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September 22, 2015

14 Famous Daredevils of Niagara Falls

Niagara has had many different faces since the arrival of the Europeans in the late 17th century. Perhaps the most exciting and missed period of Niagara's rich history deals with the "daredevils." A daredevil is one who decides risk his or her life for fame with necessary precautions and survive. The late 19th century Niagara saw the arrival of a new breed of adventurer who was ready, willing and able to go over the falls or walk over the falls for a few brief minutes of fame.

The long list of Niagara Falls daredevil history starts with Annie Taylor and the spirit of adventure continues in various forms in Niagara Falls. Due to various reasons stunting and adventures were banned in Niagara Falls till Nik Wallanda's Historic Wire Walk over the Falls in 2012, which was started with James Hardy in 1896. Their daring acts are chronicled here in the daredevil gallery below.

1. Annie Taylor – First Person to Go Over the Falls

On October 24th, 1901 Annie Taylor became the first person and the first woman to go over the falls in a barrel and survive. Ms Taylor, a 63 year old school teacher from Michigan, accompanied by her cat, decided to tempt fate in an effort to gain fame and fortune.

The Pan American Exposition was taking place in Buffalo, New York and Ms. Taylor felt she would be able to attract a huge crowd. On the afternoon of October 24th, 1901 a small boat towed the barrel containing Ms. Taylor and her cat into the main stream of the Niagara River where it was cut loose.

At approximately 4:30 p.m. the barrel was seen edging over the brink, only to reappear less than a minute laterwhere it was seen floating at the base of the falls. Fifteen minutes later the barrel reappeared close to the Canadian shore, where it was dragged to a rock and the barrel lid removed.

To everyone's amazement, Annie Taylor emerged from her barrel, dazed but triumphant. Her only injury was a cut on her forehead that she received while being extracted from her barrel.

Mrs. Annie Edson Taylor was the first person to ever go over the Mighty Niagara Falls and survive and she undoubtedly found the fame that she had been seeking.

For many years after this event she sold mementos of her feat on the streets of Niagara Falls, claiming that she would never attempt another journey over the falls, preferring to walk into the mouth of a cannon. Unfortunately, while Annie Taylor may have found the fame that she desperately sought, she did not find the fortune. She passed away in 1921, poor and destitute.

2. Bobby Leach – First Man to Go Over the Falls

An Englishman named Bobby Leach successfully made a trip over the falls in a steel barrel and was the first man to ever do so. Leach had been a performer with the Barnum and Bailey Circus and was no stranger to stunting. Prior to his trip over the falls he owned a restaurant on Bridge Street and would boast to customers that anything Annie could do... he could do better.

On July 25th, 1911 he took the plunge over the falls and spent the next six months recuperating in hospital from various fractures and contusions he suffered during his ordeal. After surviving the plunge he went on to make a good living by touring vaudeville theatres and lecture halls, recounting his harrowing experience, and displaying his barrel.

Leach returned to Niagara Falls, New York in 1920 and operated a pool hall. While in his sixties he attempted to swim the whirlpool rapids but failed after several attempts. During these aborted attempts, Bobbie Leach was rescued by Red Hill Sr., a riverman, who knew the Falls well. Red Hill Sr. would also become well known in the area for later rescues, and a son, Red Hill Jr. would also attempt a journey over the brink.

Unlike Annie Taylor before him, Bobby Leach attained some success from his endeavour. For several years he toured Canada, the United States and England, recounting his harrowing journey at vaudeville shows and lecture halls, exhibiting his barrel and posing for pictures.

Luck would run out for Bobby Leach fifteen years later, when he slipped on an orange peel and broke his leg while on a lecture tour in New Zealand. Unfortunately the first man to ever brave the Mighty Niagara and live to tell the tale succumbed to complications from his injury.

3. Charles Stephens – First to Die

The first daredevil to lose his life going over the falls was Charles Stephens. Stephens, a barber with eleven children, hoped that the fame and fortune that such a stunt would bring would help to alleviate his family from poverty. He was gravely mistaken.

Early on the morning of July 11th, 1920 he began his journey. Charles G. Stephens was the first daredevil to lose his life going over the falls.

Stephens, a 58 year old barber with eleven children, hoped that the fame and fortune that such a stunt would bring would help to alleviate his family from poverty. He was gravely mistaken. Early on the morning of July 11th, 1920 he began his journey. Stephens had built a massive wooden barrel for the trip over the falls.

Thousands watched that morning in July as Stephens barrel crested over the falls and then within seconds broke into pieces upon impact at the base of the Horseshoe Falls.

Stephens had made a fatal mistake of attaching an anvil to his feet. All that was found of Mr. Stephens was his arm, identified by a number of tattoos, still strapped into the harness. The Mighty Niagara had claimed it's first daredevil!

