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Original Issue


The excitement stirred up in recent years by the singular feats of Evel Knievel is hardly an isolated phenomenon in American history. Derring-do has always drawn eager throngs. In the mid-19th century, for example, the country marveled at the daring stunts of tightrope walkers (then usually called funambulists), the most famous of whom was Jean Francois Gravelet, also known as the Great Blondin. In 1859, Gravelet, an obscure 35-year-old Frenchman who was about to go on tour with Franconi's Equestrian Troupe, announced that on June 30 he would tightrope 1,100 feet across the gorge of the Niagara River, a mile below the Falls. The news caused an immediate sensation. Rapids swirled directly below Blondin's proposed route, and gamblers began to take bets on whether he would plunge to a watery death. Most of the smart money was on the rapids.

When the 30th arrived, a circus atmosphere prevailed as thousands of spectators converged on the scene. By 4:00 p.m. the banks near the site of Blondin's proposed crossing were "fairly black" with people for a mile on each side of the river. At five, a band on the American side signaled Blondin's appearance. He was a dazzling sight, dressed in pink tights and covered with spangles. Taking a firm grip on his balancing pole, he began his walk. Slowly and steadily he went, until, about a third of the way across, to the surprise of the crowd, he sat down on his cable and called for the Maid of the Mist to come directly below. When the steamer arrived, Blondin threw down a line and hauled up a bottle of wine. After drinking it, he continued to walk until, reaching the section of the cable that was parallel to the river, he began to run. Finally, while the band played Home, Sweet Home, Blondin stepped ashore to the cheers of the Canadian crowd. The walk had taken a bit over 17 minutes, and he was "bathed from head to foot in perspiration."

At six that evening, Blondin began his return trip to the U.S. This time, walking at a much faster pace, he completed the crossing in six minutes. As soon as he was safely on the ground, Blondin announced that he would do an encore on the Fourth of July. An editorial in The New York Times urged him to reconsider. The Times reminded the Frenchman of "Poor" Sam Patch, who 30 years earlier had survived a daring leap from the Genesee Falls into the "boiling chasm" below. Not satisfied, Patch had announced that he would make the jump again, and before a huge crowd Patch leaped to his death.

Blondin ignored the Times' advice, and began to develop even more dangerous stunts. He walked from the U.S. to the Canadian side without his balancing pole. He astounded the crowd by placing over his head a large bag that came down to his knees and had holes only for his arms; then he made his way back to the American shore. On July 15, Blondin walked backward on the cable to Canada, then returned to the U.S. pushing a wheelbarrow, stopping along the way to do a number of handstands, backward somersaults and several swings around the wire. On Aug. 17 he added another twist; he walked across the gorge while carrying his manager, Harry Colcord, on his back. If nothing else, that satisfied those who accused the agent of making all the money while Blondin took all the risks.

In September he put on his most extraordinary performance. With a stove and cooking utensils attached to his back, he walked to the center of the cable and, after securing his balancing pole, began to cook breakfast. He started a fire, "excited it" with a bellows, then "with all the skill of a chef dc cuisine" prepared an omelet. When it was finished, Blondin lowered the omelet to the deck of the Maid of the Mist, and while the passengers were "eagerly devouring" this unusual meal, he fastened the stove to his back and quickly finished his walk.

With that well-balanced breakfast, Blondin's Niagara exploits came to an end. He had succeeded in all of his "death-defying" stunts and, not incidentally, had accumulated quite a lot of money through collections after each crossing. Though he is best remembered by Americans for his feats of that summer, his career did not end at Niagara Falls. Blondin continued to risk his life on the high wire, almost until his death in 1897. at the age of 73.

Other tightrope walkers, including Blondin's foremost rival, Farini, tried desperately to outdo him. In 1864 Farini decided he would not waste his time trying to walk above the rapids, he would walk through them on a pair of heavy iron stilts. Unfortunately, halfway across, one of the stilts got stuck between two rocks, and he lost his balance and was thrown into the swirling water. Despite an injured leg, Farini fought his way against the swift current and reached the safety of nearby Robinson's Island. To those who enjoyed the antics of 19th-century funambulists, the message was clear: there was only one Blondin, only one "Hero of Niagara Falls."