of Engineers built a temporary dam sending all the water over the Canadian side, so that they could get at the river bed below the American falls.
What is spectacular about these waterfalls is not their height. There are plenty of higher waterfalls elsewhere in the world. It is the sheer width that makes the falls so powerful. That width allows up to six million cubic feet of water per minute to tumble over the falls. Platforms have been built on the Canadian side of the river, which let us get very close to falling water. We also had a great view of the falls from the top of the nearby Skylon Tower, which is so high that – in the other direction – one can just make out the skyscrapers of Toronto in the distance 75 miles away.
On both sides of the falls, there are little boats which take paying passengers dangerously near to the point where the falling water hits the river below. The helmsmen must know their job, because there has never been a tragic accident with a vessel going too close and capsizing. And tragic it would be, if a boatload of tourists was tipped into the waters just below the falls. Those waters are treacherous as the following story shows. In my home country of England, enormous respect is given to those who have swum the Channel between England and France. That respect is well deserved because it means that they have conquered over 22 miles of cold sea, with all its powerful tides and currents.
The first man ever to swim the Channel was an Englishman named Captain Matthew Webb in 1875. Captain Webb later visited Niagara and was drowned swimming in the river below the falls.
That’s how treacherous those waters are. Therefore Pat and I did not risk viewing the falls from one of those little boats, the most famous of which is called The Maid of the Mist, even though looking directly upwards at the falling water must be an awesome sight. The crashing waters create so much spray that it is indeed just like mist. We did however walk along the pathway on Goat Island right behind the cascading water, and that gave us another exciting view of the Niagara Falls.
As one comes so close to such a mighty force of nature and is reminded of the insignificance of man, one has to contemplate the mindset of those who would play games with it. What makes someone want to walk above the falls on a tightrope or to go over the edge in a barrel? The one word answer to that question seems to be “money”.
In the mid-19th century, tightrope walkers such as Blondin and Fanini drew huge crowds with their antics on the high wire above the falls without a safety net. Thankfully, neither of them fell off. The first recorded case of someone going over the falls in a barrel occurred in 1901, when Annie Edson Taylor tried it. Annie certainly did it for the money. She was 63 at the time and had been wiped out financially. Once a school teacher, she became a dancing instructor, but ran out of students as she became older. Needing to provide for her old age, she decided to go over the falls in a barrel. She had a wood and iron barrel specially made for her. She put a mattress inside for protection. She had a cat called Iagara, whom she put alone into the barrel before giving the barrel a test run over the falls. Iagara survived, although there is no record of Iagara’s opinion of these events. Certainly Iagara did not accompany its mistress, when she tried it herself a few days later. Annie stepped into the barrel holding her lucky heart-shaped pillow. Friends screwed down the lid, even though they were all terrified of being indicted for assisting her suicide. Then they pumped compressed air into the barrel with a bicycle pump and stuck a cork into the hole used for this. Then they dropped the barrel into the Niagara River just upstream of the falls. The barrel went over the Canadian falls, after which Annie was discovered to be alive with only minor injuries. Her plans to make a fortune on subsequent speaking tours were hampered by the fact that her manager ran off with the barrel. However, Iagara stuck around and is to be seen posing with Annie in souvenir photographs. Annie never made much money from all this and died 20 years later at the age of 83. Today the internet is awash with money making schemes, but this is certainly not one of them. Indeed, trying this in 2009 will attract a very heavy fine and perhaps jail time. Despite this, over a dozen people have tried it since Annie. Some died. Some survived. Yet Annie was the first.