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The Great Blondin and his greatest feat

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Niagara (Callie Jones)On 30 June 150 years ago, the Great Blondin became the first man to cross Niagara Falls on a tightrope. Charles Blondin, born Jean-François Gravelet, is considered to be one of the greatest funambulists of all time.

Blondin saw his first tightrope walker at age five, when a travelling circus troupe pitched camp near his home in France. Immediately after the show the young Blondin strung a rope between two chairs in his back garden and began practising. His father, a gymnast, sent Blondin to the École de Gymnase in Lyons that same year. At nine years old Blondin was orphaned and began performing professionally.

A crowd of 100,000 people watched Blondin enter the history books as he walked on a three-inch hemp cord, 1,100ft long and 160ft above the Niagara Falls gorge. He repeated the feat a number of times, thrilling crowds with ever more dangerous acts. He crossed blindfolded, he crossed on stilts, he crossed with his manager on his back, and he even stopped to cook a meal on a portable cooker half way across.

In 1861 Blondin performed at the Crystal Palace in London, turning somersaults on a rope stretched across the central parapet. On one occasion he controversially pushed his five-year-old daughter across in a wheelbarrow as she dropped rose petals into the audience. The public were so shocked by this feat that the Home Secretary ordered him to refrain from placing the child in such danger.

In rather less grand surroundings he crossed Birmingham’s Edgbaston Reservoir in 1873. A statue was erected in 1992 on the nearby Ladywood Middleway to mark this feat. And a Liverpool performance saw him push a lion across a tightrope strapped into a wheelbarrow.

After a life full spent defying death on the high wire, Blondin died in his bed in Ealing, London, aged 72. He is buried in Kensal Green Cemetery and two roads in Ealing are named in his honour — Blondin Avenue and Niagara Avenue.

Other funambulists tried to emulate Blondin’s Niagara achievement, some dying in the process. The Great Farini repeated Blondin’s walk only a year later, and tried to outdo Blondin by carrying a washerwoman across the gorge. Once he lowered himself down to a boat in the water before climbing back up the rope to complete the walk.

J. F. “Professor” Jenkins crossed the Niagara gorge on a combination bicycle, or velocipede, in 1869. Henry Bellini walked half way across and jumped into the water below in 1873. And Maria Spelterini became the first woman funambulist to cross the gorge in 1876.

Crossing the gorge by tightrope seems to have gone out of vogue around the end of the 19th century, only to be replaced by ever more dangerous and bizarre attempts to beat the natural ferocity of the falls. The brave, fearless and plain daft have gone over the falls in barrels, by parachute, kayak and jet ski. Many paid the highest price for their attempt at celebrity.

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