Over The Falls In A Barrel
“WELCOME TO RIDE NIAGARA’S ULTIMATE ADVENTURE , made possible by the amazing DraxE-1000, high-technology, submersible vehicle—the only vehicle in the world that dares to take you over mighty Niagara Falls in perfect comfort and relative safety.” The speaker continues this soothing spiel as you travel along an “abandoned hydro tunnel” that deposits you in the Niagara River, immediately above the falls. Soon the craft is tossing and turning in the upper rapids; then it plunges down, down, down into the abyss below. Are you in danger? No. You’re in a computer-controlled simulator in Niagara Falls, Ontario, similar to those used to train airplane pilots—and you’re a lot safer than the people who’ve attempted this stunt in real life.
SINCE 1901 STUNTERS HAVE BEEN GOING OVER Niagara Falls in a variety of vessels, from plain wooden barrels to kayaks. For Dave Munday, the only person to go over the falls twice, it was the fulfillment of a childhood dream. For most, such as Annie Edson Taylor, the first person and the only woman to go over, the lure has been fame and fortune, which they have never gotten. Most stunters seem to become obsessed once the idea hits them, like the kayaker Jesse Sharp, who was thwarted once and came back to try again eleven years later. Few people who challenge the falls give the problem the serious engineering attention it demands, because the stunt rarely attracts the sort of person who would be capable of doing so. Thus, going over Niagara Falls is an unnecessary but nonetheless life-and-death problem that has never really been solved.
Whatever their motivation, all stunters have to deal with certain geographical and geological facts. The Niagara River runs from the eastern end of Lake Erie to the western end of Lake Ontario, a distance of thirty-four miles. In the process it flows over the Niagara Escarpment, creating Niagara Falls. There are actually two main falls, divided by Goat Island: American Falls and the considerably more spectacular Canadian (or Horseshoe) Falls. The international boundary runs down the Canadian side of Goat Island. American Falls is higher, 167 to Horseshoe Falls’s 158 feet. Moreover, the river drops about 50 feet in the upper rapids, above the falls. Roughly 10,000 years ago the falls were about seven miles north of their present position, but they slowly eroded back, creating a deep gorge in the process.
The trip over Horseshoe Falls takes a little more than three seconds, during which the stunter will reach a speed of about 60 miles per hour. Yet the drop and the turbulence are not the only hazards a stunter faces. There are huge rocks at the base of the falls. Behind them is the Cave of the Winds, formed by erosion of the soft lower layers of rock. Tricky currents and changing water depths provide further complications. A well-designed craft will be strong enough to absorb a fierce pounding and will have straps and cushions to provide the same protection for its occupant. To allow the stunter to survive the aftermath of the crash, a vessel should be easy to get out of, and many have had air supplies to allow for long periods underwater. Stunters often include some sort of ballast to keep the craft more or less upright.
Since 1903 a series of weirs and dams have been built above the falls from the Canadian side for hydroelectric purposes. The last and most important of them is the International Control Dam, opened in 1954 and stretching across two-thirds of the river a mile above the falls. The massive diversion of water for hydroelectric power has dramatically reduced the volume of water going over. At one time the combined flow over both falls averaged 200,000 cubic feet per second, varying considerably with the time of year; today it is 100,000 during the day in tourist season and 50,000 at all other times—more than 90 percent of it going over Horseshoe Falls.
Even in their reduced state, the falls provide a mighty challenge for stunters. And if the geographical and geological features aren’t enough, there’s yet another impediment, a legal one. In the early days authorities turned a blind eye on stunts or were halfhearted at best about stopping them. But since the death of William (“Red”) Hill, Jr., in 1951, stunters and their assistants have faced heavy fines and even imprisonment.
Despite the obstacles, there have been nineteen attempts to take the plunge. Six were stopped before the craft went over; in four the occupant was killed; and in nine the occupant (or in one case, occupants) survived. Another two people went over accidentally as the result of a boating mishap; one lived and one died. All the attempts have taken place in this century—half of them since 1984— and all have been over Horseshoe Falls, because of the greater volume of water and the smaller number of rocks at the bottom.
The first person publicly to propose going over the falls was P. T. Barnum. In the spring of 1856 he announced his intention of performing the feat in a gutta-percha ball thirty feet in diameter. Its interior was to be supported by hoops and rings of steel and wood. Strings of gutta-percha, coming from the joints of the rings, would meet in the center, where they would be fixed to a coat made of the same material. Barnum would be buckled into the coat and hang suspended by the four strings, safe in the middle of the ball. Lead would be used as ballast to keep it upright. He proposed trial runs using a dog, a “nigger,” and then a Yankee (Barnum himself). Not atypically for Barnum, nothing further was heard of the stunt.
