How Going Over Niagara Works


Daredevil "Red" Hill in barrel, Niagara Falls, Ontario
By Toronto History CC BY 2.0

It is said that Niagara Falls has a hypnotic allure that gives some people the uncontrollable urge to jump in and join the powerful, swirling waters. Officials say that they recover an average of 20 people per year who chose Niagara Falls as the place to end their lives. But there are those who choose to go over the Falls in the name of adventure, not suicide.

What does it take to go over Niagara Falls and live to tell about it? A thorough knowledge of physics? Luck? Total lack of fear? Since 1901 (and probably even earlier), 16 people have gone over the Falls in the name of adventure -- the most recent in 2012. Their desire to experience the thrill has sent them to the edge of the Falls and down the 170-foot (52-meter) drop into the swirling, icy waters below.

Of those 16, 11 have survived, and two men actually went over the falls and survived twice. Some of these daredevils spent thousands of dollars -- their life savings, in most cases -- building barrels and other craft to protect themselves during the horrific plunge into rocks and rapids. Others went over with no protection at all.

In this article, we'll look at these daredevils and see how they devised a protective shell to face the falls. We'll also examine what the lucky ones did that may have helped them to survive.

The Three Niagara Falls

Overview of Niagara Falls
Overview of Niagara Falls
Photo courtesy NARA

Niagara Falls lies on the Niagara River between Canada and New York. Water from four of the Great Lakes runs into the Niagara River and drains into the lowest Great Lake, Lake Ontario. While the original location of Niagara Falls was in present-day Lewiston, New York, it has since crept southward to its current location due to erosion. The falls recede about 4 to 5 feet (122-152 cm) each year.

Niagara Falls is actually not one waterfall, but three. The Niagara River flows down from Lake Erie and is divided by Goat Island. There, part of it flows to the horseshoe-shaped Canadian Falls (aptly named Horseshoe Falls), and the rest flows to the American Falls. At the American falls, the river is also split by a second small island, Luna Island, creating the third, small waterfall known as Bridal Veil Falls.

Canadian (Horseshoe) Falls
Photo courtesy NARA
American Falls
Photo courtesy NARA

The vertical drop to the water at the bottom, in the Maid of the Mist pool, varies depending upon how much water is being diverted to the hydroelectric facility upstream of the Falls. The American Falls is slightly higher than the Horseshoe Falls but has much less water going over it. It is estimated that 10 percent of the Niagara River's water goes over the American Falls, while 90 percent goes over the Canadian Horseshoe Falls.

American Falls is about 830 feet (253 meters) wide with a vertical drop of 180 feet (55 meters). Bridal Veil Falls, which is just to the right of the American Falls, is the smallest of the three water falls -- about 56 feet (17 meters) wide, with a vertical drop that averages 78 feet (24 meters) and continues cascading down the boulders into the Maid of the Mist Pool, which is another 103 feet (31 meters) below. Horseshoe Falls, on the Canadian side, has the largest volume of water and a vertical drop of 170 feet (52 meters) to the water level, plus another 180 feet to the base of the Falls.

The Dangers of Niagara Falls

Imagine the speed you would reach after going through the upper rapids of the Niagara River and then plunging over the edge of the Falls. Then imagine the force of 600,000 gallons of water per second (2,271,247 liters per second) crashing on top of you, not to mention the rocks you're bouncing around on under all of that water. The description that the surviving daredevils gave of what it was like when they went over the edge varied from "like a skydiver's free fall" to sheer terror. But of course, it's not the fall that'll get you; it's the landing.

The Dangers

First off, there is the danger you face inside the barrel itself (if you ride in one, that is). When you go over the 170-foot Horseshoe Falls, there is still another 180 feet to the Maid of the Mist pool. The forces that can knock you around inside the barrel are massively strong, so the chance of concussion-type injuries from rapid deceleration and acceleration is extremely high.

