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Into thin air: Wire-walkers defied death in strolls across Niagara Gorge

When Nik Wallenda takes his first step onto a 2-inch steel cable crossing the brink of the Horseshoe Falls on Friday, he will be walking in the footsteps of some 10 daredevils who crossed the Niagara gorge during the wire-walking craze from 1859 to 1896.

From June 30, 1859, when newspaper headlines blared, "Blondin successful!" to July 4, 1896, when James Hardy's walk was reported in less than six lines of newsprint, wire-walking was a frequent event over the Niagara River below the falls. One terrified, inexperienced walker slid down his rope to safety but only one man fell to his death, under mysterious circumstances at night at the spot where his wire was anchored.

The trailblazer was Jean Francois Gravelet, known as the Great Blondin, who not only walked the tightrope across the gorge on 23 occasions during the summers of 1859 and 1860, but set the bar high for showmanship.

On his first walk across, when people held their breath in fear that he would fall to the river below, Blondin paused to sit on the rope, stopped again to stretch out on the rope, then dropped a coil of string to the Maid ?of the Mist below, pulled up a small bottle, and nonchalantly drank from it.

Eventually Blondin would cross blindfolded, in a burlap sack, with his feet secured in bushel baskets, and carrying an iron stove, stopping to cook an omelet halfway across. Three times he astonished crowds – the final time including the Prince of Wales – by carrying his manager, Harry Colcord, on his back.

Jean-François Gravelet, who called himself Blondin, carries his manager, Harry Colcord, on his back in preparation for what might have been the most spectacular Niagara Falls stunt ever. Thousands watched The Great Blondin as he crossed and re-crossed ropes strung across the gorge.

As other wire-walkers emerged, they promised greater and more unusual challenges to draw crowds. Blondin's main rival, Signor Guillermo Antonio Farini, who started life in Lockport as plain William Hunt, bragged that his ropes were rigged closer to the cataract and therefore were longer, slacker and more difficult to walk.

"Professor" Stephen Peere used a rope that was more than an inch thinner than Blondin's; Clifford Calverley raced across at a dead run.

James E. Hardy boasted of being the youngest man and Signorina Maria Spelterini the only woman to attempt the stunt. Others simply re-enacted challenges invented by Blondin, crossing blindfolded, manacled hand and foot, backward or at night.

The rivalry to take on greater challenges survives to this day. Asked about Blondin, Wallenda was quick to explain the differences.

"Everybody has the misconception that Blondin walked over the falls. Well, the truth is Blondin walked over some water a mile downstream of the falls in the gorge," he said. "Walking over Niagara Falls to me means that as you are walking, you are seeing the falls falling right in front of you. So it's exciting to be the first person in the world to do that."

Wallenda is right that Blondin walked over the gorge downstream from the falls, but not by choice. According to newspaper reports published before his first walk, Blondin planned to rig his cable between Goat Island and Table Rock, very close to where Wallenda's wire will be anchored.

But the Porter family, which owned Goat Island, refused to allow Blondin to rig his rope there.

The Toronto Daily Globe of July 1, 1859, told the story: "General Porter, the proprietor of the island, to use his own words, considered the attempt to walk over the rapids ‘such a dangerous and foolhardy nature that he would not allow the rope to be made fast on Goat Island,' feeling satisfied that if he did so he would only be lending himself to the destruction of a man's life."

Denied his preferred spot, Blondin contacted people who owned land downstream from the falls.

"Blondin had to go further downstream, not by choice," said Dean M. Shapiro of New Orleans, a history buff, author, screenwriter and editor who published a book on Blondin in 1989. "Where Blondin put his rope is the first two places he could get opposite each other, where he could get permission on both sides of the river."

Bruce Aiken of Newfane, who has researched Blondin extensively and presented several papers on the wire-walker's feats, says Blondin's rope in 1859 stretched from White's Pleasure Grounds, a privately owned park close to the foot of Spruce Avenue on the American side, to Hubbard's Point on the Canadian side.

