It is 1901 and the dawn of a new century. The Pan-American Exposition is going on in Buffalo, a world’s fair that was attracting people from all over the world, with many of those visitors taking train excursions to nearby world-famous Niagara Falls.
During the expo, visitation was running between 10,000 to 50,000 people daily at Niagara Falls Reservation State Park. And the attention of these crowds is exactly what Finger Lakes native Annie Edson Taylor wanted to grab.
A 63-year-old widow and retired schoolteacher living in Bay City, Michigan, Annie was in financial straights at that point in her life. Sensing an opportunity in Buffalo, she went there with the idea to become rich and famous by doing something no one had ever done – going over Niagara Falls in a barrel.
People had been barrel-riding the rapids below the falls to much popular acclaim during a time when there were no rules in place for such dangerous stunts. Today, there are laws in place at the falls making it illegal for anyone attempting such actions, which since the 1950s have been subject to prosecution and substantial fine by both the U.S. and Canadian governments.
Inspired by the daring barrel-riders in the Whirlpool Rapids below the falls, Annie had her own barrel made of white Kentucky oak to her specifications by a local company. Cushions, pillows and a harness were placed inside for protection. The barrel had a tube through a hole so air could be pumped in when the barrel was sealed.
First, the rookie daredevil decided she had to test it. So Annie sent out the barrel with a cat inside for a run over Niagara’s Horseshoe Falls on Oct. 18, 1901. When the barrel washed to shore and was opened, the cat emerged unharmed, boosting Annie’s confidence that she too could survive the 167-foot plunge.
On Oct. 24 – her 63rd birthday – Annie set out with her two assistants, William Holleran and Fred Truesdale, to Port Day on the U.S. side of the river that led to the rapids above Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side. She had announced her intentions, and onlookers had gathered.
The daredevil had changed into more comfortable clothes – a lightweight blue skirt and blue blouse for her journey. Her assistants tied the barrel to a rowboat, making sure Annie was secured inside before closing the lid. Some air was pumped inside the barrel using a hose, and the men rowed into the river with the barrel in tow. With the rope cut, the barrel floated off toward the roaring falls.
A few minutes later, several men waiting on shore drag the slightly beat-up barrel to the river’s edge on the Canadian side. They remove the lid to see how she has fared. And Annie is alive!
She gets out stumbling, with only minor injuries, for which she is brought back to the U.S. side and taken for medical treatment. Her stunt has worked, and she has made history as the first person to ever go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survive.
Now, she must have believed her quest for fame and fortune would be rewarded. Making an appearance at the Pan-Am Expo’s last day on November 1 to sensational newspaper headlines, Annie posed next to a barrel, most likely labelled, “Queen of the Mist.”
After this feat, Annie made her home in Niagara Falls hoping to cash in. While she had some immediate fame, fortune was to elude her. She found little success on the lecture circuit and even lost her barrel after it was stolen by her manager.
Rather than becoming rich, she was able only to eke out a meager living selling postcards and other souvenirs from a stand in front of a store near the falls. She never attempted any other stunt.
Indigent in her old age, Annie ended up becoming a resident of the County Home in Lockport. She became blind and passed away two decades after her famous plunge at age 82.
The people of Niagara Falls raised funds to help provide Annie with a burial plot at the historic Oakwood Cemetery in a section called “Stunters’ Rest” for daredevils who have braved the falls, either successfully or unsuccessfully, according to an entry on the cemetery in the National Register of Historic Places.
While riches eluded Annie in life, her legacy from a bygone era of daredevils lives on. Her records as the first and oldest person to survive a trip over the falls remain intact, nearly a century after her death.
While Niagara Falls are essentially the same as they were in Annie’s time, Niagara Falls Reservation State Park, created in 1885 as the oldest state park in the United States, has undergone major improvements as part of the NY Parks 2020 initiative . The park remains open during the COVID-19 pandemic. Click through this slideshow to take a look…
Cover Photo – Annie Taylor on the street in Niagara Falls at her souvenir stand. (Photo Credit – Niagara Falls Public Library)
Post by Carol Rogers, Environmental Educator, Niagara Region Interpretive Programs Office, NYS Parks
Niagara Falls Public Library History Department, Niagara Falls
NYS Parks, Niagara Region, Interpretive Programs Archives
Oakwood Cemetery, Niagara Falls