Psalm by Matt Donovan

Sam Patch, Daredevil, 1800–1829

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Sam Patch Jumped to Fame and Death. Boston Sunday Globe, August 12, 1928

The trick was breathing in, you claimed, as if that was all
they gathered to watch as you milked the crowd in your matador sash,
rum-slurring some speech no one could hear above the river’s thunder,
quipping your catchphrase long worn threadbare: Some things
can be done as well as others. But most things don’t sputter back
even once, like that waterlogged schooner two autumns before,
lunging over Niagara as billed, loaded with its Strange Cargo
bison, two bears, a bonneted fox, raccoons, a wing-clipped eagle—
& disappearing into a wilderness of froth. Sam Patch, you dropped
arrow-straight, untethered from earth, for cash, for booze, a lay,
& yet here I am plundering your life for some path towards saying
in our water’s blind wrath, in the body from that roaring slosh
only a few times given back, despite nearly everything
we choose, somehow we are blessed. I might as well beg
for an ass-kick, I know. Scotch-soaked, fame-starved, cocksure,
you are long-dead, unbreakable until the river broke you too
& could stomach none of this. If it helps, forget the poem.
Forget I said anything before I turned to you—since today inexplicably
you’re all that will do—tottering sun-struck on the platform, preparing
to plummet into that luminous rage & whatever that might afford.


The Thing by Bill Hamilton

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William “Red” Hill Jr and “The Thing” in which he went over the Horseshoe Falls to his death. Photo by Ron Roels. Used by permission of Niagara Falls Public Library


Rapids rage, in furrows to their end and fall,
Off the edge, as if dropping off the face of the earth
And thunder resonates, as foam and mist rise,
Into nature’s cauldron, that churns and abounds.

A family possessed with this mighty river,
Gain fame meeting its constant challenge
Traversing the worst of treacherous rapids
Yet needing to conquer the Cataracts alone.

Their barrels, carrying father and son,
Each defied those waters several times,
Passing through the swirling whirlpool,
Wallowing in the cheers of their success.

Immersed in steel barrels, over they rolled
The tumultuous waves bob them like cork
Captive prisoners’ to nature’s full wrath,
Death looms in those currents…beware!

Father dies and son now takes the torch,
Family honor means pay forward the promise.
The ultimate challenge of Niagara looms,
Over the falls is his next ride to glory.

His commitment made, one year hence
Work starts on his device to conquer.
Inner tubes netted securely with rope,
Named “The Thing”, standing beside it proud.

The August day comes, glory will now, be his.
His crew readies him for his timely journey.
One last wave he enters his creation.
Capped, the darkness opens his mind.

Visions of glory mask the fear he felt.
His vessel rides the rapids, weaving waves,
He rides the path, to the brink, of his desire.
Soon the deafening thunder; he knows he’s close!

A sudden surge and he vanishes in white
His stomach drops with a deadly plunge
And darkened silence brings the end,
To a promise, broken, by a son who dared.

A mother’s cry on the quiet shore of rock
“Where’s my boy what’s happened?”
Brothers scramble to find their daring sibling,
In the waters, churning cold, before them.

Remnants of rubber and frayed broken rope
Leave no doubt as the fate of Red Hill Jr.
Swallowed by a watery tomb, his nemesis.
A day later he is washed to familiar arms.

What tragic price this thing we call honor.
The need to challenge what nature creates.
A family possessed by a river so cruel
Close, but never fulfilling their ultimate goal.

Rapids rage in furrows to their end and fall,
Off the edge as if dropping off the face of the earth
And thunder resonates, as foam and mist rise,
Into nature’s cauldron, that churns and abounds.


A note from Bill Hamilton:

In 1951 Wm. Red Hill Jr. created a barrel-like vessel using large inner tubes surrounded by canvas and secured by netting.  He named this contraption “The Thing”.  His mission, honor a Hill family promise, to ride this device over Niagara Falls. On August 5th he climbed into his creation and was released to his fate. Needless to say, his plight ended in tragedy.  The loss of a son and brother to the Thunderous Cataracts of Niagara!

I own the Red Hill Estate including the 3 Hill daredevil barrels currently on display at the IMAX theatre.

Biography of Bill Hamilton:

My interest in writing started in University at Waterloo. Reactivated by the NOTL Writer’s Circle I have had several of my works published. Poetry is my main passion and my poem “Angel’s Ghost” hangs in Ontario’s oldest tavern the “Angel Inn” in Niagara on the Lake.  I am currently working on an anthology of poetry for publication.

