Articles

WHEN BLONDIN WALKED THE FALLS

While 300,000 held their breath the “Prince of Manila” carried a man from Canada to the U. S. on a swaying rope

CATHERINE LEACH October 1 1949
Articles

WHEN BLONDIN WALKED THE FALLS

While 300,000 held their breath the “Prince of Manila” carried a man from Canada to the U. S. on a swaying rope

CATHERINE LEACH October 1 1949

WHEN BLONDIN WALKED THE FALLS

MACLEAN’S FLASHBACK

While 300,000 held their breath the “Prince of Manila” carried a man from Canada to the U. S. on a swaying rope

CATHERINE LEACH

ON A WARM August, day just, 90 years ago about. 300,000 spellbound watchers crammed themselves along that section of the International Border which is marked by the Niagara Gorge and craned their necks to the snapping point. A diminutive blond daredevil had walked catlike onto a violin string of a rope stretched 200 feet above the rapids and was mincing across from the Canadian to the American shore carrying a limp and terrified man on his back.

Thus Jean Francois Gravelet, nicknamed “M. Blondín,” wove himself into the fabric of Niagara Falls history and ensured himself of a spot in every tourist guidebook since published in the district. Fame has l>een more fleeting for Harry Colcord, the plucky little whaling seaman who made the journey on Blondin’s back not once, but three times. Forty years later, remembering his triple trial, Colcord would still jump up from his bed at night, perspiring from fright.

Blondín actually crossed the Niagara chasm in a variety of novel ways in the summer of 1859 and again in 18(50. He seated himself on the rope, lay at full length on his back and turned a back somersault. He marched across the rope with a camera on his back and took a picture of the gorge below. Dressed as an ape he trundled a wheelbarrow over. Chained hand and foot, he walked across as a Siberian slave. He walked across at night with locomotive headlights illuminating the rope. (Those at hand had to feel the vibration of the rope to make sure he was still on it.)

He took across a table and chair and ate cake and drank cocoa on the rope. He took a stove across and cooked an omelet on it. He walked across wearing wooden buckets for shoes.

‘‘I Do not Wish to Fall”

Ï^V)R THK Prince of Wales, Blondín walked across on three-foot stilts. He walked blindfolded in a heavy sack of blankets. He dropped a string to the Maid of the Mist below, hauled up a bottle of champagne and drank it. He stood on his head on the rope while fireworks were sent up. He swung across hand over hand. At one time he hung from the rope by one leg.

But it. is the crossing that Blondín made with Colcord on bis back with two lives at stake instead of onethat brought t he crowds to Niagara on August. 19, 1859. The memory stayed with Colcord to his dying day.

Blondín gave Colcord a diamond-studded watch; railroad and steamboat lines and hotels gave him cash; Supt. Corning of New York Central gave him $1,000; gold pieces mounted in a pile; autograph seekers sought his signature. But the Irish American could never forget the terror of traveling a three-inch rope at the mercy of capricious gusts of air while it sagged in a deep curve far above rampaging Niagara.

Blondín arrived at Niagara in the summer of 1859 with a list of daring achievements to his credit. He was the ‘‘Monarch of the Cable,” the ‘‘Prince

of Manila” to his fans. His blue eyes and light hair gave him the name of “Blondin.” He stood five foot five, weighed a wiry 140. But his co-ordination was such that he could bear a man and pole, their combined weights totaling 200 pounds, along a half mile of rope.

Some said his ultrastrong arm muscles did it. “No,” said Blondin, “I succeed in keeping on the rope because I do not wish to fall.” He would use no life net: “It would ruin my reputation.”

Son of an acrobat, he insisted that rope-walkers are born. At the age of five he had tied a string between kitchen chairs, tried to walk it, fell flat. A gatepost, a stouter cord, a fish-pole balancing pole —another fall. Then, with an old sailor’s help, a boat’s cable properly rigged, a spar balance pole —success. When he was six, his father, a veteran of Napoleon’s wars, enrolled him in L'Ecole Gymnaste.