THAT WAS IT FOR TALK OF GOING OVER THE FALLS until the 1880s, when Oliver Wormald and Capt. Matthew Webb both proposed going over in a rubber ball. Next there was Carlisle D. Graham, a Philadelphia cooper who called himself the “Hero of Niagara” and had navigated the treacherous Whirlpool Rapids of Niagara Gorge three times in wooden barrels. In 1886 he announced that he had gone over the falls in a barrel. Unfortunately for him, at the time he said the event had taken place he had been seen standing on the riverbank below the falls. His claim looked even less plausible after Steve Brodie, who jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge and lived to tell about it, also faked a plunge over Niagara.
Talk continued of people going over the falls, and from time to time barrels were sent over empty or with animals in them. Most of them survived the trip intact, but no one dared challenge the cataract in person until Annie Edson Taylor in 1901. Taylor, a sixty-three-year-old widow who claimed to be forty-three, was an unemployed dance and etiquette teacher from Bay City, Michigan, who needed money. She got the idea of going over the falls in July 1901 after reading about the Pan-American Exposition, which was drawing hundreds of thousands to nearby Buffalo.
Like all the stunters who would follow her, Taylor designed her own barrel. She paid for it herself. It was built from Kentucky oak an inch and a half thick, with each stave individually oiled to shed water. The finished product weighed 160 pounds and stood four and a half feet high. It was 22 inches wide at the bottom, 34 inches wide in the middle, and 15 inches wide at the top. It was girded with ten iron hoops and cost fifty dollars. Like later stunters, Taylor placed her barrel on display, first in Bay City and then in Niagara Falls.
To promote her stunt, Taylor hired a manager, Frank (“Tussie”) Russell. Russell hired Fred Truesdale, a riverman on the New York side who knew Niagara and its currents, as an assistant. Truesdale had previously sent over barrels with cats and dogs inside to test the plunge for would-be daredevils. He sent Taylor’s vessel over empty, and it survived intact. Thus encouraged, Taylor was ready to take the plunge herself.
About ten thousand people gathered to witness the stunt on Sunday, October 20, but Taylor didn’t show; the photos of her beside her barrel that she had hoped to sell weren’t ready yet. On Wednesday, October 23, spectators gathered again, although they were fewer and more skeptical. This time the winds were too high, and Truesdale was afraid that they would blow her over American Falls along with her assistants, who were towing her out in a rowboat. Again it was postponed.
Finally, on Thursday afternoon, October 24, with winds calm and photo sales brisk, Taylor began her journey. She fastened a belt around her waist and attached its long leather strap to an iron hasp screwed into the floor of the barrel. Two long, thick cushions and a pillow went in for extra protection. Three holes, corked, were ready to provide air after the plunge. Finally, an anvil weighing more than a hundred pounds was added to the bottom for ballast. Truesdale and an assistant towed Taylor out a mile or two from the American side in a rowboat, then decorously turned their backs as Taylor changed into her barrel-riding outfit. The men then cut her loose in a current that led toward the center of Horseshoe Falls.
The trip through the upper rapids and over the falls took about eighteen minutes. Afterward the barrel quickly floated clear of the falls and grounded on a reef. Annie Taylor emerged in a dazed state, asking, “Have I gone over the falls?” She never got rich, as one Niagara history explains: “Her dreams of a successful lecture-tour never materialized; people were not interested in an unattractive, middle-aged woman who had nothing to offer but her foolhardiness. She returned to Niagara Falls, where she sat in the street beside a fake barrel—her original one had been left in the water and had rotted—and sold autographed postcards. She died in 1921, a pauper.”
The next two people to test the falls were veteran stunters. The first was a middle-aged local daredevil by the name of Bobby Leach. In 1898 and again in 1910 and 1911 Leach had shot the Whirlpool Rapids in steel barrels. He also jumped from the Upper Steel Arch Bridge, near the falls, in 1908 with no parachute.
Finally, on July 25, 1911, Leach attempted Niagara’s ultimate challenge. He did it in a cigar-shaped steel barrel about eleven feet long and three feet in diameter, with a wooden bumper at each end. A harness held him in place, and he survived with minor injuries. Leach was the first to film his stunt, beginning a tradition that survives to this day (Annie Taylor didn’t think movies were respectable), and went on to make parachute jumps out of an airplane over Niagara Falls in 1920 and 1925. He died in New Zealand in 1926 of complications from slipping on an orange peel.
