Sunday, September 27, 2009

Charles Stephens - "The Demon Barber"

Welcome back. Things have eased up a bit, enough for me to return to stories of the daredevils of Niagara. I've missed writing about them, and hope you enjoy their return as much as I am bringing them to you! -MR

1991 was a notable year for tourism at Niagara. Among the region's innumerable guests were Princess Diana and Princes Henry and William. Also in the crowds that season was 81-year-old Viola Cogan. She was making a return visit to the region. Her first time in Niagara had been when she was just nine, accompanying her father on a "business trip" in 1920...

Charles Stephens was born in England in 1862. From his youngest days, he seemed to live a charmed life. Then, at the age of five, he suffered a mysterious illness and died. But his adventures were just beginning! Just before writing the death certificate, a doctor decided to give Stephens a final examination. Perhaps he had hopes of discovering the disease that had killed the child. Imagine his shock when, looking down into the coffin, he discovered the boy, eyes open and alert, looking up at him!

Stephens seemed to take his inexplicable recovery as a sign that he was a bit different from the rest of the world. He discovered that he had no fear of danger, and decided that he would take up the life of a stuntman. Unlike many who plied that career, Stephenson was legitimately fearless. Like fellow Niagara figure Red Hill Sr., he fought with distinction in the First World War, surviving three-and-a-half years when the average life-span of a British "trench warrior" was said to be twenty minutes! (It should further be noted that Stephens was in his early-50's when he accomplished those feats!)
A man like Charles Stephens needed a partner as brave as himself. He found one in his wife, Annie. Annie Stephens was awarded a certificate for ascending to five-thousand feet in a hot-air balloon; this, at a time when very few men had gone that high. Charles and Annie had eleven children. "The Professor" immortalized their relationship by having the words, "Forget Me Not, Annie" tattooed on his right arm, above the elbow.

Before and after his military career, "Professor" Stephens was a barber [one of his stage nicknames was "the Demon Barber"] between frequent stints on the Vaudeville circuit as a daredevil. One of the frequent highlights of his presentations involved a brave "volunteer" [no one is sure if Stephens brought his own or not]; the Demon Barber, who earlier in his show would demonstrate that he could shave a man [with straight-razor] in just three seconds, would perform the feat inside a cage of lions!

The community of stunters being what it was, Stephens no doubt was aware of the potential for glory and gold at Niagara. With eleven children to support, he soon decided to make the journey across the Atlantic. For good luck, he brought his family, including nine-year-old Viola.
It was the summer of 1920, high tourist season. Stephens had brought a barrel made from Russian Oak to the Falls. Fellow Englishman [and successful Falls conqueror] Bobby Leach had settled in Niagara Falls; Stephens sought him out for advice. Would that he had taken it...

Leach was horrified to learn that "The Professor" had done little or no testing of his craft. He strongly urged him to delay his Falls ride until the barrel had been thoroughly checked. No one is sure why Stephens rejected Leach's good counsel: perhaps he thought Leach was trying to talk him out of the attempt completely. Leach knew about Stephens' eleven children; he didn't want to be responsible for leaving them fatherless for lack of effort. He contacted the one man every Niagara stunter respected for information about the River; Red Hill, Sr.

Almost 90 years after the conversation, we don't know what Hill said to Stephens. It is known that Hill suggested sending the barrel over empty, to test it before an actual attempt. Again, Stephens rejected the advice.

The morning of July 11th, 1920, Hill and Leach watched Stephens preparing for the journey. The barrel had very little padding [although Stephens did wear a padded suit]. Taut straps would hold The Professor to the inside of the barrel, leaving no "give" for movement inside. Stephens' next act horrified Hill and Leach. The Professor strapped a heavy anvil to his feet. He presumed it would lend his craft ballast. But the two veteran stunters saw the danger his choice made. If the barrel plunged too quickly, as it was likely to do, the force could break out the bottom of the barrel, pulling the anvil - and Stephens, into the roiling waters.

Suddenly Leach stood up. If Hill felt obliged to stay, he said, it was his business. But Leach had not come out to watch a man die. He returned to town.
"The Demon Barber"s crew were trying to be a bit sneaky on that July morning; there were rumors that the authorities, perhaps alerted by Leach or Hill, would try to stop the attempt. Stephen's distinctive black-and-white craft was lowered into the River just after 8 AM, at Snyder's Point, three miles from the brink of the Falls. The Professor had left nothing to chance, even selling filming rights to his stunt.
The barrel moved slowly but steadily through the water, soon attracting the attention of the 200-or-so tourists who would witness the run. Stephen's crew soon took their rowboat ashore; they had no desire to face Niagara! The barrel moved on towards the powerful water at the Falls. It reached the brink at around 8:55 that morning.
What happened at that moment is a matter of speculation, even 89 years after the fact, but it's likely that, when the Professor's huge barrel hit the Falls, the force of the craft hitting the water ripped the base of the barrel away. The heavy anvil, attached to Stephen's feet, must have been sucked through the open bottom, down, down, down to the pool of water at the base of the Falls, a pool of unknown depth, created by centuries of water crashing into the rock below.
What was left of the Demon Barber's barrel was trapped at the base of the Falls for hours. Finally, the constant pounding started to smash the craft to pieces. Some of them were grabbed by spectators, looking for a memento of the day.
As the self-proclaimed "riverman", Red Hill, Sr was involved in many rescues and recoveries at Niagara. Was he a participant in the following day's search? Likely. I picture him, the man who knew more about the River's many eddies and rapids than anyone before or since, looking where Something had told him to look, and finding an arm; a tattooed arm, inscribed, "Forget Me Not, Annie". Except for a rib, it was all anyone ever found of Charles Stephens. He was the first person to die in attempting to conquer the Falls in a barrel; within a month of his demise, around 20 people had applied to local governments for permission to make the attempt.
It's said that "the apple doesn't fall far from the tree". No one really knows what Viola Cogan was thinking of during her return to Niagara. It is known that she rode a motorbike well into her 70's [I suspect the Professor would have been proud]. A few years before her 1991 visit, she was quoted as saying, "I get very cross if anyone says anything funny about him. He wasn't crazy and he wasn't a demon. He was a daredevil and there is a difference".
Next time, another adventure of Niagara. Till then, be well and happy.
-Mike Riley

Monday, July 6, 2009

A Pause In The Action...

