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‘Age of Daredevils’ examines siren’s lure of Niagara Falls

If you’ve ever been to Niagara Falls, you’d likely wonder why anybody would want to go over it in a barrel. Niagara has a roar of a million lions. It’s so deep, misty, thundering and threatening that even the idea of getting near it seems nuts.

A fair number of daredevils appear to have been at least temporarily daft. They’ve made the trip, often one way, for different reasons. Usually they are motivated by money (not much), emulation, boredom or despair.

“The Age of Daredevils” is, among other things, a Canadian family drama that begins with the story of Red Hill Jr., who made his Aug. 5, 1951, attempt over Horseshoe Falls as a memorial to his father, a nonpareil daredevil.

His father, Red Hill (1888–1942), was an incredible daredevil and medal winner for his valor. He rescued 28 people from the Falls, along with recovering another 177 accident and suicide victims from the Niagara River just below the Falls. Young Red Junior helped his father in the work.

Red Jr. (1913–1951) had a lot to live up to. He tried to emulate his father by swimming across the Niagara River from the base of the American Falls to the Canadian shore. He failed to beat his father’s earlier time of 11 minutes for the stunt. Later, Red’s brothers, Major and Norman, helped recover Red Jr. and his barrel after another perilous ride through the rapids to Queenston, Ont., on July 8, 1945.

Red’s last ride over the falls on Aug. 5, 1951, a memorial to his father, resulted in his death.

His barrel burst under the pressure of the water at the base of falls. Clarkson explains this phenomenon in a fictional strategy session conversation the night before, over Carling drafts. “Some guys tried to talk Junior out of it … It’s gotta be light and buoyant, so that it won’t be dragged underwater and hammered down. It’s the tons of water pounding you down that does the damage.”

It was true that the water did its damage. Red’s brothers, with the addition of a third, Wesley, found what remained of his body at the Maid of the Mist landing the day after his ride. Red’s mother, wife and 10-year-old daughter were distraught.

Clarkson, the Canadian author of “Daredevils,” knows the territory. He previously worked as a reporter at the Niagara Falls Review. (The paper is published for the Niagara Falls, Ont., Fort Erie and Niagara-on-the-Lake area.)

Clarkson’s been engaged with this book since 1970. Until now, he’s had a tough time finding a publisher. Little A, a venture of Amazon, chose to print it. (Pity the publisher didn’t add a few pictures and make the pages less dreadfully long. It is replete with a tricky cover, however.)

None of Amazon’s penuriousness is Clarkson’s fault. He brings brio, suspense and reporter’s writing to the book, inventing conversations among characters along the way that are plausible and insightful. (An earlier book of his concerns the famous if eccentric pianist: “The Secret Life of Glenn Gould.”)

At the outset of “The Age of Daredevils” Clarkson describes Hill pushing his contraption into the upper river of the Falls in 1951. He holds it under the Stone Bridge for the right conditions, a little breeze or nominal waves, to take him to “the rumble and beyond.” Hill Jr. calls his conveyance “The Thing.” It was a “rubber barrel of thirteen oversize inner tubes lashed together with fishnet and hope.”

Hill Jr., Clarkson observes, “doesn’t look like a rebel, but rather a tired man who has walked out of a factory during break to try to find a magic path out of town.”

Earlier in the 20th century, three of the first six who violated the law against going over the falls plunged to their deaths. Specific chapters in the book deal with leading daredevils. Annie Edson Taylor, a schoolteacher from Bay City, Mich., became the first person to go over the Horseshoe Falls in 1901 and survive. (Clarkson dedicates his book to Annie, and Beatrice Hill, Red’s mother. Three of her four sons died at the hands of Niagara.)

Hill’s was the sixth stunt undertaken at the falls since the end of the war in 1945. Clarkson tells us that others – a teacher, a poolroom operator, a barber, a machinist, a short-order cook, a war veteran and now Hill – climbed into various barrels for their untimely descents.

Some of those looking for a nosedive over Niagara in the decade after World War II seemed to do it because they needed excitement in their lives. Those years became an age of “watchers,” with television as the motivator. Two hundred thousand showed up in their Sunday best in 1951 to watch Hill Jr., confirming the rise of observer status.

Clarkson tells us that the Hills were rum runners during the Prohibition era. Dozens of men died trying to haul whiskey across the Niagara River, many crashing over the falls in row boats.

Other risk-takers of the ’20s and ’30s included Bobby Leach, a transplanted Brit and friend and competitor of Red’s father; and Joseph Albert Jean Lussier, of Springfield, Mass., a former carnival stuntman, raised in Quebec.

Later, a second age of daredevils from 1984–1995, gave the falls a roll in more high-tech barrels. Six men and women survived, including Karel Soucek, a Canadian stuntman who went over the falls in a barrel in 1984. Later still, from 2003–2011, three men took the plunge and survived, the first in street clothes. Two intended to commit suicide.

In 2012, Nik Wallenda, of the Flying Wallendas, walked a tightrope across the Horseshoe Falls. He was watched by 100,000 on-site and another 10 million observers in the audience via TV.

Wallenda’s feat was another act of daring involving Niagara Falls. It remains a wonder that attracts millions, as well as a Lorelei destination that continues to tempt chancers and daredevils.

About all this Michael Clarkson has written a fine book that will touch hearts – and speed up pulses – wherever Niagara Falls is known.

The Age of Daredevils

By Michael Clarkson

Little A

245 pages, $24.95

Michael D. Langan reviews books for The Buffalo News. As a high schooler he remembers Red Hill Jr. making his ’51 attempt. Later, Langan drove by the Falls daily, serving as Niagara University’s director of admissions from 1966-68.

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