CHARLES STEPHENS, AN English barber with eleven children, became the second veteran stunter to test the falls, on July 11, 1920. The fifty-eight-year-old Stephens, who had challenged death several times in his life, once shaving someone in a cage full of lions, arrived in Canada with a four-hundred-pound barrel made of Russian oak bound with iron hoops. Rumors that the authorities would try to stop him turned out to be untrue; instead the mayor of Niagara Falls, Ontario, dropped by to wish him well.
Stephens made the mistake of attaching an anvil to his feet, and when the barrel went over the falls, he shot out the end. Only a few staves and a tattooed right arm attached to a strap were ever found.
The next two stunters offer a considerable contrast in design and success. Jean Lussier, a FrenchCanadian machinist who lived in Springfield, Massachusetts, chose a rubber ball for his design, somewhat similar to what Barnum had proposed. George Stathakis, a forty-six-year-old Greek author, chef, and mystic from Buffalo, stuck with the wooden barrel, the last person to do so.
Stathakis built his barrel of oak staves, four inches thick, held in place by steel hoops with heavy steel coverings protecting the ends. It was padded inside and contained tanks to supply about three hours’ worth of oxygen. Ten feet long and five feet in diameter, it weighed about a ton and cost $400.
Its weight proved fatal. When Stathakis went over on July 5, 1930, his barrel got trapped among the rocks behind the falls and didn’t surface for ten hours. It took six more hours to retrieve the barrel and get Stathakis out. A 105year-old pet turtle he had taken along survived the ordeal, but Stathakis did not. The barrel itself was in great shape, and the next year William (“Red”) Hill, Sr., used it on a trip through the Whirlpool Rapids.
Lussier had designed and built his ball on his own after failing to interest two big rubber companies in the project. It consisted of a steel framework covered with rubber and cotton. It was six feet in diameter and cost $5,000. Lussier included six inner tubes filled with oxygen and a snorkel for additional air supply, in case the ball got trapped behind the falls. The whole thing weighed 150 pounds.
Lussier’s ball was launched several miles upstream from Horseshoe Falls on July 4, 1928, and took about five minutes to reach the brink and plunge over. It remained behind the falls for sixty-five seconds before bobbing free to the surface. Afterward Lussier said that it had felt like a ski jump. A crowd estimated at between 100,000 and 200,000 witnessed the event.
For another twenty years no one dared challenge the cataract. Then, in the early 1950s, three people tried it, one with tragic results. Major Lloyd Hill, a son of Red Hill, Sr., made an aborted first attempt on July 16, 1950. He sent two steel drums over on a trial run, but when he tried the feat himself in a 725-pound steel barrel twelve feet long, it got caught by the weir for one of the hydroelectric plants. While his assistants were trying to push him off, a police officer came along and said they’d be held personally responsible if Hill went over and died. The assistants dragged Hill, kicking and screaming, from his barrel, which then completed the trip empty, much to the disgust of the crowd.
The following year two more men announced their intentions to go over in barrels: Leslie Sander and Red Hill, Jr. The Hungarian-born Sander announced that he would make the plunge on August 28, 1951, in a twelve-foot twin-hulled barrel built by the same Niagara Falls, Ontario, company that had built Major Hill’s barrel. Police seized the barrel before Sander got close to the falls. In 1953 Sander announced plans to go over on September 7 in another steel barrel but abandoned the attempt after it was badly battered in a test run.
RED HILL’S ATTEMPT PROVED PIVOTAL IN THE HISTORY of Niagara stunting. Hill’s original design was for a device made of tires, with an outer layer of inflated inner tubes, all bound together with canvas netting and webbing. Unfortunately he couldn’t afford the $1,500 he would have needed for it. He settled instead for thirteen used inner tubes, with smaller ones for the ends, bound together with secondhand, partially rotten canvas netting and webbing and canvas straps obtained from a salvage yard. The rickety craft drew three inches of water and weighed less than a hundred pounds. Hill called it The Thing and predicted that the worst he’d get would be a good dunking.
On Saturday, August 5, 1951, Hill entered The Thing about three miles upstream from Horseshoe Falls. A police officer came around and, according to one report, said nothing, dealt with the traffic jam Hill had attracted, and went on his way. Hill’s trip to the falls took ten minutes before a crowd of 100,000 to 200,000. He went over exactly where he had said he would.
