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Anna Edson Taylor (1839-1921)
Bay City teacher was first person to go over Niagara Falls.
  • Written by Marvin Kusmierz (Added Feb., 2003 - Updated March, 2010)

  • Horseshoe Falls.

    The Historical Event

    Click image to enlarge.

    On October 24, 1901, history was in the making as Annie's manager, Frank M. "Tussy" Russell and a small audience of rivermen and reporters gathered upstream at the Canadian Horseshoe Falls of Niagara and watched as two attendants prepared Annie for her journey over the Falls.

    At the bottom of the Falls a crowd gather to witness what was about to take place. Most of wondered why this middle aged lady was about to do such a crazy thing? (It was learned later that Annie was 63 years old at the time.) Most of the spectators had no doubts that they were about to witness a suicidal stunt that would come to a tragical endings.

    If they had known about Annie’s situation, they would understand that the act of this teacher from Bay City, Michgan was born out of desperation. According to one historian, it was rumored that Annie was so distressed that she contemplated throwing herself into the Saginaw River and drowning. Annie had no desire to die, but whatever the result, her misery end one way or another.

    Click image to enlarge.
    Annie preparing to leave shore
    with barrel in tow.

    Annie's attendants placed the barrel over the side of the boat into the water and held it stable while Annie climbed inside. The lid was put in place and a bicycle pump was used to pressurize the the chamber of the barrel. Annie was now ready to begin her historical trip that would last for about 18 minutes. The barrel was pulled along by the strong currents of water flowing towards the roaring falls.

    As Annie's manager watched the barrel float towards the Falls, his concerns must have been great. According to historians, he had personal concerns in addition to the fate of Annies safety. Canadian and American authorities threaten to charge him with manslaughter if Annie were to die.

    There was no stopping now! Annie's emotions must have been highly aroused. Cramped inside the darkness of her tiny vessel, Annie could measure the distance to her fate by the increasing loudness of the thundering roar as she drew closer by the moment to reaching the edge of the Falls. Abruptly, the steadiness of the barrel was violated by the mighty turbulence – in an instant, it descended rapidly towards its dramatic plunge at the bottom. Hidden behind the heavy mist, onlookers from the nearby shorelines searched anxiously for a sighting of the barrel -- many had already concluded that Annie was dead and the only mystery left for them was whether the barrel survived in one piece or splintered into a hundred or more pieces.

    The barrel slowly worked its way clear of the mist and came into view -- it was still in one piece! It survived! But what about Annie? A boat and crew stood by ready to capture the barrel as soon as they could after it cleared the turbulent waters. Finally, they scurried into action to get near so they could grab the barrels with their poles and hooks. Once secured they quickly went about getting the lid opened.....

    "My God, she's alive!" -- shouted Carlisle D. Graham in shocked disbelieve.


    Annie returning to shore.

    According to reports of on the event, Annie's first words were, "I prayed every second I was in the barrel except for a few seconds after the fall when I went unconscious." And, "Nobody ought ever to do that again."

    In spite of Annie's admonishment to others, intriguingly, many others since her success have been drawn to the challenge even though being first to do so no longer existed as an enticement to do so.

    Although shaken by her daring deed and some bad bruises, a relieved Annie was confident that her fame would bring success and the financial security she sought.


    Annie with her barrel during one of her promotional events to raise money by selling memorabilia. The sign in front of the table reads, "Annie Edson Taylor - Heroine of - Horseshoe Falls."

    However, fame her fame didn't bring instant relief. She had to go about promoting herself -- collecting fees for signatures, selling memorabilia and speaking in front groups. But, that lasted only so long before she was once again facing financial insecurity. Annie died in 1921 after living out the later years of her life in poverty.

    The Niagara Falls Public Library on the Canadian side of the Falls has several pictures of Annie Taylor taken the day of her event, these may be seen by [click here]

    While Annie's amazing feat didn’t bring her the financial security she had hoped for, it has etched her into history books forever, and her feat will live on as long as Niagara Falls flows.

    A History of Annie's Life and Events Leading to Her Fame.
    __________

    Annie was born on October 24, 1839 in Auburn, NY, and died April 29, 1921 at Lockport, NY. Her parents, Merrick Edson (1804-1850) and Lucretia Waring,the father owned a flour mill on the Owaco River which provided a financially good and comfortable life for their family. Besides Annie, the family consisted of three girls and four boys. Anna was only 12 years old when her father passed away. While this was an emotional loss for the family, the inheritance that he left behind was more than sufficient to offer them the life style that the family had been accustomed to.

