Blondin The Hero Of Niagara

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On Thursday, June 30, 1859, the atmosphere at Niagara Falls was charged with excitement. A slightly built Frenchman, dressed in tights and carrying a long balancing pole, was planning to attempt the impossible—he was going to walk across the terrible gorge of the Niagara River about a mile below the Falls on a slender rope cable, 190 feet above the swift and boiling flood. As they watched in fascination, shading their eyes with their parasols, ladies in crinolines nearly swooned. Strong men in top hats and stocks were tense, for many had wagered large sums on the outcome. Little girls clung to the skirts of their nurses and small boys skylarked. Three hundred thousand people —or was it ten thousand?—held their breath as Jean François Gravelet, better known as Blondin, edged out onto the sloping cable.

For people of fashion, wealth, beauty, and culture, northerners and southerners alike, the Falls were already a great attraction a century ago. Whole families with their servants visited Niagara in the new steam cars. Here they spent entire summers in the gentle, stimulating coolness which still is characteristic of the area in the hot months. They registered at luxurious hotels like the Clifton House or the Cataract House, with its huge ballroom and superb crystal chandeliers. They listened to the soft music and danced through the mellow evenings. They sat on the long verandas lacing the river gorge and rocked away the long afternoons, listening to the rumble of the Falls and watching the ever shitting clouds of mist roll up and make rainbows as the waters crashed on the rocks below.

There were plenty of livery stables with carriages of all kinds drawn by shining-coated horses, for it was customary to drive out daily and view the Falls from various vantage points. There were no parks in those days, but the areas on both sides of the Niagara were cluttered with free-enterprising activities. There were restaurants and drinking places and Punch-and-Judy shows and two-headed calves and bearded ladies. It was a place made to order for Blondin.

Physically, Blondin was a small man, distinguished by blue eyes and the blond hair that had given him his nickname. He stood only five feet five and weighed a mere 140 pounds. Nimble and wiry, he bad developed superb co-ordination on the tightwire during years of experience in theaters and circuses. He possessed imagination and courage and tremendous self-assurance—even enough courage and assurance to perform without a single slip the fantastic acts that were the fruit of his imagination. He began experimenting on the tightrope when be was five years old. When he first appeared at Niagara early in June, 1859, it was with the intention of picking up a few dollars during the summer while waiting to begin an engagement in late August with Franconi’s Equestrian Troop. He was then 35 years old and bad come to the United States eight years earlier.

As he prepared for the great event, Blondin displayed his genius for publicity and his understanding of the morbid curiosity of the multitude. He bad arranged for the use of a rope cable two inches in diameter and 1,300 feet long. Stringing this table across the roaring gorge and securely anchoring it on both sides presented a considerable problem. A light rope, seven-eighths of an inch in diameter, was attached to one end of the table and used to convey it across the river. On the American side it was wound around a huge oak tree in White’s Pleasure Grounds, When it had been drawn to within about 200 feet of the Canadian side, some of Blondin s helpers expressed the fear that the light rope would not be sufficiently strong to bear the weight of the heavy cable as it was drawn up from the Niagara gorge for anchorage in Canada.

Blondin knew just what to do. While onlookers stared, he attached another rope to his body, went down the 200 feet on the small rope, attached the second rope also to the end of the cable, and then calmly climbed back to Canadian ground. With the two lines suppporting it, the cable was pulled ashore and secured to a rock.

Actually, there was about 1,200 feet of cable over the gorge. Some fifty feet were taken up by the inevitable sag in the center, and a few feet at each end were needed to provide for tautness and secure anchorage. It was stretched midway between the Suspension Bridge and the Clifton House. To keep it from swaying, guy ropes ran from it at about twenty-foot intervals to anchorage posts on both banks. But there was a considerable portion in the center, perhaps as much as fifty feet, where it was impractical to fasten guy ropes. At the points where the cable came ashore, the ground was about 240 feet above the level of Niagara water. This meant that, allowing for the sag, the center was actually about 190 feet above the tumbling waters of the gorge.

On Thursday, June 30, the day scheduled for Blondin’s first crossing. Niagara had a carnival air. On the American side were special grandstands—to which admission was charged. Early in the day, Blondin performed preliminary feats on a tightrope in White’s Pleasure Grounds while bands played “God Save the Queen,” “Hail, Columbia” and other popular airs. At both ends of the table Harry Colcord, Blondin’s manager, had provided small enclosures with “every facility” for reporters. It was, said the Buffalo Morning Express , “just the day for this sort of thing.”