The Thing emerged from the river a twisted wreck (“like a mess of soggy doughnuts,” in the words of one reporter), with Hill nowhere to be seen. A voice screamed from the crowd, “Where is he? He’s my oldest boy. I want him back! I want him back!” Some spectators thought it was a hoax, but it wasn’t. The next day Hill’s frightfully battered body was recovered wearing only a wristwatch. Authorities on both sides of the river immediately ordered a crackdown on stunting. Newspapers condemned the practice, and it was much harder to go over the falls. Within a few years no stunter would dare to announce the day in advance.
A decade passed before William FitzGerald, also known as Nathan Boya, a thirty-year-old Bronx resident, went over Horseshoe Falls on July 15, 1961. He used a rubber ball like Jean Lussier’s; in fact, he talked to Lussier before going over and got a copy of his ball’s plans, which FitzGerald modified. He called his ball Plunge-O-Sphere ; it weighed half a ton and was equipped with thirteen canisters of oxygen. FitzGerald gave no reason for going over except to say that it was personal. He was the only black person on record to try the stunt and didn’t realize that he had gone over the falls until he was rescued. After successfully completing the descent, FitzGerald was arrested by Canadian authorities, charged with “performing an act which congregates, or is likely to congregate, persons contrary to regulations made under the National Parks Act,” hospitalized overnight, and fined $1,000.
A year earlier, on July 9, 1960, an accident had occurred that put all the daredevils to shame. A seven-year-old boy named Roger Woodward went over the falls clad only in a bathing suit and a life jacket and survived. Roger and his older sister Deanne had been boating several miles above the falls with an adult friend named James Honeycutt. When the motor on their boat failed, Honeycutt tried unsuccessfully to row back to shore. Deanne jumped out and barely managed to swim to Goat Island; Honeycutt went over with the boat and drowned.
A further period of inactivity set in after FitzGerald’s plunge. Another Hungarianborn man, Tibor Hetenyl, tried to become the first to go over in a powered craft on August 24, 1976. It was a strange contraption even by daredevil standards: a converted propane tank with pontoons made from beer cans, powered by an outboard motor. It used sandbags for ballast, carried no air supply, and was sealed from the outside. It grounded before going over; if it hadn’t, Hetenyl would probably have died. One of his rescuers said it was very tempting to let him do just that; the attempt, like all such stunts, risked the lives of the rescuers.
The modern era of shooting Niagara Falls was inaugurated by perhaps the best prepared stunter of them all, Karel Soucek, who called himself the last of the Niagara daredevils. Soucek was a Czech-born professional stunt man and the first resident of Canada to try the descent. He spent hours in libraries on both sides of the river studying previous attempts, sent three barrels over to survey the currents, and tested the shock absorbency of his barrel by dropping it off the Niagara Escarpment at Hamilton, Ontario. (All testing was done in secret.) He also talked to Ken Sloggett, a riverman and a veteran of many stunting crews.
SOUCEK MADE NO SECRET OF HIS ATTEMPT. HE DISCUSSED his plans and preparations with the local press in advance but managed to elude the police. He and his crew showed that they had done their homework on July 2, 1984, when they parked a van in front of the busparking attendant to block his view and used a trash can to trigger a lift gate. Then they drove the truck containing Soucek, already in his barrel, up to the edge of the river, three hundred feet from the brink, and launched him. He made it over the falls with only minor cuts.
Soucek used a cylindrical barrel nine feet long and five feet in diameter with an outer surface of riveted steel, insulated with liquid foam and fiberglass moldings at both ends. The barrel contained radio equipment that allowed Soucek to communicate with his assistants. He had an air supply and could also breathe through a snorkel. The whole thing cost $15,000 (Canadian) for materials and labor, with an additional $30,000 to produce a video. The costs were immediately recouped in sales and interviews with the media. In fact, of all the stunters, Soucek was the only one who stood to make much money from it. Unfortunately, he died in a free-fall stunt in Houston, Texas, on January 15, 1985, when he climbed into a barrel that was dropped from the roof of the Astrodome into a tank of water. The barrel hit the side of the tank and Soucek suffered severe injuries, from which he never recovered.
Soucek remained the last of the Niagara daredevils for about a year, until Steven T. Trotter and John David Munday both successfully shot the falls. Trotter, a bartender from Barrington, Rhode Island, had dreams of becoming a professional stunt man and hoped his plunge would attract publicity. Typically, he did little research. He went over in two pickle barrels fused together and surrounded by huge inner tubes from earthmovers, sixteen feet long and six feet in diameter, with a fiberglass cap at each end. He used scuba gear for breathing and wore a harness.
