Today, let us leap into Niagara. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Nineteen people have tried
to ride Niagara Falls in a barrel -- or in worse
than a barrel. Four died. Six were stopped before
they could try it. Nine made the fall and lived to
tell of it.
Niagara is split into two falls. On one side of
Goat Island is American Falls. It's the shorter of
the two by a few feet. But the bottom is lined with
rocks. Riding over it in a barrel would not be a
crapshoot. It would be straight suicide.
All the daredevils have gone over Horseshoe Falls
on the Canadian side. It's a bit higher, but it
offers the possibility of a survivable landing.
The first person took that plunge in 1901. The
Pan-American Exposition was going on in nearby
Buffalo. Writer Peter Warwick tells about Annie
Edson, an unemployed dance and etiquette teacher
from Michigan -- "a 63-year-old widow [claiming] to
Annie Edson had a 4½-foot barrel made from
inch-and-a-half oak. She tested the stunt with a
hapless orange kitty. Then she had a set of photos
made of herself standing by her barrel.
The photos weren't ready for sale on the scheduled
day, so she aborted the mission. Next time, the
photos were ready, but the weather was bad and the
crowd was small. Finally, October 24th was a good
day. People were buying her photos. Edson sealed
herself into the barrel and her handlers sent her
off down the river.
Here's an old photo of that brave, aging lady,
stepping, dazed, onto dry land. "Have I gone over
the Falls?" she asked the people around her.
Afterward, she tried to sell her pictures and mount
a lecture tour. It didn't pan out. She died poor at
the age of 83. She was not the kind of hero the
public wanted to hear about.
It was ten years after Edson's success that a man
named Bobby Leach repeated the trick. Leach did
stunts like that for a living. He shot rapids, did
daring parachute drops, and -- finally -- died of
injuries after he slipped on an orange peel.
The third try at going over the Falls was made by
an English barber named Charles Stephens. All they
ever found of him were some barrel staves and one
Today, authorities go to great lengths to stop the
barrel riders, the tightrope walkers, and all the
rest who crave the exhilaration of cheating death.
American fines are $25,000; Canadian fines are
$10,000 -- both with likely jail sentences and both
applying to helpers as well as to the daredevils
But after 1901, all the other attempts seem so
futile. Can anyone top senior citizen Annie Edson,
simply trying to make a buck to sustain herself in
old age? For me, all the rest pales beside her
terrible, tragicomical, determination.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds