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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The First Person To Go Over Niagara Falls In A Barrel (And Survive)

Annie Edson Taylor, the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survive. The cat in the photo is likely the same cat that went over the falls in a test run.

Circus performer Nik Wallenda’s planned high wire walk across Niagara Falls this week brought to mind another Niagara Falls dare devil: Annie Edson Taylor.

In 1901, tourists, reporters and residents flocked to the falls to see the 62-year-old, a retired charm school teacher, become the first person to go over the falls in a barrel — and she survived.

She’s become the subject of a children’s book, “Queen of the Falls,” by author Chris Van Allsburg. Here & Now’s Robin Young spoke with Van Allsburg, the interview is excerpted below.

How did you come to this story?

I had a recollection from years earlier about the daredevils of Niagara Falls, and I read about the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and much to my surprise it was a woman.

She was a woman that you wouldn’t pick out of a crowd as a daredevil. She wore a bun and glasses?

Taylor designed her barrel. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children's Book Group)

She was matronly. She did not fit the image that most people would have seen in their minds eye contemplating [a] female daredevil.

She decided to go down the falls after she lost her teaching job. She was heading to the poor house if she didn’t think of something else to do?

She was headed for the poor house [and so] she was looking for the big score. She thought about it, thought about it, thought about it, and then, as a result of having read a newspaper article about large crowds that were gathering at the Buffalo Exposition in 1901 — those crowds were spilling over to Niagara — and somehow it just said to her ‘big crowds, Niagara Falls, me, barrel. Going over.’

She also remembered going there as a child and being almost hypnotized.

You are drawn to this precipice. [There’s] an enormous amount of energy that does not stop. It’s thundering, and there is something very compelling and seductive about standing at the edge of the falls.

A crowd waits for Annie Edson Taylor to come down the falls in her barrel. (From "Queen of the Falls," published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children's Book Group)

So she went about carefully designing this barrel and she got people to make it for her. What were some of the safety challenges?

She designed the barrel to her size, put metal hand holds, a place for a leather strap, and adequate space for padding– old mattresses and things that were stuffed in with her. Because it’s not just the 180 foot fall to the base of the falls, but the ride down through the rapids is in some ways even more chaotic.

And her obvious second challenge was that it had to be water tight, which means it had to be air tight. So she had to have faith that she could go over the falls in a period of time that would not use up the oxygen that had been pumped into the barrel.

Now comes that day.

The day that it took place, a large crowd gathered. They were either going to see history made, by Annie going over the falls, or they were going to see something horrible. There were people game for both.

They popped her into the barrel on a little island upstream from the falls.

Taylor gets into her barrel. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children's Book Group)

She made them avert their eyes, because she didn’t want to be seen down on her hands and knees backing into the barrel?

I don’t know what would have qualified as sportswear for a woman in 1901 of her age, but she just wore her Sunday go-to-meeting dress and took off her jacket and hat and climbed into the barrel.

Once she was in, they let the barrel go down the rapids to the top of the falls. Everyone watching inhaled, and the barrel plunged down and popped back up. What did she say it felt like?

She said it was like the end of the earth, oblivion. I think she was probably just scared to death.  [Then] they pulled the barrel up onto shore, they popped off the lid, and one of the rescuers stuck his head in there and said ‘Mrs. Taylor,’ and a voice answered back, ‘Yes.? Where am I?’

She took some recovery time, and then she thought she would travel the country with her PR agent talking about her ride. But it didn’t turn out like that.

Taylor bounces along the rapids in her barrel. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children's Book Group)

The other thing Annie did, which was a miscaulculation, she knew that the public would be more open minded to an [adventurer] who was younger than she was. She was 62 years old. She promoted herself as being 42. And it was a failure, because the theater-goers would arrive and they’d see this old woman on the stage and everyone would say, ‘well that can’t be Annie Taylor.’

People were getting out of their seats and leaving and eventually the whole thing dried up. She ends her days sitting by a replica of her barrel (because someone stole her barrel), by the falls, selling post cards.

It was not what she imagined for herself. She believed that she would be on the theater circuit and become a kind of folk hero. But she did end up retreating back to Niagara Falls and deciding the only way she would exploit what she’d done was this very modest enterprise of setting up a table near the falls, selling brochures, photographs of herself. That’s where she lived out her days.

Author Chris Van Allsburg at Here & Now offices at WBUR in Boston. (Jesse Costa/Here & Now)

You write about a newspaper reporter who visits her 10 years after her stunt. He asks her how she felt about the way it all turned out. What did she say?

She says to the reporter if you asked any of these people walking by what they thought of someone going over the falls in that barrel, they’d say it was the greatest feat ever performed. And I’m proud to say that I’m the one who did it.

It didn’t bring her the fame or fortune she expected, but she could take that to the grave.

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Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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