Niagara Falls had been a tourist destination for decades before 1901, but it wasn’t until Oct. 24 of that year that the first person decided to ride a barrel over the falls.
Former schoolteacher Annie Edson Taylor made the plunge on her 63rd birthday, hoping for fame and fortune. Taylor, whose husband had died in the Civil War, had traveled around the country taking various jobs before eventually settling on the barrel scheme as a way to avoid poverty in her old age.
She tested her barrel with a cat a few days before her trip. The cat lived, with minor cuts. On the big day, she had her barrel towed to the middle of the river and climbed inside with straps and a cushion. The air inside the barrel was compressed using a bike pump, and the hole was sealed with a plug. Twenty minutes later, her barrel was found at the bottom of the falls with her unscathed inside.
She achieved some minor celebrity but never the wealth she was hoping for. She spent most of her life signing autographs, working on a novel and talking about a second plunge.
Although Taylor was not the first person to survive a plunge over the falls – that honor goes to Sam Patch, who simply jumped over the edge in 1829 and lived – she was the first to turn it into a media circus with her barrel. Niagara daredevilry has been a popular stunt since then. From 1901 to 1995, 15 people went over the edge, and 10 of them survived. Most recently, Nic Wallenda walked a tightrope across the falls in early 2012.
Last year, about 8.7 million people visited the falls, but none of them went over the edge. Taking the plunge is now highly illegal, and survivors face stiff fines.