It is with great regret that I must take a break from writing this blog. I have several personal matters to attend to, which will consume the vast majority of the time I used to spend writing it. As of now, I hope to return to blogging, in one form or another, in January of 2010.

I want to thank my readers and commentors for their friendship and insights. So that none of you will worry, please understand that my health is good. I just need to devote my full attention to these "off-stage" matters.

My intention is to leave the previously written posts up, for those who may not have yet read them.Entrecard advertisers: please be aware that I am taking no new ads. Any ads that I have already agreed to use will be presented as scheduled. I intend to leave the EC widget up, but EC may remove it because of no new posts.

Again, with regrets, I declare INTERMISSION. Smoke 'em if you got 'em...

-Mike Riley

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

"It's easier to slide up Niagara Falls than it is to understand a woman"
-Gary Cooper, as Wild Bill Hickock, in "The Plainsman"

[quote unverified]
[In our last entry, we began the story of "shootist" Wild Bill Hickock and his visits to Niagara. The account concludes here. - MR]

By the time of Wild Bill Hickock's second visit to Niagara, in 1872, he had one of the best-known names in America. Despite [or maybe because of] a muddled reporting of the facts of his life [some of which was done by Hickock himself; he stated he had personally killed about 100 men in gunfights, while the real figure was probably closer to 25], Hickock was the hero of "dime-store" novels, becoming perhaps the first media-created personality in America. But the reality was different from the myth. Self-proclaimed "best friend" Charlie Utter had begun taking on the job, when in Hickock's vicinity, of keeping him away from alcohol and gambling, Hickock's two principal vices. Being famed as the "fastest gun" in America also was becoming a curse, as more and more "young guns" wanted a chance to beat him. Hickock was still making a good living with his fame and skill [presented in shooting exhibitions], but the years were beginning to take their toll.

In October of 1871, Hickock, then serving as Marshall of Abilene, Ks., accidentally killed one of his deputies during a gun battle. The error was said to be haunting him. Perhaps he was looking to give up his "shootist" career. He had seen his friend Buffalo Bill Cody take on an easier life, as impresario of a "Wild West Show" that toured the "civilized" East. Hickock, in association with Niagara Falls showman Thomas Barnett, decided to put on his own show in Niagara Falls, Ont., near Barnett's "museum".

Barnett spent almost a year, and a great deal of money, putting the spectacular together. He went to Nebraska to purchase wild buffalo for the "hunt" sequence, as well as hiring Indians to take part [the local tribes apparently being unable or unwilling to handle the skills of their Plains brethren].

The advertising for the show, set for the end of August, was appropriately florid. Posters noted that the wild animals imported for the event would be afterwards housed in a huge park built for the purpose. The spectacle itself what set for a 15-acre park, fenced in for the spectators' safety, and capable of holding fifty thousand [the actual turn-out, around two-thousand, paid 50 cents each for the privilege].

The day started with a lacrosse match featuring the Six Nations tribes of the area. More than one contemporary account of the show declared it the highlight of the day. Then the big hunt began. Wild Bill led out a party of four Indians, augmented by four "Mexican Vaqueros". The crowd began to grumble. Was this the giant hunt they'd been promised?

Then things got worse. The "wild" buffaloes were released. There were but two, along with an ox that had been recruited at the last moment to fill out the pack. The grumbles expanded into open cat-calls and hooting. The animals, taking on the spirit of the day, did as little running as possible, and ended up grazing in the middle of the ring. A chorus of boos rained down from the spectators. Hickock was spectacular, as usual, in a shooting exhibition [until the last months of his life, when he was diagnosed with cataracts, he was one of the best shots of the era], but the damage had been done. One of the kinder reviews of the day called the event "a swindle" and "a farce".

Hickock actually put on a few more such events around the country, but never as well as his old friend Cody. His life spiralled down until, unable to see to shoot, he was forced to make a living as a gambler. Wild Bill's life ended during a hand of poker, in August of 1876. He was shot [from behind; even then, the gunman wanted to take no chances with Hickock's skill] while holding the black eights and aces, a hand immortalized ever after as the "dead man's hand". Those who claim to predict the future with playing cards believe the Ace of Spades is a harbinger of death; was Something trying to warn Hickock of his doom? Who can say?

Charlie Utter, faithful to the end, claimed Hickock's remains, and gave them rest in the Deadwood cemetery.Ironically Utter, who may have suggested Niagara to his friend, seems to have disappeared after the burial, and nothing is known of his last days.

Next time, a return to the stunters of Niagara. Until then, be well and happy.

-Mike Riley

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Wild Bill Hickock - The Shootist

[This is another in an occasional series of posts about characters who, while not fitting into the "daredevil" classification, unquestionably added to the legend of Niagara. I hope you enjoy it. - MR]

In the early days of exploration and colonization of North America, Niagara Falls was the Wild West. The area now known as Western New York state and the Niagara Region of Ontario changed hands several times in the Eighteenth - and early Nineteenth - century. Old Fort Niagara, a military compound of the era still extant in Youngstown, NY, was at various times operated by the French, British, and United States military.

Of course, by the mid-1800's, the vast majority of the American continent had been explored, and was beginning to be populated. One James Butler Hickock was born in May of 1837, in what is now Troy Grove, IL. His parents were devoutly Christian, and deeply involved in the anti-slavery movement of the era [their farm was a stop on the Underground Railroad escape route for slaves, and legend says young James Hickock picked up his phenomenal shooting skills from a young age, helping his parents defend their property from slave catchers.]. His father was killed in a gun battle with slavers when James was 14. Four years later, after a fight [non-shooting, apparently] in which Hickock mistakenly believed he had killed his opponent, he fled to the Kansas Territory. While there, he joined a vigilante anti-slave "army", and met a 12-year-old scout named William Cody. Years, later, Cody, known as "Buffalo Bill", would become another legendary Wild West figure.

