What Happened on June 30, 1859?

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On the morning of June 30, 1859, Jean François Gravelet, a 34-year-old French acrobat, better known by his performance name of Monsieur Charles Blondin became the first person to walk across Niagara Falls on a tightrope. A crowd of 25,000 people stood on either side of the falls to watch.

Print published by Charles Magnus. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

God created a breathtaking sight along the border between the United States and Canada: Niagara Falls. As the Niagara River flows north from Lake Erie, it descends 326 feet before it reaches Lake Ontario. Over half of the drop happens at once, when the river plummets over Niagara Falls. The distance from the top of the falls to the Niagara River below is 188 feet.

Native nations lived in the Niagara region for many years before Europeans first saw the falls. Samuel de Champlain and Étienne Brûlé may have seen the falls when they explored the area in the early 1600s. The first European known to describe the falls was Catholic priest Louis Hennepin. Hennepin wrote about Niagara Falls in his 1698 book, A New Discovery of a Vast Country in America, which included a drawing he made of the falls.

As early as 1818, travelers crossed the Niagara River on a ferry. In 1846 a steamboat named Maid of the Mist took people across. The first bridge across the Niagara Gorge was a roadway made of oak planks hung from iron cables. In 1855 the Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge replaced this first bridge. The Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge had an upper deck for trains and a lower deck for pedestrians and carriages. Can you imagine walking under those trains? Many travelers were able to see the falls by train when it crossed over the Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge. Before the Civil War, many enslaved people ran away to Canada to escape slavery. Many crossed the Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge.

The Rail road suspension bridge near Niagara Falls.
Print by Currier & Ives, 1856. Courtesy Library of Congress

The tradition of going to Niagara Falls on a honeymoon began early in the 1800s. In 1801 Theodosia Burr and her husband Joseph Alston became the first known couple to spend their honeymoon there. Theodosia was the daughter of Aaron Burr, who served as Thomas Jefferson’s vice president. There is some evidence that Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother and his bride honeymooned there in 1804. Beginning in 1818, entrepreneurs began charging fees for tours at the falls.

Paintings and prints of the falls became popular decorations in homes and public buildings. American artist George Catlin produced the painting below in 1827 and 1828. When he displayed his paintings, he also displayed a model of Niagara Falls.

Niagara Falls by George Catlin. Courtesy Smithsonian American 
Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr.

Since 1829, people have foolishly attempted to go over Niagara Falls. Some have succeeded, but many have died while trying. As mentioned above, on June 30, 1859, Charles Blondin became the first to walk across the falls on a tightrope. Today it is illegal to try to go over the falls. For over a century, it has also been illegal to cross the falls on a tightrope. However, in 2012 Nik Wallenda, a seventh-generation member of the Flying Wallenda tightrope walking family (his mother performed on a tightrope when she was six months pregnant with him), obtained permission from the government of the State of New York with legislation signed by Andrew Cuomo who was then serving as the state’s governor. Wallenda crossed the falls on June 15, 2012. No one has repeated that feat since.

In 1960 a family friend invited seven-year-old Roger Woodward and his 17-year-old sister Deanna to go for a boat ride on the Niagara River. It was Deanna’s birthday. The boat motor struck a rock and stopped. The boat floated toward the edge of the falls. All three fell out. A bystander reached out to Deanna. She was able to grab only his thumb. It was enough. The family friend drowned. Roger went over the falls in only a life jacket. Miraculously he survived. The captain of the Maid of the Mist steered the boat to Roger and rescued him from the rocky tempest at the base of the falls. In 2015 Roger, then 62, spoke at the Niagara Falls Prayer Breakfast. He gave God credit for saving him that day in 1960.

Beautiful, breathtaking Niagara Falls displays the mighty power of God:

The floods have lifted up, O Lord,
The floods have lifted up their voice,
The floods lift up their pounding waves.
More than the sounds of many waters,
Than the mighty breakers of the sea,
The Lord on high is mighty.
Psalm 93:3-4


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