The Niagara Blog:
Tim Parker's mission - a summer of thrills!
The Valencia family, photo by Mike Keenan
Standing amidst a pensive crowd gathered along Victoria above Clifton Hill, we peer at the top of the 10-storey Imperial Hotel. An object called The Wheel of Fate holds Texan, Enrique Valencia, his orange pants and shoes glittering in the sun. Several families visiting from Russia along with their children and another family from Brampton stare beside me. It's a long way up - and conversely down, and there is no safety net as the daredevil walks first inside a rotating steel circle, then ventures on top, performing myriad stunts.
The BIA has achieved its goal. The crowd is entranced. Tim Parker, its Chair, says that a new era of death-defying stunts has begun at Niagara Falls. He tells me that he has always admired the street action in Las Vegas. Slowly, he would like to transform Niagara Falls into a similar venue, luring tourists with exciting free events.
155 years ago, Jean Francois Gravelet, aka
Blondin, walked over the lower Niagara Gorge on a tightrope, and ten other tightrope walkers followed until the walks ended in 1897. On June 16, 2012,
Nik Wallenda sauntered across Niagara Falls, taking precise and steady steps for 549 metres (1,800 feet) on a wire strung across the widest part of the gorge containing the roaring falls separating the U.S. and Canada. But Parker does not want one-event draws.
Hence, the "Summer of Thrills" at Niagara Falls, a series of exciting events involving tightrope walker and daredevil, 29 year old Enrique Valencia. In one show, he performs on a on a Highwire Sky Cycle, riding a motorcycle on a cable strung across Victoria Avenue near Louis Tussaud's Waxworks, with his nervy mom Lynn, suspended beneath him performing acrobatic stunts on a trapeze! His father Jose, an aerialist as well, stands nearby to assist. Enrique's twin sons stand by in the wings. It's a family affair.
We watch the Wheel of Fate, a massive revolving contraption rotating as Valencia walks inside and outside this rotating wheel. All stunts are done without a safety net.
Each begins with street performers and buskers from the
Zero Gravity Circus performing acts, ranging from jugglers, fire-eaters and more, showcasing their skills and tricks for audiences gathered along the Victoria Avenue Promenade. We watch a juggler perform with flaming batons and then up the ante with a rather loud running chainsaw. The kids sitting beneath a tree are impressed. I talk briefly with one young lady who trains in Montreal with
Cirque du Soleil.
The free summer long series is sponsored by The Tourism Partnership of Niagara, Victoria-Centre BIA and Niagara Falls Tourism. The thrills take place between 2pm and 8pm five days a week on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Friday and Saturday until September 1, 2014.
The idea for the events originally came from the late Jay Cochrane who performed mind-boggling walks for many summers between two high-rise Niagara Falls hotels before his death due to cancer last year.
I get to talk to Valencia and his family on the hotel roof which offers amazing views of the Falls. He says, "I almost fell off two years ago, doing some crazy jumps on the outside. I jumped too far and slipped." I shake his hand and notice it's moist. Fair enough! I would be a little anxious too!
Tim Parker sees as a need to create sustainable events to attract people to the city, and he is well on his way. "Wallenda drew half a million people, they stayed for the day and then they left," he says. "We need something that's sustainable over the whole summer."
Professionally known as "The Great Blondin", Gravelet was the first of many tightrope walkers to appear at Niagara Falls. He was a professional artist and showman trained in the great tradition of the European circus. At age 31 he came to America and made the announcement that he would cross the gorge of the Niagara River on a tightrope.
On June 30, 1859 the rope was in position and at five o'clock in the afternoon, Blondin started the trip that was to make history.
Watchers saw him lower a rope from the tightrope to the Maid of the Mist, pull up a bottle and sit down while he refreshed himself. He began his ascent toward the Canadian shore, paused, steadied the balancing pole and suddenly executed a back somersault.
Never content merely to repeat his last performance, Blondin crossed his rope on a bicycle, walked blindfolded, pushed a wheelbarrow, cooked an omelet in the centre and made the trip with his hands and feet manacled.
Yet even these stunts failed to satisfy Blondin's urge to test himself. He announced that on August 19 he would cross the gorge carrying his manager, Harry Colcord, on his back. It was to be the supreme test of Blondin's skill and stamina.
According to Colcord, the trip was a nightmare. In the unguyed centre section, the pair swayed violently. Blondin was fighting for his life. He broke into a desperate run to reach the first guy rope. When he reached it and steadied himself, it broke. Once more the pair swayed alarmingly as Blondin again ran for the next guy.
When they reached it Blondin gasped for Colcord to get down. Six times in all Colcord had to dismount while Blondin had to charge the crowd on the brink to prevent the press of people forcing them back in the precipice.
He died in England at the age of 73.
WILLIAM LEONARD HUNT
A resident of Port Hope, Ontario, known as Signor Farini, William Hunt duplicated almost all Blondin's stunts, but never managed to steal the limelight from Blondin.
The Niagara Falls Gazette reported Farini's September 5, 1860 washing machine stunt, "He strapped an Empire Washing Machine to his back and walked slowly to the desired place in the centre of the rope".
He secured his balancing pole and machine on the cable. He then drew water from the river nearly 200 feet below, in primitive style, with a pail and cord.
Several ladies, desiring to patronize him in his character as a washerwoman, had given him their handkerchiefs to wash. Before long his washing was done, the handkerchiefs wrung out and hung up to dry on the uprights and crossbars of the machine. With the washing flapping in the wind, he adjusted his load and returned.
After the 1859 and 1860 performances of Blondin and Farini, there was a lull until June 15, 1865 when Harry Leslie, billed as "The American Blondin", crossed the Whirlpool Rapids gorge on a rope.
On August 24, 1869 Andrew Jenkins crossed at the same site, riding a velocipede.
A 23-year-old Italian woman, Maria Spelterina was the only woman to cross the Niagara gorge on a tightrope. In 1867, she walked backwards, put a paper bag over her head, and wore peach baskets on her feet to inject some drama into her crossings.
Stephen Peer of Niagara Falls, Ontario made several crossings, but a few days after his walk on June 25, 1887,
his body was found on the rocks below. It was assumed that he had fallen while attempting a night crossing wearing his street shoes.
On September 6, 1890, Dixon, a Toronto photographer, attired in terra cotta coloured tights and black silk trunks and wearing his lucky Civil War cap crossed the gorge on the same cable used by Stephen Peer. He made a number of crossings performing various stunts on the wire.
On October 12, 1892, a Toronto steeplejack, Clifford Calverley, crossed several times on a 1.9 cm (3/4") steel cable. On one of his crossings he established a record when he made the trip in 6 minutes, 32 ½ seconds.
James Hardy at 21 years of age was the youngest person to cross the gorge on a wire and made several crossings in July 1896. His performances were the last tightrope walking displays permitted in Niagara Falls until February 2012 when NPC approved Nik Wallenda's application to walk a tightrope stretched between Canada and the United States.
Project costs exceeded $1 million, necessitating ABC's financial support (and with it their demand of a safety harness). The walk across The Falls
was filmed for all to see.