While in Kansas, Hickock began his career as a gun fighter or, as some practitioners called themselves, "shootist". While several of his alleged "gunfights" have been brought into question, there is no doubt that Hickock, equipped with hand-eye coordination said to be among the best of his time, dropped more than a few challengers in single combat. (Also during this time, Hickock picked up the nickname "Duck-bill", no doubt due to his elongated nose and protruding lips. After growing a mustache, and with a little encouragement on his part [would you say "no" to Mr. Hickock?], the name was changed to Wild Bill, by which he was known the rest of his life.

Hickock served with distinction in the Union Army during the Civil War, becoming known as an excellent scout. After the War, he remained in the Army, serving a brief stint with the Seventh Cavalry [then-commanding officer George Armstrong Custer was said to be rather impressed with him]; in time, he joined up with old friend "Buffalo Bill" Cody , and made his living as a buffalo hunter. In 1867, he took part in a famous interview with Henry Morton Stanley, who would become world-famous a few years later after finding long-missing African explorer and missionary David Livingstone.

1867 turned out to be a busy year for Wild Bill. In addition to the Stanley interview, Hickock decided he'd had enough of frontier life, and moved to, of all places, Niagara Falls! While there, he decided to try his hand at acting, joining the cast of a play called The Daring Buffalo Chases Of The Plains. Skill with a handgun, however, did not translate into skills on stage. Word soon trickled out that Hickock was a dreadful actor [my definition of "the bravest person in Niagara Falls" during that time would be "anyone who told Wild Bill Hickock the truth about his acting"]. In time, even Hickock got the message, and returned to the West.

As you read the last paragraph, you may have asked yourself [as I did when I heard the story of what would be Hickock's first visit to Niagara], "Why, of all the places Wild Bill could have gone, did he select the Falls?" Well, Niagara Falls was a known tourist destination even then, and Hickock perhaps thought he could make a living with some sort of tourist attraction. But there may have been another reason.

Charles Utter was born near Niagara Falls in 1838, the year after Hickock. Most of his childhood was spent in Illinois and, on adulthood he, like Wild Bill, drifted to Kansas. It's believed the two met there, although no one is exactly sure of the circumstances. Utter was a character in his own right; just five-and-a-half feet tall, he was considered a "dandy" in his day. Utter wore hand-tooled buckskins, pistols decorated with gold, silver, and pearl, kept himself immaculately groomed, even in the wilds of Colorado, and had the unprecedented [for that time and place, anyway] habit of taking a daily bath! (This was not his only oddity: while "on the camp", he slept in a tent kept as clean as himself. He gave standing instructions to all, even his best friend Hickock, not to enter his tent on pain of being shot!) The two men kept in contact during their roving lives, and it's possible that Utter may have told Wild Bill of the wonder in his home town.
At any rate, Hickock, as noted above, first came to Niagara in 1867. Next time, the story of his return trip a few years later, and the "Wild West Spectacular" he put on that turned out to be little more than a "dog and pony" show. Until then, be well and happy.
-Mike Riley

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Lincoln Beachey - The Birdman

Niagara Falls is, without question, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World [no matter what the on-going poll on the subject may claim]. So, some may wonder, since there's already an attraction in place, why have so many daredevils come to Niagara to ply their trade? Two main reasons come to mind:

-as a natural attraction, the Falls are a great backdrop for any stunt - There seems to be something to that. Also, if stunters were unsponsored, a large crowd also provided a chance to "pass the hat" for cash, and
-the Falls themselves are a somewhat limited attraction - Please don't misunderstand me. I was born and raised in Buffalo, NY, less than 45 minutes from Niagara Falls. I currently live in Niagara Falls. Whether you appreciate tourist attractions [mostly on the Canadian side - not what you'd expect] or a more natural presentation of Niagara [the American side - who knew?], you will find the experience you want in Niagara Falls. But I have to be honest. Unless something unusual is happening, you can see the entire Niagara Falls performance in about ninety seconds. Water goes over a cliff. It drops about 170 feet. It continues on its way to Lake Ontario forming powerful rapids at several points along the way. Truth be told, that's it. They light it at night, and that's pretty, but, and I have to be honest here, you've seen everything on a normal day in less than two minutes. Not for an easy epigram did Oscar Wilde note his disappointment "in Niagara...Every American bride is taken there, and the sight...must be one of the earliest, if not the keenest, disappointments in American married life".

Of course, even the most rabble-rousing local booster comes to realize this. Thus, stunters [and what we today would call "early adopters"] were regular invitees to events in the area. Thus it was that, in 1911, organizers of an international carnival in Buffalo, NY and the cross-border community of Fort Erie, ONT offered $1,000 to any aviator who came to the event in an airplane. While only one pilot collected the bounty, officials had to be thrilled at who it was: Lincoln Beachey.

He was born in San Francisco, CA, in 1887. Mechanically skilled from an early age, he operated a bicycle shop at the age of 13, and by 15 had moved on to motorcycle and small engine repair. Just two years later, in 1905, Beachey added "dirigible builder" to his resume. He joined a touring crew of lighter-than-air stunters, and topped off his blimp career by circling the Washington Monument, then bringing his craft in for a gentle landing on the White House lawn. (Obviously, security in those days was not what it is now.)

It's said that Beachey gave up dirigibles in disgust after his self-built craft lost an air race to an early fixed-wing airplane. The next step was obvious, and Beachey soon enrolled at the Curtiss Flying School, operated by aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss. In those days, Curtiss' school was one of only two in America [and possibly the world]; the other was operated by the Wright brothers, who had begun the airplane era just short of a decade earlier. Beachey crashed the first two planes he flew, emerging each time uninjured, but infuriating Curtiss in the process. He was ready to boot the brash Californian, but was persuaded to give him one final chance. When no instructor could be found to fly with him, the nonplussed Beachey took the controls alone. This flight was the first of many successful ones for Lincoln Beachey. He soon joined the Curtiss School's stunt-flying team. By the end of the following year, 1911, Beachey's stunting had become Curtiss' principal source of funding for his school, as well as his airplane construction company [at Beachey's peak it was said he earned more in a single day of flying than the average American earned in a year].

