Blondin’s Question

Blondin -- Niagara Falls, 1859

Blondin -- Niagara Falls, 1859

For a couple of summers in the mid-19th century, many thousands of Americans thrilled to the exploits of a Frenchman who, on several occasions, crossed Niagara Falls on a tightrope.  He was called Blondin, or sometimes The Great Blondin, although his real name was Jean Francois Gravelet.  On June 30, 1859, he made the first transit of the gorge below the Falls.  (It’s tempting to say that he made quite a splash by not making a splash, but that’s too easy.) 

After that first walk, he did it quite a few more times, always adding some new daredevil element.  Blondin crossed Niagara Falls on stilts, on a bicycle, blindfolded, at night… one time he pushed a wheelbarrow along the tightrope;  in the wheelbarrow was a stove.  When Blondin reached the middle of the tightrope, he got out the stove, upon which he cooked an omelet.  He ate the omelet and then completed the crossing.

I first heard of Blondin’s exploits in a sermon many years ago.  The minister cited Blondin to illustrate the difference between mere beliefs and actual faith.  He told a story that may or may not be factual, but the gist of it was that Blondin was discussing with an associate the next variation for crossing Niagara Falls.  He had hit upon the idea of walking that tightrope, 160 above the water, while carrying a man on his back.  Blondin asked his friend if he thought it was possible.

“Of course,” the guy said.  “After what you have already accomplished, it should be no problem to cross the Falls with a man on your back.”  Blondin nodded his agreement and then responded:

“Will you be that man?”

Although the minister’s point about having the courage of our convictions was made in a spiritual context, it applies to ethical, political and matrimonial issues as well.

Blondin’s fifth crossing of Niagara Falls was with a man on his back.  The man, incidentally, was his manager, Harry Colcord.  There is no historical record of whether Colcord then demanded a higher percentage from his client.

5 responses to “Blondin’s Question

  1. This story reminds me: John Roebling (of Brooklyn Bridge fame) built the first bridge across Niagara Falls. Before any construction could begin on that bridge he first had to get a cable from one side across to the other. Any guess as to how he did it?

  2. First of all, welcome, Lee! And you’re right — Roebling’s bridge over the Niagara River was the first railway suspension bridge in the world. He had a little help in getting there, though; a guy named Charles Ellet, Jr. had constructed a foot bridge across the Niagara in 1848. Here’s how he did it: first they flew a kite across the river. (Seriously!) The kite string was attached to a point on the other side of the river; a rope was attached to the kite string and fed across. Successively heavier cords were sent along that same path by a system of pulleys. Eventually a wire cable was pulled over, and not long after, the bridge went into service for pedestrians.

    Before long, Ellet got into an argument over money with the authorities and was replaced by Roebling, who used the footbridge as scaffolding to begin construction of the railway bridge. Heavier elements were brought into place by flat boats; sturdy pylons were being constructed as well.

    The first train crossed the Niagara River on March 8, 1855 — four years before Blondin’s initial high-wire stunt.

  3. Your picture is reversed left-to-right and probably does not show Blondin, who so far as I know did not cross the Niagara Gorge so close to the falls.

  4. There are several photos of Niagara Falls in existence that I personally took, but obviously this is not one of them. This was acquired from an archive, which showed it with this orientation and identification. Of course, they may very well have it wrong.

    You’re a much more authoritative source on this subject than I am, Dr. Hughes — if the daredevil depicted here isn’t Blondin, do you have an idea who it might be?

  5. Pingback: 30th June | Around the World with the Kids

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