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Chevalier Blondin

Chevalier Blondin, mid 19th century

Chevalier Blondin, mid 19th century

To walk across the gorge at Niagara Falls once seems foolhardy, to do it 17 times seems like madness. Yet this was only one of Blondin’s impressive feats on the high wire.

Chevalier Blondin made his name crossing Niagara Gorge on a tightrope for the first time on 30 June 1859 on a rope 50 metres (160 feet) above the water, nearly half a kilometre (over quarter of a mile) long and just 7.5cm (three inches) in diameter. He had wanted to cross at the falls a kilometre upstream but the owner, fearing an accident, refused permission.

Blondin made several more crossings of Niagara, each one more daring than the last. He crossed it blindfold, pushing a wheelbarrow; once he carried a stove, stopped half way across and cooked himself an omelette, another time he crossed on stilts. In August 1859 he crossed the gorge with his manager Harry Colcord on his back.

According to legend Colcord claimed that the trip was truly terrifying with broken guy ropes causing the rope to swing violently and Colcord had to dismount half way across.

In 1860 the Prince of Wales watched Blondin cross Niagara Gorge. He was asked if he would like to be carried on Blondin’s back for the return journey. He refused.

Blondin playbill, September 1887

Blondin playbill, September 1887

Blondin was born Jean Francçois Gravelet in France in 1824. He took the name Blondin from the owner of the circus in which he first worked. At the age of six his father, himself a tightrope-walker, sent him to the famous École de Gymnase in Lyon. He began performing at a young age and was known as ‘The Little Wonder’.

He travelled with the Ravel family of acrobats to America, appearing in New York as part of the American circus impresario Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth.

Blondin appeared in the UK in 1861 at the Crystal Palace. Here he walked on a tightrope across the Centre Transept 55 metres (180 feet) above a concrete floor. His five year old daughter sat in a wheelbarrow, scattering rose petals on the crowd below. The press and audience were aghast at such obvious danger to a child and the Home Secretary intervened to stop him repeating the performance. Blondin altered his act to cook an omelette, turn somersaults and stilt walk across the rope instead.

Blondin was by now a very highly paid entertainer guaranteed to pull in the crowds. He was paid the enormous sum of £1,200 for twelve performances at the Crystal Palace. These were the talks of London and Charles Dickens proclaimed: ‘Half of London is here eager for some dreadful accident’.

Blondin toured to other venues around the country and was met by vast crowds in Birmingham, Sheffield, Edinburgh and Liverpool (where he pushed a lion strapped into his wheelbarrow across the tightrope, a feat which nearly ended in disaster when a guy rope became entangled around the barrow).

Performing until he was in his 70s he later developed a cycling act on the tightrope. He died in his villa at Northfields, Ealing in 1897, aged 75.

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