While in the area for the Can/Am exposition, Beachey looked at possible stunts he could perform. His inspiration came during a visit to Niagara Falls: it was the Honeymoon [or Lower Arch] Bridge, joining the US and Canada at Niagara Falls. At this point in the story, there's a small mystery: did Beachey receive an offer from the typical "group of Niagara businessmen" to attempt a new feat, or did Beachey come up with it all on his own? At this point in time, there's no knowing, and it truth, it probably doesn't matter. At any rate, Beachey took it into his head that he could fly his plane UNDER the Bridge, then continue to a safe landing!

In those days, there was a much higher degree of laissez-faire when it came to stunting at Niagara. If someone wished to risk his or her neck by trying some half-crazy feat, that was their business. Besides, the stunters usually brought big crowds to the Falls, which meant the likelihood of big money for local taverns and restaurants. Then again, even businessmen rubbing their hands together in anticipation of the turnout had to be at least a bit concerned. What if he crashed? What if he crashed into the bridge, and somehow brought it down?

The stunt was set for June 27th, 1911. A cool drizzle was falling that day, making those who feared a tragedy more nervous [ironically, Beachey, during a short-lived "retirement" a year or two later, criticized the majority of spectators at stunt shows, claiming they wanted nothing more than to see the injury or death of the brave daredevil]. Beachey took off from a near-by field, then flew slowly over the Falls. Then he aimed his plane downriver, towards the Lower Rapids, and the Honeymoon Bridge. Beachey needed enough speed to keep his craft, described in one press report at the time as "looking like a beat-up orange crate", level and stable, while giving himself enough control to shoot the arch.

Beachey picked up his speed to 50 mph, an incredible speed for the times. He brought the plane down to about 20 feet above the rapids that extended beneath the bridge. Somehow, he fired through the arch at the bottom of the bridge! But his "workday" was not over yet. Just past the Honeymoon Bridge were two railroad bridges that crossed the River. He had to get the plane above their level and fly above them. Desperately, he pulled back on the "control stick". The nose of his fragile craft inched slowly above the bridges. With a mighty roar, Beachey soared above the two obstacles, then gracefully brought his plane to the ground! He had conquered Niagara! But, as we have seen, Niagara is frequently in no hurry to claim its vengeance...

It's now 1915, almost four years since Beachey's Niagara stunt. In the interim, he had become the greatest stunt pilot in the world. Among his feats: the first to fly a plane indoors; the first to reach "terminal velocity" and safely land his plane; the first American to "loop-the-loop"; the inventor of sucessful techniques to control a plane that had gone into a "stall". Among his fans, no less a showman than master magician Harry Houdini [himself famous among aviators as the first person to fly an airplane over Australia]. The only feat left for Beachey was to become the first person to fly an airplane upside-down. To this end, he'd had a special monoplane built, one that he felt sure would permit him to fly inverted. Beachey had practiced with this plane in secret, low-level flights, and believed himself ready to show his new stunt. On March 14th, 1915, he took off in his native San Francisco to attempt inverted flight. It's believed a quarter-million people were watching as he took his craft up. He did a couple of loops, then slowly flipped the plane over. Beachey was exultant! He had become the first person ever to fly a plane upside-down! In his exuberance, though, Beachey was slow to realize that he was in serious trouble. He was too close to the water to complete the set of maneuvers needed to flip himself back over!

Beachey desperately pulled back on the control stick. But the force going over the wings was too much! With a crunching sound. the wings sheared off the fusilage. Helpless, the plane fell headlong into San Francisco Bay. Rescue boats rushed to the crash site. But it took almost two hours to pull Beachey from the water! Doctors spent three hours trying to revive the man known as the "World's Greatest Aviator". But it was in vain. An autopsy later determined that Lincoln Beachey had survived the crash, only to drown when unable to free himself from the wreckage.

Had Beachey's "stunter's luck" run out, or had Niagara reached out to claim another victim, with the help of its brother waters in the Pacific, ironically named "the peaceful ocean". There is no answer, of course. All this writer knows is that another story of those who challenged the thunder is coming soon. Until then, be well and happy.

-Mike Riley

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Carlisle Graham - The Cooper

When most people thing of stunts at Niagara that involve barrels, they naturally picture someone going "over the Falls" in a barrel. But barrels were used in other forms of stunting at Niagara, even before Anna Edson Taylor's successful 1901 adventure. In fact, the first stunt involving a barrel took place some fifteen years early, in 1886. Daredevil Carlisle Graham [see left] rode his craft through the Whirlpool and Lower Rapids. His story is an interesting one.

Graham was born in England, where he was trained as a barrel-maker [cooper]. He was a new immigrant to the United States in 1886, living and working in Philadelphia. To make the Gorge attempt, he constructed a five-and-a-half-foot tall oaken barrel, strengthened by handmade iron hoops. Graham brought the barrel to Niagara, following extensive publicity promoting his attempt.

In the early afternoon of July 11th, 1886, Graham lowered himself into the vessel. His six-foot height forced him to crouch inside the barrel. Before it was sealed, his assistants covered his entire body in waterproof canvas, except for his arms. These were left free, so he could grasp metal handles attached to the barrel's interior. The barrel was released from what is now the Whirlpool Bridge, and made its way into the roiling waters. Graham's ride took about a half-hour; at its conclusion, he was freed, and found to be in fair condition. He was very dizzy, and physically sick from the pounding he took inside his craft, but otherwise uninjured.

Graham announced that for his next Rapids trip, scheduled for mid-August, he would ride with his head outside the barrel, exposing himself to the pounding of the waters [and the possible pounding against a rock or two]. In the interim two of Graham's associates, George Hazlett and William Potts conquered the Rapids in consecutive rides on the same day, August 8th, using Graham's now well-worn barrel. And the day before Graham's second trip, August 18th, James Scott, from the nearby community of Lewiston, NY, died while attempting to swim the Rapids.

