What motivates individuals to challenge the force of nature at Niagara Falls, emerging victorious and etching their names in history? The answer lies in the sheer magnificence of this natural wonder, a magnetic force drawing crowds from across the globe.
Niagara Falls, known for its grandeur, boasts the title of the world’s swiftest waterfall and ranks among the largest. At approximately 167 feet (51 meters) in height and stretching over 2,700 feet (823 meters) across at its crest, it’s nothing short of awe-inspiring. But the most formidable aspect of these Falls is their power – the Horseshoe Falls alone exerts an incredible 2,509 tons of force.
Now, picture the audacity of risking your life to join the select few who’ve conquered this natural giant. These are the Niagara Falls daredevils, individuals who dared to take on this mighty force and emerged victorious, securing their fame and prestige for years to come.
Daredevils Over the Falls
Annie Edson Taylor
The first (and oldest) person to survive was school teacher, Annie Edson Taylor. After enduring heartbreak when her husband passed away in the Civil War, she fell into financial hardship. Known to be a tough lady during a time when women were expected to be submissive and domesticated, she defied this stereotype. In hearing about about the popularity of the Niagara Falls, she decided that the perfect money-making opportunity to achieve fame and fortune would be to go over the Niagara Falls in a barrel.
On her 63rd birthday, October 24, 1901, she set out on her venture. Taylor strapped herself into a leather harness inside a custom wooden barrel adorned with cushions to help ease her fall. Taylor was towed by a small boat into the middle of the fast-flowing Niagara River and cut loose. She escaped with only minor cuts on her head, and later told the press “If it was with my dying breath, I would caution anyone against attempting the feat … I would sooner walk up to the mouth of a cannon, knowing it was going to blow me to pieces than make another trip over the Fall.”
She died in 1921 at age 82 unfortunately able to acclaim the wealth that she sought.
10 years after Annie Taylor’s successful stunt, an expert swimmer already known for his daredevil acts while performing in the Barnum & Bailey Circus, Bobby Leach, decided to try his luck in his metal barrel. On July 25th, 1911, he successfully made it over the Falls, however he was not as lucky as his predecessor Annie — he spent 5 months in the hospital recovering from 2 broken kneecaps, a few ribs, and his jaw.
Ironically after surviving such a feat, he passed away on April 28th, 1926 after slipping on an orange peel a couple of months prior, and incurring complications to his leg that eventually required amputation. Unfortunately, this didn’t stop the infection and he succumbed to his injuries.
At the age of 36, Machinist Jean Albert Lussier dared to take the plunge over Niagara Falls on July 4, 1928. Unlike the others before him, he instead constructed his vessel as a 6 foot rubber ball. He used steel framework encased in rubber and lined with 32 inner tubes. The interior had space in the center for a 150 lb. rubber ballast to keep it from spinning. The ball was lined with oxygen tanks, tubes, and valves to keep Lussier alive for up to forty hours. It was a success, and Lussier came out of his journey similar to Annie Taylor’s good fortune with only a minor cut to his forehead and a few bruises.
Lussier died in 1971 at the age of 80 of natural causes in Niagara Falls, New York.
Nathan Boya (AKA William Fitzgerald)
On July 15th, 1961, 35 year-old Nathan Boya was the fourth person to survive going over the Falls. His reasoning was not for “fame”, but for “personal reasons”. Later it came to light in a National Geographic documentary in which he was interviewed, that he admitted his reasoning was due to breaking off an engagement to a woman he feel he wronged. They were to Honeymoon in Niagara Falls, and he did the stunt as an act of self-punishment. He was also the first person to be arrested for the stunt by the Niagara Parks Police, after permission was to be granted following the death of William Hill, Jr in 1951 (who attempted and ultimately died from the act). Boya was fined $113.
Boya created a rubber ball contraption that he named the “Plunge-O-Sphere”. It was a 1250 pound sphere made out of rubber over a steel frame. Inside he created an air tank to avoid suffocation. After the Niagara Parks Police received several calls reported a dark ball in the river above the Falls, they summoned Captain Lawrence McGinn at the Maid of the Mist Dock to investigate. With Corporal Sawada, they launched the boat out and it was already floating at the base of the Horseshoe Falls. With the exception of some bruises on his back, Boya survived the plunge.
