HISTORY: Shooting the Rapids in Niagara Falls

red hill niagara falls

Carlisle Graham

Carlisle Graham standing next to his barrel

Carlisle Graham standing next to his barrel

On Sunday, July 11th, 1886 Graham Carlisle, a barrel maker from Philadelphia became the first person ever to shoot the Great Gorge Rapids in a barrel.

Capt. Joel Robinson had already piloted the Maid of the Mist from it’s landing below the Horseshoe Falls to Queenston in 1861.

Carlisle Graham would make his trip in a five and a half foot barrel of oaken staves and handmade iron hoops.

Graham, being six feet tall was forced to stoop over once inside to allow the water-tight lid to be secured into place.

With the exception of his arms Graham was encased in waterproof sheeting. Metal handles would allow him to grip the barrel.

Carlisle Graham’s trip took 30 minutes. When rescued Mr. Graham was unhurt but he had become extremely ill and dizzy from the trip.

On August 19th, 1886 Mr. Graham attempted another trip through the rapids. This time he was planning on leaving his head outside the barrel. Graham survived this second attempt but sustained hearing loss.

The day before Graham’s second trip another stunter James Scott of Lewiston, New York attempted to swim the rapids and lost his life.

Carlisle Graham would make several more trips through the Great Gorge Rapids. His third trip was on June 15th, 1887 while his fourth trip in a newly designed seven foot barrel was on August 25th, 1889.

On July 14th, 1901 Graham made his fifth trip. This time he would not be so lucky. His barrel became caught in a whirlpool eddie and he came very close to suffocating. By this time Carlisle Graham had gained much notoriety and he had become quite a showman. He talked about making the trip over the falls, but never actually followed through.

On September 7th, 1901 Graham had masterminded a double performance with a friend, Maud Willard of Canton, Ohio. She would ride the barrel through the Whirlpool Rapids and into the Whirlpool itself. Graham was then to intercept the barrel at the Devil’s Hole Rapids and swim alongside the barrel to Lewiston.

Maud Willard performed her stunt, but unfortunately was caught in the Whirlpool Rapids. Graham went on to perform his part of the stunt by swimming all the way to Lewiston without Willard.

Upon returning to the Whirlpool later in the evening Graham found that his barrel with Maud Willard inside was still trapped in the Whirlpool Rapids. Maude had been inside for over five hours!. When the barrel was finally caught and pulled into shore it was discovered that Miss Willard had suffocated. Her pet fox terrier, who had accompanied her on the trip was unharmed.

Captain Joel Robinson

The first ever attempt at shooting the rapids happened not for fame and glory but for economic reasons. In 1861, due to financial difficulties and the impending American Civil War, the second Maid of the Mist was sold at auction with the conditions of sale being that the vessel had to be delivered downstream at Queenston.

In order to do so the Maid of the Mist would have to be navigated through the Great Gorge Rapids, the Whirlpool and the Lower Rapids. These were some of the most treacherous rapids on earth and the thought was terrifying!

For $500.00 Cpt. Joel Robinson agreed to take the Maid of the Mist through the rapids. On June 6th, 1861, the captain, accompanied by an engineer, cast off from the Maid of the Mist dock and headed out into the ferocious rapids. Within minutes they were beyond the point of no return.

The beleaguered boat tossed to and fro in the water, often disappearing from sight, only to reappear again. The boat was carried at apr. 40 mph through the rock strewn rapids until they eventually ended up in the Whirlpool.

Here Captain Robinson was able to regain control of his vessel. With great difficulty the Maid of the Mist broke free of the Whirlpool and headed straight back into the rapids. The last three miles of the Whirlpool and rapids saw the boat lose its smoke stack.

Eventually the tiny craft made its way to the calm waters around Queenston. Captain Robinson had accomplished what no man had ever done before….he had sailed a boat from Niagara Falls to Queenston, a feat that has never again been duplicated.

