STEVE CANAVAN: Roll out the barrel ... for certain death at the Falls

Steve Canavan using his daughter Mary as a human shielf at Niagara Falls
Steve Canavan using his daughter Mary as a human shielf at Niagara Falls

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I’ve never previously been impressed by waterfalls. Sure, some are bigger than others – and I guess vaguely interesting for a moment or two in a ‘isn’t nature glorious’ kind of way– but generally speaking, what’s the big deal?

It’s just falling water, which is 10-a-penny to someone who grew up in Manchester.

However, after seeing Niagara Falls this week, I’ve changed my opinion. 

It really is utterly mesmerising and beautiful to look at … until you turn around and see the mind-bogglingly tacky resort that has sprung up around it, built by those determined to milk this natural wonder for all it’s worth.

Mrs Canavan and I – currently on holiday in Canada – headed to Niagara last week, along with our baby Mary.

The highlight was cramming onto a boat with – at a rough guess – around 31,750 other tourists, donning a very fetching red poncho, and sailing almost to the mouth of the Horseshoe Falls.

The power of the waterfall creates an astonishing amount of spray and I would have got absolutely soaked had I not been quick-witted enough to use Mary as a shield (we were going to leave her back at the motel but it seemed unfair as there was nothing on the box and the minibar in the fridge was empty).

One of the most spectacular, if unnerving, views is at the top of the Horseshoe Falls.

Only a worryingly small, chest-height barrier separates you from a sheer drop to the water and, if you’ll allow me to be cheery for a moment, it’s little wonder it is a well-known suicide spot – 40 people a year deliberately jump in and take their own lives.

As the water thundered down into the abyss, while attempting not to be shoulder-barged out of position by the three million Japanese tourists taking selfies, I couldn't help but think about those who have attempted daredevil stunts at the spot.

For instance, did you know - and I was slightly astounded to discover this – the first person to attempt to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel was not some young muscular macho fella but a meek and mild retired schoolteacher by the name of Annie Taylor.

After living an unremarkable life, Mrs Taylor – presumably very bored and not a little insane – ordered a barrel constructed of oak and iron, stuck a mattress in it, then threw herself over the falls. The idea was to earn a few quid to see her through retirement, though personally I’d have stayed home and taken out a Post Office savings account.

She chose to throw herself off on October 24, 1901, on her 63rd birthday, which makes a change from eating cake and having the relatives round.

No one thought she stood a chance of surviving, but remarkably, 17 minutes after plunging 167 feet, she was pulled from her barrel with nothing more than a bloodied forehead.

'I would sooner walk up to the mouth of a cannon, knowing it was going to blow me to pieces,' she later said in rather melodramatic fashion, 'than make another trip over the falls.'

Mrs Taylor thought the stunt would earn her millions but as it turned out, her manager ran off with the barrel and she spent her personal savings hiring private detectives to find it.

She spent her final years posing for photographs with tourists at a souvenir stand and died virtually penniless. A sad tale.

Remarkably, since then a further 14 people have intentionally gone over, the vast majority perishing in the process. 

My personal favourite is Bobby Leach, who, in 1911, plunged over the falls in a barrel, broke both kneecaps but survived … then died slipping on an orange peel.

You’ll be relieved to know that I resisted the urge to purchase a barrel and attempt to join the list of Niagara daredevils.

Instead I went back to the motel and had a cocoa, which was less exciting but much drier.