There is also the danger from hitting the rocks and having the barrel break apart. If that happens, you have no protection and will likely either drown or be battered to death in the currents and on the rocks. Then there is the danger of getting caught behind the curtain of water and running out of air before you can be rescued.

Of course, there is room for many other potential dangers, and many depend on the type of craft in which you go over.

Surviving Niagara Falls

Canadian (Horseshoe) Falls
Canadian (Horseshoe) Falls
Photo courtesy NARA

All daredevils have gone over the Horseshoe Falls rather than the rockier American Falls. You can see why when you compare the photos below -- note the rocks at the base of the American Falls.

American Falls
Photo courtesy NARA

Still, the force of the water and the rocks at the base of the Canadian Horseshoe Falls is no cake-walk. One recent theory of why some Niagara daredevils survive and some don't is offered by Paul Gromosiak, a Niagara Falls historian. He has a theory about "water cones" -- water pressure that builds up into a sort of "bubble" that then cushions the fall. Another theory is suggested by Joseph Atkinson, a professor in the Department of Civil, Structural, and Environmental Engineering at the University of Buffalo. Atkinson thinks it's more likely, at least in the case of the most recent Falls survivor, Kirk Jones (we discuss Jones in a later section), that survivors simply rode the water like a body surfer. He compares it to falling down a slope rather than splattering on a flat surface.

Others have theorized that getting into the water at the right spot upstream (usually close to the shore) and going over the brink at the right spot are also key, along with having good cushioning to absorb shock in the craft you ride in.

Niagara Daredevils

As of 2004, 16 daredevils have made documented trips over Niagara Falls. Eleven have survived. Psychologists who have studied male daredevils say that they have higher levels of testosterone, but lower levels of a chemical that regulates pleasure and arousal. So, basically, they have a slightly different biochemistry that makes them need a higher level of excitement than those of us less inclined to seek out dangerous situations. Many of the daredevils who have gone over the Falls have been described by their friends as "having no fear" of doing anything.

As the allure of the Falls grew, law enforcement began trying to prevent people from attempting the stunt. There is now a law against going over the Falls, referred to as "stunting without a license." The current fine is $10,000. That law didn't stop many of these daredevils, though. In the following sections, you'll find out their stories.

Annie Edson Taylor, 1901

The first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel was Annie Edson Taylor. Annie was a 63-year-old, retired school teacher and widow from Bay City, Michigan, who claimed she was only 43. The year was 1901. She thought that going over the Falls was the way to fame and fortune. She designed an airtight barrel (actually a modified pickle barrel) and hired a manager to publicize the event. On her birthday, October 24th, she climbed into the barrel with her cat and went over the falls with an audience of reporters and tourists watching. Having compressed the air in the barrel to 30 psi with a bicycle pump, she strapped herself in with pillows and an anvil for ballast. She survived the plunge.

She was pulled from her barrel 17 minutes after going over the Falls. Other than a concussion and a small cut on her head, she was deemed okay. The fame she sought was short-lived, however. She made money posing for pictures with her barrel, but efforts by her manager to convince her to make appearances in venues she deemed unworthy were always in vain. Her idea had been to travel around the country, speaking about her courageous journey, but that never materialized. Known as "The Heroine of Niagara Falls," she died 20 years later, penniless, at the Niagara County Infirmary in Lockport, NY.

Click here for more information on Annie Edson Taylor.

Bobby Leach, 1911

On July 25, 1911, Bobby Leach became the first man to go over the Falls. He was a circus stuntman from Cornwell, England, and claimed he was going to be the first to face the "triple challenge": making a barrel trip through the rapids to the whirlpool, parachuting from the Upper Suspension Bridge into the river upstream of the rapids, and going over the Falls in a barrel.

