ANNIE CELEBRATES BIG
No red hat society luncheon. No parties with the grandkids. No drinks with her besties. No cake filled with candles.
It was her and her cat. A lucky heart shaped pillow. A big barrel. And thousands of spectators.
Annie Edson Taylor, born October 24, 1838 in Auburn, New York, celebrated her 63rd birthday, in 1901, by being the first person – and first woman – to survive going over Niagara Falls in a barrel.
She didn’t set out to earn her notoriety with this unusual goal. However, sometimes paths through life meander into ways we never expect.
Annie was the fourth of eight children born to Merrick and Lucretia Edson. Her father owned a flour mill along the Owasco Lake outlet. Her father died when she was 12, and the money he left behind left the family comfortable and not lacking.
After receiving an honors degree in a four-year training course, Annie became a school teacher. In 1856 she married David Taylor, the brother of her boarding school roommate. But life was far from ordinary after that. They had a son who died within days of his birth in 1857. Then the Civil War swept through our country. Her husband was killed in battle fighting for the Union. At the age of 25 Annie was a widow.
Still having a sizeable inheritance from her father, Annie spent the next years traveling in pursuit of different occupations. She traveled to Texas, then to New York City, the Carolinas, Washington, D.C. and Indianapolis. Through her travels, she mostly taught dance lessons. By 1889 she’d purchased a house and settled in Bay City, Michigan. She opened a dance school there, spending most of her money opening and supporting the school. It wasn’t successful and she had to close the doors. She saw her inheritance dwindling.
Enter the Pan-American Exposition taking place in Buffalo, New York. The Exposition was drawing huge crowds of people, coming to visit the 350 acres of exhibits and fun. Many stopped at Niagara Falls while in the area.
Annie concocted a scheme about going over the falls in a barrel on her birthday. She used a custom made barrel, constructed of oak staves and iron bands, fitted with a leather harness and iron hand-holds and padded with a mattress. A 200 pound anvil ballast weighted the barrel.
A week before her grand even she traveled to New York and began preparations. Two days prior to her own ride over the falls, the feat was tested using a cat. Over Horseshoe Falls it went. The cat and the barrel survived the plunge unharmed.
On her birthday morning thousands gathered to watch the epic event. The barrel was towed out to the middle. Annie, dressed in a long black coat and broad feathered hat– and her lucky heart-shaped pillow – climbed in. The lid was screwed down. A bicycle tire pump was used to compress the air in the barrel and the hole sealed with a cork.
Off she went. Set adrift south of Goat Island the Niagara River currents carried the bobbing barrel toward the Canadian Horseshoe Falls. After a trip of less than twenty minutes, rescuers retrieved the barrel and after some time to open it up, discovered that the birthday girl had survived the trip relatively uninjured, except for a three inch gash on her head.
Annie later told the press, “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 Falls.”
This grand gesture failed to garner the attention and fame that Annie envisioned. Her manager disappeared, taking her barrel with him. She earned some money from speaking engagements, but not enough to see her comfortably into old age. Annie died almost blind and deaf, and broke. She died April 29, 1921, at the age of 82 at the Niagara County Infirmary and is buried in “Stunters Section” of Oakwood Cemetery in Niagara Falls, New York.
During her lifetime Annie didn’t see her brave adventure gain her the wealth she expected. But 100 years later, 113 years to be exact, we still celebrate Annie and applaud her for attempting something that I’m certainly not ready to try. When I reach this milestone (not all that far off) I’ll attempt a much more sedate celebration. And it won’t have any barrels involved!