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