When he was 27 (in 1851) the celebrated gymnast Gabriel Ravell ofTered to take him to America. On the voyage across a fierce storm swept a young nobleman overboard. Blondín leaped into the heavy sea and rescued him. When Ravell’s company played near Niagara, Blondín determined to cross the gorge by rope.

The Thrills ('ome Early

ACCORDING to one story he got the idea from a dream. At any rate he made a secret winter visit to the Falls and determined that the crossing could be made. When he announced his intention publicly the Press of the day scoffed and called h i m ‘ ‘add lebra ined. ’ ’

When it was realized that the madman was really serious and was raising money for the feat (the cost of the rope alone was $650) a rush started to the F’alls. Blondín helped dispel doubts by taking a daily stroll along the guys of the old railway suspension bridge, calmly smoking a cigar.

Blondin’s cable was stretched from Clinton House on Canadian soil to an entertainment park, White’s Pleasure Grounds, on the American shore. This was at a point roughly between the Falls proper and the Niagara rapids where the gorge is fairly narrow.

To span Niagara in a spidery fashion was no mean engineering feat. The Maid of the Mist transported a Manila rope, five eighths of an inch thick from the Canadian to the American side. This rope was attached to a two-inch cable which was paid out by windlass. Attached to this again was the three-inch final rope, a fine strand of Manila hemp on which Blondín walked.

Holes were drilled into the solid rock of the Canadian clitT and three car axletrees were placed in these, one behind the other, and around them the rope was tied. To pull it taut horses on the American side, 2,000 feet distant, worked a windlass.

On June 25, the Buffalo Express headlined Blondin’s part: in the rope stretching. The large strand was that day within 200 feet of t he Canadian side. Fears arose as to whether the smaller line could pull the bigger up a sloping 170 feet to the clifftop. A confident Blondin attached a rope to his body and manoeuvred out the dizzying 200 feet on the smaller line, attached another drawing rope to the Manila strand, then descended on a slack rope to a tree near the water’s edge.

“Those who saw it,” applauded the Express, “now give up and don’t doubt his ability to walk across.”

On a Swaying Rope—Two Lives

Swaying in Niagara’s unpredictable wind currents, a slender hempen bridge at last connected two nations. Now, 40,000 feet of guys must be attached.

“Hundreds of people daily visit the grounds at each end of the cable” (the Express again) “to witness the progress of the guys now being fastened. To do this, M. Blondin has to go out on the cable he wishes to attach the guys to.” Blondin oversaw everything personally. In a stiff wind the rope would sway 50 feet.

“When one’s life depends on the security of a rope, it is best to put up that rope oneself, is it not?” Blondin remarked.

Each guy was weighted with a sixpound bag of sand. Blondin’s 24-foot balance pole must be able to swing clear of all guy lines. On this pole—60 pounds of cannily tapered wood— depended his life and that of his passenger.

Once stretched the rope sagged 50 feet in the middle from its own weight, the river tumbling 200 feet below.

No sooner were his plans broadcast than Blondin knew huge bets were being placed. So frenzied was the betting that he foresaw possible tampering with his rope by unscrupulous bettors. Warily he superintended every detail of the rope-laying, tested every knot. Then, considering all secure, he stood ready to cross the gorge.

Capt. John Travis, famous pistol shot, early rumored as Blondin’s passenger, came to Niagara to get into the act. Blondin had carried Travis in theatre performances, but one look at the Falls possibly decided him to stick to pistols.

How Blondin did cross the rope, in spite of the rain the night before, on June 30, again on July 4, in a sack, again on July 14 dressed as an ape, or again on August 4 when he stood on his head, makes a series of episodes this account deliberately skips to concentrate on his supreme accomplishment, crossing with Colcord.

The scepticism regarding his proposed man-carrying stunt was widespread. Announcements promising a large sum of money to any man who would volunteer to cross Niagara on his back merely increased this. Wouldbe volunteers took one look at the rope, suspended above a “veritable inferno of waters,” and changed their minds.

Blondin himself, after one crossing, had stepped out before the crowd and said: “Gentlemen—anyone what please to cross I carry him on my back.” (Reporters comment: “No one seemed disposed to accept the kind offer.”)