Despite any [understandable] trepidation he was feeling, Graham made his second attempt as scheduled on August 19th, 1886. The horrific pounding his exposed head took from the continuous force of Niagara didn't kill him, but did cause him the loss of most of his hearing. Graham had had enough from the River for the time being. But his exceptionally strong barrel [probably considered "lucky", since no one who'd ridden in it had died] had more work to do.

In November of 1886, late in the "tourist" season, George Hazlett took a second ride through the Rapids, this time accompanied by girlfriend Sadie Allen. Their co-ed journey was also successful.

Graham took the "lucky" barrel for another successful ride through the Rapids on June 15th of 1887. It's likely he spent the next two years in design, fund-raising, and construction of a new larger barrel. The new craft, a foot taller than his six-foot model, was given a successful debut on August 25th of 1889.

During the two-year interval, Graham began discussing a more ambitious plan; a journey over the Falls themselves [could this be where Anna Edson Taylor got the idea for her Niagara challenge?]. A few days after his successful Rapids trip in the new barrel, Graham entered a Niagara Falls tavern, soaked and terribly shaken. Calling for whiskey, he told the patrons that he had accomplished the impossible; he had ridden his craft over the Falls, and returned to tell the story! Graham was soon telling that story to a reporter, noting that he "felt like a man who has passed into the painless portion of death by drowning...There was a terrible roar in my ears. I tried to speak aloud in the barrel to break it, but I couldn't".

Graham rapidly became the toast of the town. That is, until an investigation of his claims by a local newspaper revealed that his account was nothing more than an elaborate hoax. Around the same time, Steve Brodie, who claimed, with little evidence, to have jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, took credit for a leap into Niagara, wearing an inflated rubber suit for protection. His Niagara claim was soon found not to hold water, and he was run out of town. Graham, too, fell from view.

But not forever. Carlisle Graham next appeared at Niagara in 1901, the year of the Pan-American Exposition at nearby Buffalo. On July 14th of that year, Graham made a fifth trip through the Rapids. While he survived the trip, it was close. His barrel became trapped in an eddy at the Whirlpool for twenty minutes. Before it was freed, Graham nearly died from lack of oxygen.

September 6th, 1901, was an exciting day in Niagara Falls. The US President, William McKinley, in the area for the Exposition, spent his morning at the Falls. It's uncertain whether he saw Martha Wagenfuhrer become the first woman to complete a Whirlpool - Rapids trip solo [as you may have guessed, she borrowed Graham's barrel for the journey]. What is known is that McKinley returned to Buffalo that afternoon, for a public reception at the Temple Of Music on the Exposition grounds [the picture at right shows him arriving that day]. While shaking hands, he was shot by Leon Czolgosz.

Early reports on the President's condition were optimistic. In light of this, Graham and his associates decided to continue their plans for a stunt on September 7th. Graham had set up a feat with friend and fellow stunter Maud Willard. The plan called for Willard to ride the Graham barrel through the Rapids, then exit, join Graham, and swim together to nearby Lewiston. The Rapids portion of the trip passed without incident. Then, trouble! The barrel became trapped in an eddy at the Whirlpool, spinning for several hours before it could be freed. It was a complication, but not a crisis. After Graham's near-fatal ride earlier that summer, he had added a single air hole to the vessel, for just such an emergency. While rescuers tried to free Willard, Graham continued his swim to Lewiston.

When he finally returned to the Falls, Willard was still trapped inside the barrel. Finally, it was freed, and dragged to shore. There the Graham team made a horrible discovery; Maud Willard had suffocated inside the barrel! It turned out that Willard was so confident about her part in the adventure, she had brought her pet fox terrier along for the [barrel] ride. When the barrel became trapped, the dog presumably panicked, and wedged its nose into the only air hole. Unable to free itself, the terrier cut off Willard's only source of air. While she died from lack of oxygen, the dog suffered no ill effects from its ordeal.

Carlisle Graham appears to us one more time, in 1905. On July 17th of that year, Graham raced a William Glover, Jr to Lewiston, swimming through the Lower Rapids. Glover, some thirteen years younger than Graham, easily beat him.

With that, Graham disappeared from public notice. The exact date of his death has been lost to history. It is known that he's buried in Oakwood Cemetery, in Niagara Falls, NY, in the same section as Anna Edson Taylor, and other Niagara Daredevils.

We'll tell you another story of Niagara in the next posting. Until then, be well and happy.

-Mike Riley

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Long Night

[First, a quick update on our last entry. The man who was swept over Niagara, yet lived to be rescued, is said to be continuing his recovery. His identity, at the request of family members, has been kept out of all reports. No one has actually said so, but it's believed that he was a person drawn to the mighty River to end his life. Such stories are not the focus of these pages, and so, unless some unusual circumstances come to light concerning his situation, we will write no more of him.]

Our last few posts have looked at adventurers who challenged Niagara and won. But the panorama that is the River's history has many more points of interest than the stunters. This entry looks at a man of the 19th-Century, and the night he spent in the churning waters, inches from death.

Anyone who lives near water, especially fast-moving water, knows that the flow carries many things. Gravel and soil are pulled up from the bottom, and carried along the water's course. Such build-ups are periodically dredged by special barges, called scows [one such of the 19th-Century is pictured above]. The gravel is frequently salvaged, and used in construction. Dredging is thus a profitable, if dangerous, activity, and continues to this day.

But let us turn to a July day in 1853. Three men are working in a dredging scow, anchored east of Goat Island, in the channel directly above the American Falls. About midday, the three decided to break for lunch, or perhaps a scupper of cold beer [after all, these were hard-working men]. The only way for the men to return to shore was by a small rowboat. As their journey began, the three soon realized that the River's current was much stronger than they had expected. One of their oars snapped like a twig. The small boat was out of control, heading for the American Channel, and certain death awaited at the Falls! Suddenly the small rowboat capsized, sending two of the men [whose names are lost to us] to their deaths. Somehow the third, Samuel Avery, saw some tree roots a few yards from the brink. More amazingly, he was able to struggle against the current, and pull himself to a secure grasp. The waters of Niagara continued to pound him as he held on desperately. Avery began to scream for help. But the water was so loud that no one on shore could hear him, and his position in the water made him invisible to the tourists on shore. He secured himself as best he could, and waited.