George Hazlett & Sadie Allen

George Hazlett and Sadie Allen mad a trip together through the Whirlpool Rapids on August 8th, 1886. Eyebrows were raised as they were not even engaged at the time.

George Hazlett and Sadie Allen mad a trip together through the Whirlpool Rapids on August 8th, 1886. Eyebrows were raised as they were not even engaged at the time.

George Hazlett and Sadie Allen mad a trip together through the Whirlpool Rapids on August 8th, 1886. Eyebrows were raised as they were not even engaged at the time.

George Hazlett had already gained some notoriety by being one of a pair of stunters to navigate the Whirlpool Rapids in 1886 in a single barrel.

In the fall of that year George Hazlett convinced a friend, a young woman named Sadie Allen to accompany him on a second trip through the Whirlpool Rapids. Both Hazlett and Allen would survive their ordeal. The fact that the two were not married or engaged at the time caused a great deal of gossip.

Martha E. Wagenfuhrer

Martha Wagenfuhrer standing next to the barrel that carried her through the Whirlpool Rapids

Martha Wagenfuhrer standing next to the barrel that carried her through the Whirlpool Rapids

Martha E. Wagenfuhrer was a young woman from Buffalo, New York, who thought that by being the first woman to ride the rapids of the Niagara Gorge she would find fame and glory.

Martha had grand marketing ideas. She planned her trip for Saturday, September 6th, 1901. She had chosen the date carefully as this was the day that a scheduled visit was planned for President William McKinley.

He would be visiting the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York and had planned on visiting Niagara Falls on that Saturday. As fate would have it an assassin’s bullet would put an end to the hopes of being witnessed by the President.

Martha began her journey on the afternoon of September 6th, but before her barrel could be set afloat it sustained damage when it accidentally rolled down the bank of the river. Martha refused to go ahead with her stunt until the barrel was repaired and later that day, slightly before 6 p.m. Martha was helped inside her barrel.

Unfortunately for Martha her barrel was caught in the Whirlpool Rapids for over an hour. With darkness setting in it became necessary for the Great Gorge Railway Illumination Car to be brought to the Whirlpool so its search light could illuminate the surface of the river. When it was possible to finally retrieve the barrel Martha was found unconscious inside and barely breathing. It took over ten minutes to revive the woman.

Maud Willard

Maud Willard was a twenty five year old dance hall actress from Canton Ohio who had made a plan with Carlisle Graham that would outdo all earlier stunts through the rapids. She was to ride Carlisle Graham’s barrel through the Whirlpool Rapids and into the Whirlpool. Eventually Graham would intercept the barrel and swim alongside it all the way to Lewiston.

The feat was to be filmed by a movie crew and much publicity had been involved. The two stunters picked September 7th as the day for their trip because of the hordes of tourists that were in Buffalo to see The Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, including President William McKinley.

However fate would not be on Maud’s side that day. Not only was President McKinley assassinated by Leon Czolgosz, that day, but Maud also made a fateful error by including her fox terrier in the trip.

On the afternoon of Septermber 7th Willard crawled into Grahams barrel and a small boat towed her out into the river. A trolley was to follow Ms. Willards barrel along the Great Gorge Route with a film crew inside. The barrel set about on its scheduled course but was not able to break free of the Whirlpool Rapids.

For an hour it bobbed in the current but could not become free and continue on. Carlisle Graham, watching events unfold from the shore decided to make his swim without Maud Willard. With camera crews filming Graham plunged into the Niagara River and completed his swim to Lewiston.

Upon returning to the Whirlpool, he was dismayed to find nightfall setting in and Maud’s barrel still caught in the Whirlpool. By about 9;30 p.m. the barrel came close enough to the shore to be retrieved. It had been in the water for over five hours.

When the lid was removed Maude’s pet fox terrier jumped out apparently unhurt. Maud Willard was not so lucky. All efforts to revive her were in vain and she was pronounced dead. The barrel that Maud perished in only had one air hole. It was believed that her pet dog stuck his nose out the hole depriving her of oxygen and contributing to her death.