4. Jean Lussier – First to Go Over in Rubber Ball

Jean Albert Lussier took the plunge over Niagara Falls on July 4, Lussier, of Springfield, Massachusetts was a 36 year old machinist.

Lussier was born in Concord, New Hampshire to French Canadian parents. He moved back to Quebec at an early age but returned to the United States to become more fluent in English.

When he heard about Charles Stephen's tragic death at Niagara he became interested and shortly thereafter went on vacation to Niagara Falls to learn more about attempting a trip himself.

He began to design and build his own vessel, which was not exactly a barrel but rather a rubber ball. He was the first daredevil to ever choose an inflated apparatus rather then the usual wood barrel type of design.

Lussier's rubber ball was six feet in diameter with inner and outer steel bands for reinforcement. The inside of the ball was lined with three dozen inner tubes with a space in the center for Lussier. A 150 lb rubber ballast was built into the bottom of the ball to keep it from spinning. Jean Albert Lussierbeing helped on shore after his plunge over the falls.

He would later try to capitalize on his adventure by moving to Niagara Falls, New York and selling pieces off his "rubber ball" to tourists for 50 cents a piece. When the original rubber was used up he would find discarded inner tubes. To the locals he seemed to have a never-ending supply.

Lussier would later describe his trip over the falls as smooth, and often spoke of making a return trip over the falls. Lussier died in 1971 of natural causes in Niagara Falls, New York.

5. George Stakathis – Second to Die From the Plunge

George A. Stathakis lived in Buffalo, New York where he worked as a chef after emigrating from Greece. He was 46 years old and a bachelor when he made the decision to go over the falls in a barrel. He hoped that the revenue that such a trip would generate could be used towards the publication of his books on metaphysical experiences.

With the help of some of his friends George set about building a massive barrel made of wood and steel. Ten feet long and over 5 ft. in diameter, George had been previously warned by Red Hill Sr. that the barrel was too big and heavy, weighing nearly a ton.

On July 5th, 1930 George Stathakis, along with his pet turtle Sonny took the plunge over the falls. His barrel would survive the ride, relatively unscathed, but would be caught behind the falls for over twenty hours.

When finally the barrel was recovered George Stathakis was dead, apparently suffocated. His pet turtle Sonny, believed to be 150 years old, had miraculously survived the trip.

The barrel where George Stathaki met his untimely death is on display in Niagara Falls

Of all the barrels to go over the falls, George Stathakis's barrel was the only one to become held up behind the falls. Perhaps the massive barrel that Mr. Stathakis thought would protect him from harm actually contributed to his death.

6. Willian "Red" Hill (aka. Red Hill Jr.) – Third to Die From the Plunge

Red Hill Jr. was no stranger to the Niagara Falls and the power it possessed. His father Red Hill Sr. was well known in the area. He had helped rescue several people from the Niagara River, but he had never actually attempted a trip over the falls.

One of his sons, Red Jr. was slightly more foolhardy than the elder Hill. In July of 1950 Red Jr. announced to the media that the following year he would go over the Horseshoe Falls in a ball, similar to the one used by Jean Lussier in 1928.

Lloyd, the younger of the two, was not going to be upstaged by his older brother and decided to attempt the journey in 1950 in a steel barrel. His attempt was thwarted when his barrel was caught in a weir used by the Canadian Power Plant. After his rescue, the barrel slipped into the river and disappeared, unoccupied over the falls.

The following Summer Red Jr. followed through with his announcement, except unlike his brother, he chose not a steel barrel, but instead a contraption that he referred to as the "thing".

Some claimed it to be a rubber ball, but in fact it was fourteen rubber truck tire inner tubes covered with heavy canvas and held together with a thick net. The ends were packed with even more inner tubes and Red Jr. was held in place with even more inner tubes.

He was also equipped with a hose and mask so he would be able to get air if needed. 38 year old William (Red) Jr. had every intention of surviving the rapids that fateful day in August 1951. He joked to reporters that if the wind is right, and I can get the breaks, then I'll come out OK.

At 2:30 p.m. on August 5th, 1951 Red Hill climbed into his homemade contraption and began his trip from Usher's Creek, about a mile above the falls. At 3:05 p.m. Hill's "Thing" was spotted going over the brink and disappearing into the mist and thundering water below. Ten minutes latter, Hill"s "Thing" was recovered, tattered and torn apart. Four inner tubes had been torn loose and the netting was in tatters. Inside the only evidence of Red Hill Jr. were his shoes. The next day, August 6th, 1951, searchers pulled Hills battered body from the river.

7. William Fitzgerald (aka. Nathan Boya) – First Black Man to Go Over the Falls

Shortly before 11:00 a.m. on July 15, 1961 a large dark "ball" floated down the Niagara River and over the Falls. When retrieved by Maid of the Mist employees, the man who identified himself as Nathan Boya emerged from this 544 kg, 3m diameter rubber ball with inflated cushions wedged inside to add buoyancy. His ball, which came to be known as the "Plunge-O-Sphere" made its journey successfully over the falls.

