All day crowds had been lining up along the Suspension bridge that connects America to Canada over the Niagara River shutting down the passage way for carriages to pass. Families lined up along the top of the gorges held back by fences. Picnics were set in the grass as children ran around, getting impatient as the day wore on. Today is the day the famous daredevil Charles Blondin is to cross over the Niagara River on a tightrope.
I met Blondin earlier in the winter during my off season as the Ferry Master. I spend the winters in the ferry house making repairs to the Maid of the Mist, the tourist steamer which carries vacationers across the river and close to the majestic waterfalls. She is my pride and joy and as head skipper I spend all my time making sure she is in top condition. Blondin was spending two weeks in the rooming house adjacent to the pub I frequented and it was there that I met his acquaintance. I thought him a fool at first, listening to his tall stories about how he was going to cross the Niagara on a tight-rope. Too much liquor I thought a first but the man was consistent in his story over his nightly lager.
A rope-dancer is how he described himself as he talked about his family heritage of being acrobatics. An odd fellow I thought to myself watching this short man, with bright blue eyes and tussled blonde hair talk about his vision with such confidence. This man actually thought he could do this. When he learned of my occupation he said to me, “Jack I will make you a wager. Tonight I will buy you a bottle of lager. On the day I cross over the Niagara I will stop midway and drop a line down to your ferry with which you will attach a bottle of lager to it and I will drink it up on the high wire.” I chuckled to myself as I drank the ale he just bought for me. This man is clearly estranged from reality.
So here it is six months later and he obviously plans to go through with this stunt. I look up from the helm of my ferryboat and can see the cable strung across the gorge with guy ropes attached about every 20 feet and secured to the boulders to prevent the main cable from sagging. It looks like a huge spider had been caught between the gorge of the Niagara. I can see people lined up all along the Suspension Bridge and crowds gathered along the edges of the cliffs. I overheard someone say that 10,000 people traveled here today by train and carriage to watch this spectacle. I pull a bottle of lager out of my coat pocket and place it down next to the steering wheel post. Just in case.
Dignitaries from both Canada and America were starting to board the shiny clean Maid of the Mist. Men and women dressed in their finest being assisted by the ships crew as everyone made their way up the gangplank. The ladies carrying parasols to protect themselves from the waterfalls mist and the late afternoon sun. Musicians played in the inside cabin and a lavish spread was set out. Benches are set up on the front deck for perfect viewing of what is to become quite an acrobatic feat.
On the half hour we set sail. I headed towards the magnificent falls first before circling around to the cable. I never get used the roar of the falls as sheets of water fall down over the gulf forcing clouds of mist into the air. Even in late June, the water feels cool as it touches my skin. The view all eclipsing of beauty and power.
As I look up on the American side of the cable I could see a flutter of activity. Blondin was easy to spot as his shocking blonde hair and acrobatic pink tights gave him away. I turn the ferry around and head towards the center of the river not too far from the tight-wire. I idled the ferry a small distance from the wire to give my passengers the best view. “This is crazy”, I muttered under my breath as I steadied the engine. “All these people gathered around to watch an idiot plunge to his death”. The passengers turned away from the view of the falls and began taking their seats on the benches. My crew tending to their every need as they refreshed drinks and poured fine wine.
Shortly before 5 o'clock as the sun was starting to set, Blondin with the help of his assistants started his walk across the cable from America to Canada,holding a balancing pole about 25 ft across. Even though it was impossible to hear anything above the roar of the falls, I felt a hush fall over the crowds as Blondin started his stroll on the wire. The passengers watched from the deck their eyes glued to the strange man as they crane their necks upward. He walked with the same confidence he possessed back in the pub that night. Unstoppable. Fearless.
It took him about ten minutes to make it to the Canadian side. When he leaped onto the land the party on the boat cheered. I clapped and shook my head in amazement. Facing the American side, Blondin waved from the cliff and then hopped back on the cable to stroll back . He looked so graceful under a sky streaked with pink and red made by the setting sun and the crushing sounds of the waterfalls behind him.
At the midway point he shocked the crowd by lowering his body onto the rope, straddling his legs on both sides while keeping the balance pole steady across his knees. He seemed to have been pulling something out of a side pocket. I grabbed the looking glasses I kept hanging in the wheel-room and focused on Blondin and see that is is unraveling a cord and letting it dangle down towards the river.
“Oh for heavens sake. I don’t actually believe what I’m seeing.” Boudin is pointing right at me and is motioning for me to bring the ferry right under him. He then lifts his hand up to his mouth motioning that he is ready for a drink. He remembered the wager! I steer the boat right under him and he is lowering the rope down. The spectators have no idea what he is doing but I know. I call for the senior crew member to take over in the wheel-room, grab the bottle of ale and climb up to the roof of main cabin. From that point I grab the dangling rope, and I secure the bottle to it using a sailors knot. Blondin still sitting in his position pulls up the bottle, uncorks it and gulps it down! The crowd was stunned as I stood below and laughed. Boudin was a very odd daredevil all right and he sure did know how to put on a good show!
He stood back up and strutted his way back to where he started from. THe whole stunt took about 30 minutes. A stunt that many men, women and children witnessed that day and would talk about for years to come. For me, every time I sit in the pub and have a glass of lager, I just have to laugh and shake my head.