Blondin's 2-inch hemp rope was 1,100 feet long and the distance from the rope to the river below was 150 feet, newspapers at the time reported. Although it was not stretched over the brink of the falls, "It was a dangerous undertaking, and a fall would have been fatal. There is no question about that," says Shapiro.

Admission of 25 cents was charged to White's Pleasure Grounds, with Blondin receiving about half, according to reports of the day, and a wagon containing a money box also passed through the crowds to collect donations. Hotel-keepers on both sides of the river collected money for Blondin, and, according to the Daily Globe of Toronto, "it was generally believed that taking all things into consideration, Blondin would have a moderate surplus after paying all expenses."

After Blondin's first crossing, which was viewed by an estimated 10,000 people, says Shapiro, "It was no longer a question of whether he could do it, it was a question of what he would do next. He just kept upping the ante, making each stunt a little more daring."

On his next trip, on July 4, Blondin crossed backward, stood on one leg, crossed without his balancing pole, and made the return trip blindfolded and with his head in a cloth sack.

On July 14, he held out a hat for a marksman on the Maid of the Mist to shoot at, although Blondin's manager Colcord later admitted that the marksman's gun had no bullets and the hole in the hat was made beforehand.

On his fourth crossing, on Aug. 3, Blondin ran back and forth across the rope, purposely fell down to add drama, stood on his head, did somersaults and hung from the rope by his arms and his legs.

On Aug. 17, a crowd estimated at 20,000 to 30,000 thronged the area to see perhaps the most hazardous stunt of all – Blondin had his manager Colcord, who at 140 pounds weighed about the same as Blondin, climb onto his back. When the figure approached the American side and onlookers could clearly see that Blondin was carrying Colcord, according to the Buffalo Morning Express, "the trembling anxiety of the lookers-on was painfully increased."

During the trek, Colcord had to get off seven times so Blondin could rest, then climb back on. In his harrowing story, "Across Niagara on a Man's Back," Colcord wrote that when Blondin struggled at the start, "I rested passively, numbly like a dead weight on his shoulders, to stay or fall with him as might happen." Blondin recovered his balance and walked successfully.

After that great drama, Blondin's last three crossings of the summer were almost anticlimactic, although he offered plenty of spectacle.

On Aug. 24, he carried a cast-iron stove to the middle of the rope, cooked an omelet on it and lowered it to the Maid of the Mist.

On Aug. 31, he crossed at night with flares on the ends of his pole, walking in the dark when the flares went out.

On Sept. 8, he crossed with his feet in bushel baskets and shackled, as well as carrying a table and chair to the middle of the rope, stopping to drink champagne and eat cake.

When he returned in the summer of 1860, a few things had changed. Blondin moved his rope farther downstream, to a point at the start of the Whirlpool Rapids, two miles from the falls. Longtime Niagara Falls journalist Orrin E. Dunlap wrote, "This forced guests at the hotels in Niagara Falls to travel two miles to see him, while the curio shops missed the patronage of the crowds."

Due to "a certain business jealousy," Dunlap wrote, the newcomer, Signor Farini, "was permitted to stretch his cable from cliff to cliff just below the site of the present upper arch bridge, close up by the falls."

That summer, Blondin walked on June 6, June 20, July 4, July 18 and Aug. 1, repeating many of his previous year's tricks on the rope and doing five private performances among the public shows.

But on Aug. 15, both Blondin and Farini walked their ropes. An ad placed by Farini's manager emphasized, "Remember, Farini is within a few rods of the Falls – not two miles and a half below." Farini not only walked confidently on his longer rope – "double the length of any rope stretched across the Mighty Niagara," according to the ad – but he stood on his head, hung by his legs and hands, and finally climbed down a rope to the Maid of the Mist, visited with the passengers, then "literally ran up the cord to his cable far overhead," according to the Niagara Falls Gazette of Aug. 15, 1860.

