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Niagara Falls Tightrope Walker

Updated on April 30, 2014
The Power of the Niagara River as it goes over the Horseshoe Falls
The Power of the Niagara River as it goes over the Horseshoe Falls | Source

On Friday, June 15th, 2012, daredevil Nik Wallenda, age 33, crossed Niagara Falls on a tightrope. Wallenda, a 7th generation member of the legendary Great Wallendas, walked from the U.S. to Canada on an 1,800 feet tightrope wire suspended 173 feet above Niagara Falls.

"This is something no one in the world has ever done,'' he said after presenting his passport to a Canadian immigration officer. "Even though I had a tether, I didn't have to use it.'' Nik completed the walk in less than 30 minutes from start to finish.

This dangerous feat, which has been banned for over a century, was televised live by ABC and the Canadian CTV network in a show called Man on a Wire: Live from Niagara.

Wallenda is no stranger to danger as he already holds six Guinness World Records including the 'longest bicycle ride on a tightrope without a safety net' and the 'largest human pyramid on a high wire'.

But Nik Wallenda is not the first Niagara Falls tightrope walker and this article looks at the history of Niagara Falls tightrope walkers over the ages.

The Niagara Falls Tightrope Walker In Modern Times

Niagara Falls Tightrope Walker Jay Cochrane in 2007
Niagara Falls Tightrope Walker Jay Cochrane in 2007 | Source
Jay Cochrane performed twice daily in 2007
Jay Cochrane performed twice daily in 2007 | Source

I am a frequent visitor to Niagara Falls and it is difficult to imagine the excitement that must have been generated by the daredevils in the second half of the 19th century when the Great Blondin and other famous Niagara Falls tightrope walkers were performing.

In modern times, because attempts to cross the Falls were banned, tightrope walking has been limited.

In 1975, Henri Julien Rechatin made an illegal attempt to cross the Whirlpool rapids using the wires of the Spanish Aero Car., and during the summers of 2005 and 2007, Niagara Falls Tightrope Walker Jay Cochrane could be seen tightrope walking at the Skylon Tower high above the parking lot.

In 2007, he performed twice daily for 120 shows in 2007. However, Jay was not allowed to walk across the Niagara River.

The History of the Niagara Falls Tightrope Walker

Prior to Nik Wallenda, there had been thirteen tightrope walkers who have crossed the gorge throughout history, the most famous being the Great Blondin.

The American Falls and Niagara River

The American Falls and Niagara River
The American Falls and Niagara River | Source

The Maid of the Mist at the Horseshoe Falls

The Maid of the Mist at the Horseshoe Falls
The Maid of the Mist at the Horseshoe Falls | Source

Jean Francois Gravelet, better known as 'The Great Blondin', crossed the gorge below Niagara Falls on a tightrope 1100 feet long and 3¼ inches in diameter, 160 feet above the water. He first did this on 30 June 1859 and then a number of times afterwards, with different variations:

  • blindfolded
  • on stilts
  • carrying a man (his manager, Harry Colcord) on his back
  • sitting down midway while he cooked and ate an omelet
  • trundling a wheelbarrow
  • standing on a chair with only one chair leg on the rope.

The Great Farini, a.k.a. William Leonard Hunt, made his most famous tightrope performances at Niagara Falls during 1860. His feats included:

  • crossing a high wire with a man on his back
  • with a washing machine on his back
  • turning somersaults while on the rope
  • with a sack over his entire body
  • hanging from it by his feet.

Horseshoe Falls

Horseshoe Falls
Horseshoe Falls | Source

The American Falls

The American Falls
The American Falls | Source

Harry Leslie, advertised as “The American Blondin”, crossed the Whirlpool Rapids gorge on a tightrope on June 15, 1865.

Professor Andrew Jenkins crossed the Niagara River on a velocipede in 1869.

Henry Bellini was an English tightrope walker who crossed the Niagara River in 1873 and then leaped into the raging Niagara River below to be picked up by a waiting boat.

Maria Spelterini, was an Italian tightrope walker who, at the age of 23, was the only woman to cross the Niagara gorge on a tightrope. She first crossed on July 8, 1876 and repeated three more times in the next two weeks, once wearing peach baskets strapped to her feet, once blindfolded and once with her ankles and wrists manacled.

Stephen Peer was a Canadian tightrope walker who, after several successful previous crossings, fell to his death while walking a tightrope over Niagara Falls in 1887 after a night of drinking.

Samuel Dixon, crossed the gorge on September 6, 1890 on the same cable used by Stephen Peer.

Clifford Calverley, a Toronto steeplejack, crossed several times on a 3/4" steel cable in 1887, establishing a record when he made the trip in 6 minutes 32 ½ seconds.

D.H. MacDonald made a crossing on 1887 using the same equipment as Clifford Calverley.

James Hardy, at age 21, was the youngest person to cross the gorge on a wire and made several crossings in July 1896. His performances were the last tightrope walking displays permitted in Niagara Falls.

The Spanish Aero Car over the Whirlpool

The Spanish Aero Car over the Whirlpool
The Spanish Aero Car over the Whirlpool | Source

Oscar Williams, who called himself 'The Great Houdin', in 1911 attempted to cross the Niagara River by sliding down a sloping cable holding on by his teeth. The stunt went wrong and he was lucky to be rescued by firemen throwing a rope which allowed him to lower himself onto the Maid of the Mist boat below.

Henri Julien Rechatin is a French tightrope walker born in 1932. In 1967 he requested permission to perform a high wire act across the Niagara River but his requests were turned down. In 1975 he returned to Niagara Falls and performed an illegal tightrope walk on the wire carrying the Spanish Aero Car over the Whirlpool. Although he was arrested, no formal charges were laid.

The History of the Niagara Falls Tightrope Walker

I hope that you've found this article about the history of the Niagara Falls Tightrope Walker interesting.

Nik Wallenda is a true daredevil and his dramatic tightrope walk has reminded us of a bygone era. Nik could well be the last tightrope walker to cross Niagara Falls in our lifetime so "Thank You" Nik for inspiring us to pursue our dreams!



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