The Man Who Tightroped Niagara Falls on Stilts
Long before Nik Wallenda crossed Niagara Falls on a high wire—decades, in fact, before Nik’s grandfather, Karl, even founded the Flying Wallendas—there was Blondin.
Born Jean Francois Gravelet, the self-styled Charles Blondin knew from an early age that tightrope walking was his calling. Having already conquered Europe as “The Boy Wonder,” he set his sights on the U.S. in the 1850s.
For his first stunt, Blondin declared that he would cross the gorge at Niagara Falls on June 30, 1859. He carried out the task with ease, taking a mere 23 minutes for the round trip, including a stop on his way back across to snap a few pictures.
While getting across alive would be enough for most people, Blondin was compelled to make the trip again and again, adding new props and tricks to increase the level of difficulty. He crossed again on July 4, less than a week after his first journey. This time, he made it halfway across before he lay down on the cable, flipped over, and finished the trip backward. Just in case the crowd wasn’t impressed, he made the return trip wearing a sack over his head and body.
On July 14, he stopped in the center of the rope and held out his hat. From the Maid of the Mist boat below, “Captain Travis” produced a pistol and fired a shot at Blondin. Moments later, the daredevil lowered his hat down to the boat to show the bullet hole in its rim. On the way back, Blondin donned a monkey suit and traipsed across with a wheelbarrow. He may have felt the need to up his game since former President Millard Fillmore was watching.
He crossed doing flips and somersaults. He crossed with his manager clinging to his back. He crossed while shackled. He crossed on stilts. He crossed carrying a table and a chair, and though the chair toppled over the edge, Blondin remained upright. He sat down on the cable to enjoy a slice of cake and some champagne.
On another momentous occasion, Blondin crossed carrying an iron stove. When got to the midpoint, he balanced the stove on the wire, then donned a chef’s hat, whipped out a couple of eggs, and cooked an omelet. But there was more—he lowered the snack down to the Maid of the Mist, where tourists no doubt scrambled to snatch the ultimate souvenir.
Not everyone was impressed with Blondin’s feats, though. Mark Twain once referred to him as “that adventurous ass.”
Unlike other daredevils that ended up paying the ultimate price for their showmanship, Blondin survived all of his attempts. When he died at the age of 72, it wasn’t a daring stunt that did him in—it was diabetes.
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