October 24, 1901, was going to be a big day for Annie Edson Taylor. It was her 63rd birthday. It was also the day she would attempt to become the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel.
Annie Edson was born in 1838 in Lockport, New York, less than 20 miles from Niagara Falls. Although she lived a comfortable childhood, her adult life was not quite as quiet. After a short marriage that ended when her husband, David Taylor, was killed in the Civil War – and included the loss of their only child in infancy – Taylor began a long and unsettled period of wandering. She traveled around the country and even as far away as Mexico City, teaching here and there but never finding the life she wanted.
What was it that she wanted? Ultimately, fame and fortune. And teaching music and dance wasn’t bringing it. By 1901, she had given up on Mexico and was again up north, in Bay City, Michigan. Bay City isn’t exactly next door to Niagara Falls, but Taylor heard the call of the Falls anyway, thanks to the Pan-American Exposition taking place in Buffalo. Having read an article about the World's Fair and the Falls nearby, she had an idea for how to get the world’s attention: she would become the next great Niagara Falls daredevil.
In 1901, Niagara Falls was already a popular tourist destination, beloved by honeymooners, particularly since 1825 when completion of the Erie Canal made travel to the area much easier. Daredevils, too, had flocked to the Falls for decades, and Taylor was far from the first to think she could turn heads by challenging Niagara. But what she could do was come up with a new way to do it.
Many swimmers had braved the cold waters of the river below, and tightrope walks were old hat with several successfully crossing the raging waters (the Great Blondin had even paused to cook an omelet while balanced on a rope high above the Falls). A newer trend – with varying success and occasional deaths – was for barrel-riders to shoot the treacherous Whirlpool Rapids below the Falls, but none had yet dared to take the full plunge. It was pretty obvious to Taylor what she needed to do: she would take the barrel stunt one big step further and ride the Falls themselves.
Taylor took several measures to prepare for her feat. She had a barrel specially made – one she could fit in (though it was surely a bit cramped, at four and a half feet high), with straps to hold her steady and a mattress and pillows to cushion the impact of hitting the lower river. A small air hole was included, with a rubber tube to allow her access to fresh air. And she gave the barrel a trial run over the Falls, with a cat named Iagara inside. The cat made it (and ended up in at least one publicity photo with Taylor afterward, perched atop the barrel), and the barrel held up. It was time for Taylor to take her chance.
A little after 4 p.m. on October 24, 1901, Taylor climbed into her barrel and headed down the Niagara River, starting about a mile upstream from the Falls. The barrel drifted toward Horseshoe Falls, on the Canadian side, and it plummeted over the brink about 20 minutes after it first started floating. It would be another breathless 20 minutes for onlookers – and presumably Taylor, inside her barrel – before rescue boats could get close enough to snag the barrel and let Taylor out. Everyone was able to sigh with relief when the top was cut off the barrel and Taylor emerged, alive. Her commentary on the experience? “No one ought ever do that again.”
Not everyone heeded her advice – at least 15 others have plunged over Niagara Falls in the years since, in barrels, boats, inner tubes and, most recently, on a jet ski. Several of them weren’t as fortunate as Taylor and didn’t survive the trip, while others successfully challenged the Falls not once but twice.
So, having inspired other thrill seekers, Taylor got what she wanted, right? Her name went down in history and she achieved lasting fame and fortune?
Not exactly. She did become known for her feat, with her name in the papers and lots of photos still surviving. She made a little money speaking about her experiences and posing for photos, but certainly not a fortune – and she had to spend a fair amount of it on tracking down her barrel after an event promoter ran off with it post-stunt. By the time Taylor died in 1921, she was broke…and her name doesn’t remain quite the household word she hoped it would.
She’s still notable, though, not just because she survived her stunt – but also because she had the guts to do it in the first place. This sort of daredevilry is something we would expect a man to have attempted first, especially in Taylor’s less-liberated times. But that didn’t stop Taylor, who had no intention of waiting for a man to tackle the Falls before she gave it a shot. She wanted to be not just the first woman, but the first, and she did it.
In case you’re thinking a Niagara Falls stunt might bring you fame and fortune, you might want to remember Annie Edson Taylor’s fate…she’s an interesting footnote, but money and status eluded her even after her thrilling plunge. If that doesn’t deter you, remember Taylor’s words of advice: “No one ought ever do that again.” Still determined to challenge the Falls? Maybe this will bring you back down to earth: it’s now illegal to attempt any Niagara Falls stunts, punishable with imprisonment and fines of up to $25,000.