In October 1901, Western New York needed a pick-me-up. The crowds at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo were dwindling and the nation was in mourning after President McKinley's assassination at the exposition weeks earlier.
Anna "Annie" Edson Taylor, a 63-year-old schoolteacher from Lockport, would provide that boost when she made history as the first person to survive going over Niagara Falls in a barrel.
Taylor was born in Lockport in 1838. Her husband died in the Civil War and she later moved to Michigan to become a teacher. Medicaid and social security hadn't been invented yet, so Taylor was looking for a way to make money to secure her in her later years.
The Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo was attracting tourists from all over the world and Taylor aimed to capitalize on the crowds in the nation's third largest city. Stunts in Niagara Falls had become commonplace since Sam Patch became Niagara Falls' first daredevil in 1829. So Taylor had to think of a new way to catch the public's attention.
She outfitted a four and a half feet high wooden pickle barrel with a leather harness, a small air hole and padding to break her fall.
Although she claimed to be in her 40s, she was actually 63 at the time of the stunt. Two assistants helped Taylor into the barrel, then a boat towed her about a mile from the falls and dropped her into the rapids in the Niagara River above the 170-foot Canadian falls. Twenty minutes later, Taylor's barrel appeared at the bottom of the Horseshoe Falls and she emerged to cheers from the crowd. She famously said afterward: “No one ought ever do that again.”
The stunt gave her not only the title of the first woman surviving the trip over the falls in a barrel, but she was the first human. (Animals had gone over in barrels before.)
Taylor enjoyed mild fame after her stunt, but never made the fortune she envisioned for herself. She had to use a lot of her money buying back her own barrel from an event promoter who ran off with it. By the time Taylor died in 1921, she was penniless and living at the Niagara County Almshouse in Lockport.
She's buried in Niagara Falls’ Oakwood Cemetery in an area called Stunters Rest, along with other Niagara Falls daredevils. The cemetery was recently named to the national historic register.
In 2012, on the 111th anniversary of Taylor's historic plunge, her distant relatives visited Niagara Falls to pay tribute to her legacy.
“I’m very proud of her,” Taylor's great-grand niece said. “I think she was a marvelous woman to do those things at a time when women didn’t do things like that.”