Officials banned stuntmen and daredevils from turning Niagara Falls into a circus over a century ago, but on Friday night, tightrope walker Nik Wallenda became the first of his generation to tackle the world's most famous falls -- and he did so on prime time TV with official support.
The daredevil remained unnaturally calm during the 25-minute journey Friday, fighting mist and fog on a wet rope as he tiptoed into the record books, becoming the first person ever to walk directly across the imposing icon.
Stunting is synonymous with Niagara Falls, said John Percy, president and CEO of Niagara Falls Tourism and Convention Corp.
Indeed, Niagara is perhaps best known as a place where people wear one of two things: barrels or veils.
The border-straddling cities of Niagara Falls, N.Y., and Niagara Falls, Ont., issue between 1,500 and 2,000 marriage licenses annually and, in a good year, receive a combined 12 million visitors. But these numbers pale in comparison to what the region saw in its heyday.
Had Niagara Falls not fallen on hard times, it's unlikely that both Canada and the United States would have sprung for such a daring stunt. But, with the appeal of the honeymoon capital diving over the past 50 years -- along with half of the New York side's population -- they needed something big, something bold and something to remind people of Niagara's place in history. So they invited a high-wire artist from one of the sport's most celebrated families to drum up attention and put the roaring waters of Niagara back on the map.
But historic as the act may be, some argue this is exactly the kind of history Niagara would do best to avoid. Wallenda's stunt, they say, is just another example of Niagara Falls shooting itself in the foot, repeating history's mistake of tainting nature with spectacle.
Niagara, Home Of The Daredevil
The self-proclaimed King of the High Wire -- who already has his eyes set on the Grand Canyon -- spent almost two years obtaining the necessary permissions from Canada and the United States for the border-crossing feat. Only after persistent lobbying of Canadian parks officials and an act of New York's legislature was the stunt finally approved.
Not only is it a dream, but we had to change two laws in two countries that were over 100 years old, Wallenda boasted last month, announcing the June 15 date.
Janice Thomson of Ontario's Niagara Parks Commission called the approval a unique one-time situation, telling any would-be copycats that they would only accept requests once every 20 years, assuming Wallenda's effort went off without a hitch.
It did, but Niagara Falls has a history of swallowing up ambitious tricksters.
Mill worker-cum-daredevil Sam Patch is credited with popularizing Niagara Falls as a destination for spectacles. The so-called Yankee Leaper became a household name in 1829 when he leapt into the Niagara River near the base of Niagara Falls. But his fame didn't last long. He died a few weeks later attempting the same act on the Genesee River about an hour away.
In 1901, Annie Edson Taylor became the first person to ride over Niagara Falls in a barrel. She did so on her 63rd birthday expecting fame and fortune but later died in poverty and relative obscurity, unable to afford her own gravestone.
According to Mike DiFrancesco, who opened the Niagara Daredevil Museum in 1995, 15 people have tumbled over the falls in modern times using various contraptions. Ten lived to tell the tale.
It's part of the folklore we have around here. There's so much water going over the falls that it's drawn people for centuries, he said. After Patch jumped in the early 1800s, it became a circus. In addition to the jumpers, about a dozen tightrope walkers performed acts around the falls from 1859 to the turn of the century.
He said only one tightrope walker, Stephen Peer, fell to his death, and it happened on a late-night dare.
Popular tightrope walkers like the Great Blondin and William Leonard Hunt crossed Niagara Gorge on bicycles, blindfolded, carrying washing machines and even cooking omelets. Twenty-one-year-old James Hardy's performances in 1896, however, signaled the end of an extravagant era and were the last sanctioned tightrope displays permitted in Niagara Falls.
The Cost Of Setting Records
Though tightropes have spanned Niagara Gorge before, none of the famed circus performers of the 19th century crossed anywhere near the falls itself. That's where Wallenda comes in.
