Bobby Leach had already gone through the rapids below Niagara Falls twice in 1898 and again in 1910 and 1911. But his real aim was to go over the Horseshoe Falls in a barrel.
Name: Bobby Leach
Hometown: Cornwall, England
Stunt: Rode a metal barrel over the Horseshoe Falls
Date: July 25, 1911
There were many skeptics, including Anna Edson Taylor, the first and at that point the only person to go over the falls in a barrel.
The day of Leach’s feat, on July 25, 1911, Taylor received a reporter for the Cataract Journal “in the modest little parlor” of a home on First Street in Niagara Falls, N.Y., where she was resting up after her successful lecture tour through Canada.
Asked, “Do you think Bobby Leach will make the trip over the falls today?” Annie replied, “I certainly do not. I have no faith in Leach or his assertions. He is a man in whom I never placed any dependence. Still, I wish him every success and have no hard feelings for him in any way. If he makes the trip, rest assured that I would be the first to congratulate him if he came out successfully, but he will never do it.”
Annie had good reason to doubt Leach, although the diminutive daredevil had performed many feats. Later in life, he boasted of jumping from a balloon and parachuting some 12,000 feet, once smashing through the glass roof of a photographer’s studio, cutting himself badly. He said he had also parachuted into the Providence River in Rhode Island, spending more than five hours in the water before being rescued.
Leach said he arrived at Niagara Falls in 1898 to carry out a balloon ascension for the International Railroad Co., and offered to go through the rapids in a barrel for $500. He not only rode the rapids three times, but on April 21, 1911, he jumped 208 feet from the Upper Steel Arch Bridge.
But Leach, Taylor and the rest of Niagara Falls knew that the big stunt was going over the falls in a barrel. He had an immense cylindrical steel barrel – between 9 feet long and 11 feet long, depending on which description you believe — and 3 feet around made for $275 by the Dobbie Foundry Co. of Niagara Falls, N.Y. The ends were heavy wooden planks bolted to the steel shell. Inside, he attached a harness to keep him stable and a hammock to lie on.
In late July, Leach announced his plans. On Sunday, July 23, 1911, as 10,000 people lined the banks of the river and stood on the bridges across the gorge to see him go over, Leach canceled the trip because of high winds. Also disappointed were movie-makers, who stationed 22 “cinematographic cameras’ at key spots to record every second of the perilous trip.
The attempt was troubled from the start. Leach brought his barrel to a spot near the gatehouse of the Toronto-Niagara Power Co., some 1,000 feet above the falls. But there he was presented with a letter from Inspector Mains of the Provincial Police, saying “no matter how artistic a suicide was contemplated, it could not start from any part of the King’s domain.” Shooed to the American side, Leach was told by New York authorities to keep going. Finally, he was able to get his craft in the river miles above the brink.
Leach launched three wooden soap cartons, all of which headed straight into the current above the American Falls and were smashed on the rocks below. Leach called off the trip, saying that the winds were too high.
On Tuesday, despite continuing high winds again, he climbed into his barrel, determined to make the trip. Two rivermen, Al Mang and Bill Perry, towed the barrel behind their launch into the river above the falls. At Navy Island, Leach later said, he told them, “Stop a bit; it’s too risky riding in this launch. Suppose something should happen. I’ll have a try at the barrel.”
Leach climbed in, the men bolted down the hatch and towed him to Hog Island, where they rapped three times on the barrel to indicate that they had gone as far as they could go safely.
Leach kicked three times in reply, and, he said, “I felt the water rushing along outside. I was going head first but I says to myself, ‘God save the King and the Devil take the hindermost’ and away I goes.” The barrel was cut loose in the current at 2:55 p.m.
Leach said his barrel once flipped end over end in the upper rapids, then “drove hard on a rock,” which tore off one end. “I expected to see daylight,” he said. But the barrel held together as it raced toward the brink, turning and plunging over feet first at 3:13 p.m.
