Woman Becomes First to Descend Niagara Falls

Woman Becomes First to Descend Niagara Falls

On this day in 1901, on her 63rd birthday, Annie Edson Taylor, an American schoolteacher and adventurer, became the first person to survive a trip over Niagara Falls.

One of eight children born to Samuel Edson, a flourmill owner, Taylor was born in upstate New York. Her father died when she was 12. Later, she married and had a son who died in his infancy, followed by her husband, who was killed in the Civil War. Quickly widowed, Taylor spent years bouncing from job to job, trying to support herself. Determined not to spend her aged years poor, she decided to be the first person to ride over Niagara Falls in a barrel. Others had performed Niagara stunts before–swimmers had braved the cold waters below the falls, tightrope walkers crossed the raging waters, and barrel-riders had traversed the Whirlpool Rapids below the Falls–but no one had yet dared to take the full plunge down Niagara Falls in a barrel. She had a barrel custom-made with oak and iron, padded with a mattress and pillow inside, and finished with an air hole and rubber tube. A trial run was performed, with a cat inside. The cat survived. It was Taylor’s turn.

It was 24 October 1901, Taylor’s 63rd birthday. Hundreds of onlookers had gathered for the spectacle. A little after 4 PM, Taylor climbed into the barrel with a lucky heart-shaped pillow, the barrel’s lid was screwed down, and friends used a bicycle pump to compress air in the barrel, then plugged the air hole with a cork. Taylor began heading down the Niagara River, near Goat Island, about a mile upstream from the Falls. The barrel drifted toward Horseshoe Falls, then plummeted over the brink, and 51 metres down North America’s most powerful waterfall. The entire trip took about 20 minutes. The currents carried the barrel toward the Canadian Horseshoe Falls, where rescuers retrieved the barrel. Onlookers waited to see whether Taylor had survived the treacherous trip down.

They breathed a sigh of relief when rescuers cut the top off the barrel and Taylor emerged, alive. She had a small gash on her forehead, but was otherwise unharmed. She told the gathered press, “If it was with my dying breath, I would caution anyone against attempting the feat… I would sooner walk up to the mouth of a cannon, knowing it was going to blow me to pieces than make another trip over the Fall.”

Though she made several speaking appearances and attempted to write a novel about her stunt, Taylor was never able to make much money or garner much fame from her experience. She died at the age of 82, in Lockport, New York, penniless. She is interred in the “Stunters Section” of the Oakwood Cemetery in Niagara Falls, New York.

Credit: Library of Congress, George Grantham Bain Collection
Caption: Annie Edson Taylor, the first person to survive descending Niagara Falls, poses next to her barrel.