    Annie’s grades as a student were average, however, she was avid reader which gave her an active imagination. When it came time for place, Annie preferred outdoor sports with the boys than joining in the type of activities enjoyed by her sisters. After normal school, she went to the Conference Seminary and Collegiate Institute at Charlottesville which was about 50 miles from home. There she studied to become teacher. It was at this time that she met David Taylor from Brachport, Yates County, New York. He was a few older than Annie who was 17 at the time. After a very short courtship, they married and some years later a son was born, but died withing days.

    In 1864, Annie suddenly became a widow. David, now in the Civil War, was mortally wounded, and from this point on, life for the 25 year old Annie would dramatically change. She moved to San Antonio, TX where one of her school friends lived, and took a teaching position there. But for some reason, Annie decided to return to New York where she enrolled in a dance school to become an instructor. This became her primary occupation for earning income in the years that followed. These years took on the appearance of a gypsy’s nomadic life – taking her to points all over the country: Chattanooga, TN, Birmingham, AL, San Francisco, CA, Washington, DC, Chicago, IL, Indianapolis, IN, and Syracuse, NY. Each a failed attempt to obtain financial stability.

    Annie was accustomed to the finer things that were always a part of her life, and as an adult she was able to manage her life style largely because of an inheritance she received from her parents. Her earned income was seldom sufficient enough to cover expenses, and the short coming was covered by drawing upon her savings. However, as the years passed by, her savings kept dwindling away. Annie dreaded the thought of ever having to lower her life style in order to make ends meet.

    By the time Annie arrived in Bay City, her savings were getting critically low, and she was feeling a great deal of pressure to come up a solution before it was too late. Why she chose Bay City is a mystery, she most like became aware of the city from a newspaper or magazine, or being from New York, learned of it there. Many NY investors made a handsome profit investing lumbering at Bay City. I'd guess that she came here around 1898.

    Annie’s expectations quickly turned to dismay. There were no openings for a dance instructor. Each day without a job meant her expenses were being covered by an equal reduction of her savings. She decided that the best course of action was to establish her own dance school which would include charm lessons. She found rental space at the Fay Block located on the south east corner of Center avenue and Saginaw street. The new business seemed like to be a good idea as more than 100 students were enrolled in a short period of time. Things were finally looking pretty good for Annie. However, Annie operated her business no differently than her she did with her personal expenses. She spent a considerable amount of money to provide the finest accommodations for her clients -- not because they needed or expected the best, but because it was what Annie expected because of her own life style. Earnings of the business were great, but so were its expenses, and at best, the profits were meager. Once again her income wasn’t sufficient to support her life style, or plug the hole in her eroding savings account.

    In the summer of 1900, Annie went to Sault Ste. Marie where she taught music. Why she did so isn’t known. It may be this diversion was intended to be a working vacation during a time when her business was slow, or it may have been because she no longer had a business. Whatever the reason, Annie returned that Fall after spending $50 more than what she had earned that summer. She uprooted herself and headed for San Antonio, TX. There she met with a friend, and together, they headed for Mexico City where they hope to find work. Even though Annie found work, the venture proved to be a failure, and in May 1901 Annie was back in Bay City. She stayed at a small boarding house at 126 Washington Avenue, and I believe, this is where she most likely lived when she came up with the idea of going over the Niagara Falls.

    Annie's state of mind is at this time is best expressed in her own words that appear in David Whalen's book, "The Lady Who Conquered Niagara,"

    "For a woman who had had money all her life and been used to refinded surroundings and the society of cultured people, it is horrible to be poor."

    and, Annie's thoughts about external perceptions,

    "simply saw from the outside. I was always well dressed, a member and regular attendant of the Expiscopal Church, and my nearest neighbor had not the least idea where I got my money, how much I had, nor how I used it. My relatives sent me a certain amount every month, but it got to be begrudgingly given, and I made up my mind I would have no more of it."

    It is out of this mind set that in July 1901 that Annie hashed her grand scheme. She was reading an article in the New York World about the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, and how popular the nearby Niagara Falls was to those who attended expo.

    "I laid the paper down, sat thinking, when the thought came to me like a flash of light -- 'Go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. No one had ever accomplished this feat.' "

    Annie wasted no time -- she began working on her plan for success. She focused first on coming up with a barrel design. The West Bay City Cooperage Company on Fremont street, a supplier of kegs to Kolb Brewery, agreed to take on the design work for Annie's special barrel. Then, she then contacted Frank M. Russell, a well known local promoter of many successful carnivals and other events in this area of Michigan. They reached an agreement, and Annie, had a contract prepared by local attorney, James Donnelly.

