Perhaps it is fitting that one of the most famous barrels in Niagara Falls history was constructed by an English cooper (barrel maker) who performed the first barrel stunt in the falls area.
Carlisle D. Graham had recently immigrated to Philadelphia from England in 1886 when he built a five-foot, six-inch barrel made of oaken staves and handmade iron hoops for his planned journey through the Niagara Gorge rapids and The Whirlpool.
On July 11, 1886, Graham embarked on his first stunt. The six-foot-tall man was forced to hunch over inside the barrel to allow the water-tight lid to be secured. Graham was fully encased in a waterproof canvas sheath, except for his two arms which allowed him to hold onto metal handles that were mounted inside. Graham survived his first adventure, which lasted around a half-hour, but he was ill and dizzy from the ride.
Graham announced a second trip that was slated for Aug. 19, 1886. He said he would keep his head outside of the barrel this time. On Aug. 8, two of Graham’s acquaintances, George Hazlett and William Potts, used the barrel to complete the same stretch of river. They were not injured. Graham survived his second adventure, but leaving his head outside the barrel caused him to sustain impaired hearing.
Hazlett and his girlfriend, Sadie Allen, rode Graham’s barrel together through the rapids and the whirlpool without incident.
In a newly designed seven-foot-long barrel, Graham made his third and fourth trips through the rapids in 1887 and 1889 respectively. Fueled with fame and notoriety, he announced that he would plunge over Niagara Falls in his barrel, but he never attempted that stunt. He almost suffocated to death on his fifth trip through the rapids on July 14, 1901.
On Sept. 6 of that year, Graham loaned his barrel to Buffalo resident Martha Wagenfuhrer, who became the first woman to safely navigate the rapids and whirlpool alone. A day later, Graham arranged a performance with his friend, Maude Willard. The plan called for Willard to ride the barrel through the rapids to the Whirlpool, and then she and Graham would swim the remainder of the stunt to Lewiston. Willard climbed in Graham’s barrel and charged through the rapids, but the barrel became entangled in the whirlpool for several hours before she was rescued. Willard died of suffocation. The nose of Willard’s pet fox terrier, who accompanied her on the journey, was stuck in the barrel’s only air hole.
Stories of the many daredevils who have challenged the falls and the gorge are brought to life, and relics from their adventures are showcased, at the new Daredevil Gallery at Niagara IMAX Theatre. The daredevil exhibit features the world’s largest collection of Niagara Falls history, including actual barrels and artifacts along with the engaging stories of Niagara’s heritage and tales of the daredevils.