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Confusion surrounds the origin of the name Niagara. We know it’s native, but no source is confirmed. Some say it was an Iroquois town once called Ongniaahra, others credit the Mohawk’s and their word for “the neck”, “onyara”.
This history would have been unknown to the Famous French explorer Samuel de Champlain, the first outsider to behold Niagara Falls in the early 1600’s, calling them simply the “spectacular waterfalls”.
Then Swedish naturalist Pehr Kalm gave the best historic account in the 1700’s. He was credited with the first full description (edited for space)…
“….I doubt not but you have a desire to learn the exact height of this great fall. 600 feet perpendicular; Those who have measur’d it with mathematical instruments find the perpendicular fall of the water to be exactly 137 feet… you may remember, to what great distance the noise of this fall may be heard.
“All the gentlemen who were with me agreed, that the farthest one can hear it, is 15 leagues… Sometimes ’tis said, the fall makes much greater noise than at other times. When I was there, it did not make an extraordinary great noise: Just by the fall, we could easily hear what each other said, without speaking much louder than the common when conversing in other places.
“I do not know how others found so great a noise here; perhaps it was at certain times, as above mentioned.”
Niagara Falls has been one of the top tourism locations in the entire world since the 1700’s!
The Dead of Niagara Falls
Daredevils were banned from the Falls since the late 1800’s, but that didn’t stop the thrill seekers of the day.
It all started with a school teacher from Michigan named Mrs. Annie Edson Taylor. She was the first to go over the Falls in a barrel on October 24, 1901. Her barrel floated to the edge and stopped, caught on a rock which turned it over before disappearing behind the water.
Men retrieved the barrel at the bottom, a small hand sticking out the top. Annie was alive, bruised and bleeding, but alive.
“I prayed every second, except after the fall, when I was unconscious”, she told the men. She lapsed and kept asking, “Did I go over the Falls yet?”
Many tried to find out why Annie did it. Turns out she was penniless and wanted the fame and fortune that would come with surviving the Falls.
She went on tour as “The Queen of the Mist”, however her show was boring and she talked like a scientist.
Annie went broke and returned to Niagara Falls, New York. It’s here she died penniless in 1921. She’s buried in Niagara Falls’ Oakwood Cemetery… her gravestone reads, “First to go over the horseshoe Falls in a barrel and live”
Six men followed her over. Of the six, three survived, and three were killed…
- Charles Stephens went over in 1920 – a barber from England who got a reputation as an amateur daredevil. Authorities tried to stop him, so he did it in secret with only a some witnesses. Stephens would be first to die. All they found were his broken barrel and tattooed severed arm.
- George Stathakis went over in 1930 – a chef from Buffalo who’s dream was to publish mystical books. This stunt and the following fame would fund it all. Together, George and his pet turtle Sonny Boy went over Niagara Falls and was caught half-way down. The barrel remained, getting pelted by water behind the Falls for 22 hours, before giving and falling to the bottom. Men pried open the barrel to find George had long drowned. Sonny Boy was alive and became famous, touring all over North America!
- “Red” Hill Jr. went over in 1951 – “Red” was the son of the most famous river-man in Niagara Falls history. Red Sr was credited with saving the lives of many. Also charged with corpse retrieval of suicides and accidents, retrieving around 200 bodies from the unforgiving river. On August 5, 1951, Red Hill Jr went out on his third and final attempt to tame the falls. He went over at 3:30pm and disappeared into the falls. His mother screamed from the Maid of the Mist below, “Where is he? My eldest boy, I want him back!” The next morning, Red’s beaten body drifted by the Maid’s dock. After Hill Jr’s death, stunts at the Falls was banned on threat of arrest. The Hill was undeterred, swearing in public that one of their kin would eventually concur the falls… this is yet to happen.
The Ghostly Legend of the Maid of the Mist
A beautiful maiden lost her husband, her true love, and with it lost all hope. She would paddle her canoe out on the river, singing songs of death softly to herself. One day the canoe was caught in a current, and pushed towards the falls. She would be pitched over the side, falling to her death if not for Heno, the god of thunder who lived inside the falls.
Heno caught the maiden, and together with his sons they helped the girl overcome her grief. When she was healed, the youngest of the sons would profess his love to the girl, and they soon married. A son was born to the couple.
The maiden’s only regret was not seeing her people again. She wanted to return to them, if only for a moment, a chance that would come with the threats of a great serpent. The serpent poisoned the waters of her people, making them sick and dying. It planned to return when the people were dead to devour their bodies.
Heno told the maiden about this, and she begged him to allow her to return, to warn her people. He agreed, she warned them, and when the serpent returned the next day, her people had moved on to a safe and secret place.
The serpent went up the river searching for bodies, hissing in rage. Heno heard it and rose from the mist of the falls to strike it down with a bolt of lightning.
The serpent’s body floated to the edge of the Falls and was lodged in the rock, causing gushes of water to be diverted over the precipice, flooding Heno’s home.
Heno, his sons and the maiden fled Niagara Falls, settling in the sky. Since that day, the thunder heard in the clouds now echoes in the falls where Heno once lived.
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