    Russell communicated the planned event to the papers September, but initially wouldn't provide Annie's name. Then on October 8th the barrel was displayed in a window of the Smith and Pursers' store located on the south east corner of Center avenue and Saginaw street. Two days later, Russell, with barrell in hand, headed for Niagara Falls to promote the event there in advance of Annie's arrival.

    On the afternoon of October 12th Annie packed her bags and made her way over to the Pere Marquette Depot. There she was greeted by Times-Press reporter who engage Annie to share her thoughts about the even she would soon undertake:

      "I might as well be dead as to remain in my present condition."
    - The reporter asked her if she was contemplating suicide?
      "Not by any means, I am too good an Epsicoplian to do such a thing as that. I believe in a Supreme Ruler and fully realize what self-destruction would mean in the Hereafter. My parents were Christian people and I was brought up in the affluence and property educated and instructed."
    - The reporter then asked what put this suicidal idea into your head?
      "It is not a suicidal idea with me. I entertain the utmost confidence that I shall succeed in going over the Falls without any harm resulting to me. The barrel is good and strong and the inside will be cushioned so that the rolling movement will do me no harm. Besides, I shall have straps to hold fast to. There will be a weight in one end of the barrel so that air can be admitted through a valve in the upper end where my head will be located.

      "Of course it will be necessary to place the barrel in the river more than a mile above the Falls. It will naturally do considerable rolling on the way down and I expect to tell pretty close to when the great descent will take place. The value which will be kept open while going down the sream will then be closed.

      "It is estimated that I will be able to live nearly an hour in the barrel after it has been made air tight, and if things turn our as I expect they will, the barrel will have come to the surface and right long before that time. Then the value can be reopened to let in more air. There will be straps fastened to the outside so that rescuers will have no trouble in towing it to a place of safety until I can be released."
    - He then inquired how she planned on making money for her daring feat?
      "My manager knows all about that."

    Annie then boarded the train, and at 5:20 p.m. was on her way to Niagara Falls. The following two stories from the Bay City Times-Press, describe Annie's days before the fateful event:

    (Contributed by Jim Petrimoulx, Dec., 2008)

    The Bay City Times Press

    Saturday, October 19, 1901 (Page 5)

    MRS TAYLOR AS A FALLS SHOOTER

    RETURN OF THE MANGER'S WIFE FROM THE SCENE.

    Says Woman is Determined to Shoot the Great Cataract To-morrow.

    Barrel is to be Sent Over Today Empty as an Experiment.
    __________

    Mrs. F. M. Russell, of 248 North Monroe street, returned home yesterday afternoon from Niagara Falls. She informed a Time-Press reporter this morning that her husband, who is manager for Mrs. Anna Edson Taylor, has every confidence in his ability to send the woman over the cataract not later than tomorrow. Mrs. Russell further says that Mrs. Taylor is determined to make the trial and that if any attempt is made by the authorities to prevent her from carrying out her intentions she will throw herself over in spite of their protests. Mr. Russell, since being notified by the chief of police of Niagara Falls, N. Y., that he would be held responsible for the death of Mrs. Taylor in case she should be killed in the venture, has secured legal advice on the subject and is assured that he will not be amenable to the law. When Mrs. Russell left for home it was her husband's intention to send the empty barrel over the falls yesterday as a test and if it does not go to pieces then there is strong hopes that the trip can be made with comparative safety. It is not believed that the barrel will drop with the water as it passes over the brink of the chasm but will shoot out clear of the water from the tremendous force behind it. The barrel is to be placed in the water about Goat Island.

    “I expect to hear today the result of the experiment with the empty barrel,” said Mrs. Russell, “and if the trial is successful there is little doubt that Mrs. Taylor will carry out the program tomorrow. She has not lost her nerve for a minute since she left Bay City.”

    __________

    Sunday, October 20, 1901 (Page 1.)

    MRS. TAYLOR GOES OVER FALLS TOMORROW

    BARREL WAS TESTED YESTERDAY WITH A CAT.

    Woman Delighted With Result of the Experiment.

    (Special Dispatch to The Times-Press.)
    Niagara Falls, N. Y., Oct. 19. -- The barrel was sent over the Canadian Horse Shoe Falls yesterday for a test trip.