A question for you, the reader; how long have you waited for something before despair began to set in? How long have circumstances kept you adrift on the edge of certain destruction, before help came to you? Avery knew his doom was imminent; he had just watched his fellow workers plummet over the brink to death. His only hope was to cling desperately to the roots, and hope that somehow, some way, help would arrive.

Samuel Avery's ordeal lasted the rest of that July afternoon. It continued as the skies grew dark with evening. The last of the tourists disappeared into the darkness. Avery was alone, gripping a root, holding on in a desperate attempt to survive. How his arms must have ached! His body was pounded by the force of Niagara. But still Avery held on. He may have prayed [which of us wouldn't have?]. He may have cursed his God for setting him in that place, that time, that seemingly endless peril [which of us wouldn't have?]. Still Avery held on. The skies grew dark, then lightened a bit as the Moon and stars appeared. Still Avery held on, clinging to the only thing that could keep him alive. The roar of Niagara must have deafened him. Its pummeling must have made him numb. But still he hung on to the roots.

Samuel Avery held onto the roots all through that night. Half-submerged, he watched the sky get slowly bright at dawn. He probably knew not what would happen next; all he knew was to hold on, and hope for aid.

Amazingly, that aid came. Some early-morning tourists spotted Avery, desperately clinging to life, signalled to him that they'd seen him, then went for help. The 19th- Century-equivalent of "first responders" came out, and examined Avery's plight. There was no way to reach him from where he was. After some rapid thinking, a boat tethered to the nearby Bath Island Bridge was lowered into the water. It was hoped that Avery could clammer into it, then be pulled to safety. Avery stretched out as far as he could, only to watch the boat sweep past his grasp. Another boat was lowered, then another. Finally, one of the vessels came within Avery's grasp. With the last of his strength, he pulled himself inside. But Niagara was not ready to surrender her prize! A sudden push in the current knocked the boat over like a toy. Avery was again in the water. But now he couldn't reach the roots. The boat was moving wildly in the water, and was impossible to grasp. In that moment, Samuel Avery realized that the long night, the struggle, the fear, had all been in vain. Raising his arms in submission, he screamed wildly as he was carried over the edge, into oblivion.
What does a man think, on the edge of death, as he fights with his entire strength to live? Truthfully, I cannot answer. But, should you encounter him in some lonely corner of the Afterlife, Samuel Avery would be a good person to ask.
Another story of Niagara comes soon. Until then, be well and happy.
-Mike Riley

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

"The Impossible" - Again

When I set up this web site, I really never thought that I'd be covering news in it. But "the impossible" has happened - again! Wednesday afternoon [March 11, 2009], a man went over the Canadian, or Horseshoe, Falls - without protective equipment of any kind - and survived! Here's a report on the incident [with in-page video]from Buffalo, NY TV station WIVB:

As this is being written [pre-dawn, March 12], the man's name and current condition are unknown. If he survives, he would become only the second person in recorded history to survive a Falls plunge without protective equipment. The first was Kirk Jones, featured in the next story [also with in-page video] , again from WIVB-TV:

[Jones' story will be the subject of a future post on this site. Watch for it]
As anyone who watches those "Magic Revealed" shows on TV would expect, there is much puzzlement about how Jones, and the unidentified jumper Wednesday, survived their plunges. Yesterday's incident is difficult to explain on a few levels:

-how could anyone survive the pummeling waters during the descent? - the waters of Niagara have carved the River's path through miles of solid rock over the centuries. One telling fact; there is a pool of water directly below the Horseshoe Falls. Despite the fact it is in water tranquil enough to operate tour boats [The Maid Of The Mist boats have used this route for over a century], no one knows how deep the pool is!

-what about the rocks behind and beneath the Falls? - here both Jones and the unknown jumper had a little luck [or, in the case of Jones, possibly planning. We'll touch more on that in his story]. Both men went over the Horseshoe Falls. Had either one had the misfortune to enter the water at the American Falls, it's likely they would have perished on the massive pile of rocks at its base.

-could the weather have played a part? - perhaps. I don't remember the weather conditions when Jones leaped in 2003 but, in recent days, there has been a good deal of rain in this area [in fact a flood watch was in effect for much of Wednesday]. Temperatures have been above freezing, melting much of the snow and ice around here, pushing more water into the River. This comes into play when you become aware that, during Winter months, the water flow over the Falls is reduced, allowing more electricity to be generated by power plants in the US and Canada. Jones speculated that a rush of water may have pushed him out past the rocks, allowing him to land in the pool at the base of the Horseshoe Falls. Could the increased flow of water from the rain and snow run-off have aided our unknown jumper?
All questions that may, or may never, be answered.

There is something magnetic about Niagara. Even in the coldest days of Winter, tourists arrive from around the world to view, to contemplate, to ponder. And sometimes they arrive for other reasons, as someone did one day in the 1980's:

A good question, Fred. It's believed on the order of 2,000 people have killed themselves by plunging into the roiling waters of Niagara in the last 40 years. And suicides at the Falls are not a new phenomenon; reports exist of suicides there as far back as records have been kept. Is Niagara cursed? A question to ponder...

I'll update this story as more information becomes available. Till then, be well and happy.

-Mike Riley

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Bobby Leach: The Wildman

Looking through the history of stunting at Niagara, one simple fact becomes obvious: these people did not think the same way that you and I do. Even Anna Edson Taylor, whose 1901 challenge of the Falls was carefully planned and carried out, had somehow come up with the idea of riding Niagara inside a barrel in the first place. Mrs. Taylor was no stuntwoman, but a desperate person, hoping for fame and fortune, or, in darker moments, the death that would end her financial woes. What, then, of an actual stunter attempting her feat?

