The Great Blondin, First Tightrope Walker to Cross Niagara Falls

Lying on the border of Ontario, Canada, and New York State, the Falls attract millions of visitors each year. An island in the Niagara River splits the water flow into two parts just before the falls. The smaller flow plunges over the American Falls; the larger goes over Horseshoe Falls. At 180 feet, the American Falls is about 5 feet taller than Horseshoe Falls. However, Horseshoe Falls is about twice as wide as the American Falls. Niagara Falls formed about 10,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age.

The first of many tightrope walkers to cross the Falls was Jean Francois Gravelot, a French aerialist, who called himself “The Great Blondin, because of his fair hair. He was born February 28, 1824 in St. Omer, Pas de Calais in Northern France. Blondin had been walking the tightrope since the age of five. He was orphaned at age nine and on his own. He became a famous tightrope performer and practiced each new feat until he could perform it with his eyes closed. In 1951, at the age of twenty-seven, he joined the Ravel troupe of French equestrian and acrobatic performers on their tour of North American. By this time there were no acrobatic performances at which he did not excel. About Niagara Falls, Blondin, said, “To cross the roaring waters became the ambition of my life.”

On June 30, 1859, at 5 pm, Blondin made his first journey across the Falls. He wore a dark wig, a vest of purple plush and a pair of white Turkish pantaloons. For this crossing, Blondin utilized a 1,300 foot long , 3 inch diameter manila rope stretched from what is now Prospect Park in Niagara Falls, New York to what is now Oakes Garden in Niagara Falls, Ontario. He began his first walk from the American side and completed his crossing in 20 minutes. Blondin used a thirty-foot long balancing pole that weighed 40 pounds. He stepped onto the tightrope and started his long descent down the cable, which, at midpoint, was fifty feet lower over the gorge. There he stopped, dropped a bottle tied a piece of twine into the Maid of the Mist tourist boat below, hauled up some Niagara River water, drank it, and resumed his journey, uphill this time. He arrived on the far bank triumphant, though bathed in sweat. He rested briefly, accepted a glass of champagne, performed a little dance on the rope, and walked back across in just eight minutes. The appeal of the event rested on the crowd’s secret delight in the possibility that Blondin would fall.

For two summers, Blondin performed above the Niagara. During his subsequent performances, he crossed the Falls on a bicycle, on stilts, and at night. He swung by one arm, turned somersaults, and stood on his head on a chair. Once he pushed a stove in a wheelbarrow and cooked an omelet. On one occasion, he crossed blindfold in a heavy sack made of blankets. But his greatest feat was to carry a man across on his back. During his fifth exhibition, he persuaded his manager, Harry Colcord, to climb on his back and to hazard the long trip across the gorge. Colcord later described Blondin as “a piece of marble, eery muscleâÂ?¦tense and rigid.”

At his last Niagara Falls performance, September 8th 1860, he sat a table balanced on the tightrope and ate cake and drank champagne. In 1860, the Prince of Wales persuaded Blondin to come to London’s Crystal Palace. The aerialist performed in London and Europe until 1896. The next year, at the age of 73, he died at his home, which was aptly named “Niagara,” located in Ealing, near England. More than a dozen daredevils would follow Blondin to Niagara to equal his performance. But Blondin would always have the distinction of being the first.

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