Each day, an estimated 300,000 people cross the US/Canada border. On June 15th, 2012, one of those 300,000 will cross the border on a tightrope. In a balancing act that rivals any of his physical stunts, acrobat Nik Wallenda was able to obtain permission to walk on a tightrope across Niagara Falls and into the history books.
Thousands are expected to view the stunt in person along the beautiful gorge that the relentless river has carved out over the past 12,000 years. Wallenda will walk a rope 1800 feet long at a height of more than 200 feet over Niagara’s deadly waters. As crazy as the stunt may seem, he is not the first to walk a wire over the gorge.
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Funambulism, what pointy-heads call tightrope walking, was a fad at Niagara starting at about the same time as the US Civil War. In the summer of 1859, an enterprising and athletic Frenchman was the first to walk the wire at Niagara. He called himself ‘The Amazing Blondin’ and lived up to his name that summer. After safely making the walk, Blondin realized that he needed to add panache and more danger to his act to keep the crowds interested.
On subsequent walks he crossed the gorge blindfolded, while pushing a wheelbarrow, on stilts, and finally with his manager on his back. Blondin’s skill matched his courage and he was not injured during his stunts. He quickly became a celebrity and inspired a number of imitators. 16 times Blondin challenged Niagara, and 16 times he made it across successfully.
In 1860, ‘The Great Farini’ walked the wire with a sack over his entire body. He also performed somersaults and hung by his feet while on the tightrope. Crowds gathered in the summer of 1876 to see an Italian woman challenge Niagara. Maria Spelterini made several successful trips across the gorge on a tightrope, tempting fate by making the crossing while shackled. She walked across with peach baskets on her feet and also made the trip walking backwards. If you looked quickly on October 12, 1892, you saw Clifford Calverly make the trip in the fastest time ever, 6 minutes and 32 seconds. The last legal tightrope walk occurred in July of 1896.
In all, nine people have made dozens of crossings on the high wire. No one fell off the rope or was injured during the stunts. In recent times, laws were passed that outlaw ‘stunting’ at the Falls. Mr. Wallenda was able to navigate the turbulent political atmosphere on both sides of the border in order to have a shot at what he calls his “childhood dream.”
Joel Dombrowski is a certified tour guide on both sides of the border and offers private guide services at Niagara Falls.
All images are public domain as per the Niagara Falls Public Library.
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