    It was towed out into the river about two miles above the falls and cut loose at 4:10 with a cat inside. It dropped down the ledges and through the rapids in great shape, reaching the brink of the falls and plunged downward feet foremost. It was one minute and a half from the brink till the barrel floated into view at the foot of the falls. It passed down the river to the eddy and was picked up by Captain Carter of the Maid of the Mist. The cat sprang out and was unhurt when the lid was lifted. The barrel was without a mark.

    Mrs. Taylor is delighted. She will make the trip tomorrow afternoon.

    The day after Annie's horrendous, but successful journey over the falls, The New York Times reported the history breaking news to the world:

    The New York Times, October 25, 1901

    WOMAN GOES OVER NIAGARA IN A BARREL
    ------

    She Is Alive, but Suffering Greatly from Shock
    -------
    Plunges from the Horseshoe Cataract --
    ------- Thousands View the Attempt --
    ------- “Don't Try It,” She Advises Others.
    -------

    Special to the New York Times.

    NIAGARA FALLS, N. Y., Oct. 24. -- A widowed woman, Mrs. Anna Edson Taylor, safely passed over Niagara Falls in a barrel this afternoon. The trip from end to end was witnessed by several thousand people. The fact that Mrs. Taylor failed to go on Wednesday did not lessen the confidence of the public in her. Still everybody was agreed that it was a foolhardy trip.

    It was beyond any conception but her own that she would live to tell the story. But she is alive to-night, and the doctors say as soon as she gets over the shock she will be all right.

    This initial voyage over Niagara's cataract began at Port Day, nearly a mile from the brink of the Falls. From Port Day Mrs. Taylor and her barrel were taken out to Grass Island, where she entered the barrel, and at 3:50 she was in tow of a boat speeding well out into the Canadian current. At 4:05 the barrel was set adrift, and Mrs. Taylor was at the mercy of currents in waters that never before have been know to spare a human life once in its grasp.

    From the spot where the rowboat left the barrel the current runs frightfully swift and soon breaks over the reefs that cause the water to toss in fury. The barrel was weighted with 200-pound anvil, and it floated nicely in the water, Mrs. Taylor apparently retaining an upright position for the greater part of the trip down the river and through the rapids.

    Fortunately the barrel kept well within the deep water, and except for passing out of sight several times, in the white-crested waves, it was in view for the greater part of the mile. In passing over the Horse Shoe Fall the barrel kept toward the Canadian side at a point 300 feet from the centre.

    It dropped over the fall at 4:23 o'clock, the bottom well down. In less than a minute it appeared at the base of the fall, and was swept down stream. The current cast it aside in an eddy, and, floating back up stream, it was held between two eddies until captured at 4:40 o'clock.

    As it was landed on a rock out in the river it was difficult to handle, but several men soon had the hatch off. Mrs. Taylor was alive and conscious, but before she could be taken out of the barrel it was necessary to saw a portion of the top away. Her condition was a surprise to all. She walked along the shore to a boat, and was taken down the river to the Maid of the Mist Dock, where she entered a carriage and was brought to this city.

    She is suffering greatly from the shock. She has a three-inch cut in her scalp back of the the right ear, but how or when she got it she does not know. She complains of pain between the shoulders, but this is thought to be from the fact that her shoulders were thrown back during the plunge, as she had her arms in straps, and these undoubtedly save her nick from breaking.

    In passing over the falls she admits having lost consciousness. While thanking God for sparing her life, she warns everybody against trying to make the trip. So severe was the shock that she wanders in her talk, but there is little doubt but that she will be in good condition within a day or two.

    Three doctors are at her bedside to-night. Mrs. Taylor is forth-three years old. She was born in Auburn, N. Y., and has crossed the American Continent eight times. During her stay here she has impressed everybody with her wonderful nerve.

    The barrel in which Mrs. Taylor made the jouney is 4 1/2 fee high and about 3 feet in diameter. A leather harness and cushions inside protected her body. Air was secured through a rubber tube connected with a small opening near the top of the barrel.

    Mrs. Taylor is a school teacher and recently came her from Bay City, Mich. She was born in Auburn, N. Y., and is forty-three years old. She has cross the American Continent from ocean to ocean eight times.



