Hero of Niagara

Posted in America, Artist, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Theatre on Tuesday, 26 November 2019

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This edited article about Blondin originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 683 published on 15 February 1975.

Blondin, picture, image, illustration

Blondin (Francois Gravelet) pushes a wheelbarrow across a tightrope over Niagara Falls

Thousands of people stared fascinated at a rope stretched across Niagara Falls on 30th June, 1859. The rope was over a thousand feet long and a hundred and sixty feet above the roaring tumult of the river.

Suddenly the crowd froze with excitement. A man had started to walk along the rope from the American side. Half-way across, he lay down; then he proceeded to do a backwards somersault. He reached the far side and, as the cheers rang out, a band struck up the Marseillaise.

The tightrope walker started back to the American side carrying a chair. When he reached the middle of the rope, he balanced the chair on two legs and sat down on it.

The performer’s name was Blondin, and he was the greatest of all rope-walkers.

Over the centuries, the world of the circus and of acrobats has cast such a spell over so many people that it is surprising how few of its great performers are remembered by name. But there is no danger of Blondin being forgotten because, indoors as well as out, he took spectacular risks which caught the imagination of literally millions of people who never actually saw him perform.

Blondin’s real name was Jean Francois Gravelet, and he was born in France in 1824, the son of an ex-officer in Napoleon’s army. When he was five, he was so thrilled by the performance of a troupe of touring acrobats that his father allowed him to be trained at a gymnastics school.

Soon he was performing in public under the name of his teacher, Jean Ravel Blondin.

Blondin gradually made himself the master of his art and, before he crossed the Niagara Falls for the first time, had already become famous by crossing the Thames and the Seine. In the days that followed his first sensational rope-walk over Niagara, he added to his fame by walking across blindfolded and pushing across a wheelbarrow with a woman in it, and also by walking across with a man on his back. Once he even stood on his head on the rope.

In September, 1860, Blondin performed in front of the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII), who was on a tour of Canada and the United States at the time. The Prince was as thrilled by Blondin’s exploit as everyone else, and went across to hand him a gift of gold. Blondin immediately offered to take the Prince back across the Falls and Edward eagerly agreed. Not surprisingly, however, his advisers forbade him to take such a risk, and the disappointed heir to the throne of Britain told Blondin: “My rank obliges me to stay where I am.”

This amused the great tightrope walker very much, and he crossed the Falls alone – but on stilts!

One of Blondin’s most famous exploits was to take a small stove to the middle of his rope, sit down, cook himself an omelette and eat it. Of all his extraordinary feats, this was probably the one which impressed the spectators most, though it seems to have been “all in the day’s work” to him.

Blondin was a short man, pale-complexioned, but he was, of course, very strongly built. A contemporary wrote of him that “his features are moulded in a most peculiar cast, the very ideal of cool courage, iron determination and pluck,” and mentioned his “moral courage and gigantic and yet elegant strength.”

A part from his sheer daring, he was also a great showman. Sometimes he would pretend to slip, much to the alarm of the spectators below. At the Crystal Palace in London, where he often performed, and where he was once paid £1,200 for twelve performances – a huge sum in those days – people in the audience sometimes fainted. This is scarcely surprising, because he played the violin on his rope, danced, and turned somersaults, and, incredibly, somersaulted wearing stilts! His rope was 170ft. from the ground at the time.

Blondin never stood any nonsense when he had a “passenger.” Once, crossing Niagara with a somewhat nervous man on his back, he said: “Sir, I must request you to sit still, or I will have to put you down!”

At Sheffield, he wheeled a barrow across the rope with a lion cub inside it. And in 1875, when he was over fifty, he made a double crossing along a 450 ft. rope, which had been slung between the masts of the P. and O. liner, Poonah. She was sailing at about thirteen knots at the time and there was a heavy sea running. The ship was rolling and, as the swell lifted her, Blondin was forced to sit down on the rope. He then got up and continued his walk. This was yet another occasion when some of his watchers fainted.

He made his last walk in Belfast in 1896, the year before he died, though he had officially retired, a very rich man, several years before. He settled down in Ealing, where he is commemorated in a very suitable way by two roads, running parallel with each other, called Niagara Avenue and Blondin Avenue.

Blondin’s great exploits inspired many imitators, in some cases with disastrous results. There were female Blondins as well as male ones. A Miss Young succeeded in crossing the Thames on a rope, but later fell when attempting another acrobatic feat over land, and was badly injured. A Mrs. Powell, who had started rope-walking at an even earlier age than Blondin himself, attempted a walk with a sack over her head, but she had only gone a few feet when she lost her balance and fell to her death.

There have been other great tight-rope artists, but no one has ever approached Blondin’s spectacular performances. Some people called him foolish because of the risks that he took but this could be said of many brave men and women. The point about Blondin was that, unlike some of his imitators, he knew exactly what he was doing and what he was capable of. He was always master of the situation, as much at home in his aerial kingdom as the average man is when he is walking along a pavement.

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