Niagara Falls Daredevils: Those Who Took The Plunge

niagara daredevils

Annie Taylor

A dazed and dishevelled Annie Taylor is helped to shore after her harrowing journey over the falls in a barrel.

A dazed and dishevelled Annie Taylor is helped to shore after her harrowing journey over the falls in a barrel.

On October 24th, 1901 Annie Taylor became the first person and the first woman to go over the falls in a barrel and survive. Ms Taylor, a 63 year old school teacher from Michigan, accompanied by her cat, decided to tempt fate in an effort to gain fame and fortune.

The Pan American Exposition was taking place in Buffalo, New York and Ms. Taylor felt she would be able to attract a huge crowd. On the afternoon of October 24th, 1901 a small boat towed the barrel containing Ms. Taylor and her cat into the main stream of the Niagara River where it was cut loose.

At approximately 4:30 p.m. the barrel was seen edging over the brink, only to reappear less than a minute laterwhere it was seen floating at the base of the falls. Fifteen minutes later the barrel reappeared close to the Canadian shore, where it was dragged to a rock and the barrel lid removed.

To everyone’s amazement, Annie Taylor emerged from her barrel, dazed but triumphant. Her only injury was a cut on her forehead that she received while being extracted from her barrel.

Mrs. Annie Edson Taylor was the first person to ever go over the Mighty Niagara Falls and survive and she undoubtedly found the fame that she had been seeking.

A dazed and dishevelled Annie Taylor is helped to shore after her harrowing journey over the falls in a barrel.

For many years after this event she sold mementos of her feat on the streets of Niagara Falls, claiming that she would never attempt another journey over the falls, preferring to walk into the mouth of a cannon. Unfortunately, while Annie Taylor may have found the fame that she desperately sought, she did not find the fortune. She passed away in 1921, poor and destitute.

Bobby Leach

An Englishman named Bobby Leach successfully made a trip over the falls in a steel barrel and was the first man to ever do so. Leach had been a performer with the Barnum and Bailey Circus and was no stranger to stunting. Prior to his trip over the falls he owned a restaurant on Bridge Street and would boast to customers that anything Annie could do…he could do better.

bobby leach

On July 25th, 1911 he took the plunge over the falls and spent the next six months recuperating in hospital from various fractures and contusions he suffered during his ordeal. After surviving the plunge he went on to make a good living by touring vaudeville theatres and lecture halls, recounting his harrowing experience, and displaying his barrel.

Leach returned to Niagara Falls, New York in 1920 and operated a pool hall. While in his sixties he attempted to swim the whirlpool rapids but failed after several attempts. During these aborted attempts, Bobbie Leach was rescued by Red Hill Sr., a riverman, who knew the Falls well. Red Hill Sr. would also become well known in the area for later rescues, and a son, Red Hill Jr. would also attempt a journey over the brink.

Unlike Annie Taylor before him, Bobby Leach attained some success from his endeavour. For several years he toured Canada, the United States and England, recounting his harrowing journey at vaudeville shows and lecture halls, exhibiting his barrel and posing for pictures.

Luck would run out for Bobby Leach fifteen years later, when he slipped on an orange peel and broke his leg while on a lecture tour in New Zealand. Unfortunately the first man to ever brave the Mighty Niagara and live to tell the tale succumbed to complications from his injury.

Charles G. Stephens

The first daredevil to lose his life going over the falls was Charles Stephens. Stephens, a barber with eleven children, hoped that the fame and fortune that such a stunt would bring would help to alleviate his family from poverty. He was gravely mistaken.

Early on the morning of July 11th, 1920 he began his journey. Charles G. Stephens was the first daredevil to lose his life going over the falls.

Stephens, a 58 year old barber with eleven children, hoped that the fame and fortune that such a stunt would bring would help to alleviate his family from poverty. He was gravely mistaken.

Early on the morning of July 11th, 1920 he began his journey. Stephens had built a massive wooden barrel for the trip over the falls.

Thousands watched that morning in July as Stephens barrel crested over the falls and then within seconds broke into pieces upon impact at the base of the Horseshoe Falls.

Stephens had made a fatal mistake of attaching an anvil to his feet. All that was found of Mr. Stephens was his arm, identified by a number of tattoos, still strapped into the harness. The Mighty Niagara had claimed it’s first daredevil!

Jean Albert Lussier

Jean Albert Lussier took the plunge over Niagara Falls on July 4, Lussier, of Springfield, Massachusetts was a 36 year old machinist.