If already approached, Colcord kept mum. The account of his close friend, Jarvis Blume, Chicago Justice of the Peace, states: “At leng h Blondin

made his long-pondered proposition to Colcord that the latter allow him to carry him on his back across Niagara. Colcord was surprised; he had not expected such a proposition; he hesitated at the tremendous risk; but after some time, when he had seen Blondin with ease and confidence make the

passage alone, he made up his mind to make the dangerous venture. So the matter was arranged and the day of the critical attempt decided on. Small thought had they of unscrupulous gamblers, nought dreamed they of human vultures who for greed would not shrink from murder.”

Colcord, cast in role of undesirous hero, was 31; he weighed 135 pounds. From Blondin, who carried him at some of his theatre appearances, he received $125 a month. His preparation for the ride lay in a four years’ trick on a whale ship. The Irish-American—he had some French blood, was sometimes called “Calcourt”—had a cool head, steady nerves.

That 19th of August, his courage notwithstanding, the most nerve-racked of the thousands in Niagara must have been Blondin’s prospective human potato sack.

All morning, crowds poured in. Old and young, judge and ruffian, belle and barmaid, ace reporter like Augustus Rawlings of Leslie’s, ace stereoscopists like J. Thomson with his new-fangled machine for picture taking, statesmen, divines, generals, members of Congress and of Parliament. The Bethel Sunday School of Buffalo took an excursion to the Falls that day. Volunteer firemen in gaudy red shirts marched in parade to the rope-walking. Bankers, lawyers, trappers, slender young Indian squaws, picturesque bucks, fashionables from the resort hotels—many of them Southerners, the gentlemen frock-coated and top-hatted, the ladies slim-waisted, their skirts billowing and beruffled. The world, and his wife, and his children, were all there.

Excursion trains ran on every line —nine cars from Buffalo carrying 2,500; 10 from Lewiston; 20 from Rochester, jam - packed; 35 loaded coaches on the Great Western. From Milwaukee there was a half-fare excursion. The fast-sailing steamer Arrow sent two loads of 1,200. The steamer Zimmerman brought 1,200 from Toronto. Hundreds arrived in carriages. Cumbersome omnibuses brought others. And so the crowd grew to the estimated 300,000.

Everywhere, there was a holiday air. Swindlers came out in force, some on river boats using wheelhouse chests as tables for three-card monte, some cajoling strangers into games of faro, or making a dollar with sweat cloths. Parties of all sizes picnicked on the grass. At makeshift booths the reckless swilled down rot-gut whisky or swallowed tartaric lemonade (four glasses for $1—which upped the price of tartaric acid to $400 a pound at that rate). The haute monde dined to strains of orchestras in the hotels; others queued up for a second lunch at eating places. Pickpockets lifted $300 gold watches from Chicago gentlemen, or wallets with $80 from others, or porte monnaies from unsuspecting ladies.

Fraud! They’re Tied Together

Certain Toronto firemen, feeling their oats, pushed an unfortunately argumentative inebriate into the river, where he drowned—an excitement not scheduled.

Comfortable stagings all about the point, with seats one above the other, could hold just a fraction of the crowd. Hotel verandas were crammed; windows overflowed; tree limbs served as perches. The shores were so dense with spectators that both banks for some distance were a black mass of humanity.

Festival spirit reigned everywhere —except in the heart of the main character, Harry Colcord.

About 4 o’clock, Blondin put on a “teaser.” Issuing from the American side clad in silk tights, his feet in rough-dressed buckskins, he stepped on the rope. When he had gone 20 feet he laid his balance pole across the guys, so he might stand on his head. He turned somersaults, then tripped with no pole to the Canadian side. Returning to pick up his pole, he swung along the strand, his body suspended like an ape’s. Then back to Canada.

From their huge throats the locomotives drawn up on both banks and bridges sent forth loud whistles at this. Some of the trains made excellent grandstands.

This fooling must have left Blondin less fresh for the real business of the day—at least he preferred to rest 15 minutes before he took up his human burden. The gentlemen of the Press sat tensely behind a table provided for for them and well-supplied with field glasses. On the opposite shore more newsmen had a similar table and glasses.

