In the 1820s, when War of 1812 fighting had ceased in the Niagara Falls region, local hotel owners wanted to revive tourism. The Niagara Falls had once made popular tourist destinations of two cities along the international border: Niagara Falls in Ontario, Canada, and Niagara Falls in New York, USA. To attract attention, the hotel owners sponsored the first daredevil Niagara Falls stunt on record: they sent a defunct ship over Niagara’s Horseshoe Falls.
The hoteliers’ stunt drew a crowd indeed. On September 8, 1827, about 10,000 people gathered to watch the condemned schooner be swept over the waterfall. The ship crashed 173 feet down to a whirlpool gorge below.
Within two years, daredevils were risking their own lives in Niagara Falls stunts. In October of 1829, a man named Sam Patch dubbed himself “The Yankee Leaper”. He survived a long, deliberate fall into the gorge at the bottom of the waterfall. People also swam across or tried to sail. In 1886 a man named Carlisle Graham was the first to fall down Niagara Falls in a barrel. Many people, including women in petticoats, imitated this stunt. For example, in 1901 a 63-year-old schoolteacher named Annie Taylor rode a barrel over the edge.
Some people tried crossing over Niagara Falls instead of riding its force downward. Tightrope walkers like French acrobat Jean François “Blondin” Gravelet strung wires across the gorge and traversed it before giant crowds of onlookers. In 1859 Gravelet crossed the water blindfolded, in a sack, pushing a wheelbarrow, and carrying a man on his back! He even succeeded tightrope walking while on stilts. Most famously perhaps, Gravelet sat down midway across a wire to cook and eat an omelet.
Despite stories of successful crossings, many people have died or been seriously injured in daredevil stunts at Niagara Falls. When Annie Taylor emerged from her barrel, she warned, “No one should ever try that again!” Such stunts are now forbidden by law in both cities of Niagara Falls. After Kirk Jones jumped the Falls in 2003 (and was released from hospital), he was arrested for “Mischief” and “Performing a Stunt”.
Until the winter of 1912, anyone was permitted to cross an ice bridge that formed across Niagara Falls. The water froze into ice blocks as thick as 50 feet, and the Niagara River became a popular sledding destination. People even erected shacks on the ice and sold liquor! However, a tragedy involving cracked ice put an end to the winter tradition.
Horseshoe Falls is the highest section of Niagara Falls and is in Canadian territory. The American Falls on the US side drop about 70 feet into rock. These two main sections of the waterfall are divided by the uninhabited Goat Island. (The goats were gone by 1780.) A third section on the American side is called Bridal Veil Falls (earlier called Luna Falls and Iris Falls). It’s separated from the American Falls by tiny Luna Island.
These waterfalls are the most powerful in North America. An average of 4 million cubic feet of water rush over Niagara Falls every minute. The flow is higher in spring and summer when ice melts and more rain falls. Most of the water flows over Horseshoe Falls, and the remainder is harnessed for hydroelectric power by the Sir Adam Beck Station in Ontario and the New York State Power Authority.