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Natural wonder or carnival sideshow?; Some fear renewed interest in stunts will detract from park's inherent appeal

Nik Wallenda's tightrope walk over Niagara Falls this summer has been pitched as a once-in-a-generation event, a tribute to stunting history that legally can take place only every two decades.

Now three more daredevils want to join the party -- promising they will seek to conquer the falls in a barrel. All have achieved the feat in the past.

This attention to stunting revives a centuries-old debate: Should the waterfalls exist as a natural wonder or as the centerpiece of a man-made circus?

"A little carnival is good," said Mark DiFrancesco, owner of the Niagara Daredevil Museum on the American side of the falls. "A little bright lights and attention for the area is good. It'll bring people into the area, and hopefully they'll come back."

But others think that government officials, by approving Wallenda's stunt, have opened the door to these other attempts by renewing interest in stunting.

Niagara Falls was once synonymous with daredevils, carnival rides

and crowds who gathered to see animals packed on a barge tumble to their deaths over the falls. Some say it is a history that should never be repeated.

"The people here are going to be so desperate with the economic situation, they will put their grandmothers over in a barrel," said Paul Gromosiak, a Niagara Falls historian who authored a book on stunts at the falls. "That's what's going to happen -- it will turn into a sideshow. The falls will just be a distraction."

Mayor Paul A. Dyster said he supports Wallenda's interest in creating a permanent attraction in the city, but is wary of continued stunts.

"I think the concern of some of us here is, if you do that, Niagara Falls is not worth seeing unless there's a wire walker, and the wire walker is not worth seeing unless they're doing something new," Dyster said. "Where does that end? It's not sustainable -- it's a dead-end path."

A more sustainable path, the mayor said, would be protecting the state park and the property around the falls from becoming more commercialized.

In fact, the Niagara Reservation -- what's now known as Niagara Falls State Park -- was created in the 19th century as part of the Free Niagara movement, which sought to rid the area of vendors, hucksters and a carnival atmosphere.

>Honky-tonk feeling

The irony, state park workers and historians say, is that Niagara could now be returning to those honky-tonk days.

"I'm very disturbed that the focus is on the carnival atmosphere that some people want to create," said Tom Yots, executive director of Preservation Buffalo Niagara. "People come from all over the world, and they don't come because they want to see daredevils go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. They come because they want to walk through that park and experience the natural world."

Since 1901, 16 daredevils have survived trips over Niagara Falls, while five died trying.

"Good or bad, it's been part of our history since the 1800s," DiFrancesco said.

Steve Trotter, who survived trips over the falls in 1985 and 1995, has hired a lawyer to help him in his current quest to replicate his feat.

"He [Wallenda] gets his shot -- they've got to give everyone else a shot," Trotter said. "It's not fair, for one thing, and it's kind of favoritism toward the Wallenda family."

Trotter will seek permission from the same Canadian authorities who have jailed him in the past and might not allow such a stunt this time.

"Well, you know, then we'll have to go to plan B," Trotter said.

The Ontario government has also received a formal request from Peter DeBernardi, a Canadian who was part of the first duo to go over the falls in a barrel. Dave Munday, who has gone over the falls twice, also has expressed interest.

"They'd better be watching Niagara Falls," said Munday, who went over the falls in 1985 and in 1993. "They are going to have to get twice as big a police force as they have now, and have a cop on every corner. They couldn't stop me before and they certainly won't be able to stop me now."

Authorities aren't thrilled about the daredevils' intentions.

"We've just said, no, we're not going to allow any more opportunities like this," said interim Niagara Parks Commission Chairwoman Janice Thomson. "Going over in a barrel -- that's not a skill. It's purely a stunt. It's a real game of chance."

State Parks spokesman Peter Brancato said the state would "never allow" a barrel stunt because of risks to both the stuntman and rescue teams.

But some say there remains an attraction to those who would dare to ride Niagara.

"There's still something vicarious about it," Scott Manders of Falls Church, Va., said while visiting the daredevil museum. "You see it and think, that takes real guts, lunacy, vision to say, 'I'm going to do this' and come out on the other side in one piece."

Lisa Taylor of Richmond, Mich., has already booked her hotel room for Wallenda's stunt.

"It's fascinating to think people can survive going over the falls and live," she said. "It's exciting for sure."

State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane, and Assemblyman John D. Ceretto, R-Lewiston, championed Wallenda's cause because of the worldwide media attention and tourists the stunt is expected to bring to the falls.

"Clearly, this is going to be one of the greatest events that Niagara Falls has ever seen," Maziarz said at a recent marketing meeting.

>Unnatural attraction

But others say that when compared to other nationally conserved parks, the falls has already developed into an unnatural attraction with towering hotels, casinos, a Ferris wheel and wax museums in Canada, and gift shops, paved trails, a concrete parkway and a restaurant overlooking the falls on the American side.

"Imagine if the Grand Canyon was surrounded by hotels and neon signs and lit up at night depending on what football team won," Gromosiak said. "Just imagine what Yosemite [National Park] would look like -- have people bungee jumping from top to bottom. Nature? What's nature? You can't make money from nature.

"Our side is still natural, but I hear people constantly saying, 'We've got to do what Canada's doing.' I'm not going to stop them, but instead of calling it a natural wonder, let's just call it a wonder. Why are we lying?"

Some can't wait for Wallenda's historic walk above the mighty falls.

"It's huge for small businesses," said Gaelan Baillie, who runs a taxi service downtown. "The area's so economically depressed, why would you stop anything that would bring in tourists?"

Others, like Gromosiak, can't believe Niagara is becoming a daredevil mecca once more.

"What's left of the falls will be diminished drastically and dramatically in the future," he said. "I think the falls are still beautiful, but they're nothing like they were before."

News Staff Reporter Anne Neville contributed to this report.

email: cspecht@buffnews.com