June 30, 1859: Charles Blondin crosses Niagara Falls on a tightrope
Have you ever heard of the daredevil who crossed Niagara Falls? The New York Times called him “reckless and aimless.” Mark Twain referred to him as “a reckless ass.” Even many who bore witness to his feat thought that “he deserved to be dashed to atoms for his desperate fool-hardiness.” However, he made it across the massive river in one piece— and became one of the most famous ropewalkers in history.
Blondin’s dreams of rope-walking
From the moment he balanced on a rope between two chairs at the age of four, Jean François Gravelet—later known by the nickname Monsieur Charles Blondin— knew he was a ropewalker. Blondin threw his early life into his gymnastics at École de Gymnase in Lyon. Described as being like a “sprite” or a “devil” by his manager, Blondin was relocated from France to the U.S. to tour with Franconi’s Equestrian Troop. However, plans quickly changed for the daredevil.
Blondin became infatuated with the idea of crossing Niagara Falls on a rope, a feat that no other ropewalker had attempted. As an avid thrill-seeker, he loved both the danger and the promise of a crowd witnessing the morbid act. Despite the terrifying prospect of plunging to a watery death, Blondin planned out what would become one of the most incredible rope-walking stunts in history.
Terrifying the entire nation
On June 30th, 1859, people from across America and Canada turned up to witness Blondin’s unbelievable effort to cross the Falls. The stunt drew nationwide attention, and nearly 25,000 people crowded around Niagara Falls to drink whiskey, take bets, and witness Blondin’s terrifying ropewalk. To make matters even more thrilling, Blondin refused a vital safety measure: a net. Blondin was a firm believer that if a net was present, he would be more likely to succumb to a disaster. So, Blondin relied only on a two-inch wide, 1,100 foot-long cable and a balancing pole to carry him all the way across the rapid falls. Many audience members were sure the rope was weak and he would plunge to his death. However, Blondin didn’t back down from the nerve-wracking stunt.
Performing his frightening stunt
Around 5 p.m., Blondin mounted his rope wearing only a pair of pink tights, a yellow blouse, and leather shoes. As dazed crowds peered up at him, Blondin confidently began to work his way across the rope. He even stopped in the middle, sat on the rope, flagged down a tourist’s vessel, and fished up a bottle of wine to celebrate his accomplishment. After completing the stunt, he promised an encore on July 4th, and he delivered—walking backward, blindfolded, and weighted down on the rope numerous times. Though some despised his recklessness, none could deny that he was a truly courageous daredevil.