Leach accomplished the first two challenges in 1908 and 1910. Then, on the afternoon of July 25, 1911, Bobby Leach climbed into his 8-foot-long (2.4-meter) steel barrel at Navy Island. This is a section where the Niagara River's current heads toward the Canadian shore. It took 18 minutes for Bobby to reach the Falls and another 22 minutes for someone to recover him once he plummeted to the base, where the barrel got stuck in the rocks. Bobby Leach survived but broke his jaw and both kneecaps. He spent the next six months in the hospital.

Bobby eventually left the hospital and toured the world with his barrel. In 1926, while in New Zealand, he slipped on an orange peel, fracturing his leg. His leg became infected and was amputated, and Bobby Leach died of complications two months later.

Charles Stevens, 1920

The next daredevil to challenge Niagara Falls was Charles Stevens. Charles was also from England and was also something of a stuntman. He was a barber who performed high dives and parachute jumps and was well-known as "The Demon Barber of Bristol."

He went to Niagara Falls in 1920 to go over the Falls in a very heavy, Russian-oak barrel. Bobby Leach and William Hill, Sr., a local man who had rescued many from Niagara's swirling waters, tried to convince Charles to send the barrel over the Falls on a test run first, but he refused. His stubbornness was the death of him.

He became the third barrel rider to go over the Falls and the first to die doing so. His barrel was large and heavy, with straps for his arms. He strapped an anvil to his feet for ballast, put his arms through the straps and reluctantly agreed to take a small tank of oxygen. When the barrel hit the water at the base of the Falls, the anvil broke through the bottom, pulling Charles with it. All that was recovered was his right arm, still strapped in the harness.

Jean Lussier, 1928

Jean Lussier (with bandage on head) following descent over Niagara Falls
Jean Lussier (with bandage on head) following descent over Niagara Falls
Photo courtesy Niagara Falls Public Library and Jon E. Willdigg

Rather than face Horseshoe Falls in wood or steel as the previous daredevils had done, Jean Lussier spent his life savings ($1,500) on a large rubber ball that would protect him during the ride and on the rocks below. Jean Lussier lived in Quebec until he was 16 and then moved to New Hampshire so he could learn English. When he was 36, he heard about Charles Stephens' attempt at the Falls and was intrigued enough to want to give it a try himself.

With the help of the Akron Rubber Company, he built a 6-foot (1.8-meter) rubber ball that was lined with steel bands and 32 inner tubes to act as shock absorbers. The open center section, where Jean was to ride, had an air cushion and valves hooked to air tanks that would provide him with 40 hours of oxygen in the event he was trapped under water. "The Ball," as it was called, also had 150 pounds (68 kg) of hard rubber in its bottom for ballast.

He made his journey on July 4, 1928, and survived. The ball's ballast was ripped off before he even went over the Falls, and several of the inner tubes ending up bursting, but he remained relatively unscathed.

Another seeker of fortune, he sold pieces of his famous rubber ball as souvenirs and even resorted to selling pieces of rubber tires once the real thing was gone. He made plans, years later, to build another, much larger ball and go over American Falls, but he never saw this plan to fruition.

George Stathakis, 1930

George Stathakis was a chef who lived in New York. He came to Niagara Falls in 1930 with the idea of gaining fame so he could earn enough money to publish his books on metaphysical experiences.

Stathakis often rowed in the Niagara River, going closer and closer to the Falls with each trip. He reportedly spoke of the Falls in mystic terms. Having studied the trips of both Charles Stephens and Jean Lussier, George decided to go with a heavier barrel (even though Stephens' heavy barrel had lead to his death). George and his friends built the barrel, ending up with a reported 2,000-pound (907-kg) vehicle of enormous strength.

On the day of his ride, Stathakis brought along his pet turtle, Sonny Boy, who was over 100 years old, as a good luck charm (and to tell the story in the event George didn't make it). Unfortunately, the barrel became stuck behind the curtain of water and could not be removed for somewhere around 18 hours. While it is assumed he survived the plunge, he only had enough air for somewhere from three to eight hours, and he ultimately died in his attempt. Sonny Boy survived but never had much to say about it.

