Crossing Niagara, the return journey

Tightrope walker Nik Wallenda is fighting to overturn a 100-year ban on high-wire acts over the Falls

Guy Adams@guyadams
Wednesday 26 October 2011 17:18

It takes a cool head, impeccable balance, and plenty of self-confidence to walk unaided across Niagara Falls on a tightrope. Unfortunately, for daredevil Nik Wallenda, it also requires formal permission from local bureaucrats.

The 32-year-old circus performer is bidding to become the first person in more than a century to perform the high-wire stunt, reviving a tradition of derring-do which stretches back to the destination’s golden era. But first, he needs a rubber stamp from Canada’s Niagara Parks Commission.

That may be a problem. The Commission, which controls the land to one side of the Falls where Wallenda’s 2,200 foot wire will have to be secured, last allowed a tightrope walker onto their property in 1910. And they are reluctant to let one back on any time soon.

“There’s an existing policy that we don’t permit stunting, and tightrope walking falls under the definition of a stunt,” said Janice Thompson, the chairman of the organisation.

Wallenda will try to convince Ms Thompson otherwise at a meeting next week. His mooted crossing, which will be filmed by The Discovery Channel, already has the support of both New York’s state senate, and the Canadian city of Niagara Falls, who are prepared to re-write longstanding laws in order to help it happen.

“This is not a stunt,” Wallenda told The Independent yesterday. “A stunt is when you go over the Falls in a barrel and hope that nothing goes wrong; something where the outcome is 50-50. But to me, tightrope walking is an art. It has been in my family for seven generations; I have been doing it since the age of two.”

Wallenda will forego both a safety harness and net as he walks 200 feet above the water, because “they give you a false sense of security.” However, he insists: “To me, tightrope walking is like walking on the ground is for normal people. The worst case scenario is that I will slip and end up hanging from the wire by my hands.”

While he accepts that the Canadian authorities have legitimate concerns that any accident might endanger their rescue workers, Wallenda is confident he can reassure them that such an event won’t happen. Discovery will help finance a privately-funded helicopter rescue team.

“I hope, when they see me, they will realise that I’m not some guy with a death wish, but a normal family man with children who knows what he’s doing will leave the Falls exactly as he found them. And I hope they see the bigger picture of the economic boost this will bring to the area.”

The proposed stunt has sparked a wider debate about the future of Niagara Falls, which and as recently as half a century ago was considered to be one of the most glamorous destinations in North America, but has since fallen on hard times.

The US side now has an air of genteel decay. Its population has halved since 1960, and unemployment rates are more than ten per cent – the highest in New York State. The Canadian side, where there is a ferris wheel and larger hotel-resorts, is meanwhile tarnished by the excesses of package tourism.

Civic leaders on both sides have for years exploring new ways to shore up their economy. Some hope to cash in on New York State’s recent legalisation of gay marriage (a rainbow flag was projected on the Falls at the weekend). But others want to recreate the carnival atmosphere which pervaded in its Victorian heyday.

They believe Wallenda’s project will reinvigorate a tradition which stretches back to 1829, when Sam Patch, the first daredevil in US history, successfully leapt 125ft from the top of a ladder into the plunge pool below the Falls, witnessed by a cheering crowd estimated at around 7,000.

In 1859, Jean François Gravelet, a French circus performer known as “The Great Blondin” became the first man to walk a tightrope across the Falls. He completed the trip several times, once stopping halfway to cook an omelette, and another time carrying his manager on his back.

The more reckless feat of attempting to go over the Falls in a barrel was first attempted in 1901 by Annie Taylor, a 62-year-old schoolteacher. Thanks to a dollop of good fortune, along with her insistence that a bicycle pump was used to increase the air pressure in the vessel, she survived with minor cuts and bruises.

Several copycats were not so lucky. And in a bid to cap the mounting death toll, the Niagara Parks Commission, voted to outlaw all stunts in 1910. The 16th and last legal tightrope crossing took place that year.

Since then, there have been dozens of illegal and often deadly stunts performed at Niagara. In 1995, Robert Overcracker attempted to ride a jet-ski over the edge of them, but died when his parachute failed to open.

In 2003, Kirk Jones, from Michigan, survived a jump from the top of the Falls. But he missed out on a chance to make a fortune from it when his companion’s camcorder failed to work. Like all contemporary survivors, he was arrested and then promptly fined several thousand dollars for his pains.

Some cheated death – some didn't

1859 Jean Francois Gravelet, a tightrope walker also known as The Great Blondin, has the idea of crossing the falls. He draws 25,000 to see him cross several times. On one crossing he stops halfway to cook and eat an omelette.

1901 On her 63rd birthday, Annie Edson Taylor, pictured, becomes the first person to survive the fall in a barrel. She is said to have gone accompanied by her black cat, which reputedly came out of it white.

1951 A British barber, Charles Stephens – known as the Demon Barber of Bristol – is killed when he plummets in a barrel with an anvil attached to his feet. Only Stephens' right arm is found.

1951 William "Red" Hill goes over in a crude vessel built out of 13 inner tubes wrapped in fishing net. He is killed.

1995 Robert Overcracker illegally goes over the falls on a jetski, relying on a parachute to cushion his descent. The chute fails to open, and he is killed.

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