Blondin The Hero Of Niagara

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Then, on August 17, came a performance that in sheer excitement—and real danger—surpassed anything Blondin had attempted. He crossed from the American side, doing many of his usual stunts. But then, after a short rest, he appeared on the Canadian end of the cable with Harry Colcord clinging to his back.

Colcord weighed about the same as Blondin—140 pounds—so that the Frenchman was carrying a weight equal to his own, plus his 45-pound balancing pole.

Two looped cords hung from Blondin’s shoulders, and into these Colcord had thrust his legs so that he was riding pickaback, his arms about Blondin’s neck. The little wire-walker covered about one third of the distance swiftly, with no sign of fatigue. Then he stopped and asked Colcord to slip his legs out of the slings and stand on the cable, holding on to Blondin’s shoulders. After Blondin had rested a few minutes, Colcord mounted again—not an easy feat because of the slippery tights Blondin wore—and they went on.

It soon became evident to the spectators that the weight of Colcord and the length of the crossing were telling on Blondin. Halts for rest became more and more frequent. Colcord, for whom this was a new experience, became increasingly terrified. He had been warned not to look down, but his eyes were drawn irresistibly to the white-capped waters 190 feet below. He was fascinated by the illusion that he and Blondin were moving swiftly upstream.

They had now reached the center of the cable, and here, where there were no guy ropes, it swayed disconcertingly. Blondin seemed to stagger under his load. His balancing pole swung furiously up and down. Colcord had all he could do to heed the directions to “rest like a dead weight on my back.” Blondin had told him, “If I should sway or stumble, do not attempt to balance yourself.” Now, at the most dangerous stage of the crossing, Colcord simply had to obey orders.

On shore, the crowds were under an enormous emotional strain. Some shielded their eyes in fear of what they might see, and still they could not look away.

In a brave attempt to regain his balance, Blondin ran swiftly along thirty feet of the cable to the first guy rope strung to the American side. Here he paused to recover his strength and his breath and to rest his straining back. He placed one foot on a guy rope at the cable, and it promptly broke. He had to start regaining his balance all over again—a feat made more difficult by the fact that the sudden release of tension on one side made the cable jerk sideways. But, despite this surprise, Blondin regained his balance after a moment and rushed to the next pair of guy ropes.

Again he told Colcord to get off. Blondin’s body was rigid, every muscle tense. Beads of perspiration stood out on his face and body. When finally he could breathe more easily, he ordered Colcord back into position, began his slow climb up the slope of the cable, and finally reached the American shore.

There never had been such a crowd waiting for him. The strain suddenly relieved, people surged toward him. Blondin was dismayed. He began to fear that he and Colcord might be shoved over the bank by the pressure of those pushing up from the rear.

“What will I do?” he asked Colcord.

“Make a rush and drive right through them,” Colcord urged, and this is what Blondin did.

The wildly excited welcomers hoisted the two men to their shoulders and cheered themselves hoarse. (Blondin later told Colcord that the guy rope had snapped because someone had been tampering with it. There was enormous betting on Blondin, and he suspected some gambler had tried to weigh the scales against him slightly.)

On the last day of August, Blondin gave his first night performance. This was long before the days of massed floodlights at Niagara Falls, and in order to relieve the darkness of the crossing, a locomotive headlight had been placed at each end of the cable. Blondin carried colored lights at the tips of his balancing pole, so that the crowd could follow his progress.

It seemed to the watching thousands that the little Frenchman was pressing his skill and luck too far. They were certain of it when the lights on his pole suddenly went out just as he reached the mid-point of his journey. But those who were near enough to the cable to touch it could tell by the vibration that he was still on it, and he completed the journey safely.

In subsequent crossings Blondin the showman even further embellished the exploits of Blondin the tightrope walker. Once he crossed with baskets on his feet and shackles on his body. At another time he carried a table and chair and tried to seat himself on the chair with two of its legs balanced on the cable. The chair fell into the Niagara, and Blondin nearly tumbled after. He regained his balance, sat down on the cable, and ate a piece of cake, washed down with champagne.

Much to the delight of the businessmen on both sides of the Niagara, Blondin returned in 1860 and repeated some of his feats on a cable strung over the Whirlpool Rapids. Former President Millard Fillmore, who lived in Buffalo, is known to have watched one of the 1859 crossings, and in September, 1860, Blondin carried Colcord across on his back again before the Prince of Wales, who was to become King Edward VII.

When he left Niagara, Blondin still had a long career before him. He performed at Coney Island during the summer of 1888, and when he gave his last performance—in Belfast, Ireland, in 1896 at the age of 72—it is said that he walked his wire as nimbly as ever. For years he lived near London, in a home he called Niagara House, and there he died in 1897.