Captain Webb: From the English Channel to the Niagara River
No history of Niagara is complete without a liberal dose of daredevils and death defying stunts. In July of 1883 a well known English swimmer named Captain Matthew Webb tried to conquer the Niagara River by swimming through the lower rapids from the Canadian to the American shore.
Prior to his arrival in Niagara, Webb had made quite a name for himself with cold water swimming. While serving as second mate on the Cunard ship Russia, traveling from New York to Liverpool, he attempted to rescue a man overboard by diving into the sea in the mid-Atlantic. The man was never found, but Webb's daring won him an award of £100 and made him a hero of the British press. Bouyed on by his notoriety, Webb decided to expand his credentials by completing the first swim of the English Channel without the assistance of floatation devices. On August 12, 1875, he made his first cross-Channel swimming attempt, but strong winds and poor sea conditions forced him to abandon the swim. Twelve days later, he began a second swim by diving in from the Admiralty Pier at Dover. Backed by three chase boats and smeared in porpoise oil, he set off into the ebb tide with a steady breaststroke. Despite stings from jellyfish and strong currents, he landed near Calais, France, after 21 hours and 45 minutes – the first successful cross-channel swim. His zig-zag course across the Channel was over 39 miles long.
After his record swim, Captain Webb basked in international adulation. His last stunt brought him to Niagara, as he would attempt a dangerous swim across the Niagara River in the rapids below the Falls for a prize of $10,000 – a feat anyone with a sound mind considered suicidal. At 4:25 PM on July 24, 1883, Webb entered the water and began swimming with relative ease and he managed to keep a straight course through the strong current. He made the trip through the lower rapids in less than two minutes, however, once at the mouth of the Whirlpool, his troubles began. Captain Webb was sucked down into the vortex of the Great Whirlpool and was not seen for four days until his body was found near Lewiston. He is buried at the Oakwood cemetery in Niagara Falls, along with Annie Edson Taylor and other famous daredevils of their time. Webb’s family members prepared a memorial to his life that reads, "Nothing great is ever easy."
Douglas Farley, Director
Erie Canal Discover Center
24 Church St.
Lockport NY 14094