The First Barrel Ride Down Niagara Falls Happens In 1901

By | April 7, 2021

test article image
Annie Edson Taylor, first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survive (cat in photo is likely the same cat that went over the falls in a test run). (Library of Congress/WIkimedia Commons)

The rushing waters of Niagara Falls call out to daredevils across the world with a siren song first heard by Annie Edson Taylor, who strapped herself into a barrel and became the Victorian widow Evel Knievel in 1901. At least 16 people have gone over the falls since Taylor's trip, 11 of whom even survived.

Don't Go Chasing Waterfalls

Niagara Falls might be pretty, but it's also deadly. Every second, 600,000 gallons of water rush over Horseshoe Falls, the largest of Niagara's three waterfalls and safest for barrelers. All of that water will get you over the falls pretty quickly, so anyone taking the 170-foot plunge runs a major risk of concussion or breaking some bones when their ride hits the water, but that's actually not the worst-case scenario. It's entirely possible to get trapped in the falls and drown, like one man who couldn't be retrieved for 14 hours in 1930.

test article image
Annie Taylor posing next to her barrel. (Francis J. Petrie Photograph Collection/Wikimedia Commons)

Annie Edson Taylor

Why would anyone risk such a terrible fate? Fame, baby. While Taylor was the first person to go over the falls in a barrel, she was actually inspired by Sam Patch, who survived the drop from Horseshoe Falls with no equipment. That's right: He jumped from the falls in 1829 with nothing but the clothes on his back.

In 1901, Taylor was at home in Bay City, Michigan when she read about the Pan-American Exposition scheduled to take place in Buffalo as well as the falls about 25 minutes away. As a former schoolteacher and childless widow (her only son died as an infant) who had been drifting around the Midwest, hoping to teach music or dance, she had a somewhat pressing need for money, and she figured a barrel roll over Niagara Falls was just the ticket. At the turn of the 20th century, this was a totally viable career option. Harry Houdini made a living from fantastic escapes and wild stunts, so why couldn't she?