The trip took place in the early morning of August 18, 1985, from Goat Island. (Recent stunters have tended to go early in the morning to avoid detection. In the old days they made their attempts in the afternoon to draw crowds.) Trotter went over in low water and hit a flat rock at the base, which acted like a chute. He nearly got a trip through the Whirlpool Rapids in the bargain, for he had made no arrangements to be picked up. After being pulled from the river, the twenty-two-year-old Trotter declared of his experience, “It was cool.” When last heard from, Trotter was tending bar in Florida.
DAVE MUNDAY, BY CONTRAST, DID EXTENSIVE research before going over, though not quite as much as Soucek had done. Munday, a diesel mechanic, is the only person to go over Niagara Falls twice (despite declaring to a judge after his first plunge that he had no desire to repeat it) and the only living person to successfully shoot both the falls and the Whirlpool Rapids. His first barrel, a fancy one that took him over the falls on October 5, 1985, was a cylinder seven feet long and four feet in diameter, with a steel shell and an inner lining of aluminum separated by foam. It cost $16,000 (Canadian), including oxygen and video and radio equipment. His second barrel, a simple one that he used on September 26, 1993, was just a steel ball with a hole for air.
On his first attempt, in July 1985, Munday tried the traditional launching site about two miles upriver from the falls. His barrel got trapped behind the gates of the International Control Dam. On his three subsequent attempts, two of them successful, his crew launched him from the Table Rock parking lot, near the brink. In 1990, when making his first attempt to go over a second time, Munday got stranded at the brink in low water and had to be rescued. He suffered minor injuries on his first trip and cracked two ribs and injured his back on his second. It’s likely he would have been killed had he succeeded in 1990. Munday’s choice of a hobby is particularly puzzling, by the way, in that he can’t swim and is claustrophobic.
There have been two attempts at two-party barrel plunges. The first was by two Niagara University students, Michael J. Viscosi and Harry J. Kallet. In October 1986 they tried to go over in a barrel that one news photographer called “an insult to all the daredevils who have gone over the falls.” It consisted of a twelve-foot-long concrete cylinder wrapped in inner tubes and covered in a green tarpaulin with automobile shock absorbers attached to round pieces of wood, held together with duct tape at the ends. Thin pieces of foam and insulation provided cushioning. When water seeped in through the clay seals, the collegians bailed out and were rescued with ropes; the barrel went over by itself and wrecked. Their punishment was more severe than that of many earlier stunters. By 1988 Kallet would complain that he had shelled out some $20,000 iirlegal fees and fines from various agencies, including the U.S. Coast Guard.
The other attempt showed a lot more thought. The occupants, Peter DeBernardi and Jeffrey Petkovich, both of Niagara Falls, Ontario, successfully went over on September 27, 1989, in a barrel ten feet long, five feet wide, and five feet tall, which used foam on a wire frame with thin shell armor and foam insulation. A square camera tower protruded from the top. The two stunters positioned themselves head to head and wore hockey helmets. They said they were pulling the stunt to promote an antidrug message, though the intended connection is unclear. Message aside, they had a few drinks before the trip and took along a case of beer for afterward—which, it could be said, only supports their case.
The craziest of all attempts took place on June 5, 1990, when the twenty-eight-year-old Jesse W. Sharp went over in a kayak. Sharp, an expert kayaker, intended to shoot out over the brink of Horseshoe Falls and drop straight down, a dozen-story fall. He didn’t. When the kayak came to the brink, it went over nose first. The river never gave up Sharp’s body; he had forgone a helmet and a life jacket in order to be easily recognizable in the video being shot of the stunt.
Is shooting the falls safer today than in the past? Ken Sloggett thinks not. There isn’t as much water to cushion your fall, he says, and that makes the rocks at the bottom potentially more deadly. His cousin Wesley Hill, a brother of Major and Red Jr., disagrees: There’s no longer a possibility of getting trapped behind the falls after going over, which was the biggest danger in the old days.
What of the future of stunting? In response to the recent string of attempts, penalties have once again been stiffened on both sides of the river. On the American side federal fines are $25,000; there are also local fines and costs and a possible jail sentence. On the Canadian side fines are $10,000, also with a possible jail sentence. These strictures apply to both the stunters and their helpers. However, penalties are not likely to stop them. In the words of Dave Munday, “It’s there, and a thousand years from now someone will be doing it.” And Munday ought to know. He’s planning to be the first to shoot American Falls in a barrel, which will require even more interesting technology.