Daredevils often challenged Niagara to their peril

Matthew Webb

Throughout history, the mighty Niagara has attracted many daredevils and thrill seekers with its immense power and might. In the early days of stunting, most of the activity was in the form of funambulism, more commonly known as tightrope walking. Today, I will focus instead on Captain Matthew Webb, who, at the time, was the most famous swimmer in the world.

Born in Shropshire, England in 1848, Matthew Webb was one of 12 children. Drawn to the water at an early age, he ran away from home at the age of 12 for a life at sea, and eventually became the captain of his own ship. In 1875, he gained world fame by being the first recorded person to swim the English Channel without the use of any aids. Lasting more than 21 hours, this swim was the catalyst to great fame and fortune. For a time, he travelled extensively demonstrating his swimming and diving skills. During such a visit, he became acquainted with the mighty Niagara.

In 1883, he announced that he would swim the mighty rapids and whirlpool of Niagara. Many people tried to talk him out of such a dangerous feat. An article in the Suspension Bridge Journal claimed that the rapids "are not like surf or storm waves. They strike a blow like a sledgehammer and their power is akin to a cyclone." Matthew Webb remained confident that he could conquer the river's 39 miles per hour speed and 95-foot depth. Asked about his strategy, he said, "Now I want to avoid the sides and yet I dare not go into the middle, for there lies the vortex, and that means death."

On the afternoon of July 24, 1883, he proceeded down to the ferry landing. Ferryman John McCloy was waiting for him in a small fishing scow and rowed him out to midstream. Wearing the same red silk trunks that he wore for his English Channel swim, he dove into the water at 4:25 p.m. Things seemed to go well at first and he swam easily and swiftly downstream, covering 1¼ miles in only five minutes. Just as he passed under the railway suspension bridge, he was seen heading for a giant wave which seemed to snatch him up. Some of the many bystanders heard him cry out and throw up his arms before he disappeared under the water, never to be seen again.

Four days later, his body was found near Lewiston, N.Y., with a three-inch gash on his head. The autopsy revealed that surprisingly, he did not drown. The great force of the wave that struck him had paralyzed his nerve centres which made it impossible for him to breathe or use his limbs. He is buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Niagara Falls, N.Y., where he lies adjacent to another famous daredevil, Annie Edson Taylor who survived her barrel trip over the falls in 1901.

Library Notes

2018-08-09

Throughout history, the mighty Niagara has attracted many daredevils and thrill seekers with its immense power and might. In the early days of stunting, most of the activity was in the form of funambulism, more commonly known as tightrope walking. Today, I will focus instead on Captain Matthew Webb, who, at the time, was the most famous swimmer in the world.

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2018-06-21

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2018-06-07

In 2018, it is not out of the ordinary to spot various flying machines over both the Niagara River and the falls. Various aircraft and helicopters offer flying tours to both residents and visitors alike.

This was certainly not the case in 1911, when the age of flight arrived in Niagara Falls with "The Master Birdman" and his Curtiss biplane.

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This June, there are exciting things for customers of all ages at your Niagara Falls Public Library!  

 

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