Beyond the Valley: Great Lakes and Niagara Falls

By Marsha Smith

Editor’s Note: This column has been corrected to note that the Aero Car does not cross from Canada to the U.S., but rather crosses the border four times while traveling between two Canadian points.

Our next destination was to be Niagara Falls on the Canadian side, but after a little research, we found an interesting, en route destination to explore for a day or so. Kingston is located on the shore of Lake Ontario in the Ontario Province of Canada. Kingston is known for ‘1,000 Islands.’ We reserved a lunch cruise aboard the Island Queen to tour around the islands. There are actually 1,800 islands, and the majority have single family homes built on them; many cover almost the entire island. Some have boat docks, but many do not, leaving the residents to hire ferry service. Many of these island homes are high-dollar summer homes and weekend getaways. I can’t imagine very many are full time residents, as when the lake freezes, snow mobiles would be needed to reach the mainland. How interesting to see these homes perched on these small islands, giving a whole new meaning to “a little piece of paradise.”

Then, on to Niagara Falls. Oh my gosh, the beauty is simply breathtaking. Pictures cannot capture what the eye sees in person. The Canadian side is definitely the best to view the falls in their entirety. We took advantage of several adventures. First, we walked the White Water Walk boardwalk trail along the Niagara River, viewing Class 6 Whirlpool Rapids, defined as, “Extremely difficult to successfully maneuver due to significantly steeper vertical drops and boulders. Usually considered unrunnable.” The water travels about 30 miles per hour along the trail way and has been recorded as fast as 67 miles per hour at the brink. We met a young couple on the trail who shared with us a few ‘must dos.’ One is the Aero Car, an antique cable car that travels between two Canadian points and back (0.6 mile), crossing the U.S. border four times, providing spectacular views of the Whirlpool Rapids below. Another was the Skylon viewing tower, much like the Space Needle in Seattle, where a full 360 degree view of the falls and the city is amazing. You can also have lunch at the top revolving dining room. Then, of course, who can travel to the most famous falls in the world without taking a boat trip to see both the American Falls and Horseshoe Falls up close. Everyone is given a slicker because the boat edges right up to Horseshoe Falls to experience the thunder and powerful mist as the falls plunge into the river. When our boat turned back toward the sun, a beautiful rainbow appeared, so close it almost felt within reach to touch. There is so many ways to view the falls from the Niagara Parks Queen Victoria Park, comfortable walking shoes are definitely a must. It is an amazing experience.

There are three swimmers noted for their attempts to swim the Whirlpool Rapids, although there were many more attempts. One was Captain Matthew Webb on July 24, 1883. Webb was the first person to swim the English Channel and was eager to swim the Whirlpool Rapids in search of fame, but he underestimated the power of the Niagara Whirlpool Rapids and drowned; his body surfaced down river 4 days later. The other two survived: William Kendall, August 22, 1886, with the help of a very good life preserver, and William Kondrat, July 17, 1933, on pure luck, as the rapids swept him away down river, but he was able to get to shore without help, constituting a success because he lived to tell the tale.

The museum lists several noted barrel riders braving the Whirlpool Rapids. The first, Carlisle D. Graham, July 11 and August 19, 1886, June 15, 1887, and August 25, 1889. Graham was a barrel maker by trade and was credited as the first successful barrel rider. His success gained him recognition and he started a ‘rent-a-barrel’ service and was sought after for advice on navigating the rapids. The next noted was the team of William Potts, George Hazlet and Sadie Allen. On August 8, 1886, Potts and Hazlet rented one of Graham’s barrels, and the two made the trip together.

Hazlet got such a thrill from his wild ride he did it again with another partner, Sadie Allen, on November 24, 1886. Hazlet commented afterward that he enjoyed the trip much better with Allen than he had with Potts. A comment that raised a few eyebrows. Can you imagine? They weren’t even engaged! For shame!

Another was ‘stunter,’ Bobby Leach. Leach successfully barreled the rapids June 13 and 20, 1898, September 24, 1919, and June 28, 1911. However, in 1907, Leach gained fame and notoriety when attending a performance of another ‘stunter’ at Madison Square Gardens in New York City, who dove off a platform 154 feet in the air into a small tank of water only five feet deep. The ‘stunter’ was killed and Leach jumped at the chance to complete the performance and was successful. On June 25, 1911, Leach rode a barrel over the falls in a steel barrel. The success earned him many broken bones and 23 weeks in the hospital. He continued very dangerous ‘stunting’ over the course of 14 more years, until ironically, while walking in New Zealand, he stepped and slipped on an orange peel, injuring his leg. Gangrene set in, and he died.

The next two adventurers were ladies, and their ending were not so good. Martha Wagenfuher barreled through the rapids on September 6, 1901, only to become trapped in a whirlpool for quite some time and finally rescued. The other lady, Maude Willard, teamed up with Carlisle Graham on September 7, 1901. She was to ride a barrel, and he was to swim behind. The stunt went wrong when her barrel got stuck in a vortex for over 6 hours. Once the barrel was retrieved and opened she was found to have suffocated. As the story is told, Maude took her small dog along with her in the barrel and the dog stuck his nose out of the only hole in the barrel to survive, cutting off Maude’s only source of air. I promise I didn’t make this stuff up.

Several boaters were noted as attempting as well, more than one with multiple attempts, some successful, but most time the boats capsized or sank. Fortunately only one of the boaters that were noted drowned.

Tightrope walkers, or funambulists (from the Latin words rope and ambulare walk) also tested their skills above the gorge over the rapids with more success than failure, but for some reason they didn’t draw as large a crowd as the other stunts.

In 1885, when the Niagara Parks Commission was created, there were no restrictions to prevent stunts or daredevil antics over the falls or Niagara River that had been performed since 1859 (at least that is the earliest recorded.) Heck, why stop something that was drawing a huge amount of spectators to the community? So the commission gave unspoken approval for many years. As the tragedies mounted and the lives of their police and other rescue personnel were put on the line during rescues, the commission band ‘stunting’ over the falls and on the river in 1911, making it illegal, and those breaking the law faced up to a $10,000 fine.

Next week: Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Munising, Michigan

brady - November 8, 2018

Many errors in your comments. The Aero car goes from Canada to Canada. Should not even mention stories of Niagara Daredevils without mention of the first and most famous, Annie Edson Taylor…. 1901.

Rick - November 8, 2018

The Aerocar does NOT go from the Canadian side to the U.S. side. It is totally within Canada.

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