August 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 5
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.”
All at once the noise subsided to an expectant murmur as Blondin appeared at the American end of the cable. What the spectators saw was reported next morning in the Express: Mons. Blondin has just successfully accomplished the feat of walking across the Nigeria River on a tight rope in the presence of a crowd variously estimated at from five to ten thousand persons, the first crossed from the American side, stopping midway to refresh himself with water raised in a bottle with a rope from the deck of the steamer Maid of the Mist . The time occupied in the first crossing was seventeen and a hall minutes.
When Blondin arrived at the Canadian side, he greeted the reporters, joined in a toast drunk to his health, and announced that he would return over the cable to the American side in hall an hour. A collection was taken up for him, and he was conveyed in a carriage drawn by four flag-decorated bays to the Clifton House for a short rest. When he came back to the cable for the return crossing, the reporter wrote that he partook of some “refreshments furnished by Mr. Kavanagh of the Great Western Hotel.” The return trip—made quickly and without incident—was almost an anti-climax. “He certainly stands at the head of tight rope walkers and the possession of so much coolness and utter lack of fear must be a luxury,” said an Express editorial. “ Vive Blondin .”
Blondin’s plans for the future, especially for a crossing on the Fourth of July, were widely publicized. The river scene, when that holiday arrived, must have been a strange one. Every vantage point—every tree, every rock, as well as every seat in the grandstands—was occupied by a huge crowd, morbidly confident that Blondin would lose his balance and plunge into the Niagara gorge. They never took their eyes off him lest they miss the awful moment. Betting on the outcome was said to have been huge.
At the appointed hour, Blondin appeared at the American end of the cable without his 38-foot balancing pole. Halfway across, he lay down full length on the cable, putting one foot above the other. He walked backward swiftly, balanced on one foot, extended the other and also his body over the “boiling flood,” whirled himself around as if he had been “on a pivot stool, repeated this in the tenter of the cable, took a flask from his pocket and drank, then completed his journey.
After resting about an hour, he appeared at the Canadian end of the cable, waving a sack. When it was put over his head, spectators saw that it reached to his knees, depriving him of his sight and the use of his arms and hands. With this handicap, he repeated on his return trip the evolutions of the earlier crossing. “In fact, wrote the ecstatic Express reporter, “one can scarcely believe the feat was indeed real, and stands gazing upon the slender cord and the awful gulf in a state of utter bewilderment. … I look back upon it as upon a dream.”
On July 15 the Express reported what was billed as Blondin’s “farewell” performance. He was reported to have made his first crossing walking backward from the American to the Canadian side. On the return trip he pushed a wheelbarrow, “pausing in the center to do several stunts.” On this day he had the greatest crowd so far assembled.
But there was more to come, Blondin had no intention of making his farewell while the crowds continued to grow. On Wednesday, August 3, no doubt “by popular request,” he advertised a fourth crossing. The communities on both sides of Niagara Falls were jammed with visitors, surpassing the crowds of all previous exhibitions. Multitudes arrived, not only from Buffalo and Toronto but also from Rochester and many other cities. Railroads and steamship lines ran excursions.
Blondin appeared about four thirty in the afternoon and quickly crossed from the American to the Canadian side at what a reporter described as a “tripping pace. He rested for about fifteen minutes in Canada and began his return. About halfway to the center, he stopped and sat down, and then stretched out full length. After this, he proceeded to do “a number of daring antics” and finally stood on his head “a moment at least,” swinging and kicking his feet in “the most reckless and ludicrous manner.”
He then resumed his journey, but paused to repeat his antics with the addition of a backward somersault and one or two sudden swings around the cable. (Screams from the ladies.) He laid his balancing pole across the guy ropes, went to the middle distance of the cable, swung himself under it by his hands, and proceeded to work his way back and forth with his hands and feet, monkey-style. He varied this performance by clutching the cable with both hands, swinging his body clear of it, and then hanging for several seconds by both hands, and finally by one hand.
He repeatedly turned somersaults after the fashion of small boys, throwing his feet over his head and between his arms and hanging by his shoulder joints in “a most unnatural position.” He held his body in a horizontal position with his hands, then suspended himself by both legs and later by one leg, with nothing but air and his strength and skill between him and the raging waters below. He whirled around the cable, turned more somersaults, and stood on his head again. He repeated many of the stunts several times before he returned to the American side of the Niagara, completing a performance “exciting enough,” according to the Express reporter, “for the most greedy seeker after sensations.”
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.
Meanwhile, at Niagara itself, Blondin had a number of imitators over the years, but though several of them performed feats of equal skill, it was Blondin who remained the hero of Niagara, and no one ever took his place in the public’s affection. Songs were written about him, and years afterward, on the long verandas facing the gorge, people who as children had witnessed his exploits still talked about the daring Frenchman with the blue eyes and the wavy blond hair who had made them gasp and look away and look again as he performed his incredible antics, supremely indifferent to the grisly death that was only a slight misstep away.