William "Red" Hill, Jr., 1951

Hill, Jr., posing in the "Thing" in which he lost his life, August 5, 1951
Hill, Jr., posing in the "Thing" in which he lost his life, August 5, 1951
Photo courtesy Niagara Falls Public Library and Ron Roels

For 21 years, no one went over the Falls; then, in 1951, William Hill, Jr., decided to attempt the plunge. He had been living in the shadow of his father, William Hill, Sr., a famous river man who had gone through the Niagara rapids in a barrel several times and rescued numerous people from the river (the same man who, with Bobby Leach, tried to get Charles Stevens to test his barrel over the Falls). The younger "Red" Hill made three trips through the rapids like his father, but never made the fortune nor received the fame he thought he should.

Finally, he decided he had to go over the Falls in order to make his name. His limited funds prevented him from building a heavy barrel like he had used to ride the rapids; instead, he put together a relatively flimsy craft made of 13 large inner tubes held together by straps and encased in a fishing net. He called it "The Thing."

On August 5, 1951, he entered the river upstream. After two hours, he finally went over the Falls. "The Thing" wasn't robust enough to handle the Niagara, however. It broke apart when it became caught under the falling water. It took two minutes for pieces of it to begin to surface. Hill's body was found the next morning.

It was the public outcry after Red Hill's death that made public stunting at Niagara Falls illegal.

Nathan Boya, 1961

One of the first (and maybe the only) to go over the Falls without hoping for fame and fortune was Nathan Boya (also known as William Fitzgerald). Nathan was 30 years old and from the Bronx in New York. It was 1961, and he was the first African American to go over the Falls. His reason for going over? Just something he had to do...

His barrel -- or ball, actually -- was similar to the rubber ball that successfully took Jean Lussier over the Falls in 1928. Nathan's ball, however, was a steel sphere wrapped in six-ply rubber, over which was a sheet of metal and then another layer of rubber. Recognizing that the airtight ball would hold little air, Nathan included an air tank that would provide him oxygen for 30 hours. He even met with Jean Lussier, who recommended he take additional air as well as a device called a rebreather that would remove poisonous carbon dioxide.

Nathan's trip over the falls could have turned out badly because, once in the river, the current began carrying him to the American Falls rather than the Canadian Horseshoe Falls. After being towed to the Horseshoe Falls, Nathan's craft, named the Plunge-O-Sphere (with a banner saying, "Step from your Pit of Darkness, into the Light-Dell") plunged over the edge. Except for a bounce on the rocks resulting in a dent in "The Ball," Nathan and his craft emerged unscathed. He was fined $100 and had to pay $13 in court costs for violating the Niagara Parks Act that made going over the Falls as a stunt illegal without permission (permission has yet to be granted to anyone since the law became effective after the death of William Hill, Jr.)

His alias, William Fitzgerald, made him into somewhat of a mystery man. While he claimed he was self-employed, it was reported that he was a maintenance man at IBM headquarters in New York. He later became a doctor of sociology and then earned a post-doctorate degree in medical behavior.

Karel Soucek, 1984

Karel in his barrel, July 2, 1984
Karel in his barrel, July 2, 1984
Photo courtesy Niagara Falls Public Library and George Bailey

It took another 23 years for someone else to decide to brave the ride over Niagara, and that someone was a Canadian named Karel Soucek. It was 1984. Like many during the previous 23 years, Karel had ridden the Niagara rapids and lived to tell about it, but the ultimate thrill was still going over the Falls. He planned the trip and announced his plans a year before he went over.

His barrel was crafted from a lightweight wood and plastic with weight in the end as ballast so he would be sure to go down feet first. He had a two-way radio so he could communicate during the potentially deadly plunge and particularly during the turmoil that awaited him at the bottom. It was reported that he went over the Falls at 75 mph (120 kph) and then bobbed around in the crashing waters and rocks for 45 minutes. His only injuries were cuts on his face from his wristwatch -- his arm was flailing when he hit the water.