Lussier was born in Concord, New Hampshire to French Canadian parents. He moved back to Quebec at an early age but returned to the United States to become more fluent in English.

When he heard about Charles Stephen’s tragic death at Niagara he became interested and shortly thereafter went on vacation to Niagara Falls to learn more about attempting a trip himself.

He began to design and build his own vessel, which was not exactly a barrel but rather a rubber ball. He was the first daredevil to ever choose an inflated apparatus rather then the usual wood barrel type of design.

Lussier’s rubber ball was six feet in diameter with inner and outer steel bands for reinforcement. The inside of the ball was lined with three dozen inner tubes with a space in the center for Lussier. A 150 lb rubber ballast was built into the bottom of the ball to keep it from spinning.

Jean Albert Lussierbeing helped on shore after his plunge over the falls
He would later try to capitalize on his adventure by moving to Niagara Falls, New York and selling pieces off his “rubber ball” to tourists for 50 cents a piece. When the original rubber was used up he would find discarded inner tubes. To the locals he seemed to have a never-ending supply.

Lussier would later describe his trip over the falls as smooth, and often spoke of making a return trip over the falls. Lussier died in 1971 of natural causes in Niagara Falls, New York.

Red Hill Jr.

The poorly constructed barrel that would carry Red Hill Jr. to his death

The poorly constructed barrel that would carry Red Hill Jr. to his death

Red Hill Jr. was no stranger to the Niagara Falls and the power it possessed. His father Red Hill Sr. was well known in the area. He had helped rescue several people from the Niagara River, but he had never actually attempted a trip over the falls.

One of his sons, Red Jr. was slightly more foolhardy than the elder Hill. In July of 1950 Red Jr. announced to the media that the following year he would go over the Horseshoe Falls in a ball, similar to the one used by Jean Lussier in 1928.

Lloyd, the younger of the two, was not going to be upstaged by his older brother and decided to attempt the journey in 1950 in a steel barrel. His attempt was thwarted when his barrel was caught in a weir used by the Canadian Power Plant. After his rescue, the barrel slipped into the river and disappeared, unoccupied over the falls.

A helmuted Red Hill Jr.

A helmuted Red Hill Jr.

The following Summer Red Jr. followed through with his announcement, except unlike his brother, he chose not a steel barrel, but instead a contraption that he referred to as the “thing”.

Some claimed it to be a rubber ball, but in fact it was fourteen rubber truck tire inner tubes covered with heavy canvas and held together with a thick net. The ends were packed with even more inner tubes and Red Jr. was held in place with even more inner tubes.

He was also equipped with a hose and mask so he would be able to get air if needed. 38 year old William (Red) Jr. had every intention of surviving the rapids that fateful day in August 1951. He joked to reporters that if the wind is right, and I can get the breaks, then I’ll come out OK.

Red Hill Jr. inside "The Thing"

Red Hill Jr. inside “The Thing”

At 2:30 p.m. on August 5th, 1951 Red Hill climbed into his homemade contraption and began his trip from Usher’s Creek, about a mile above the falls. At 3:05 p.m. Hill’s “Thing” was spotted going over the brink and disappearing into the mist and thundering water below. Ten minutes latter, Hill’s “Thing” was recovered, tattered and torn apart. Four inner tubes had been torn loose and the netting was in tatters. Inside the only evidence of Red Hill Jr. were his shoes. The next day, August 6th, 1951, searchers pulled Hills battered body from the river.

George A. Stathakis

George A. Stathakis lived in Buffalo, New York where he worked as a chef after emigrating from Greece. He was 46 years old and a bachelor when he made the decision to go over the falls in a barrel. He hoped that the revenue that such a trip would generate could be used towards the publication of his books on metaphysical experiences.

The barrel where George Stathaki met his untimely death is on display in Niagara Falls

The barrel where George Stathaki met his untimely death is on display in Niagara Falls

With the help of some of his friends George set about building a massive barrel made of wood and steel. Ten feet long and over 5 ft. in diameter, George had been previously warned by Red Hill Sr. that the barrel was too big and heavy, weighing nearly a ton.

On July 5th, 1930 George Stathakis, along with his pet turtle Sonny took the plunge over the falls. His barrel would survive the ride, relatively unscathed, but would be caught behind the falls for over twenty hours.

When finally the barrel was recovered George Stathakis was dead, apparently suffocated. His pet turtle Sonny, believed to be 150 years old, had miraculously survived the trip.

