Not all people flock to Niagara Falls to marvel at the majestic natural treasure or traverse the trails at the Niagara Gorge Trail & Hike Center. Over the years, some visitors have strayed away from the scenic overlook areas and ventured off the designated trails to walk over the gorge on a tightrope.
A trained circus performer, Jean Francois Gravelet, who was also known as The Great Blondin, was the first of the Niagara Gorge tightrope walkers.
On June 30, 1859, Gravelet made his first tightrope adventure across the gorge. As he headed towards the Canadian side, he suddenly stopped, adjusted his pole and executed a back somersault.
Several more trips were completed, each one attempting to outdo the last. Gravelet crossed the gorge blindfolded, journeyed across on a bicycle, reached the other side pushing a wheelbarrow and even did the walk with his hands and feet manacled. One time, he cooked an omelet on a small burner in the center of the tightrope. On another occasion, he crossed the gorge carrying his manager, Harry Colcord, on his back.
Another tightrope walker, William Leonard Hunt, also known as The Great Farini was inspired by watching The Great Blondin cross Niagara Gorge on a tightrope. Hunt changed his name to Signor Guillermo Antonio Farini and soon became known as The Great Farini.
The Great Farini made his first tightrope walk at Niagara Falls on Aug. 15, 1860. When he reached the mid-point, he attached a rope to the tightrope and lowered himself onto the deck of the Maid of the Mist 200 feet below. The Great Farini drank a glass of wine, chatted with passengers and then ascended back to his tightrope above.
The Great Farini was committed to outdoing The Great Blondin. One time, he carried a washtub onto the tightrope, lowered a bucket to the river, filled it with water and then washed a dozen handkerchiefs given to him by female admirers.
Completing many of the same stunts as The Great Blondin and The Great Farini, Henry Balleni made his first trip across the gorge on a tightrope in 1873. Unlike his predecessors,
Balleni jumped off the rope and perhaps was the first bungee jumper.
Balleni used a 12-foot-long rubber cord, which he attached to the tightrope. He released the cord at the right moment to help break his fall. His first two attempts were successful. On the third jump; however, the cord broke and wrapped around Balleni’s leg. He was rescued but were seriously injured.
Stephen Peere has the dubious distinction of being the only Niagara Gorge tightrope walker to meet a tragic end. Also inspired by watching The Great Blondin, Peere was Balleni’s assistant, helping Balleni install the rope across the gorge.
Peere’s first attempt to cross the gorge was used with Balleni’s equipment but not Balleni’s consent. The crowds raved at Peere’s exploits, which did not please Balleni, who hatched a plan to cut Peere’s tightrope. Balleni was discovered, and he was forced to leave the area. On July 22, 1887, Peere ventured across the gorge on a ¾-inch-thick cable, which was smaller than the two-inch-thick ropes that previous walkers had used.
Three days after Peere completed the stunt, his lifeless body was found on the river bank beneath his rope. Evidently, Peere attempted a night crossing after imbibing in spirits, lost his balance and plunged to his death.
On June 4, 1975, Henri Rechatin, his wife Janyck and his friend Frank Lucas crossed the gorge on a Spanish Aero Car cable in an unusual way.
Lucas, a motorcycle racing champion, drove a motorcycle on the cable. Attached to the
motorcycle were two perches, one above and one below. Janyck occupied the perch below, hanging from one foot, and Rechatin was on top, balancing everything with his pole.
At one point Rechatin had to stop while Lucas, who had never performed this type of stunt, could regain his composure.
The trio made it unscathed. On the 20th anniversary of his tightrope walk, Rechatin sought permission from authorities to repeat his stunt. He was turned down by the parks police and made no further attempt to repeat his stunt.
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.