Anya Wassenberg
August 01, 2013

Queen of the Mist: First Person to Go Over Niagara Falls in a Barrel

Tumbling over Niagara Falls in a barrel is a cliche now, but the stunt has a long history — and it all started in 1901 with one brave woman named Annie Edson Taylor.

Daring and trailblazing, yes, that was Annie. But her story is also a sad commentary on her times and the role of women in it.

Annie was born in 1838 in upstate New York and though she lost her father at age 12, he left enough money to provide for his family, which included eight children.

She studied and received a four-year teaching degree (graduating with honors) and met her future husband while at school. They married and she had a son, but the infant died. She lost her husband to the Civil War not long after that.

Unlike her father’s passing, her husband’s death left her broke, along with being widowed. Annie moved around the country trying a number of ventures. She opened the first dance school in Bay City, Mich., and taught music in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.

There was no social safety net at the time. If you were old and/or poor, you ended up in the poorhouse, a county- or city-run communal residence where the poor were warehoused, fed and often required to work . The future didn’t look bright, in other words.

Annie Edson Taylor and her Niagara Falls barrel

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

A surprising idea

Annie looked for work in Texas and Mexico but nothing panned out. Then she hit on the idea of attempting to be the first person to survive riding over Niagara Falls in a barrel, the stunt that’s now almost synonymous with the Falls.

She had a large barrel custom-constructed of oak and padded inside with a mattress. To test it out, she sent her cat for a tumble over the rushing waters. (Happily the cat lived.)

After a series of delays, on her 63rd birthday on October 24, 1901, Annie entered the barrel. Friends pumped in air with a bicycle pump before sealing the barrel and setting it adrift on the Niagara River near Goat Island on the New York side. After a few minutes of drifting, over it went.

She was rescued shortly after her plunge with only a small gash on her forehead.

“Nobody ought to do that ever again”

Annie’s first words were, “I prayed every second I was in the barrel except for a few seconds after the fall when I went unconscious.” Then, “Nobody ought ever to do that again.” For 10 years she remained the only person to have survived a trip over the Falls, and tried valiantly to capitalize on her claim to fame.

She no doubt came to regret the stunt when her few speaking engagements petered out and her manager absconded with the barrel that was central to her shtick. She spent what money she had hiring an investigator to locate it, but she never recovered it.

Annie tried a variety of other means to make money but ended her life in poverty in 1921 at age 82. She was laid to rest in the “stunters” section of Oakwood Cemetery in Niagara Falls, N.Y.

RIP, Ms. Taylor.