11 Outrageous Moments in Niagara Falls Barrel-Riding

Sunrise over Niagara Falls
Sunrise over Niagara Falls / Orchidpoet/E+ via Getty Images

For decades, thrill-seekers have fought the odds and common sense by going over the world’s most famous waterfalls in rickety containers—a trip that has claimed several lives. And, as such, is illegal. Here are a handful of pioneers who tried it nonetheless.

1. Annie Edson Taylor Takes the First Plunge on Her 63rd Birthday.

Annie Edson Taylor, the first person who'd survived a trip over Niagara Falls in a barrel, poses with her vehicle.
Annie Edson Taylor, the first person who'd survived a trip over Niagara Falls in a barrel, poses with her vehicle. / Francis J. Petrie Photograph Collection, Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

The strange custom of going down Niagara Falls in a barrel began with an elderly music and dance teacher named Annie Edson Taylor. Hoping the stunt would make her rich and famous, she had a customized unit made which included safety straps and a breathing tube. On October 24, 1901—her 63rd birthday—her preparation paid off when she survived her trip, only to wait 20 gut-wrenching minutes for a rescue boat to nab the contraption. Unfortunately, she achieved neither fame nor fortune and died penniless in 1921.

2. Bobby Leach and the Deadly Orange Peel

Bobby Leach poses with his barrel after his trip over Niagara Falls on July 25, 1911.
Bobby Leach poses with his barrel after his trip over Niagara Falls on July 25, 1911. / Library and Archives Canada, Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

Irony, thy name is Bobby Leach! This British circus performer repeated Taylor’s death-defying antics in 1911. Though battered and bruised, he lived to tell the tale … only to die of medical complications after slipping on an orange peel 15 years later.

3. Charles G. Stephens Goes Out on a Limb

Charles G. Stephens was the first casualty of Niagara’s dangerous sport. Believing it would make his trip safer, the middle-aged barber tied his right arm to the specialized vessel—which is all that was found of him after it broke apart. Stephens’ severed appendage received a proper burial at a nearby cemetery.

4. Red Hill to the Rescue

Alexandra Studio ca. 1935 City of Toronto Archives // CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Between 1910 and 1942, if you wanted to follow in Taylor’s footsteps, William "Red" Hill Sr. was the man to see. Though he never tried besting the falls himself, it was Hill who rescued Leach and tried to warn Stephens about his treacherous barrel. An accomplished stuntman in his own right, Hill most notably ventured through the deadly Niagara whirlpool in 1930, securing his place in the Daredevil Hall of Fame.

5. Jean Lussier Has a Ball

Barrels just don’t cut it for some adrenaline junkies. Enter Jean Lussier of New Hampshire. Hearing of Stephens’ plight, Lussier decided to forego traditional methods and invested his life savings in a gigantic rubber ball. The summer of 1928 saw thousands of spectators gather to witness its maiden voyage. Lussier’s journey was a triumphant success and he decided to stay in the region, selling off pieces of the historic sphere to eager tourists.

6. The World’s Luckiest Turtle

George L. Stathakis may have sealed his doom by telling the press that if he didn’t survive his upcoming ride over the falls, his pet turtle, “Sonny Boy," who went with him, would live on to tell their story. Lo and behold, the fortunate reptile made it out alive—which was more than could be said for his owner. Sonny Boy, however, declined to comment.

7. Victory In Canada Leads to Disaster at the Astrodome

The above news bulletin was filmed in July 1984, after 37-year-old Canadian Karl Soucek cascaded down Niagara’s Horseshoe Falls. Unfortunately, his efforts to replicate the feat at the Houston Astrodome that winter turned deadly when he crashed onto the rim of the water tank he was supposed to land in after a 180-foot drop, fracturing his skull and crushing his abdomen.

8. Super Dave Can’t Be Stopped!

Who was the first man to go over Niagara Falls twice? Unsatisfied with his first barrel ride in 1985, John “Super Dave” Munday returned to give it another go in 1993.

9. “Say ‘No’ to Drugs!”

Educators, take note: There are easier ways to denounce substance abuse than climbing into a 3000-pound steel barrel and dropping down a waterfall. This ill-conceived strategy belonged to Peter DeBernardi and Jeffrey Petkovich, who became the first duo to take the Niagara plunge in 1989. Inscribed on the side of their bright yellow cylinder was the helpful slogan “Don’t Put Yourself on the Edge—Drugs Will Kill You!”

10. David Copperfield’s Televised Escape

“Over the years, a number of people have tried to survive going over Niagara Falls in a barrel,” magician David Copperfield said in a 1990 TV special. "Many died trying. But guess what? I don’t plan on joining them.” His elaborate performance, involving chains, flames, and a helicopter, can be seen above.

11. Of Parachutes & Jet Skis

Like DeBernardi and Petkovich, Robert Overcracker wanted to raise awareness about a pressing issue: homelessness. Knowing a Jet Ski would attract more attention than a boring old barrel, Overcracker rode over the peak before plummeting to his death when the specially-designed parachute he’d brought failed to open.

A version of this story ran in 2014; it has been updated for 2021.