The barrel where George Stathaki met his untimely death is on display in Niagara Falls
Of all the barrels to go over the falls, George Stathakis’s barrel was the only one to become held up behind the falls. Perhaps the massive barrel that Mr. Stathakis thought would protect him from harm actually contributed to his death.

William Fitzgerald aka Nathan Boya

William Fitzgerald aka Nathan Boya in hospital shortly after his plunge over the falls.

William Fitzgerald aka Nathan Boya in hospital shortly after his plunge over the falls.

On July 15, 1961 a thirty year old from New York City named William Fitzgerald made his descent over the falls in a contraption much like Jean Lussier’s ball.

FitzGerald constructed a huge 1200 pound ball, more then six feet in diameter with a 16 gauge steel frame. Inflated cushions were also wedged inside to add buoyancy.

With little fanfare he slipped into the rapids above the falls on the morning of July 15th, 1961. His ball, which came to be known as the “Plunge-O-Sphere made its journey successfully over the falls.

William Fitzgerald survived his date with death only to be promptly arrested and charged under the Niagara Parks Act for performing a stunt without the permission of the Niagara Parks Commission. His fine was $100.00.

Karel Soucek

Karel Soucek stands confidently in front of his barrel.

Karel Soucek stands confidently in front of his barrel.

 

Karel Soucek was a 37 yr old stuntman from Hamilton Ontario. Prior to his trip over the falls he had performed stunts such as jumping motorcycles over cars. He had also previously tried to cross the Whirlpool Rapids on a moped using the lines from the Spanish Aerocar. In 1976.

His attempt was thwarted when his moped hit a metal bolt on the cable. If not for his safety harness Soucek would have surely perished that day.

Early on the morning of July 2, 1984 an unimposing cube van pulled up to a retaining wall above the falls, and several men quickly went to work.

A plywood ramp was leaned against the retaining wall, and the barrel quickly slid into the river only 164 yds above the Horseshoe Falls.

Karel Soucek gravestone

Karel Soucek gravestone

Forty five minutes after Soucek’s barrel was seen edging over the brink his companions were able to secure the barrel and release it’s occupant.

Soucek suffered only minor injuries, and had hoped that this stunt would bring him the wealth and notoriety that he so desperately sought.

Barely six months latter, Soucek attempted to repeat his harrowing plunge over the falls at the Houston Astrodome by dropping himself, inside a wooden barrel, 180 ft. into a 10 foot pool of water.

Unfortunately for Karel Soucek the barrel hit the edge of the pool and Soucek succumbed to injuries he suffered in the fall.

Steve Trotter

Steve Trotter during a media conference

Steve Trotter during a media conference

On August 18, 1985 a 22 year old from Fort Lauderdale Florida made his second attempt to go over the falls. Trotter had attempted a trip in November of the previous year, but the first attempt had been stopped by the Niagara Parks Police.

This time he had been successful in a homemade contraption that he named “the Rig”. The “Rig” consisted of eight tractor-trailer inner tubes surrounding a fiberglass capsule. The craft measured 6 feet in diameter and was 15 ft. long.

On the side it bore the inscription “Support Reagan”, referring to then US President Ronald Reagan.

Steve Trotter would survive his trip over the falls but his vessel would sustain serious damage. Two of the large inner tubes had deflated and a large dent was made in the side.

The hatch was blown off but Steve Trotter managed to swim free of the craft and was picked up by the crew aboard The Maid of the Mist.

Trotter would return later in the day to the Maid of the Mist Landing to sign autographs and have his picture taken with tourists. During a media conerence Trotter would latter state the trip was “cool….like dropping in an elevator without a cable”

John (Dave) Munday

John “Dave” Munday John David Munday was born in Caistor Centre, a small farming community in Southern Ontario in 1937.

A diesel mechanic by trade Munday was also an accomplished

Dave Munday barrel shortly before being released into the Niagara River.

Dave Munday barrel shortly before being released into the Niagara River.

skydiving instructor with over 1,400 jumps to his credit, as well as a helicopter pilot.

John David Munday also had an obsession with Niagara Falls, and for many years had thought about going over the falls in a barrel.

On July 28th 1985 at around one o’clock in the afternoon Munday launched a silver and red aluminum barrel from the Canadian shoreline about two miles from the brink of the falls.

Unfortunately Mr. Munday was seen by a Niagara Parks Police officer, who quickly alerted Ontario Hydro. Within minutes the water level was dropped by over five feet marooning Munday’s barrel.

