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Going Over Niagara Falls in a Barrel: Quaint Stunt Still a Challenge to Daredevils

Associated Press

On Oct. 24, 1901, Annie Edson Taylor, a 43-year-old Michigan schoolteacher, loaded an anvil into her oaken barrel and became the first person to ride intentionally over Niagara Falls.

Since that day, 10 people are known to have made the plunge. Seven of them survived.

No daredevil made the trip for 23 years until July 2, 1984, when Karel Soucek, who was later killed attempting another stunt, rode his Styrofoam-lined steel barrel with two-way radio and oxygen tanks over the 176-foot-high Horseshoe Falls.

Two others have successfully challenged the falls since then, but some local folk say the public is not impressed anymore. Besides, they sniff, today’s high-tech barrels cheapen the stunt.

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“It really takes something far out to catch the public’s eye today,” said Donald E. Loker, city historian of Niagara Falls, N.Y. “But going over the falls doesn’t anymore. It’s been done and done and done.”

“I really wish they’d go away,” said George Seibel, author of the Niagara Park Commission’s centennial history of Niagara Falls.

Eclipsed by Space Age

After William Fitzgerald’s ride on July 15, 1961, people became more interested in man’s exploits in space, Seibel and others say. Riding a barrel over Niagara Falls, once considered the ultimate heroic feat, couldn’t compare to that.

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“We’ve gone to the moon. What else is there to do?” Seibel said.

Besides, said Ken Sloggett, a 70-year-old Canadian with intimate knowledge of the falls daredevils, today’s equipment takes a lot of the risk out of the ride. Sloggett was a crew member with the legendary river man William (Red) Hill Jr. when he made his fatal attempt on Aug. 5, 1951.

“The barrels they use today are much better put together,” Sloggett said. “Things have gotten much more sophisticated. They plan much better today, know the river and the falls better.”

Seibel agreed. “There was a mystique and more of a risk than there is today,” he said.

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An estimated 150,000 people watched Hill’s attempt, but after his death, the stunts were outlawed. Park officials are currently talking about increasing the fine for stunting from the present $500 to $2,500.

‘Out to Prove Something’

Among those who dispute the notion that the thrill is gone is Steve Simmons of Starstruck Productions, a Buffalo-based talent agency that represents Steven T. Trotter, a 23-year-old Florida bartender who rode the falls last summer and recently jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge on a tether.

“It’s not multimillion-dollar corporations who are sending people over Niagara Falls in a barrel; it’s people who are out to prove something to themselves,” Simmons said. “They are the biggest part of the Niagara Falls legend.”

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Indeed, it is still a risky business. Soucek was killed Jan. 19, 1985, while trying to duplicate his Niagara stunt in the Houston Astrodome. His barrel, lifted by a crane to the height of Niagara Falls, partially missed a pool of water when it was dropped.

Ralph Grant, owner of the Niagara Daredevil Gallery, where several of the early stunt barrels are displayed, also says that there is still a lot of public interest in the stunts. Last year, 800,000 paying customers passed through his turnstiles.

The stunts began in 1859, when Francois Gravelet, a Frenchman known as Blondin, first walked a tightrope across the 975-foot-wide Niagara Gorge below the falls.

In addition to Soucek and Trotter, John David Munday, a 48-year-old Canadian machinist, also won fleeting fame for continuing in the Blondin tradition in the mid-1980s.

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High-Tech Barrels Used

Comparing Taylor’s barrel to theirs would be like comparing the Wright brothers’ first airplane to the space shuttle.

Taylor personally supervised a cooper’s work on her barrel, made of 1 1/2-inch strips of oiled Kentucky oak. When she squeezed into her barrel and screwed on the hatch, light showed through the cracks and it had to be caulked. Air was pumped into the barrel with a bicycle pump.

Bobby Leach, on July 25, 1911, became the second person to go over the falls in a barrel. In pictures, his steel craft evokes the Monitor-Merrimac period of design. Leach later died while on a vaudeville tour in New Zealand. Gangrene set in after he slipped on an orange peel and broke his leg.

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Trotter’s barrel--which he said cost $6,200 to build--was 17 feet by 6 feet, made from two pickle barrels and lined with high-density foam that is used to pack nuclear warheads. The barrels were wrapped in 12 layers of fiberglass, cloth, foam and several inner tubes from earthmovers.

When Trotter took the plunge on Aug. 18, he wore a drag racer’s restraint harness as well as a life vest. He carried oxygen tanks, underwater flashlights and a two-way radio.

Double-Barrel Design

Munday said that the 7-foot-by-4-foot, 750-pound barrel he used for his two attempts--he was stopped July 28 and went over Oct. 5--cost him $16,000. His barrel was made from a 450-gallon neoprene sprayer tank and contained an aluminum inner tank insulated by 10 inches of foam.

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