In 1846, the Niagara Falls Ferry Association was incorporated and the Maid of the Mist Ferry Service had begun with its first launch on May 27th 1846. It remained the only method to cross the border until 1848, when the first suspension bridge was built. With a ferry service no longer required the Maid of the Mist service decided to change to a tourist boast attraction.
Due to the attractions popularity, a larger boat, named the Maid of the Mist II, was launched for service on July 14th 1854. The boat was of single smoke stack design, 22 metres long and a steam propelled paddle wheeler.
In 1861, due to a financial crisis and the American Civil War, the Maid of the Mist was sold at public auction to a Canadian Company. The deal would go through if the boat could be delivered to Lake Ontario. In order to get to Lake Ontario the Maid of the Mist boat had to be navigated through the Great Gorge Rapids, the Whirlpool, and the Lower Rapids.
On June 6th 1861, 53 year old Captain Joel Robinson undertook this risky mission along with two deck hands. At approximately 3 p.m., with his mechanic James McIntyre at his side and his engineer James Jones in the engine room, Captain Robinson began this perilous journey. With both shores lined with onlookers, Captain Robinson and crew rode the Maid of the Mist into one of the world’s most wild and dangerous white water rapids.
The first giant wave that struck the boat threw Robinson and McIntyre to the floor of the wheel house. It also tore the smoke stack from the boat and Jones was thrown to the floor of the engine room. The tiny boat was now at the mercy of the massive waves crashing against it. The boat was carried at approximately 63 km/h (kilometres per hour) through the rock strewn rapids. Soon the Maid of the Mist was propelled into the Whirlpool where Captain Robinson was able to regain control of the boat.
Captain Robinson had great difficulty manoeuvring the Maid of the Mist from the grip of the Whirlpool. All of this had occurred before they would challenge the final leg of this dangerous trip, which is through the dreaded Devil’s Hole Rapids. As the boat escaped the grips of the Whirlpool, Captain Robinson did his best to maintain a steady course through the center of the channel.
The 5 kilometre journey through the rapids and the Whirlpool was well executed, although they lost the smoke stack. Captain Robinson was the first person to accomplish the impossible task of taking a boat through the dangerous waters.
The frightening experience of this journey caused Captain Robinson to give up a career that he loved. He retired into near seclusion and died two years later at the age of 55.