Bobby Leach was born in Cornwall, England, in 1858. Though details of his early years are somewhat vague, he came over to the United States at some point, and spent several years touring with Ringling Brothers' Circus as a stuntman. Eventually tiring of the touring life, he settled in Niagara Falls, opening a restaurant. While Leach had lost the taste for constant travel, he was still vitally interested in stunting. He concocted a plan to attempt what he called the "Triple Challenge":

-a barrel trip through the Rapids to the Whirlpool,

-a parachute jump off the Upper Suspension Bridge into the swirling River, just above the Rapids, and

-riding the Falls in a barrel [It's unclear if he considered this part before Taylor's 1901 Falls stunt].

He jumped from the Upper Bridge on July 1st, 1908. Leach's successful parachute landing made him the fourth person to achieve that feat. He conquered the Rapids in 1910 [although at least one source claims he accomplished the feat twice as early as 1898]. His 1910 attempt was not without difficulties; during his first try that year [when he may have been testing his Falls barrel], Leach became trapped in the Whirlpool. He had tied an anchor to his craft for ballast, but rocks tore the rope it was attached with apart. As he crashed wildly from boulder to boulder in the water, riverman Red Hill, Sr. was called for. He swam to the barrel, tied a rope to it, and dragged it to shore. Leach, knocked unconscious by the pummeling water and rocks, was fished out of the device. To add insult to injury, Hill slid into Leach's barrel, and rode it through the Lower Rapids to the nearby Canadian community of Queenston! During that summer, Leach made three successful trips through the Rapids.

On July 25th, 1911, Leach entered his eight-foot-long barrel. It was cigar-shaped and, unlike Taylor's craft, was made of metal. Leach's crew steered it towards Navy Island, where the current would carry it to the Horseshoe Falls. He was cut loose around 2:55 pm. The barrel moved slowly to the brink, taking eighteen minutes to go over the Falls. Once it cleared the Falls, though, a new problem arose; the barrel became trapped in the pool of water at the base of the Falls. 22 long minutes passed before Fred Bender [employed by the Ontario Power Corporation] was able to swim to Leach, tie a rope to the craft, and pull him safely to shore. Leach's ride was not as safe as Taylor's had been a decade earlier; the pounding had broken both his kneecaps, as well as his jaw. Still, he was able to shout drunkenly to the crowd, "Ain't nobody got nothin' on me now!"

Leach spent the next six months in a hospital, recovering from his injuries. Then he embarked on a world tour to tell of his exploits. In this, unlike Anna Edson Taylor, his luck was spectacular. Unlike Taylor, whose barrel was stolen by an unscrupulous manager, he kept control of his, making it a major prop in his presentation. Unlike Taylor, the old showman Leach embraced the music hall and Vaudeville circuits, and made a fortune telling of his stunts. Unlike Taylor, whose film of her stunt was somehow lost, Leach showed his footage wherever he went [Supposedly, the film was shown so much during his first year of touring that it wore out. Undaunted, Leach returned to Niagara, filmed his barrel going over empty, and showed that instead!].

After a few years, Leach again tired of touring, and returned to Niagara Falls, where he opened a pool hall. But the desire for stunting had yet to leave him. In his sixties, he made two attempts to swim from beneath the American Falls to Canada, but failed both times. He is known to have made a parachute jump from an airplane in 1920; he failed in his goal of landing in the River, ending up in a corn field miles from the water [Some sources say he made a second attempt, with similar results; other reports say he was disappointed with the result of his first effort, and cancelled the second attempt]. Through it all, he continued to tour with his barrel, his film, and his stories.
In February of 1926, he was in New Zealand, yet again on the music hall circuit. While taking his daily walk, he slipped on a piece of orange peel, fracturing his leg in the fall. The leg became gangrenous, and had to be amputated. But the poison had entered his body and, in those days before antibiotics, doctors could not cure his infection. Aged 67, he died on April 26th, 1926, in Christchurch, NZ.
Next time, another story of those who dared to challenge the thunder. Until then, be well and happy.
-Mike Riley

Monday, January 12, 2009

Beauty...and Disaster, at Niagara

Ask any winter tourist at Niagara Falls if the water ever freezes, and he or she will probably call it impossible. And, strictly speaking, the tourists are correct. But ice frequently forms over the water, especially the relatively tranquil pool at the base of Niagara [the route used by the Maid Of The Mist tour boats]. Before the 1960's, when an ice boom was first installed further up the River, huge chunks of ice from upstream would rush over the Falls, then collect in piles at the base. The constant flow of water would form more ice over them, giving them a solid and massive structure [don't believe ice can form so solidly? During World War II, the Allies actually investigated constructing aircraft carriers out of ice combined with wood pulp]. In fact, before construction of traditional bridges to span the River, the so-called "ice bridges" were the only way to cross Niagara.

Records of ice depth and size have been kept over the years; a look at some of the larger ice bridges can be found here. In years when the ice was thick enough, residents and tourists alike were known to walk on them, play outdoor games on them, even set up shanty-town villages of shacks on them to serve food and drink to those who came to play. Such a year was 1912.

In 1912 the ice bridge began to form in mid-January. By the 20th, it was considered solid enough to allow people on it. Indeed, the bridge that year was said to be particularly solid. Soon, the shacks went up to take care of visitors' needs. One of those huts was operated by "Red" Hill, who sold hot beverages and snacks to passers-by. Business was pretty good the morning of February 4th. By noon, some 35 people were on the densely-packed ice.

Suddenly, Hill felt a small tremor beneath his feet, followed by a creaking, grinding sound that could be heard over Niagara's mighty roar. As noted above, the ice bridges were usually solid. But they were only safe while moored to both sides of the River. If the attachment to either shore became loose, they would rock up and down above the constantly-rushing waters, and the internal tension would force them to pieces. Hill realized that the bridge was about to collapse. Knowing more than thinking about what to do, he began to herd the crowd towards the Canadian shore, which seemed more stable. Most of the people were able to flee the bridge to safety. But four remained: Eldredge and Clara Stanton, regular visitors from nearby Toronto since their marriage six years earlier, and two 17-year-olds from Cleveland, Ignatius Roth and Burrell Hecock. Moments before the groan, they could be seen throwing snowballs and playing leapfrog on the ice. Now, they were desperately running for shore.