“It seemed a long way to the bottom, but I knew what was going on and held my breath,” Leach said. “I could tell when we went under water. Way down under we seemed to stop. Then up she came, like an express train. I felt the barrel shoot out of the water and then fall back and then I kind of lost interest for I knew the lads would get me out.” Still, Leach said, “It seemed an hour before they had me ashore and a bit of comfort between my teeth.”
Leach was helped from the barrel below the falls 22 minutes after the plunge. His first words to his rescuers were reportedly, “Who’s for a sip o’ gin?”
“He was conscious when he was lifted out of the barrel and it was discovered that his only injury was a broken leg,” reported the Buffalo Evening News. “He tried to assist himself from the barrel.” Leach, in pain, was laid on the bank while “stimulants were administered,” including oxygen. The next day, according to the New York Times, the injured leg was found to be “merely sprained.”
As he toured years later, Leach sold a pamphlet claiming that his harness broke upon impact and he smashed against the inside of the barrel, breaking his jaw and both kneecaps. He claimed that he spent 23 weeks in the hospital recovering from these injuries. But in fact, the day after the plunge, reporters found Leach, “bruised and shaken,” but happy, giving interviews in the little restaurant he operated near the lower Steel Arch Bridge.
Leach said, “Now you’ll have to speak to me nice and call me ‘Perfessor’ and maybe pay a bob or two to hear me tell about it, for I’m the only man that ever went ever inch from Chicago to Liverpool by water.”
A few days later, when Leach inspected his badly dented barrel, which had been on display near his restaurant, he found that souvenir-hunters had cut away most of the harness inside. Leach ordered that the hatch be replaced to prevent further damage to the inside of the craft.
Using the film that was made of his plunge, Leach began to tour internationally, selling postcards showing him posing with his barrel and a pamphlet titled “Over Niagara Falls in a Barrel,” touting himself as “The Only Man in the World who has performed this feat.” Of course, this was a careful selection of words, because Anna Edson Taylor was the first person to go over the falls.
On July 31, 1912, Leach announced that he had parted ways with the company that filmed his original plunge and would film a recreation of his barrel ride for his own use. On that day, business was brisk for Leach. “In a red and blue shooting jacket, he was busy selling photos of himself to admiring crowds that hung around his steel barrel,” said a newspaper report. Leach, showing the inside of “a capacious leather traveling bag,” told the reporter, “I fill this ‘ere grip with cards every morning and it is empty at 5 o’clock. That goes to show that I am still a drawing card and I’m goin’ to ‘ave picture of my own an’ don’t you forget hit.” And with that, says the newspaper, “the little man shut the grip with a snap.”
As interest in his barrel-ride waned, Leach twice parachuted off the Upper Steel Arch Bridge, then, on Sept. 24, 1919, rode his barrel through the Whirlpool rapids below the falls. Finally, he announced his intention to swim across the Niagara River, only to be shown up by William “Red” Hill Sr., who reportedly swam from the Canadian to the American side himself – and then, some said, swam back.
Leach went on to operate a hotel on Main Street in Niagara Falls, N.Y., and an establishment in Youngstown, where he ran into some trouble with the law, operating what authorities called a “speakeasy.”
In 1925, Leach, his wife, and their daughter, Pearl, “who had attained some local fame at Niagara Falls as an actress,” according to contemporary reports, devised a vaudeville act. Bobby told of his experiences at the falls, while Pearl sang and danced. The family was touring through New Zealand in the spring of 1926 when Bobby slipped on an orange peel on the street in Christchurch, breaking his leg. Infection set in and the limb had to be amputated. Leach died of shock during the surgery.
An article in the Buffalo Evening News announcing Leach’s death said, “in spite of the chances he took, Leach never accumulated any great sum of money, and old friends at Niagara Falls said he was probably penniless.”
— Anne Neville
Copyright of Destination Cinema