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Daredevil grave sites are focus of tours

NIAGARA FALLS -- Just a few miles from the falls that lured and, in many cases, killed -- them, a number of daredevils have found their final resting place.

The Oakwood Cemetery Association will host guided tours of several of these grave sites Friday and Saturday in hope of drawing visitors in town for Nik Wallenda's Friday night wire-walk over the Niagara Gorge.

"There really is no other cemetery in the world with a 'Stunter's Section,' " said the Association's Michelle A. Kratts, a local librarian and historian who will conduct the tours.

While the remains of daredevils are sprinkled throughout the 20,000 graves in the cemetery, opened in 1852, the tours will focus on the triangular "Strangers' Rest" section.

The famous Annie Edson Taylor lies here, under a headstone that states that she was "First to go over the Horseshoe Falls in a barrel and live." She made her historic ride in an oak barrel Oct. 24, 1901, with dreams of fame and fortune. She died April 29, 1921, in the Lockport Infirmary, nearly penniless.

"We call her the 'Queen of Oakwood' because she has made Oakwood famous," Kratts said. She noted that people have long traveled here from other parts of the world to visit this grave and often leave small mementos, including flowers and coins.

Karen Hodge-Russell, an artist and retired teacher, takes special delight in portraying Taylor for these tours and dresses the part from head to toe. Her large, feathered black hat completes her carefully researched ensemble.

Describing the way Taylor methodically designed her barrel, Hodge-Russell said, "Everything was very well thought-out. I think of her as an architect and engineer more than anything and that's how she survived."

Taylor is buried next to Carlisle D. Graham, an English cooper who lived in Philadelphia, whose headstone explains that he was the first to shoot the Whirlpool Rapids in a barrel, also made of oak, on July 11, 1886. "He died a pauper of a cold in Detroit and was brought back to Oakwood to be buried," Kratts said. "We believe oak wood saved both of them," she said, "and Oakwood [Cemetery] gave them their place in eternity."

She added with a chuckle, "Maybe we should give Wallenda a little piece of oak wood to carry with him on his walk [for luck]."

Also featured on the tours will be Matthew Webb, the first recorded person to swim the English Channel. He thought he'd give the Whirlpool Rapids a try July 24, 1883. He didn't survive, though, and his body was found four days later in Lewiston.

"This is just the tip of the iceberg," Hodge-Russell said. "There is much, much more here. But all of these stunters had that undying spirit, if you will -- that feeling of 'It's going to be a challenge, but I will try it.' "

The 45-minute "Where the Stunters Rest" walking tour will be offered at 2 p.m. Friday and at 10 a.m. and noon Saturday. Tickets are free Friday and otherwise $10, and may be purchased in advance at myoakwoodcemetery.com or on the day of the tour at the cemetery. Children under 12 are free.