My poem “The Thing” was a topic of interest, as I own the Red Hill estate barrels on display at the IMAX Theatre here in Niagara. I grew up with stories of the many Daredevils of Niagara, which inspired this poem.

King of the Mist by Diana Williamson

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Annie Taylor, “Queen of the Mist,” posing with the cat, “The King of the Mist,” and the barrel used to go over Niagara Falls. Image courtesy of Niagara Falls Public Library


Annie Edson Taylor

Wanted to be first over the falls

A school teacher from New York

She was gonna’ show them all

She had a custom barrel made

But first tested it on a cat

The poor thing plunged over the falls

It had no say, cause that was that

Luckily the cat emerged

A little tattered but still alive

So on her 63rd birthday, 1901

Ms. Taylor, finally took her dive

 

They called her Queen of the Mist

Queen of the Mist

The first to conquer the falls

But in real actuality

The cat deserved it all

The glory, the title, the award for the first

The cat deserves it all

Cause the Queen of the Mist, the Queen of the Mist

Was the second to conquer the Falls

 

She peddled her wares for many a day

As souvenirs to passers by

‘Til her manager ran off with the famous barrel

And the detectives bled her dry

She swore she’d never do such a feat again

That once, was already too much

They say she lived from hand to mouth

And the fame was never enough

But the tawdry cat he lived the life

Fat on rats and crumpets and tea

Everyone wanted to know the cat

Who was famous, as famous can be

 

Sometimes you can hear them play their jazz

Near midnight along the old lagoon

They call him King of the Mist

And so they wrote him this tune…..

©2020 by Diana Williamson

Source: Diana Williamson, 2020

Visit Diana Williamson’s website

Read more about Annie Edson Taylor

Lines on the Death of Captain Webb by James Gay

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Captain Matthew Webb who lost his life attempting to swim the Whirlpool Rapids July 24 1883. Courtesy of Niagara Falls Public Library

These verses composed on one of the brightest of men,
Can never return on earth again.
No man like him before ever swam from shore to shore:
This was done by him as hundreds have seen
From Dover in Kent to Calais Green.
He left his wife and children dear,
His lot was cast this proves so clear.

Could see no danger before his eyes,
Death took him quickly by surprise.
No doubt he thought himself clever,
Could never have thought to breathe his last in Niagara river—
Where no man on earth could ever swim
Across this whirlpool, never, never.
This brave young man, he caused no strife,
Cut down in the prime of life, left behind him a widowed wife.

‘Tis not for man to frown or brawl,
His lot was cast in Niagara Falls.
I saw his likeness in Marshall’s place,
Plain to be seen without disgrace.

Those men in his company that day were clever,
Could not see his danger in Niagara river.
It was not to be, the young and fast,
This was laid out for him to breathe his last.
As I have often said, and say again,
I am sorry to hear of an untimely end.

‘Tis time for us all to prepare for fear of this dreadful snare;
As this roaring lion is around every day,
Our precious souls for to betray.
Let us cast all our fears on Christ, and on his word rely—
We can all live happy while on this earth,
And in heaven when we die.

Composed by
James Gay,
The Master of all Poets this day.

Royal City of Guelph, East Market Square.
N.B.—Your poet is about to visit these falls,
Where Captain Webb received his death call.

Source: James Gay. Canada’s Poet. London: Field & Tuer, [1884]

James Gay was the self-styled Poet Laureate of Canada and Master of All Poets

Read about James Gay in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography

Read about Captain Webb here

Crawford Kilian rated James Gay as #1 in the article Canada’s Five Worst Poets: Are You Number Six? in The Tyee.

Blondin by Walter de la Mare

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Mons. Blondin’s walk across the cataract. Charles Magnus publisher. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

With clinging dainty catlike tread,
His pole in balance, hand to hand,
And, softly smiling, into space
He ventures on that threadlike strand.

Above him is the enormous sky,
Beneath, a frenzied torrent roars,
Surging where massed Niagara
Its snow-foamed arc of water pours:

But he, with eye serene as his
Who sits in daydream by the fire,
His every sinew, bone and nerve
Obedient to his least desire,

Treads softly on, with light-drawn breath,
Each inch-long toe, precisely pat,
In inward trust, past wit to probe—
This death-defying acrobat! …

Like some old Saint on his old rope-bridge,
Between another world and this,
Dead-calm ‘mid inward vortices,
Where little else but danger is.

Source: De la Mare, Walter. Collected Poems. London: Faber & Faber, 1979

Blondin was first published in De la Mare, Walter. Inward Companion. London: Faber and Faber, 1950.

Blondin crossed Niagara Falls on a tightrope in 1859 and 1860.

Read more about Blondin here