That fall Munday returned to Niagara Falls to fulfill his quest. Early on the morning of Octo

The inside of Dave Munday's barrel

The inside of Dave Munday’s barrel

ber 5th, 1985 a truck containing the barrel of Dave Munday, with Munday already inside, pulled up to the shore of the Niagara River near the American Falls.

The barrel was quickly launched into the river within one hundred and fifty yards of the brink of the American Falls and within seconds it had disappeared beneath the bubbling foaming waters of the Upper Niagara.

A small plexiglass window would allow Munday to videotape his ride over the falls. Munday survived his trip over the falls and was rescued 90 minutes later.

Dave Munday barrel shortly before being released into the Niagara River.

Dave Munday was not content with his new found fame. On September 26th 1987 police discovered a six foot long barrel with the name “Dave Munday” inscribed on the side. Apparently Munday was going to attempt to challenge the Great Gorge Rapids and Whirlpool.

His efforts however, were thwarted by the Niagara Parks Police. A second attempt at challenging the falls also came to an abrupt end when low morning water levels stranded his barrel in the rocks above the falls. Dave Munday was not a man to take defeat lightly and he would return to Niagara Falls several years later to challenge the falls once again.

Jeffrey Petkovich & Peter DiBernardi

Peter DeBernardi had always had visions of going over the falls in a barrel, however, by the time he arrived on the scene in the late 1980’s, daredevils were plentiful and usually the fame was fleeting.

DeBernardi had a slightly different idea. He planned on being the first ever two-person team to go over the falls. His only problem was finding a suitable partner. He offered the seat to several area residents including Dave Munday who politely refused his offer.

In 1989 he announced that he would take the plunge with Jeffrey Petkovich, a 24 year-old university student. The barrel that he constructed was a 3000 lb 12 ft reinforced steel tank. Inside it contained harness straps and two oxygen tanks. On the side of the barrel were the words “Don’t put yourself on the Edge – Drugs will kill you”.

Small plexi-glass windows enabled DeBernardi to videotape the entire stunt. On the afternoon of September 28th the barrel, with both men inside strapped head to head, was set afloat in the Niagara River about 200 yards above the Horseshoe Falls.

Minutes later it was spotted below the falls. DeBarnardi and Petrovich had accomplished what no other daredevil had yet to accomplish. They had made the trip over the falls as a duo. Each stunter was eventually fined 1,500 for performing an illegal stunt.

DeBernardi was quoted as saying that it was a small price to pay to be immortalized in the history books. To discourage future stunters the fine for anyone attempting a stunt was raised to a maximum of $10,000, and the ability to confiscate the stunters barrels.

Jesee Sharp

Jessie Sharp's kayak was found below the falls but his body has never been foundJessie Sharp’s kayak was found below the falls but his body has never been foundJessie Sharp, a 28 year old expert kayaker from Tennessee had always dreamed of conquering the mighty Niagara Falls with a kayak.

He had experience navigating Class 4 rapids. Niagara River Rapids are considered Class 6, the most difficult.

Sharps idea was to gain enough speed in his kayak to project himself over the falls and the pummeling water that would surely claim his life.

He would then transverse the rapids below eventually ending up four miles downstream in Lewiston.

So confident was Jesse about making the trip that he parked his car at Artpark in Lewiston and made dinner reservations for that evening.

On June 5, 1990, Sharp entered the waters above the falls around Dufferin Islands in his sleek 12 foot red kayak named Rapidman.

Powerhouse operators, noticing what was about to unfold, diverted water from the river in an attempt to ground the kayaker.

But to no avail, Jesse Sharp was determined, and simply skirted around the rocks in his kayak. Just as Sharp reached the brink of the falls he raised his paddle above his head and then, at 1:45 pm, the kayak plummeted over the brink and vanished into the raging waters below.

At approximately 3:00 p.m. Sharp’s kayak surfaced just below the falls but the poor man’s body was never found.

John (Dave) Munday (second trip)

Dave Munday at the brink of the falls on his second trip

Dave Munday at the brink of the falls on his second trip

Dave Munday made the record books when he became the first person to ever take the trip over the falls twice and survive.

On Sunday, September 28th, 1993 Dave Munday from Caistor Centre, Ontario made history with his second trip over the falls. Munday, now 56 years old made his historical trip in a 660 lb Canadian Coastguard diving bell. The red and white bell had a maple leaf on the side with the inscription “David Munday challenges Niagara for the Last Time”.