    Annie, though she was badly battered, was triumphant, and she was looking forward to once again enjoying the finer amenities of life, that her fame was sure to bring. But, she lingered for the rest of her life as an impoverished victor. However, unlike many who died wealthy, and whose names have faded away not long after their passiing, Annie will never be forgotten by history, because she is among those rare individuals who were the first do something very significant, that so many others had failed at doing, until she came along.


    Annie's barrel built in West Bay City. Location and people unknown.
    (Photo donated by Rick Schmidt - 2005)

    I would say Annie most likely "owed her life and fame," to some extent to the "good work of the cooperage company" in West Bay City, in which she made history and rode to fame. A barrel of lesser quality may have left her dead with nothing for her effort!


    Viewer Comments:

    Nov. 3, 2011: Elsie Roxania Edson White.

    Elsie, a great grand niece of Annie, shared a correction on Annie's father's first name as being Merrick, not Samuel. She also brought to our attention that a birthday celebration was held on October 22, 2011, at the Oakwood cemetery, where Annie is buried. -- Pictured is Elsie at a costome party in 1997.

    Also, news from the Oakwood Cemetery Association website, states a Broadway Musical based on Annie's history will open soon. The musical was written by Michael John LaChiusa will be directed by Jack Cummings III, with actress Mary Testa playing Annie. The following is a promo clip of the show:




    Related Notes & Pages
    None at this time.

    Annie Edson Taylor
    Photo printed in Bay City Tribune Sunday newspaper
    on Oct. 27, 1901.
    Annie's Grave
    Annie is buried in Oakwood Cemetery, Niagara Falls, Niagara County, New York. Her tombstone has no birth or death date, it simply reads,

    Annie Edson Taylor
    First to go over the
    Horse Shoe Falls
    in a Barrel and Live
    October 24, 1901


    There have been unsuccessful atempts in the past to have Annie's remains moved to Bay City because of Annie's notariety. Annie status as an icon to the history of Niagara Falls and New York is much deeper than the short time she spent here. So, it's seems only fitting that she remains near Niagra Falls where she made history.
    People Referenced
    Donnelly, James (atty.)
    Edson (Waring), Luoretia (mother)
    Edson, Merrick (father)
    Graham, Carlisle D.
    Russell, Frank M.
    Taylor, David (husband)
    Whalen, David (author)
    Subjects Referenced
    Bay City, MI
    Birmingham, AL
    Brachport, Yates Co., NY
    Canadian Horseshoe Falls
    Charlottesville, NY
    Chattanooga, TN
    Chicago, IL
    Civil War
    Conferance Seminary & Collgiate Inst.
    Fay Block
    Indianapolis, IN
    Kolb Brewery
    Mexico City
    New York World (mag.)
    Niagara County, NY
    Niagara Falls, NY
    Niagara Falls Public Library
    Oakwood Cemetery, NY
    Owaco River, NY
    Pan America Expo, Buffalo
    Pere Marquette Depot
    Saginaw River
    San Antonio, TX
    San Francisco, CA
    Saute Ste. Maria, MI
    Syracuse, NY
    Washington, DC
    West Bay City Cooperate Co.
    Anecdotal Fact
    Niagara Falls Stopped Running.
    _____

    March 29, 1848 --
    People nearby awoke to the sound of silence. Rushing out, they saw that there was no water going over the falls. Only a few pools remained. Many went down to walk on the dry river bottom. They were astonished at the smoothness of the boulders. Some found artifacts from unfortunate people who had gone over the falls. Many knelt to pray, expecting the end of the world. Huge crowds waited for the return of the water. 30 hours later, a great roar heralded the return of the river. Many scavengers barely made it out of the way in time. The Niagara was back. What caused the stoppage? High winds and heavy ice flows had dammed the outlet of Lake Erie, completely shutting off the flow of water to the river. A sudden shift in the wind broke the ice jam and released the water.
    Internet Resources
    Niagara Falls - Ont., Canada
    Facts about Niagara Falls
    Daredevils of Niagara Falls
    [Over the Falls in a Barrel] Excellent article written October 24, 2006, by Clair Lui of American Heritage.com.
    Article Sources
    The Lady Who Conquered Niagara - pamphlet book by Dwight Whalen
    Bay County Story - Footpaths to Freeways, book by Les Arndt
    Bay City Directory 1900-1901, Polk (micro-film)
    "Queen of the Mist" Video by Roihesia Hamilton Metcalfe in collaboration with poet Joan Murry.
    Annie Edson Taylor - Pan-American Esplanade.
    Comments by Kevin Stevens on Joan Murray's book, "Queen of the Mist". - audio file

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