When the gamblers saw that Colcord was going through with it, they began to worry.

Blondin’s appearance on the Canadian brink brought a silence to the throng. Hooks hung from his costume at all sides, but without their aid Colcord nimbly mounted the balancer’s back, sustaining his weight by placing his hands on Blondin’s shoulders. He rested his legs in the hooks.

One witness, at least, observed that a rope joined the men who had arranged if either fell, the other would fling himself to the opposite side of the main strand letting the cord that joined them fall across it so as to suspend them safely above the flood.

Blondin lifted his pole, set it horizontally, gave a hunch to his shoulders. The journey began.

Watchers in the States seeing him step out so briskly did not believe he bore human freight. Sight-seers in small chartered craft 200 feet beneath craned their necks—had he started? Before Blondin would come above these he must cover a section of rope stretching high above groves of dark timber. Intently all watched. The balance pole jutted well over each side of the rope. Rhythmically it wavered as, foot by cautious foot, Blondin advanced.

Terror of Tumbling Torrents

“Harry,” Blondin had warned Colcord before setting out, “be sure and let yourself rest all the time like a dead weight on my back. If I should sway or stumble on no account attempt to balance yourself.”

“I determined to follow his advice,” Colcord wrote in a letter to his friend Jarvis Blume. “My first thrill occurred as we started over the pine trees whose tops bristled far beneath us between the cliffs and the river. It seemed far more terrifying than out over the water. My heart was in my mouth as we began to descend the rope.”

Blondin had no idea about the effect an added 135 pounds might have on the rope. Only confidence in Blondin kept his passenger from panic. But the torturingly slow progress! The furious roar of tumbling falls! The wind brushing past shaking the rope' The feeling of space.

Colcord dreaded most dismounting to rest Blondin. He had to slip to a three-inch rope, vibrating horribly, to gain footing in mid-air. Dismount he must so Blondin could gather fresh strength for the tedious journey.

Clinging gingerly to Blondin’s smooth tights Colcord made his first descent to the rope. One false move and the gamblers would rejoice. Cautiously he found the rope and there clung to

Blondin, hands on the Frenchman’s either side, while the latter let his balance pole work their protection. This was the first of seien descents.

Then up—no easy climb—to what seemed to Colcord to be comparative safety.

Blondin carried a hat for an extra diversion on one of these halts. On the Maid of the Mist, riding below her decks alive with onlookers, Capt. Travis waited, pistol at the ready. The halt came—Blondin held the hat at arm’s length. Travis fired—up. A miss. A second shot. No luck. A third. Jauntily Blondin waved the hat to signify a bullet had pierced it. Did Travis hit the hat? Hardly. For Travis to shoot this distance—more than 200 feet, made greater by the angle of the boat’s position—using a pistol of the period was an utter impossibility, let alone hit the target. Truth is, his gun lacked bullets. The hat, however, with a faked hole, later brought $50 from a souvenir hunter and, at the moment, cheers rang on the Maid’s deck.

An Attempt at Murder

Advancing again Blondin slowly neared the centre sag, unsupported for a length of 40 feet—the slope down, a 20% grade. He had gone about 10 feet after a rest before suddenly swaying, tottering. He flailed his pole furiously. He had lost his balance. This was no feinted slip, to horrify the crowd—this was real! Though spectators swooned, women screamed with fear, Colcord did not budge. In that awesome second Blondin’s words held him firm. If Colcord moved both would plunge to destruction.

Frantically Blondin began to run. His pole thrashing he ran 30 feet to the first guy line from the American bank. With relief he placed his foot on the guy. It broke. Sensation!

Criminal gamblers had purposely weakened the line in an effort to throw both men from the rope. They almost succeeded. The rope, pulled by its corresponding guy, jerked crazily sidewise. Here was the climax! Those on shore sensed fearful peril for the two bobbing about. With miraculous agility Blondin reached the next guy, 20 feet beyond.

“Get off—quick!” he commanded.