At 8:35 in the morning the barrel or bell was quickly rolled out from a flatbed truck and dropped into the river about 300 yards from the falls.

Within seconds it had reached the crest of the falls and disappeared into the raging waters. Munday was equipped with a walkie-talkie that he wore strapped to his arm.

He would be attached inside the device by a five-point auto racing harness and a neck strap. He had taped his arms to avoid breakage and was equipped with a yellow life preserver.

Dave Munday at the brink of the falls on his second trip
Munday had survived his trip over the falls but was initially too weak to open the hatch to escape. A small boat called “The Little Maid” was sent to retrieve the barrel which was promptly towed back to shore.

At first when the hatch was opened Munday was too weak to leave and had to regain his composure for about 10 minutes before his friends were able to extract him from his barrel. He was badly shaken up and pale but otherwise unhurt and refused a trip to the local hospital. Later that day Munday was charged under the Niagara Parks Act with stunting and fined $6,000.00.

Steve Trotter

Steve Trotter during a media conference

Steve Trotter during a media conference

On August 18, 1985 a 22 year old from Fort Lauderdale Florida made his second attempt to go over the falls. Trotter had attempted a trip in November of the previous year, but the first attempt had been stopped by the Niagara Parks Police.

This time he had been successful in a homemade contraption that he named “the Rig”. The “Rig” consisted of eight tractor-trailer inner tubes surrounding a fiberglass capsule. The craft measured 6 feet in diameter and was 15 ft. long.

On the side it bore the inscription “Support Reagan”, referring to then US President Ronald Reagan.

Steve Trotter would survive his trip over the falls but his vessel would sustain serious damage. Two of the large inner tubes had deflated and a large dent was made in the side.

The hatch was blown off but Steve Trotter managed to swim free of the craft and was picked up by the crew aboard The Maid of the Mist.

Trotter would return later in the day to the Maid of the Mist Landing to sign autographs and have his picture taken with tourists. During a media conerence Trotter would latter state the trip was “cool….like dropping in an elevator without a cable”

Robert Overacker

In July of 1992 Bob Overacker, a California native who had lived in New Jersey as a young man came to Niagara Falls hoping to drive a jet ski over the falls. His idea was to gain enough speed at the brink to project his jet ski far enough away from the grasp of the churning rapids. He would then release a parachute that he had attached to his life jacket and slowly drift to the rapids below.

When a stunter makes a decision to perform something of this magnitude he usually puts a lot of careful thought and planning into it. Robert Overacker was no different. He had made many calculations and planned his strategy well. However there was one issue he failed to take into consideration.

The Niagara Parks Commission will not agree to such stunts and anyone caught doing so is promptly arrested. Robert Overacker knew about this and he thought that by attempting his ride early in the morning he would avoid the throngs of spectators and thus possible arrest by the Parks Police.

However the one thing that Robert did not take into account was that much of the water is diverted to hydroelectric plants through the night, making navigation difficult due to exposed rocks. Frustrated, Overacker decided to abandon his attempt.…for the time being.

In September 1995 Robert Overacker once again returned from California to Niagara Falls with a trailer containing his Kawasaki. On the side of his jet ski were the words “save the homeless”, a cause that Overacker was dedicating his trip to. On October 1st with the help of some friends, Overackers’ jet ski was towed to the upper Niagara River near Dufferin Islands.

His friends, including a half brother had positioned themselves at a strategic point where they would be able to videotape the whole event. Robert Overacker was last seen saluting the spectators as his jet ski careened over the brink. Moments later he was spotted in the churning rapids below.

At first it seemed that he had survived the plunge, but the rapids have a strange way of flailing a corpses’ arms around, often giving the appearance of a person swimming. Robert Overacker was later retrieved from the water, taken to Niagara General Hospital where he was pronounced dead.

Kirk Jones

The last person to survive a trip over the falls was a 40 year old Canton Michigan man named Kirk Jones. On October 20th, 2003 Jones was spotted in the water by tourists near the brink of the falls clad only in street clothes.

Seconds later he was last seen going over the falls to the horror of onlookers. Moments later he was rescued near the shore of the Journey Behind the Falls attraction.. He had survived the plunge over the falls with only minor bruising!

Although initially it was believed that Mr. Jones had attempted to take his own life, his story would change somewhat over the years. In late 2003 Mr. Jones was fined $4,500.00 for being convicted of mischief and performing an illegal stunt.

 

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