On this day in 1859, French funambulist Monsieur Charles Blondin becomes the first daredevil to walk across Niagara Falls on a tightrope. The feat performed 200 feet above the Niagara Gorge just down river from the Falls, was witnessed by some 25,000 spectators. Donning pink tights and a yellow tunic, Blondin trod across on a simple hemp rope about two inches in diameter and 1,300-feet long, with only a balancing pole to protect him from plunging into the “boiling cataract” of Niagara’s rapids.
Blondin was born in 1824 near Saint-Omer, Pas-de-Calais, France. His birth name was Jean-François Gravelet, though he was known by many other names and nicknames: Charles Blondin, Jean-François Blondin, Chevalier Blondin, and The Great Blondin. At the age of five, he was sent to the École de Gymnase in Lyon and, after six months of training as an acrobat, made his first public appearance as “The Boy Wonder.” His superior skill and grace, as well as the originality of the settings of his acts, made him a fan favorite notwithstanding his diminutive scale of five-feet even and 140 pounds.
In 1858, while a performer and part-owner of the Ravel Circus Troupe in New York City, Blondin traveled to Niagara Falls hoping to become the first person to cross the breathtaking gorge there. Noting the masses of ice and snow on either bank, and the violent whirls of wind circling the gorge, Blondin delayed his event until he would have better weather; he always worked without a net, believing that preparing for disaster only made one more likely to occur.
On the morning of June 30, 1859, about 25,000 thrill-seekers arrived by train and steamer and dispersed on the American or Canadian side of the Falls. Both banks swarmed with spectators; statesmen, judges, clerics, generals, members of Congress, capitalists, artists, newspaper editors, professors, debutantes, salesmen and hucksters all turned out to witness what most thought would be a grand suicide. Vendors hawked everything from lemonade to whiskey, and manager Harry Colcord gave tours to the press, explaining the logistics of the Great Blondin’s intended feat.
Shortly before 5 p.m., Blondin took his position on the American side, dressed in his signature tights bedecked with spangles; the lowering sun made him appear bathed in light. He wore fine leather shoes with soft soles and brandished a balancing pole made of ash, 26 feet long and weighing nearly 50 pounds. Slowly, calmly, he started to walk. “His gait,” one man noted, “was very like the walk of some barnyard cock.” Children clung to their mothers’ legs, women peeked from behind their parasols, and several onlookers fainted.
About a third of the way across, Blondin shocked the crowd by sitting down on his cable and calling for the Maid of the Mist, the famed tourist vessel, to anchor momentarily beneath him. He cast down a line and hauled up a bottle of wine, took a healthy pull and started off again, breaking into a run after he passed the sagging center. While the band played “Home, Sweet Home,” Blondin reached Canada. One man helped pull him ashore and exclaimed, “I wouldn’t look at anything like that again for a million dollars.”
For the two following weeks, Blondin repeated his spectacle with ever-increasing panache and props; blindfolded, in a sack, doing somersaults, trundling a wheelbarrow (to the awe of former President Millard Fillmore), on stilts, carrying his manager, Harry Colcord, on his back, sitting down midway while he cooked and ate an omelette, or standing on a chair with only one of its legs balanced on the rope. He killed it every time.
Blondin returned to Britain and Ireland, where he would perform regularly at venues including the Crystal Palace, Royal Botanic Gardens and the Edgbaston Reservoir. In addition to the U.K., Blondin performed in China, Japan, Australia, India and throughout Europe. While Blondin never suffered serious injury himself, two workers in Ireland were killed, resulting in criminal bench warrants for he and manager Colcord. So legendary had Blondin become, that in the 1864 U.S. election, incumbent Abraham Lincoln described his plight as “Blondin on the tightrope, with all that was valuable to America in the wheelbarrow he was pushing before him.”
By the time Blondin gave his final performance in 1896, it was estimated he had crossed Niagara Falls 300 times and walked more than 10,000 miles on his rope. Ironically, whilst Lincoln’s demise arrived spectacularly in a theater, Blondin himself perished in 1897 at age 72 from the rather mundane malady of diabetes at his “Niagara House” in Ealing, London. He was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery, with an estate at death of £1,832, or $252,000 in U.S. dollars today.
Never too suitably impressed, Mark Twain dismissed Blondin as “that adventurous ass.” Harry Colcord, however, marveled “Had he lived a century or two earlier he would have been treated as one possessed of a devil . . . He could walk the rope as a bird cleaves to air.”