Niagara Parks Police were there to greet him and as a result Boya has the distinction of being the first person to be charged and convicted under the Niagara Parks Act.

Boya was fined $100 and costs of $13. He gave no explanation for his trip, simply saying, "I had to do it, I wanted to do it, and I am glad I did it." Today Fitzgerald lives in the New York City area.

8. Karel Soucek – First Non-American to Go Over the Falls

Karel Soucek was a 37 yr old stuntman from Hamilton Ontario. Prior to his trip over the falls he had performed stunts such as jumping motorcycles over cars. He had also previously tried to cross the Whirlpool Rapids on a moped using the lines from the Spanish Aerocar. In 1976.

His attempt was thwarted when his moped hit a metal bolt on the cable. If not for his safety harness Soucek would have surely perished that day.

Early on the morning of July 2, 1984 an unimposing cube van pulled up to a retaining wall above the falls, and several men quickly went to work.

A plywood ramp was leaned against the retaining wall, and the barrel quickly slid into the river only 164 yds above the Horseshoe Falls.

Forty five minutes after Soucek's barrel was seen edging over the brink his companions were able to secure the barrel and release it's occupant.

His 2.7m long 1.5m diameter cylindrical-shaped barrel with fibreglass mouldings at either end was insulated with liquid foam. Equipped with a snorkel for breathing and two eye holes to look out, his trip took approximately 3.2 seconds. But he then became trapped in dangerous waters below the Falls inside his bright red barrel. After 45 minutes he was rescued by his ground crew, suffering cuts and bruises, an injury to his left arm and a chipped tooth. He was fined $500 for his stunt.

Barely six months latter, Soucek attempted to repeat his harrowing plunge over the falls at the Houston Astrodome by dropping himself, inside a wooden barrel, 180 ft. into a 10 foot pool of water.

Unfortunately for Karel Soucek the barrel hit the edge of the pool and Soucek succumbed to injuries he suffered in the fall. His tombstone reads "IT IS NOT WHETHER YOU FAIL OR TRIUMPH, IT'S THAT YOU KEEP YOUR WORD AND AT LEAST TRY."

9. Steve Trotter – Youngest Person to Go Over the Falls

Next to go over Niagara was a 22 year old part-time bartender from Barrington, Rhode Island. In a device made of two plastic pickle barrels surrounded by large inner tubes and covered by a tarpaulin, he made his successful plunge at 8:30 a.m. on August 18, 1985.

Emerging uninjured from his home-made barrel inscribed with "Support Reagan", referring to then US President Ronald Reagan, Trotter became the youngest man to survive the plunge. Two of the large inner tubes had deflated and a large dent was made in the side. The hatch was blown off but Steve Trotter managed to swim free of the craft and was picked up by the crew aboard The Maid of the Mist. Trotter, like previous daredevils, was fined. During a media conference Trotter would latter state the trip was "cool... like dropping in an elevator without a cable." He made a few television appearances and seemingly disappeared from the public eye until a dramatic reappearance in the summer of 1995.

On June 18,1995 Trotter teamed up with friend Lori Martin, a 29 year old woman from Atlanta, Georgia for the first "co-ed" barrel ride over the Falls.

Their 3.6 m (12ft) barrel was made from two pieces of hot water heater tanks welded together and coated by Kevlar. It weighed together in at 408 kg (900lbs) and was reported to have costs $19,000. A Florida investment banker funded this stunt. The barrel was equipped with 4 oxygen tanks containing enough air to last for up to one hour and 20 minutes.

Launched shortly before 9:30 a.m. approximately 91m from the brink of the Horseshoe Falls, it went over the Falls and became lodged in a rock crevice. Members of the Niagara Falls Fire Department, along with the Niagara Parks Police, had to climb over a guard rail in the tunnels to reach the trapped barrel and secure it to shore with a line. They then undid the hatch and pulled out Martin who was wearing knee pads and protective clothing; Trotter climbed out afterwards.

The barrel was trapped for nine days and was then removed by a crane for safety reasons. It remained with the Niagara Parks Commission for several weeks before weeks before Trotter returned to reclaim it, paying the costs that were incurred in retrieving it from below the Falls.

10. Dave Munday – First to Go Over the Falls Twice

On October 5, 1985 , two months after his first attempt to conquer the Horseshoe Falls was foiled by the Niagara Parks Police, John "David" Munday finally succeeded. Dressed in blue coveralls, this 48-year-old mechanic from Caistor Centre made his trip in a seven foot long, four foot diameter steel barrel. Lined with aluminum separated by foam, it was painted silver with a red maple leaf on the outside. His barrel, which included video and radio equipment, cost him $16,000 to build.

