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Robert McNamara

Crossing Niagara Falls By Tightrope in 1859

By June 11, 2012

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The attempt by Nik Wallenda to walk across Niagara Falls by tightrope later this week is a tribute to "The Great Blondin," the legendary circus star who first performed the astounding stunt in 1859.

Blondin, a French tightrope walker who had thrilled American audiences throughout the 1850s, saw Niagara Falls for the first time in 1858, when his troupe, the Ravel Family, performed nearby. He came up with the idea of walking from the United States to Canada, hundreds of feet above the Niagara River.

The following year Blondin was able to string a tightrope a distance of 1,100 feet across the raging river. An estimated 25,000 people flocked to nearby cliffs to witness the amazing spectacle.

Setting out on June 30, 1859, Blondin walked to Canada and back, hundreds of feet in the air, defying death with every step along his tightrope. He had conquered the river, but that wasn't enough.

Constantly raising the stakes, Blondin spent that summer walking the tightrope at Niagara Falls backwards, blindfolded, pushing a wheelbarrow, and even carrying a man on his back.

His performances were so famous that the following year, during the election campaign of 1860, Abraham Lincoln was depicted as Blondin, carrying a slave on his back and balancing himself with a pole labeled "The Constitution."

When the Civil War began Blondin returned to Europe, where his fame from Niagara Falls lured vast crowds to his performances at the Crystal Palace in London. He kept performing for decades, and died peacefully in his own bed in 1897. He was always best remembered as the man who had conquered Niagara Falls.

More: Vintage Images of Blondin Crossing Niagara Falls

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Illustration: Lincoln depicted as Blondin in a political cartoon/Library of Congress


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