The most famous of the (foolhardy) souls to challenge death at Niagara Falls was the flamboyant Frenchman, Blondin, “Prince of Manila.” Born in 1824 in Calais, France, Jean Francois Gravelet, he acquired the moniker Blondin because of his blond hair. He viewed his first tight rope performance at age five and immediately set out to emulate the feat. By the age of eight, he was performing himself with the name, “Little Wonder.”
In 1855, preeminent showman, P.T. Barnum, brought Blondin to the United States where he performed in New York City and eastern cities before visiting Niagara Falls. In 1858, after his first viewing of the Falls, Blondin announced that the following year he would stretch a rope over the Falls and cross from the American to the Canadian shores. True to his word, he returned the following summer and eventually obtained permission to string a rope from a vantage place near Prospect Point, over to a block of concrete near the Clifton House. On June 3, 1859, the daring Frenchman made good his claim and crossed the River on a three-inch rope for the first time. Great preparations were made and excursion trains brought over 25,000 visitors to the Falls on that day. The crowd watched in disbelief as Blondin reached the center of the River and nonchalantly sat down on the rope and gazed coolly from shore to shore, and then laid down, full length, across the rope. After regaining his upright position, the thrill seekers gasped in amazement as Blondin proceeded to turn a back somersault on the rope. The crowd cried out in disbelief and accounts of the day noted that, “not a few ladies fainted.” Blondin was greeted with a thunder of applause on the Canadian shore, so loud it was said to dwarf the sound of the “Mighty Cataract” itself. The incredible crossing took a death defying 18 minutes. After pressing the flesh for 20 more minutes, Blondin mounted the rope for his return trip to the states. Just before arriving, he stopped, in true tourist fashion, and snapped pictures of the crowd with his camera. After setting foot on terra-firma, he picked up a chair and for his piece-de-resistance, placed it on the rope with only two of the chair’s legs touching the rope. He then climbed on top of the chair and stood upright on its seat.
Blondin made several more crossings that summer, each time garnering larger and larger crowds. Former President Millard Fillmore was among the many spectators that watched Blondin trundle a wheelbarrow across his rope. Blondin’s final trip across the rope that summer included the addition of a second brave soul to make the trip with him. Having previously offered a large sum of money to any man who would ride upon his back across the Falls, and failing a volunteer; Blondin turned to his business manager, Harry Concord, who agreed to take part in the stunt. An amazed crowd of over 200,000 people arrived in Niagara that day to share in all the emotions of the trip. Grown men cried in relief when the dynamic duo finally reached the other shore. Much more than any daredevil who would follow, Blondin went down in Niagara’s History as the man who cheated death.
Douglas Farley, Director
Ann Marie Linnabery
Erie Canal Discover Center
24 Church St.
Lockport NY 14094