What's the best contraption for a trip over Niagara Falls?

People have been trying to go sailing over Niagara Falls for decades — and some people are still trying. But how can you make that perilous descent and emerge in one piece?

The barrel really was the first device that people used to go over the falls — but it wasn't the last. Take a look at the good, bad, and weird, conveyances that people made to get them over Niagara Falls.

What's the best contraption for a trip over Niagara Falls?

A little-known fact is that the first person to go over Niagara Falls did it to earn enough money to retire. Annie Edson was a 63-year-old widow who had worked for years as a teacher, but had never managed to save up enough money to avoid the poorhouse. Knowing she'd need a cushion for her old age, she put together a wooden barrel, tested it out on her cat — which survived — and headed out the next day. She padded the barrel with a mattress, and assistants pumped it full of oxygen, sealed it, and set her adrift from a rowboat. She floated blindly over the falls, hit the water at the bottom so hard that she was sure she'd struck a rock, and was towed to safety. She emerged — hoping to cash in on her adventure, but also urging others not to do anything like what she did.

Though Edson continued to tour and pose for pictures with the barrel (and the cat), she never earned much, and died destitute. Meanwhile, people were falling all over themselves to copy her example. The first few copycat daredevils did what Annie did — went over the falls in a wooden barrel. But even these simple contraptions presented problems.

What's the best contraption for a trip over Niagara Falls?

Ten years after Edson, daredevil Bobby Leach went over in a steel barrel and fractured his kneecaps and his jaw — but he, at least, tested his barrel first, the same way that Edson did. In 1920, Charles Stephens went over the falls while weighted and in an untested barrel. The barrel hit the bottom of the falls and broke apart. All they found of him was an arm.

After that, people began looking for more high-tech contraptions, not just for security, but for publicity. By the time the public had seen three barrel drops, they were looking for something spicier.

Charles Lussier was the next to do it. He was only a minor daredevil, but he was apparently a crackerjack engineer, going over the falls in a hamster-ball-like contraption made of inner tubes stretched over a steel frame. For the first time since the school teacher, someone walked away from a trip over the falls. Another hamster ball went over the falls in 1961, created and piloted — in the loosest sense of the word — by Nathan Boya. Boya's contracption, called the Plunge-O-Sphere, was sturdier, having layered steel and rubber shells and with an internal oxygen tank.

Boya's insistence on an oxygen supply was wise. He'd learned, probably, from the 1931 attempt of George Stathakis. Technically, Stathakis used another barrel, but his 'barrel' was a giant structure weighing over 2,000 pounds. Accounts of how much oxygen it had vary from three hours to eight hours. He reached the bottom of the falls alive, but was trapped behind a curtain of water for twenty-two hours. He suffocated before he could be rescued. Boya also might have learned something from the 1951 attempt of Red Hill Junior, who went over the falls in an inner tube structure, but only reinforced it with canvas straps. It broke apart and Hill was killed.

At some point, public reaction switched — when confronted with people who wanted to go over Niagara Falls in stuff they'd made in their garage — from press conferences and interviews to arrests and therapy. Most attempts now are people who try to go over in regular boats or in simple stealth barrels. (In 1984, one person survived the drop in their barrel, only to be killed later that year at a publicity event recreating their stunt in the Houston Astrodome.) As a result, people aren't putting any more innovation into contraptions meant to go over the Falls. Although there have been more overall successful barrel drops, the fact that both steel-and-rubber hamster balls went over okay indicates that, should you ever need to go over a waterfall, that is what you would have to build.

Maybe, though, you could just use it to walk around the street or float for a while in your pool, though.

Top Image: Daniel Mayer

Edson Picture: Bain Collection

Leach Image: Collections Canada

Via How Stuff Works, Niagara Parks, Niagara Falls Live, and Popular Mechanics.