John Burnside Edson had a farm in Willow Glen, on Jordan Road, and rarely made news, once when someone stole some chickens he was fattening for the market, and again when he offered a horse and wagon for sale. He also worked as a carpenter. A simple man, one would think, and I have tried to imagine how he reacted when he learned that his sister, Annie, had gone over Niagara Falls in a barrel.
Anna “Annie” Edson Taylor was born on October 24, 1838, “on the shores of the Owasco,” where her father, Merrick, had a flour mill at the outlet. He fathered eight children but died young. A son, Dann, remained in Auburn; John came to Skaneateles; Annie became a schoolteacher. She was married young, widowed soon after, and afterwards cobbled together a livelihood teaching school subjects, dance and deportment.
Speaking with a reporter for the Buffalo Express days before her attempt, she said she had taught in Auburn, Skaneateles, New York City, Bay City and Sault Ste. Marie (Michigan), Austin (Texas) and Mexico City. In 1901, while teaching dance in San Antonio, she decided to challenge the falls. She was tired of being poor and thought the feat would bring her fame and fortune.
She returned to Bay City with plans for a barrel to be made of oak, heavily oiled to make it waterproof, with seven iron hoops riveted every four inches. Once in Niagara Falls, she had the inside fitted with a leather harness and mattress-like padding. An anvil in the bottom assured that the barrel would float upright.
On October 24, 1901, experienced rivermen Fred Truesdale and William “Billy” Holleran took Taylor and her barrel to Grass Island, a mile and a half above the brink, a spot about as close to the falls as a man in a rowboat dares to go. Taylor climbed in, and after fastening the lid, Holleran used a bicycle tire pump to compress the air in the barrel. The air hole was plugged with a cork, and the barrel was towed into a current that led to the Canadian Horseshoe Falls. (The American Falls, with its rocky base, is certain death for anyone who goes over.) Taylor was set adrift, and Truesdale tapped her barrel twice with an oar to let her know she was on her own.
For five minutes or so, her ride was quiet, but the final three-quarters of a mile were through the rapids, a churning, rocky, roaring descent as the river drops 50 feet on its way to the rim of the falls. For 18 minutes, spectators lining both sides of the river saw the barrel twirl, dive and leap as it bobbed through the rapids. Journalist Orrin Dunlap wrote, “Over reef after reef it plunged, each leap calling forth an involuntary groan from many of the spectators. Three times the barrel disappeared in the foaming, tossing waters… but each time it reappeared and was hurled on by the never-ceasing current.”
Inside the barrel, Taylor heard the roar of the falls getting louder. “I felt,” she recalled, “as though all Nature was being annihilated.” She put a cushion under her knees and held on for dear life as she went over the brink. She didn’t feel the impact at the bottom of the waterfall as the barrel plunged beneath the surface, but she did feel the barrel shoot back up to the surface and into the air.
The barrel was carried down river a short distance and then drifted into an eddy. A riverman caught the barrel with a boat hook and pulled it to dry land, and men worked to open the top. Taylor, dazed, sensed the lid being pried off and a man shouted, “My God, she’s alive!” Several men pulled Taylor out and helped her to the shore. Bleeding from a cut to her scalp, she waved weakly to the crowd.
At first, Taylor made some money from her exploit. She received $200 for appearing at Buffalo’s Pan American Exposition on its last day, and more from making store appearances in the Midwest. But she had no stage presence and her manager dumped her in Cincinnati, took most of her money and the barrel, and disappeared. She eventually found the barrel in a store window in Chicago. A second manager also dumped her, took the barrel and started touring with a younger, more glamorous woman who pretended to be the Heroine of Niagara. This time, the barrel was lost forever.
Taylor was reduced to sitting outside a restaurant on the American side, alongside a replica of her barrel, selling postcards and her autobiography to tourists. In 1921, at 82, she entered the Niagara County poorhouse at Lockport, where she died, penniless.
Her fame survived, however, inspiring a book, Queen of the Falls, by Chris Van Allsburg, the author of The Polar Express, Jumanji and many other children’s classics.
And what of John Edson of Skaneateles? He died in 1911, in Michigan, while visiting a brother he had not seen for 43 years. Edson’s body was shipped to Port Clinton, Ohio, to the home of his son, Charles Ansley Edson, and buried in Port Clinton’s Lakeview Cemetery in 1911.
- “She Shot the Falls,” Buffalo Express, October 25, 1901
- “Over Niagara in a Barrel,” Orrin E. Dunlap, World Wide Magazine, January 1902
- Queen of the Falls (2011) by Chris Van Allsburg