Red Hill Sr. (The Niagara Riverman)

red hill niagara fallsWilliam “Red” Hill Sr. was born in Niagara Falls, Ontario in 1888. In 1896 he received his first medal for bravery when he rescued a young girl from a burning house. By 1912 he had received his second life saving medal and was well ensconced as a local hero. He would receive four medals in all and would be credited with saving 28 people and recovering 177 victims of accidents or suicides from the falls.

From a very early age Red had been obsessed with the river and falls. As a young boy and much to his mothers’ dismay the young Red would skip school and spend his entire day along the banks of the Niagara, studying how the river flowed.

He would toss sticks, cans, rubber tubing, anything that would float over the falls, and carefully note where it would reappear in the rapids below.

At the time it seemed nothing more than a childish prank, but this education along the banks of the Mighty Niagara that Red Hill Sr. received would prove to bring him much notoriety later in his life.

When Bobby Leach took a trip in 1910 and survived, Red Hill Sr. was there to retrieve the barrel and extradite Mr. Leach from it. He then promptly entered the barrel and continued to shoot the rapids.

For his second trip through the rapids he chose a barrel of steel construction, six feet long and three feet in diameter. The opening

A portrait of Red Hill Sr

A portrait of Red Hill Sr

was a fourteen by eighteen inch manhole, covered by sliding steel and sealed with rubber gaskets. There were airholes on each side, which were plugged with cork and could be removed.

The barrel weighed over 600 lbs and was painted red with gold lettering that said “William Red Hill, master Hero of Niagara” inscribed on both sides. In the early part of the century thousands of tourists would venture out onto the ice bridge that forms in the pool at the base of the falls during extremely cold winters.
On February 4, 1912 while operating a small shanty that served hot beverages and snacks on the frozen river to tourists that were visiting the “Ice bridge”, he heard the ice below him tremble and he immediately sensed disaster.

He realized the ice was breaking up below and he frantically tried to wave the spectators to safety on the Canadian side. Realizing that four people were still on the ice, Red Hill Sr. returned and managed to pull one person, a young boy to safety.

Three others were not so lucky and despite frantic efforts to drop ropes from the bridges the three terrified people were swept to their deaths, their bodies never recovered. Had it not been for the quick actions of Red Hill Sr. that day the tragedy could have been much worse.

In the first World War Red Hill saw action in France, was awarded two more medals for bravery and returned to Canada in 1918. That was the year that saw Red Hill perform one of his most outstanding feats of bravery.

A scow carrying two men broke its line and the swift current in the upper river brought the scow within 300 yards of the brink of the falls. The two quick thinking men opened two latches on the bottom of the scow and grounded it on the jagged rocks. Darkness was approaching when the United States Coastguard mounted their gun on the roof of the Toronto Power House and shot a rope to the scow.

A breeches buoy was then sent out but became tangled and snarled. Red Hill Sr. volunteered to try to reach the men. Using the rope Red Hill Sr. set out at 3 a.m. with spotlights glaring to light his path. A wrong move on his part would bring almost certain death. Hand over hand Red Hill struggled against the fierce current to reach his destination, however hindered by darkness Hill was not able to untangle the ropes.

The rescue was called off until the light of day. By 8 a.m. Red Hill was again attempting to free the ropes, this time being successful. By 9:30 a.m. the men were being safely rescued to the shore.

Today visitors to Niagara Falls can still see the old scow in place. Rusted and a haven for seagulls, few visitors ever hear about the near tragedy over the falls that day or of the heroic actions of a man that would forever hold the title as “Riverman”.

Red Hill was the father of four sons, Red Hill Jr., Major (given name), Corky and Wesley. One of these sons would also play a role in the history of stunters at Niagara Falls.

During his later years Red Hill sold pictures of himself and displayed his barrel in a local souvenir shop. Red Hill Sr. died in a Niagara Falls, Ontario hospital from effects of the gassing that he sustained during the First World War. He was 54 years old.

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