Every muscle of his body was tense. Perspiration trickled from him. Yet he was cool, disciplined, motionless. Presently he ordered Colcord up again.

The American shore was getting nearer, so near it became a sea of straining faces. Alarmed faces. Faces wet with tears. Musicians ready to play a welcome were too agitated to do more than make discordant notes on their instruments. This time Colcord warned Blondin.

“Here comes our real danger. All these people are likely to rush at us on landing and crowd us over the banks.” Banks 160 feet high.

“What shall I do?”

“Make a rush, dive right through them,” advised Colcord.

With that rush the trip ended. Crowds swarmed over the pair, raised them to their shoulders. Cheers drowned Niagara’s roar. Pandemonium there was indeed. To Colcord the 45-minute-long ride had seemed an eternity.

“Pshaw, let’s go, it’s a fraud and a humbug!” a woman cried out.

Other onlookers, feeling differently, collected $40,000 for the pair. Gold coins bought Colcord’s autograph. He reaped the greater notice; being unhampered by language difficulties he could talk freely to reporters, but, also, because of his nerve.

“The part of Mr. Colcord,” stated the Express, “was even more wonderful than that of M. Blondin.”

Surely, taking everything into consideration, Colcord would never make the ride again. But he did, twice, once for visiting royalty.

During the Prince of Wales’ American tour the following year, Blondin performed for Albert Edward. This time the rope was stretched 230 feet above the whirlpool rapids. Admission to the walking was $1. Big grandstands were built. The Prince, provided with glasses, sat in a rustic lodge. Thousands gaped at the Prince of Wales and the “Prince of Manila.”

“For heaven’s sake,” a Colcord letter quotes his Royal Highness, “don’t do anything extraordinary because Pm here.”

Blondin saucily offered fo carry the Prince across. Invitation refused.

The correspondent of the Times (London) claimed the Prince urged Blondin not to carry Colcord.

With caution, however, Blondin started out for his third trip with Colcord. Tremblingly his feet took the inclined cord as he threw his body back against his passenger’s weight.

All went well until the close of the first rest period. Remounting somehow became a terrible effort and twice Colcord slipped back.

Blondin oscillated violently on the rope. One report has it that Blondin quarreled fiercely with his partner and finally swore that he ivould leave Colcord on the rope! Staggered, Colcord remounted. Buf he decided, there and then, that never, never again would he make such a trip, even for what the Express announced as “the edification of His Royal Highness.”

In a second crossing that day Blonain did the “even more desperate thing” he promised—made the trip on three-foot stilts.

The “edified” Prince who must, like the other beholders, have watched this

fearful stilt walking with “infinite pain” exclaimed, “Thank God, it’s all over!” at the exhibition’s end. He called Colcord a brave lad and kissed him.

Soon after, Blondin and Colcord parted. Blondin headed for London and the Crystal Palace (Edward’s suggestion). He took his American wife and his children along and bought a West End home, Niagara Villa. There, in the central transept of Crystal Palace, he caused such a furore that one woman tried suicide because her husband would not take her to the show.

Still rope-dancing at 68, Blondin said, “I am happy in my garden, my workshop, my house of birds. Old? Yes, but I can waltz on a tightrope as well as ever.” He was still getting $500 a night. One season Leigh Hunt reckoned Blondin’s take had been a cool $55,000.

He did his last “walking” in Belfast when he was 72. Poor, betrayed by his “friends,” he died at the century’s close.

Colcord turned painter, and did well as portrait and landscape artist. We lose track of him at 70, when he lived in The Tremont House, Chicago. Presumably he died in that city.

In 1888, the “Prince of Manila” revisited Niagara. By then, other daredevils had followed, though none eclipsed him. He still cherished the gold-headed cane given to him by leading New York newsmen; the intricate beadwork given (for his costume) by young squaws of Niagara—above all, a gold plaque inscribed:

“Presented to Mons. J. F. Blondin by the citizens of Niagara in appreciation of a feat never before attempted by man, but by him successfully performed on the 19th of Augus', 1859, that of carrying a man upon his back over the Falls of Niagara on a tightrope.”