The head-to-head competition was on. Blondin and Farini both walked their wires on Aug. 17, 22 and 29, and both men carried passengers on Aug. 29. Blondin carried Colcord successfully, but Farini's passenger, one Rowland McMullen, was a larger man – 5 foot 9 or 10 and weighing 150 pounds or more.

While Colcord remained rock-steady on Blondin's back, McMullen had to dismount several times and walk behind Farini. It was, according to the Niagara Falls Gazette, "a Frightful Performance."

On Sept. 5, Farini, in the role of "Biddy O'Flaherty, the Irish Washerwoman," carried out a new Empire Washing Machine, stopped in the middle of the rope, drew water from the river with a pail, washed a few ladies' handkerchiefs that had been given him, hung them to dry and resumed his journey.

Blondin's final performance of the season was a triumph, when his trip was watched by Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales. Blondin offered to carry the prince on his back, but after the horrified prince refused, Colcord again volunteered.

Blondin also crossed wearing shoes equipped with short stilts, but when he made the first of three promised leaps on the rope wearing the stilt shoes, he fell and cracked his balance pole. He completed the walk with the stilts, but made no more jumps.

Farini had expressed his intention to perform for the prince, even saying that he would stand on his head three times during the trip and drop from the rope into the water below. Although Farini claimed in his autobiography that the prince did see him, there are no newspaper reports of any walk by him during the prince's visit, and "it is a matter of historical debate as to whether or not he actually did" walk for the prince, wrote Aiken.

That was Blondin's last crossing. Farini crossed at least once more, wearing a life-size costume that resembled a horse. Then, the two were finished.

Neither Blondin nor Farini ever walked a wire across the Niagara Gorge again. The bloody Civil War turned the nation's mood away from death-defying spectacles. But the era of the wire-walker would resume.

* On June 15, 1865, Harry Leslie stretched a rope across the gorge near where Blondin performed in 1860 and crossed four times. On his fourth trip, he fell and only saved himself by hooking an arm over the rope, according to Dunlap. That was Leslie's final trip.

* The next wire-walker was "a confident stranger" who called himself Signor Henry Balleni and devised a new trick – holding an India rubber rope, he would drop from the wire into the river below. This primitive bungee jump was a success. Balleni walked the wire without incident three times, but his rope attracted another daredevil who became the only person to fall to his death.

* Stephen Peere or Peer, who was also called Pierre in one newspaper story, was a helper of Balleni's who reportedly strolled out onto Balleni's rope one afternoon without permission. The story goes that an enraged Balleni attempted to cut a guy rope while Peere was on the wire and was arrested by Canadian authorities for endangering Peere's life. Peere, a painter, continued his profession and gave occasional wire-walking demonstrations between high buildings or on the cables of bridges.

Signorina Maria Spelterini crossed the Niagara gorge on a tightrope four times in the summer of 1876. For this trip, on July 12, she strapped peach baskets to her feet and crossed on a quarter-inch wire just north of the lower suspension bridge.

* The next funambulist was a striking young woman who used the name Signorina Maria Spelterini. She crossed four times in 1876, manacled hand and foot, blindfolded, backward, and with her feet strapped into peach baskets.

* All was quiet until Peere returned in 1887. By this time, memories of Blondin had dimmed somewhat and newspaper articles had to remind readers that he had cooked an omelet on a stove midwalk and carried Colcord on his back.

Peere's first wire-walk, on June 22, 1887, was "new and novel to some and tame to others," according to the Niagara Falls Gazette. He did no acrobatics, but "expects to give similar exhibitions during the summer."