Startled by the sudden, earthquake-like rumble, the Stantons headed for the unstable American shore. Just before they reached safety, the disconnected American side of the bridge began shaking wildly, separating completely from the shore. Precious seconds were lost while Eldredge and Clara reversed directions and began a desperate dash for safety on the other side. The struggle must have been horrific, with the two of them forcing their way across the shifting ice, slogging in sleet and trying to navigate sudden gaps in the surface. Just 50 feet from safety, Clara's strength gave out. She fell, exhausted, to the ice. Eldredge tried to lift his wife, but his strength was fading fast. Running out of time, he valiantly tried to drag his wife to shore, screaming for help.

Meanwhile, Hill, along with a friend, William Lalonde, managed to pull Roth to solid ground. They shouted for Hecock to jump the ever-widening gap between the bridge and shore. But he'd heard Eldredge's desperate cries for help. He ran back to the Stantons, and helped Eldredge bring Clara to her feet. But time was running out! The ice bridge was free of both shores now, and rushing headlong for the Whirlpool Rapids.

The remains of the ice bridge rushed down the River. Suddenly, it crossed the path of a strong, man-made current - a waste-water duct from one of the power plants lining the shores. The force of the water acted like a saw, cutting part of the ice away, and forcing the three unwilling passengers to the other side [towards the Canadian shore]. If they could have remained on the cut-away piece, they would have ground to a halt on the American side of the River. Their ice flow, however, continued, faster now, towards the Whirlpool.

But there was still a chance! Further down the River, before the Rapids, two Massive regular bridges crossed the Niagara. Rescuers were forming massive ropes, hoping to lower them to the Stantons and Hecock. Then the ice flow divided again, leaving The Stantons towards the Canadian shore, and Hecock floating in mid-stream. His fragment of ice reached the bridges first. A rope was lowered, and, incredibly, Hecock managed to grab it! The men above desperately pulled on the rope, trying to lift Hecock free. Their first attempt plunged him into waist-deep freezing water. The rescuers pulled harder. Slowly, Hecock rose from the River. Then, about 60 feet up, he lost his grip! Burrell Hecock flailed madly in the air, before plunging into the raging Niagara. No one saw him again.

The crews still hoped to save the Stantons. A rope was lowered as they passed the bridge. Eldredge, seeing Hecock's vain attempt, tied the rope around his wife's waist. But the ice flow continued downstream, the rope,became taut, and snapped. But the Lower Bridge was still ahead! One more chance! The rope was lowered. Eldredge began to secure it to his wife, then suddenly stopped. What must have he been thinking in that moment! It seemed, finally, that Eldredge had had enough. Rather than hope for an unlikely miracle, the Stantons seemed to surrender themselves to the inevitable, two more sacrifices to the angry God that seems to rule Niagara at times.

Eldredge and Clara Stanton were seen by the horrified crowds watching the drama to drop to their knees, likely in prayer. Eldredge put his arms around Clara as they knelt. Then, they reached the Rapids. A giant current spun them around, then flipped their sorrowful craft over. They sank below the water, never to be found.

After the tragedy, officials quickly moved to declare the ice bridges off-limits. They remain so to this day, and probably will forever.

"Red" Hill received his second heroism medal for his quick work getting most of the 35 souls to safety. But he said afterwards that he would carry the sight of the Stantons and Hecock's deaths to his grave.

We will see more of William Hill in future posts. In fact, he again plays a large part in our next entry, a look at the second person to ride the Falls in a barrel to safety. But this daredevil, Bobby Leach, was as un-alike Niagara's first conqueror, Anna Edson Taylor, as two people could possibly be. Till then, be well and happy.

-Mike Riley

Thursday, January 1, 2009

William "Red" Hill Sr.; The Riverman

Few names are as inexorably linked with the history of Niagara as the Hill family, and especially the father, William "Red" Hill, Sr. The photo at left is from his display at the Daredevil Hall Of Fame (A larger version of this photograph is available here; it's worth a moment of your time, if only to see some of the information about Hill painted on his barrel). Hill is credited with saving the lives of 28 people. He was also honored by the Canadian Humane Society, for rescuing birds that went over the Falls and survived. He remains the most-honored rescuer in Canadian history. Many of those courageous efforts are connected with the River. When Bobby Leach made his successful plunge over the Falls in a barrel [more about Mr. Leach in a future post}, it was Hill who brought his barrel to safety and helped free Leach. When the Niagara scow became trapped just above the brink of the Falls, Hill rescued the two men aboard [another story for a future post]. Hill was also frequently involved in recovering the bodies of accident or suicide victims from Niagara, a task he performed some 177 times.

William Hill was born in 1888, in Niagara Falls, ON. His distinctive red hair soon gave him the nickname "Red", which he would carry for the rest of his life. Even as a child, Hill was brave; at the age of eight, he received his first medal for heroism when he rescued a young girl from a burning house. Also from a young age, Red was obsessed with the River. To the consternation of his mother, he would regularly skip school to study Niagara. In time, he gave up all formal education, choosing instead a life-long course of study on the River. He would throw sticks, tin cans, rope, whatever came to hand, and watch how they travelled in the water. Did they flow smoothly? Did they spin because of underwater currents? Did they sink, or float, or even fly out of the water? Red Hill could tell you, and where. It's believed that no person has ever known the intricacies of the Niagara River around the Falls better than Red Hill.

But William Hill was not just a hero of Niagara. During World War I, he served with the Royal Canadian Army, and was wounded four times by sniper fire. He also faced mustard gas in the field, which severely damaged his lungs. A doctor treating him suggested that he would fare best in a warm, dry climate, having no idea that Hill was from the cold, damp region of Niagara. But Hill came home, bearing two medals for bravery under fire, and spent the rest of his life as he'd spent the years before the war; always studying, watching, pondering the River.

Someone once asked Red Hill what he called himself. He responded that he was just a "riverman". In time, news stories began to use the term to describe him. So, too, will we refer to him. He will appear throughout many of the stories ahead, and stars in our next entry, a snapshot of a long-gone time, and the circumstances under which he received his second bravery medal. Until then, be well and happy.

-Mike Riley