I suppose everyone has either visited, heard of it, or seen pictures of the awesome spectacle. Over the years there have been many attempts by people to go over the Falls, in barrels, balls, & even without artificial aid, but I’ll mention just the two before I come to T A M.
The first was one of those most unlikely figures, a tight waisted, corseted, & thoroughly Victorian 63 year old financially distressed school mistress, one Mrs Annie Edson Taylor. She assessed the likelihood of her survival by placing a kitten in a barrel & sending it over the Falls in a trial run. Both the barrel & kitten survived. The next day – October 4 1901 – having sharply remonstrated would be dissuaders to mind their own business, she eased herself into her barrel in front of a crowd of several thousand & was cast off above the Falls. Her business manager retired to a nearby bar rather than watch. Some three hours later, bruised, battered, but by no means bewildered, & with her hair bun still in place, she was hauled alive from her barrel. Her first move was to sack her manager for dereliction of duty & duly set herself up as the Queen of the Mist, & by posing next to her barrel & kitten, made a decent enough living signing autographs.
The second was our own, Captain Matthew Webb, the first-ever person to successfully swim the English Channel in 1875 equipped only with his moustache, regular doses of Brandy, and a wire wool swimsuit. Sadly after this epic feat, he made a horlicks of his own financial affairs. In his attempt to stave off bankruptcy, he stepped in to swim the Niagara Rapids & within seconds was swept to oblivion.
We now come to the tightrope walkers & T A M.
The greatest of all of these walkers was a thin, almost cadaverous man with matted hair & beard, Jean Francois Gravelet, otherwise known as Blondin. He first walked across the 1100 foot span of the gorge, near the current Rainbow Bridge, in 1859. A year later, he was back, his name a household word all over the world with the Prince of Wales & former U.S. President Millard Fillmore among the spectators. He put on such a show as made women tear handkerchiefs & strong men bite their nails to the quick. He ran to & fro along the 3 inch thick hemp rope, slipping deliberately with a windmill of arms & legs before recovering, walking across backwards, with baskets on his feet & even on stilts. He lowered a mug into the waters below & after hauling it up, toasted the waters he defied. He held his top hat at arms length for a sharpshooter to put a bullet through it. Finally he took out a portable stove, squatted on the wire, then cooked & ate an omelette. There seemed nothing left for him to do, but with public interest (& ticket sales) waning, it was the idea of his manager – Harry Colcord – that Blondin should go across again with a man on his back. Blondin was all for this & we can but imagine the pitch made by the Manager to the assembled crowd….. “What about you sir ? A unique chance to gain fame & fortune… All over in a few minutes… No ? …….. Well how about you sir ? No ?….. Well come along, how about you sir ?… No ?…..
At what point the dreadful inspiration came to Colcord we shall never know. It is perhaps not to difficult to surmise – without doing the man posthumous injustice – that strong drink had been taken at the time. “ I suppose” he said, “I shall have to do it myself”. Colcord had genuinely never stepped onto a tightrope before in his life. Impossible for us to visualise ourselves in Blondin’s position, we can certainly see ourselves in the manager’s.
When the great day came, some 100,000 watchers assembled on the banks, all eager for a view of the spectacle. Betting was fast & furious, with odds at even money the two walkers would survive. Colcord – just about the same size as Blondin – took off his overcoat, climbed up unto the back of his temporary steed & embarked on their appalling expedition. The first part started well, being slightly downhill. The middle of the span reached however & the extra weight caused the rope to sag some 60 feet. In consequence the homeward stretch became steeply uphill. The pace of Blondin visibly slowed & a rumbling of anticipation & speculation broke out from the watchers on both banks as Blondin came to a complete stop. Imagine, gentle reader, the state of mind of Colcord as the two stationary figures balanced on a hawser over the abyss. This is The Awful Moment.
“It is no good” Blondin is saying “I am exhausted. You will have to get down & let me rest !”
What thoughts would have been surging around the Manager’s head? Appeals to the Almighty to spare him just this once & never again?? To urge on his exhausted steed??? The dread realisation that he would have to climb down off Blondin & find a way to balance on his own????. Somehow he made it down off Blondin’s back & for some minutes they stood separately, while the maestro recovered his strength. Speculators on the banks advanced the odds to even money on Blondin, 6-1 the manager.
Colcord had no chance at all on his own of climbing up the steep incline to safety. How was he to re-mount? A sort of furtive, creeping, one knee at a time action, would seem favourite, though whether it is possible to climb up onto a man’s back that way with the remaining foot balanced only on a a swaying hawser is open to doubt. The full blooded “Allez Oop” leap seems equally unlikely, with the almost certain result of the whole ensemble disappearing in a flurry of arms, legs, & balancing pole, gyrating slowly as they fell & quickly vanished into the roaring ,swirling torrent 160 feet below.
Regretfully, the nature of the lonely desperate conference between the two out on the wire has never been recorded, nor the method by which the manager at last climbed back up, but climb up he did, & the pair slowly moved towards safety. A picture taken with only a few yards left to go shows Colcord with mouth open, cheekbones sunken in, & eyes almost vanished back into their sockets.
“I break out into a cold sweat” he recorded in later life “whenever I think of it”.
© DJM 2019