But two days later, Peere was dead. He had "been on a prolonged spree," according to the New York Times, although some newspapers said that he was sober when he walked with two men to the site where his cable was attached. The Gazette reported that Peere went out onto the platform while his two companions chatted with their backs turned, and when they turned around he was gone. His body was found 45 feet below the platform. Some news articles mentioned suicide, but a great-nephew in later years claimed that Peer (as the relative spelled his name) had been shot and thrown into the gorge.

* In August of 1887, "Professor" J.E. DeLeon promised to walk Peere's cable. After several canceled dates, DeLeon walked about 30 feet out on the cable but appeared "badly frightened." After performing some acrobatics, the Gazette reported that DeLeon slid down a rope into the bushes "like a frightened man going down a fire escape for the last time." The Suspension Bridge Journal called the fiasco "a gross imposition on the people who came in response to the advertisement," including the people of Niagara Falls, who "were humbugged as bad as anybody."

* Samuel John Dixon, a New York City native who had lived in Toronto for 15 years and was a renowned photographer, walked Peere's cable in 1890 and on July 17, 1891, walked a cable across the gorge between the Cantilever Railway Bridge and the Railway Suspension Bridge.

* Clifford Calverley, 22, raced across his steel cable on Oct. 12, 1892, then did tricks, such as walking backward and on his knees and stepping over his balancing pole. On July 1, 1893, Calverley ran the wire again, then on the way back, sat in a chair balanced on the rope, walked with his feet in peach baskets, then lit a fire in a cookstove he had wheeled out in a wheelbarrow. On July 5, he did similar tricks, then sprinted across the wire in a record time of 2 minutes, 35 seconds. That night, he walked in the darkness, with his form visible as "a small light like that of a match." The Daily Cataract called it "one of the most daring if not the most daring feat ever accomplished at Niagara."

* James E. Hardy was just 21 when he walked a seven-eighths-inch cable three years later, on July 1, 1896. When he walked again July 3, wrote Dunlap, "neither Hardy nor any of those assembled realized or knew that the last performance of that kind had been given at Niagara. Hardy didn't know that he had closed a show Blondin of worldwide fame had opened 37 years before."

A small item in the Niagara Falls Journal of July 10, 1896, told the tale. Two sentences on Hardy's walk were inserted between reports of "small boy[s] and firecrackers" and fireworks shows. The lengthy, detailed coverage given Blondin, Farini and the other early wire-walkers was over.

At the end of August, on stationery featuring his photo and a drawing of his walk across the gorge, Hardy wrote to the president of the Suspension Bridge Company, asking "if you could favor me with a small donation as to help me out in defraying the big expense which I was under in giving the public these free exhibitions. As there is no doubt my attraction proved a big drawing card to your Bridge for the above dates."

By the next year, the official view on wire-walking had shifted. When Harry Warner applied to walk from Prospect Point, in the Niagara Falls state park, to the Canadian park in 1897, people were interested because "The rope would be stretched right in front of the falls, through the mist, and in this respect will be much more exciting than Blondin's feat," according to the Model City Power of April 16, 1897.

But Hon. Thomas V. Welch, superintendent of the state reservation, told the Daily Cataract they "would not permit the proposed exhibition of rope walking in their domain. They would not even listen to such a request, he said."

Two other wire-related events – not walks at all – punctuated the spectacular displays. In 1869, a man calling himself "Professor" Andrew Jenkins promised to ride a bicycle over a wire. But when spectators realized that his contraption was more of a cable car, with the rope securely held by the bicycle's wheels while he pedaled beneath, they muttered at the misrepresentation.

Finally, on June 14, 1910, a steeplejack named Oscar Williams grasped a strap between his teeth and attempted a "Slide for Life" on a wire across the gorge as part of the Niagara Carnival. The pulley stopped in the center of the sagging wire and rescuers had to send out a rope, which Williams used to descend to the deck of the Maid of the Mist.

Gradually, Falls stunts had shifted from the air above the river to the water, with daredevils swimming the rapids or shooting them in boats or barrels. Annie Edson Taylor topped them all when she survived a barrel plunge over the Horseshoe Falls on Oct. 24, 1901.

