The First Barrel Ride Down Niagara Falls Happens In 1901

By Jacob Shelton

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.

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?

Taylor's grave. (Knightflyte/Wikimedia Commons)

Going Over

Taylor didn't take her trip over the Falls in any old pickle barrel. After strapping herself into a barrel just over five feet in length outfitted with a leather harness and cushions to keep her somewhat comfortable as she smacked into the water, the barrel was towed into the middle of the Niagara River and set adrift to begin the maddening 20-minute journey through 200 feet of rocky rapids toward the falls.

After she went over and made her way to the shore, she posed for photos and gave a short series of interviews in which she stressed how very much she regretted everything. "If it was with my dying breath, I would caution anyone against attempting the feat," she told the press. "I would sooner walk up to the mouth of a cannon, knowing it was going to blow me to pieces, than make another trip over the fall."

She didn't even get much out of it. She earned modest sums speaking about her experience, but most of it was spent on private detectives to track down her former manager, who stole her barrel. She might have even considered the whole thing a net negative, as she blamed her later vision and other health problems on the trip over the falls. She spent the rest of her days working a series of odd jobs (and we do mean "odd"—she worked as a clairvoyant for some time) until she died penniless in 1921. She was buried alongside other daredevils in the "Stunter's Rest" plot of Oakwood Cemetery near those cursed waterfalls, so at least that's pretty cool.

Bobby Leach and his barrel after his perilous trip over Niagara Falls, July 25, 1911. (Library and Archives Canada/Wikimedia Commons)

The Legend Of The Falls

Taylor may not have gained the fame that she wanted, but she did inspire a small number of copycats to follow in her footsteps. Over the course of the next 100 years, 15 people went over Niagara Falls, and some of them got pretty creative with it, if misguidedly so. Bobby Leach rode inside a metal barrel, breaking his jaw and kneecaps during the trip but gaining a small amount of notoriety for his trouble as the first man to go over the falls, while "Smiling Jean" Lussier survived her trip over the falls in a large rubber ball in 1928. The last person to go over the falls was Kirk Jones in 2003, who simply jumped like Sam Patch before him. Jones survived the fall with only minor injuries, but he was fined $2,300 and banned from entering Canada for life.

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.