Karel Soucek's barrel
Photo courtesy Niagara Falls Public Library and George Bailey

Once he was towed to shore, his barrel was confiscated by the police, and he was charged with stunting without a license. His fine was $500.

The following year, Karel was killed performing a free-fall stunt in a barrel from the top of the Houston Astrodome into a tank of water 10 feet (3 meters) in diameter.

David Munday, 1985 and 1993

Dave Munday decided to give Niagara a try in 1985. He was a 48-year-old mechanic and went over the Falls in a steel barrel, becoming the tenth person to survive the leap.

Barrel used by Munday to go over the Horseshoe Falls in 1985
Photos courtesy Niagara Falls Public Library and George Bailey

In 1990, he tried it again. His barrel became stuck at the very brink of the Falls and had to be removed by a crane by the Niagara Parks Police. Never one to give up easily, Dave attempted going over the Falls again in 1993. This time he went in a red-and-white steel barrel with the words "Dave Munday challenges Niagara Falls for the last time" painted on the side. He took with him a two-way radio but no air tanks.

He launched from the same place that he did in 1985 and went over the Falls in less than six minutes. It took rescuers 45 minutes, however, just to get the four bolts off and open up the barrel to get him out. But he survived once again, and Dave became the first person to go over the Falls twice and the first to survive going over twice.

Barrel used by Munday to go over the Horseshoe Falls in 1993, floating at base of Falls
Photo courtesy Niagara Falls Public Library and George Bailey

Steve Trotter and Lori Martin, 1985 and 1995

Steve's barrel, after his plunge over Horseshoe Falls
Steve's barrel, after his plunge over Horseshoe Falls
Photo courtesy Niagara Falls Public Library and George Bailey

Steve was 22 and a part-time bartender when he went over the Falls in a barrel. It was August 18, 1985. He built his barrel from two Greek pickle barrels. It was reinforced with fiberglass and wood and was padded with inner tubes. He padded the inside with the material that the military uses to pack nuclear warheads. Inside the barrel, he had a two-way radio and a SCUBA tank for air. After being dropped off a quarter mile upstream by some friends, he went over the Falls and survived. He was the youngest man ever to go over the Falls.

Ten years later, on Father's Day 1995, Steve went over the Falls again, becoming the second person to go over the Falls twice and survive. This time, however, he took someone with him. Lori Martin was a last-minute stand-in for another friend who was supposed to have gone with him. This time, the barrel was made from two hot water heater tanks welded together, coated in Kevlar, and they had air tanks that would supply air for the two of them for 1 hour and 20 minutes. The barrel was reportedly paid for by an investment banker in Florida. It cost $19,000.

Steve's and Lori's barrel after being pulled from the Niagara Gorge
Photo courtesy Niagara Falls Public Library and George Bailey

Except for getting their barrel stuck in a rock crevice near the "Journey Behind the Falls" tour, the stunt was uneventful. They were helped ashore and their barrel was retrieved nine days later. Steve spent two weeks in jail and was fined $5,000. His partner, Lori Martin, paid a $2,000 fine.

Peter Debernardi & Jeffrey (Clyde) Petkovich, 1988

Peter and Jeffrey's barrel at the brink Horseshoe Falls
Peter and Jeffrey's barrel at the brink Horseshoe Falls
Photo courtesy Niagara Falls Public Library and George Bailey

In 1989, Peter Debernardi, 42, and Jeffrey (Clyde) Petkovich, 25, became the first team to go over the Falls together in a barrel. (Remember, Steve Trotter and Lori Martin didn't go over together until 1995.) But they weren't the first two to attempt to go over the Falls together in a barrel -- in 1988, Michael Viscosi and Harry Kallet attempted it, but their barrel began leaking and they had to bail out. (They still had to pay $20,000 in fines and legal fees, though.)