By the numbers: Some 700,000 gallons of water flowed over Niagara Falls each second as Wallenda completed the 25-min, 1,800-foot journey between Terrapin Point on Goat Island and Table Rock in Canada, about 200 feet above the gorge bottom. He used a 38-pound balancing pole as he set out at 10:15 p.m. EST Friday night along the two-inch-wide, 13,300-pound rope to become the first person ever to walk across Niagara Falls on a tightrope.
Wallenda is a seventh-generation member of the Flying Wellendas, a legendary high-wire family that moved from Germany to the United States in the 1920s and boasts several feats in the Guinness Book of World Records. The 33-year-old high-wire star is no less successful than his predecessors and had completed tightrope walks that were both higher and longer than his crossing of Niagara Falls. Yet, he has said on numerous occasions that the international prestige of the location has a unique appeal.
Not even Marilyn Monroe brought the attention here that I've brought, Wallenda boasted earlier this month, referring to the 1953 film Niagara that introduced Marilyn Monroe to the world. Anyone who says this doesn't help Niagara Falls, they're fools.
But the attention -- and media coverage -- came at a cost.
ABC, which picked up the rights to the live telecast, is not in the business of showing death during its prime time coverage. The station insisted that Wallenda wear a harness tethering him to the wire like a dog on a leash. For fear of losing his sponsors, Wallenda was forced to comply.
The stunt not only cost Wallenda bragging rights, but money too. Official estimates put the figure somewhere to the tune of $1.2 to $1.3 million, including fabrication and installation of the custom-made steel wire, security on both sides of the border, permits and marketing -- and Wallenda had to pay for all government services incurred during the stunt. The deal with ABC covered part of the overhead, but legal liability considerations prevented the network from specifically funding his preparations, materials and other expenses.
Faced with mounting unforeseen bills, Wallenda appealed to the public on fundraising website Indiegogo to try and raise additional funds. So far, he hasn't had much luck. Then again, no one has ever made a fortune stunting at Niagara Falls.
What's Best For Niagara Falls?
If anyone stands to gain from the stunt it may be Niagara Falls, N.Y., a city in desperate need of a savior.
How many people do we expect? I don't know. It could be 20,000 or it could be 100,000, Percy of the Niagara Falls, N.Y., tourism board said Thursday. What we do know is that 4,000 vouchers for a sectioned-off area by the state park sold in less than four minutes.
ABC, which turned the evening into a three-hour extravaganza, claimed the number of visitors on both the Canadian and American side of the falls was in excess of 100,000.
Percy said Wallenda's stunt was the type of 21st-century daredevilism perfect for a reality TV-obsessed culture used to watching shows like Fear Factor and The Amazing Race.
While the initial impact on hotel sales, restaurants and activities will be great for the town where two of three residents subsist largely on welfare or social security, according to U.S. Census data, Percy believes it's the exposure that will be the biggest impact.
Everyone wants their destination on people's minds, he said. This will be in every newspaper and on every TV station around the world. To me, that exposure is invaluable. I couldn't afford to purchase that kind of exposure. Our budget is not that large.
But Niagara Falls, N.Y., resident, author and historian Paul Gromosiak said this is exactly the kind of exposure Niagara Falls doesn't need.
What would the Grand Canyon or Yosemite look like with skyscrapers and a Ferris wheel, he questioned. The falls are advertised to the world as a natural wonder, but if you come to Niagara Falls, especially on the Canadian side, we've either redefined the word natural or something isn't right.
Gromosiak said Wallenda's stunt makes the falls nothing but a backdrop and trivializes the natural value.
To Gromosiak, Niagara Falls, N.Y., which faces far greater economic woes than its glitzy, Las Vegas-like Canadian neighbor, would do better to focus on the region's history and abundant natural elements, rather than circus acts.
There was a time when visitors flocked to Niagara Falls for the full moon, he recalled. And if they'd get rid of those artificial lights -- just for one night each month -- you could see a lunar rainbow in the mist of the falls.
There are still ways to make it more natural, he said.
Perhaps -- or maybe Niagara Falls is forever what we already know it be: a place where stunts and spectacles are second nature.