Since the beginning of the 20th century, daredevils have tempted gravity and the ferocity of nature by tumbling over Niagara Falls in a barrel. The first person to try this was a 63-year-old teacher named Annie Taylor on Oct. 24, 1901. She survived and afterwards said, “No one ought to ever do that again.”
Most people have heeded Taylor’s advice, but over the last 100-plus years, there are some
individuals who chose to duplicate her feat, or at least die trying. One of the most persistent characters is John David Munday, who lived to tell his story and is perhaps the most famous modern-day Niagara Falls daredevil.
Raised on a farm in southwestern Ontario, Munday developed a fascination with the Horseshoe Falls when he was a boy and his father would take the family on outings to the falls. Then a visit to the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto one year and an encounter with Major Lloyd Hill, a man made several attempts to shoot the falls and had gained notoriety as a result, generated an interest in Munday to one day challenge the falls himself.
By 1985, Munday was 42 and employed as a mechanic in a diesel machine shop, which offered access to equipment and manpower he would need to build a barrel that could withstand the rigors of the falls.
A skydiving instructor at the time and an accomplished helicopter and fixed wing aircraft pilot, Munday was no stranger to adventure. On July 28, 1985, he made his first attempt to challenge the falls. .
On the Canadian shoreline site about two and a half miles upstream from the edge of the falls, a silver and red aluminum and unbreakable plastic barrel inscribed with the words “To Challenge Niagara July 1985” on the side was launched with Munday inside. A police officer saw the 900-pound barrel placed in the water and notified Ontario Hydro, which reduced the water level five feet in three minutes, leaving Munday’s barrel stranded in a pool a long distance from the falls.
His first attempt foiled, Munday planned his next journey in the falls. On Oct. 5, 1985, the
barrel with Munday inside was unloaded from the back of a truck and launched into the water within 150 yards of the Horseshoe Falls. The barrel raced over the falls in seconds and Munday survived, receiving only minor abrasions and video taping his descent with a camera shot
through a porthole in the barrel.
Munday’s adventure was not unnoticed by authorities. He was fined $500 for stunting in the Niagara Parks and $1,000 for breach of probation in Niagara Falls Ontario Provincial Court.
Two years later, on top of Niagara Gorge south of the Whirlpool Bridge, police found a six-
foot-long barrel with the name “Dave Munday” inscribed on the side. The barrel was seized, thwarting Munday’s attempt to challenge the Great Gorge Rapids and the Whirlpool.
A short time later that same year (1987), Munday successfully ventured through the Great Gorge Rapids and the Whirlpool in the same barrel. Two hours after Munday’s sojourn, 35-year-old Nolan Whitsell guided an open plastic canoe through the same area.
For the 1987 stunt, Munday was fined $500 and given two years probation in Niagara Falls
Ontario Provincial Court.
Munday made another attempt to survive the falls in a barrel in 1990, but the barrel was caught on the rocks at the brink of the Horseshoe Falls because of low morning water levels. In 1993, though, he survived a second descent over the falls – this time in a 650-pound converted diving bell he purchased from the Canadian Coast Guard. Munday was knocked unconscious, and sustained minor bruises and cuts, but survived. The barrel was recovered at the base of the falls by the little Maid of the Mist.
From those who attempted to challenge the falls in the 19th century to modern-day adventurers like Munday, stories of the many daredevils who have challenged the falls and the gorge are brought to life, and relics from their adventures are showcased, at the new Daredevil Gallery at Niagara IMAX Theatre. The daredevil exhibit features the world’s largest collection of Niagara Falls history, including actual barrels and artifacts along with the engaging stories of Niagara’s heritage and tales of the daredevils.