Riding face to face and wearing hockey helmets, the two Canadians went over the Falls in a 5-foot by 10-foot (1.5x3m) barrel. They came out of it relatively unscathed. Their reason for going over? They were reportedly making a statement against drugs -- to show kids there were better things to do.

Jesse W. Sharp, 1990

Jesse Sharp leaving the brink of the Horseshoe Falls
Jesse Sharp leaving the brink of the Horseshoe Falls
Photo courtesy Niagara Falls Public Library and George Bailey

In 1990, Jesse Sharp was 28, unemployed, and an accomplished kayaker from Ocoee, Tennessee. Jesse had trained by running falls in the Smokey Mountains. He wanted to get into a stunting career and apparently decided that going over Niagara Falls in his 3.6-meter kayak was the way to do it. (Niagara is considered Class VI rapids.) He had attempted to do it 10 years earlier, but his parents tipped off police, who stopped him.

This time, that didn't happen. He brought three people with him to videotape his stunt, and he wouldn't wear a helmet because it would hide his face in the tape. He also didn't wear a life preserver, thinking it might make it difficult for him to get out of his kayak if he should become trapped under the Falls. He confidently had dinner reservations downstream, as his plan had been to continue riding the Niagara rapids after he successfully went over the Falls. His body was never recovered.

Sharp's red kayak, found on the Canadian side of Horseshoe Falls with just a small dent
Photo courtesy Niagara Falls Public Library and George Bailey

Robert Overacker, 1995

Maybe people don't listen to the news, or, if they do, they don't believe what they hear. In 1995, five years after Jesse Sharp died going over the Falls in a kayak, Robert Overacker decided to attempt it on a jet ski. He was a 39-year-old graduate of a California stunt school who raced cars at Ventura Raceway. He also sold classic British cars. Friends said he had planned the stunt for seven years. His reason for going over? To draw attention to the homeless. His jet ski was decorated with stickers that said "Save the homeless."

His plan seemed simple. He had a rocket-propelled parachute strapped to his back that he would activate just as he was going over the brink of the Falls. He would ditch the jet ski and float safely down to the Maid of the Mist pool.

The parachute did not deploy, however, and Robert fell the 180 feet (55 meters) to the water below. Police at the scene said hitting the water like that would be like hitting cement. His body was recovered by workers on the Maid of the Mist tour boat.

Kirk Jones, 2003

One of the most recent and probably the most shocking trip over the Falls was on October 3, 2003. Kirk Jones' plan didn't involve a barrel. It didn't even involve a life preserver. He simply climbed under the barrier and entered the river in his clothes. He floated down on his back and went over with no protection whatsoever.

Miraculously, he survived, uninjured except for sore ribs. He said it was like being "in a giant tunnel going straight down, surrounded by water." (At least two more have done the same in the years since, one in 2009 and the other in 2012.)

There are those who believe that Jones was depressed and that he jumped in with the intent to kill himself. Other reports say that Kirk had spoken about going over the Falls for years, saying that he thought there was a spot where you could go over and survive. Jones himself has never fully cleared up the rumors.

Witnesses say that after going over the Falls, he swam to some rocks -- having declined an offer of help from a tour boat -- and climbed out of the Niagara on his own.

While Kirk wasn't the first person to go over the Falls and survive without any protection, he was the first to go over on purpose that way. The first person to survive going over the Falls without gear was a seven-year-old boy named Roger Woodward, who was in a boat that capsized in 1960. His 17-year-old sister was pulled ashore to safety at the very edge of the Falls, the man driving the boat went over and was killed. But a surprised group of Maid of the Mist tourists found the boy alive at the bottom of the Falls. Roger Woodward had survived the drop.

After his stunt, Kirk Jones was offered a position with a Texas circus as a "the world's greatest stuntman," making lots of money talking about his triumphant trip over Niagara Falls with nothing except his clothes as protection.

For more information on Niagara daredevils and other crazy stuff, check out the links on the next page.

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