On July 2nd 1984, 37 year-old stuntman Karel Soucek, challenged the Horseshoe Falls in a red and white homemade barrel with “Karel Soucek: Last of the Niagara Daredevils” written on its side (he wasn’t the last). It was made of lightweight metal and plastic. It was equipped with enough weight on one end to ensure a feet first plunge, and a two-way radio.
The barrel moved quickly down river and over the Horseshoe Falls, with the counterweight proving to be a success. Soucek walked away from the barrel with only a cut to his forehand and an injury to his left wrist where his watch was situated. He was lifted to the surface and taken to the Greater Niagara General Hospital for observation and treatment. He was charged $500 and his barrel was confiscated.
Unfortunately, he died several months later at Houston Astrodome during the “Thrill Show and Destruction Derby” when he crawled inside a wooden barrel that was to drop 180 feet from the roof of the Astrodome into a tank of water below. It struck the side of the tank before falling into the water. The impact caused him a fractured skull and a crushed chest. He was conscious, but passed away an hour later from his injuries.
In 1985, becoming the youngest daredevil to go over the Falls (and subsequently the second person to survive the stunt twice 10 years later), Steve Trotter put his goal into motion. On August 18th, 1985, the 22-year old had his contraption (which he named “the Rig”) set loose upstream in the Niagara River. He used two pickle barrels placed end-to-end. The exterior was reinforced with layers of fiberglass and balsa wood for flotation, and covered with truck tire inner tubes for shock absorption. He was strapped into an automotive racing harness, with flashlights, a life jacket, and a two-way radio, with oxygen tanks.
He survived the fall unharmed and managed to swim free of the craft and was picked up by the crew aboard The Maid of the Mist. He was fined $500 by the Niagara Parks Police.
John “David” Munday
On September 27,1993 he officially became the first person to go over the Falls twice, but was handed a big fine. As a skydiving instructor with over 1000 jumps to his name, he stated that parachuting out of a plane was a far more dangerous feat. He once again sustained no major injuries despite very little interior protection of very thin padding.
Peter De Bernardi and Jeffery James Petkovich
On September 28th, 1989, the first duo to go over the Horseshoe Falls successfully pulled it off. The brains behind this idea was Peter De Bernardi, whom found a suitable and willing partner in a University student named Jeffery Petkovich. De Bernardi constructed a twelve foot, 3000 lb steel barrel, in which they rode head-to-head inside the vessel. It was complete with harness straps and two oxygen tanks. On the side of the barrel were the words “Don’t put yourself on the Edge – Drugs will kill you.” The stunt was to draw awareness to an anti-drugs campaign.
De Bernardi and Petkovich emerged with minor injuries and after refusing medical care, they were transported to the Niagara Parks Police Office and charged under the Niagara Parks Act. They were each fined $1500, and to discourage future acts, the fine was increased to a maximum of $10,000.
Steve Trotter and Lori Martin
On June 18th, 1995, Steve Trotter completed his second successful attempt going over the Falls, only this time as a duo with friend, 29-year old Lori Martin. The 12 foot barrel was made from 2 pieces of hot water heater welded together and coated in kevlar, and then covered in thick Styrofoam. They had enough air supply to last 90 minutes. After going over the Horseshoe Falls, the barrel became lodged in a rock crevice and members of the Niagara Falls Fire Department, along with Parks police had to climb over the guard rail in the tunnels to reach the trapped barrel and secure it with a line to shore.
Both just had minor bumps and scrapes, but both were arrested for their illegal stunt. The barrel remained in the water for over a week, until it could be removed by a crane.
Daredevils of Niagara Falls Who Died in the Attempt
- July 11th, 1920: Charles Stephens – In a Barrel
- July 4th, 1930: George Stathakis – In a Barrel
- August 5th, 1951: William “Red” Hill, Jr. – In a Barrel
- June 5th, 1990: Jesse Sharp – In a Canoe
- October 1st, 1995: Robert Overacker: In a Jet Ski
- April 19th, 2017: Kirk Jones: In an Inflatable Ball