After the plunge, Munday's barrel was retrieved by his assistants below the Falls just outside the observation platform of the Table Rock Scenic Tunnels. Emerging from his barrel and climbing up over the slippery rocks, he was cheered by his crew and a few local members of the news media. Munday was the tenth person to survive the trip.

On July 15,1990 Munday once again attempted to go over the Horseshoe Falls in a "no frills" 179kg (394lb) steel barrel. The barrel became stranded by low water on the brink of the Falls and was eventually fished out by a cable attached to a crane.

On September 27,1993 John "Dave" Monday became the first person to go over the Falls twice. The 56 year old man accomplished his feat using a red and white home-made steel barrel.

At 8:35 a.m. Munday's 1.2m diameter steel ball, complete with a red maple leaf painted on the side, floated to the brink and plunged 55m into the churning waters below.

He entered the water about 100m above the falls. It took approximately five seconds to make the plunge. Once over the Falls, the barrel was towed by the Little Maid to the Maid of the Mist dock. Before emerging, he remained in the barrel approximately 45 minutes. He sustained no major injuries and he refused to go to the hospital. Munday was not wearing a protective helmet and there was only a 2 inch layer of padding inside the ball to soften the impact.

11-12. Peter Debernardi and Jeffrey Petkovich – First Pair to Go Over the Falls

Peter Debernardi and Geoffrey Petkovich both of Niagara Falls were the first team to go over in the same barrel. Positioned head to head in the ten foot 3000 lb 12 ft reinforced steel barrel, containing harness straps and two oxygen tanks. On the side of the barrel were the words " Don't put yourself on the Edge - Drugs will kill you". Small plexi-glass windows enabled DeBernardi to videotape the entire stunt. The contraption was launched into the Niagara River from the back of a truck at approximately 150 metres (492 ft) above the Canadian Horseshoe Falls.

Once over the Falls, it crested and floated for several minutes close to the base. And nearing the Canadian shore, members of the daredevil's support crew snagged it with grappling hooks. When the hatch was opened, Debernadi and Petkovich emerged with minor injuries. Climbing the bank to the Scenic Tunnels, they refused medical attention and were transported to the Niagara Parks Police Office. Here they were charged with infractions under the Niagara Parks Act.

DeBernardi was quoted as saying that it was a small price to pay to be immortalized in the history books. To discourage future stunters the fine for anyone attempting a stunt was raised to a maximum of $10,000, and the ability to confiscate the stunters barrels.

13. Jesse Sharp – Fourth to Die From the Plunge

Jessie W. Sharp, a 28 year old bachelor from Ocoee, Tennessee attempted to ride over the brink of the Horseshoe Falls in a 3.6m long kayak on June 5,1990. Sharp, unemployed at the time, was an experienced white water kayaker. Three people who accompanied Sharp to Niagara Falls to video-tape his trip told police that Mr. Sharp had been planning the trip for years. They also told police that Sharp was attempting to go over the Falls in the kayak to advance his career in stunting.

Sharps idea was to gain enough speed in his kayak to project himself over the falls and the pummeling water that would surely claim his life. He would then transverse the rapids below eventually ending up four miles downstream in Lewiston. So confident was Jesse about making the trip that he parked his car at Artpark in Lewiston and made dinner reservations for that evening.

Powerhouse operators, noticing what was about to unfold, diverted water from the river in an attempt to ground the kayaker. But to no avail, Jesse Sharp was determined, and simply skirted around the rocks in his kayak. Just as Sharp reached the brink of the falls he raised his paddle above his head and then, at 1:45 pm, the kayak plummeted over the brink and vanished into the raging waters below.

Sharp did not wear a protective helmet so his face would be visible on film. He also didn't wish to wear a life jacket, believing it would interfere with his ability to escape in the event that he was caught underneath the Falls. After "shooting the Falls", he intended to continue down river through the rapids to Lewiston, New York. He had made dinner reservations there. His body has never been recovered.

14. Robert Overacker

Robert Overacker, a 39-year-old man from Camarillo, California, went over the Canadian Horseshoe Falls at approximately 12:35 p.m. on October 1st, 1995 on a single jet ski.

Entering the Niagara River near the Canadian Niagara Power Plant, he started skiing toward the Falls. At the brink, he attempted to discharge a rocket propelled parachute that was on his back. It failed to discharge. His brother and a friend witnessed the stunt.

At first it seemed that he had survived the plunge, but the rapids have a strange way of flailing a corpses' arms around, often giving the appearance of a person swimming. Robert Overacker was later retrieved from the water, taken to Niagara General Hospital where he was pronounced dead.

His body was recovered by Maid of the Mist staff. Overacker, married with no children, became the fifteenth person since 1901 to intentionally go over the Falls in or on a device.

(via INFO Niagara)



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