Friday, October 25, 2013

Annie Edson Taylor: Niagara daredevil

Most people find the thought of dropping over Niagara Falls in a barrel unappealing, to say the least. A few young daredevils might consider it the "ultimate rush" (or whatever the kids are saying these days), but most of us who are happily settled into adulthood need nothing more than to look at a photo of the falls, or maybe gaze at them from behind the safety of a barrier, to satisfy our desire for adventure.

Yep, that about does it for me.

Technically, Bay City resident Annie Edson Taylor wasn't looking for a thrill so much as a paycheck when she became the first person to survive a trip over Niagara Falls in a barrel. However, Taylor was definitely at an age when most Michiganders were dipping into their pensions, not plunging 167 feet over one of North America's best-known waterfalls. Taylor made the trip on October 24, 1901---her sixty-third birthday.

Annie Edson Taylor

Taylor was born in 1838 in Auburn, New York, and experienced tragedy at an early age. Her father died when she was 12, and her only child with husband David Taylor died a few days after birth. David himself died not long after, in the Civil War. The newly widowed Taylor moved around the country looking for work, and eventually ended up in Bay City, where she opened a dance school at the corner of Center Avenue and Saginaw Street. She attracted a number of students, but, because she tried to maintain the well-to-do lifestyle she had enjoyed as a child, she quickly spent most of her money. In 1900, Taylor moved to Sault Saint Marie, where she taught music, but still wasn't earning enough to support herself. Taylor and a friend traveled to Mexico City, where they hoped to find jobs, but had no luck. Defeated, Taylor moved back to Bay City and considered ways she could avoid the poorhouse.

After reading a newspaper article that mentioned Niagara Falls, Taylor hatched a plan. The falls, located along the border of New York State and Ontario, were a major tourist attraction. Taylor figured that, by becoming the first person to survive a barrel plunge over them, she could parlay her experience into fame and fortune. She approached staff members at the West Bay City Cooperage Company to design a barrel that could withstand the tens of thousands of cubic feet of water that plunge over the falls every second. She also solicited local promoter Frank M. Russell to serve as her manager. The cooperage came up with an oak-and-iron barrel that Taylor could stuff with a mattress to cushion herself from the beating she would take in the rapids below the falls. The barrel also contained an anvil at its bottom, so that it would stay balanced in the roiling water. Thus equipped with her ticket to wealth, Taylor headed for the falls on October 12, 1901.

Taylor may have been desperate for money, but she wasn't crazy. Before she took her historic plunge, she wanted to see whether the barrel---and consequently, she herself---would survive it. A few days before her scheduled trip, Taylor stuffed into the barrel what at the time was the world's unluckiest cat, and sent it over the Horseshoe Falls, the largest of Niagara's three cascades. Surprisingly, the cat survived, and Taylor posed for photos with it, determined that she, too, would live through the ordeal.

Let's give credit where credit's due; technically, the cat was the first
 living thing to survive a trip over Niagara Falls in a barrel.

On October 24, 1901, Taylor and a few helpers crowded into a rowboat in the Niagara River, ready to make history. Taylor's helpers held the barrel at the rowboat's edge and Taylor climbed in, clutching a lucky pillow to her chest. Her associates secured the lid, then compressed the air inside the barrel with a bicycle pump. They used a cork to plug the air hole, and set the barrel adrift, watching as it began the first portion of its twenty-minute journey to the Horseshoe Falls. Taylor's trip over the waterfall itself lasted a few seconds, but her barrel remained at the falls' base for a significant amount of time before rescuers could retrieve it. Nervous about whether the barrel had, in fact, become Taylor's coffin, rescuers opened it to find a bewildered but very much alive Taylor, who had survived the ordeal with nothing more than a cut on her head---though she latter gave the press some choice words about her experience. "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," Taylor said.

Taylor being helped to shore after her trip over the falls

Her goal achieved, Taylor got ready to rake in the money. However, her luck after the falls escapade was just as bad as her luck had been before it. Russell, the manager she had brought with her from Bay City, made off with Taylor's barrel, and she spent a significant amount of money on private investigators to track it down. Though Taylor earned some cash posing for photos and selling souvenirs, she ultimately had to pursue other lines of work to make ends meet. Poverty-stricken, Taylor died in 1921 at the age of 82. Though Taylor's deed failed to bring her material wealth, it did write a place for her in the history books. Taylor is buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Niagara Falls, New York, in an area known as the "stunter's section," which is the final resting place of individuals who made names for themselves by challenging one of the continent's mightiest waterfalls.

For more information:

Annie Edson Taylor isn't the only Michigander to travel over the Horseshoe Falls. In 2003, Canton resident Kirk Jones made the trip---and did so by himself, with no barrel or gear to protect him. The 40-year-old was unemployed, and said that his plunge over the falls was a suicide attempt, though his family said he had undertaken the stunt as a way to become famous and make money. Jones jumped into the Niagara River a mere twenty feet from the Horseshoe Falls, then pulled himself out of harm's way once he reached the bottom. Emergency responders took Jones to a hospital, but he suffered nothing more than a few minor rib injuries. Jones's trip over the falls ended up costing him money. Officials arrested him for causing mischief and performing a stunt in Niagara Parks, and he pled guilty, paying a few thousand dollars in fines.

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