But for wire-walkers, Niagara Falls and the legend of Blondin beckoned. In the mid-1970s, Philippe Petit, who drew international acclaim the year before when he secretly rigged and walked a wire between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in Manhattan, arrived in Niagara Falls. He spent months researching Blondin and other wire-walkers, as well as observing conditions around the falls, but his requests to walk over the falls were denied.

Jay Cochrane, who called himself "The Prince of the Air," expressed interest. Henry Rechatin said he had started applying for permission in 1966, to no avail.

In June 1975, Rechatin and two companions sneaked out onto the cables of the Spanish Aero Car that spans the gorge above the Whirlpool. Using a fork device attached to a motorcycle, the trio traveled across the wire. To draw attention to his request, in 1976, Rechatin spent two weeks living on an elevated platform 47 feet above Clifton Hill, crossing the wire above the street four times daily and once carrying a young woman across on his back.

All the requests were denied, with New York state parks officials expressing concern about legal liability, crowd control and spectator safety.

In 1986, Petit, dressed as Blondin, walked a wire along the side of the gorge for a promotional movie, "Niagara: Miracles, Myths and Magic." State Parks Commissioner Mario Pirastru said of Petit's proposal to cross, "We turned it down. We had discussed it but decided there would be problems with crowd control, because the stunt itself would have generated so many people we couldn't have handled it. Also, it would have opened it up for any high-wire stunter."

In 1995, Cochrane applied for permission to walk across the falls from one side of the border to the other, but the state parks office turned him down. In discussing his plan, Cochrane took a swipe at Blondin:

"I'm not interested in walking over the gorge and maybe stopping halfway and cooking something on a stove as some have done," he said. "That is just a stunt. My goal is to achieve the longest skywalk in history."

He applied again in 2002 to walk a 3,500-foot wire strung between buildings on each side of the border but was denied again by State Parks Commissioner Bernadette Castro, who said the state would never grant a permit for such a high-wire stunt. In 2005, Cochrane, then 61, walked repeatedly between skyscrapers high above the falls. It was as close as he could get to fulfilling his dream.

Professional wire-walkers are all familiar with Blondin, said Nik Wallenda's friend, tightrope-walker Bello Nock. "You have to know about him," Nock said of Blondin. "You look up to someone like Blondin."

But for the most part, the Great Blondin's fame has faded, Shapiro said. "Outside of the Niagara Falls-Buffalo area, I don't think too many people have heard of Blondin. Every time there's an attempt to cross the falls, or somebody goes over in a contraption, Blondin's name always seems to pop up, but otherwise he's just not a household name anymore."

Even local residents who know of Blondin are largely unaware of how many times he crossed the gorge or the many ways he did it.

Knowing his subject as he does, Shapiro said he is certain Blondin would have refused to put on the safety harness Wallenda has been ordered to wear. "Blondin would scoff at something like that, he would have rejected it offhand," he said.

Shapiro theorized that Wallenda will do a relatively straightforward walk. "My feeling is that he's just going to walk across; he might sit down or lie down or do something relatively simple, but he's not going to bring a stove out there and cook an omelet. He just wants to walk across to prove it can be done, and if he succeeds he might say, ‘Let me do this again, and I'll add a few things to the repertoire,' but that's just a guess."

Aiken, the other Blondin expert, says the great wire-walker probably would not be concerned about Wallenda's walk, which will cross the edge of the Horseshoe Falls, where Blondin wanted to walk.

"Blondin probably wouldn't have cared too much," Aiken said. "It's very interesting; any time he was challenged he always refused. I also think he would have thought that it's already been done."

Wallenda said he hopes to achieve the fame that Blondin did. "It's exciting to follow in their footsteps," he said. "I look at the legacy that Blondin left and I think that my name will be permanently ingrained with this city."

email: aneville@buffnews.com