Annie Taylor’s Barrel Ride over the Niagara Falls, 1901

Oddball tales: When an eccentric named Annie Taylor was desperate for a nest-egg, she attempted the most dangerous stunt she could think of; to become the first woman to ride over the Niagara Falls… in a barrel.

In the picture a woman stands, a face wrinkled and unsmiling. She has dark wavy hair and the build of a woman once the matron of a dance and fitness salon.

She wears a fine dress and feather crowned cap, revealing a social class demanding better than her ailing nest egg. Her face shows just the last glimmers of an elegant beauty from many decades past, betraying the lie in her claim to be 40 years young. Her eyes stare as if to challenge the viewer to underestimate her.

Our interest in the photo is only piqued once we observe the large wooden barrel she stands next to.

Anne Taylor posing with the big pickle barrel which was her vessel on her short but terrifying trip (nytimes.com)

Annie Edson Taylor, 63 in fact, was at a stage in life reaped from an itinerant path which had both graced her with fortune and tragedy. Now her life was defined by a search for the same comfortable, yet modest means she was born into but had lost between then and now.

She was ready to take one last shot at a massive pay off. All she needed was to do something that no one had ever done before, something that would leave people so enthralled they’d clamour for her autograph and make her stinking rich in the process. Yet at the turn of the 20th Century what was there that no one had yet done? What could push the envelope in human performance and win her fame?

On October the 24th Taylor strode down to the banks of a river on the US/Canadian border. On the riverbank, strewn with leaves of brown and yellow, a rowing boat and it’s crew waited patiently and at its stern was tied the barrel, half-submerged. This cavernous, old pickle barrel had been customised by Taylor with padding inside to protect her in the ordeal ahead, an ordeal which promised to make her …or break her.

She paused to listen: Not far downstream of the river an incredibly deep, deep rumbling roar issued from the most powerful waterfall in N. America.

The river sloshing by was the Niagara River and what she was about to attempt was become the first woman to go over the great Niagara Waterfalls and survive the immense power of 168,000m3 (6 million cubic feet) of water per minute propelling her 50m (160ft) down the huge, white wall of gushing water to the bottom.

Could she, a woman no less, survive such an escapade? Taylor gingerly entered her barrel and began to pray.

The boat rowed out midstream. Air was pumped inside her barrel and once the lid was fastened securely they cut her loose. The barrel sloshed downstream. As the roar of water got heavier increasingly violent rapids battered the barrel, but its casing held firm as did Taylor’s faith. One way or another it would soon be over.

The distance to the precipice closed quickly and just at the moment Taylor thought that bottomless roar could get no more intense, she sensed the sudden plunge through the air for what seemed an eternity.

At the bottom a boat waited to recover the barrel once it bobbed to the surface. Remarkably Taylor was found unscathed except for a gashed forehead – she survived.

In the aftermath, Annie Taylor failed to really cash in on her short-lived fame and said: “If it was with my dying breath, I would caution anyone against attempting the feat … I would sooner walk up to the mouth of a cannon, knowing it was going to blow me to pieces than make another trip over the Fall.

The stunt did nothing to dampen her longevity; she went on to live to 82.

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