On July 11th 1886, Niagara Falls experienced its first barrel stunt courtesy of Carlisle D. Graham. Graham was an English cooper (better known as barrel maker) who had immigrated to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Graham journeyed to Niagara Falls and had constructed a 168 cm tall barrel of oaken staves, bound by handmade iron hoops. This barrel was prepared for his widely advertised journey.
On Sunday July 11th 1886 in the early afternoon, Graham began his trip from the current location of the Whirlpool Bridge. The trip was mapped through the great gorge rapids and the whirlpool. Graham stood 183 cm tall, which caused him to crouch once inside the barrel in order for the water tight lid to be screwed into place. He was encased in a waterproof canvas with the exception of his two arms. This allowed Graham to hold onto the mounted metal handles on the inside. The initial trip took 30 minutes, in which Graham survived, but it made him extremely ill and dizzy.
After the success of the first trip, Graham announced that on August 19th 1886 he would make a second trip. The only difference from the first trip was that trip he would keep his head outside of the barrel.
Prior to the second trip on August 8th 1886, two shipmates, George Hazlett and William Potts, successfully conquered this same stretch of river, without sustaining injury, using Graham’s barrel. As well on August 18th 1886, James Scott attempted to swim the rapids (similar to Captain Webb) and lost his life.
Carlisle Graham successfully made his second trip as scheduled on August 19th 1886. By leaving his head outside the barrel, Graham became hearing impaired following the journey. Following these to successful trips Graham made two more journeys through the rapids. His third trip through the rapids took place on June 15th 1887 and his fourth trip through the rapids, on August 25th 1889, was in a newly designed 213 cm long barrel.
After completing four successful trips through the rapids Carlisle Graham became famous. With his new found fame, Graham announced that he would ride his barrel over the falls, although this plan was never carried out. On July 14th 1901, Graham made his fifth trip through the whirlpool rapids. The trip was nearly a disaster, as Graham almost suffocated to death when he was caught in a whirlpool vortex for twenty minutes.
On September 6th 1901 Graham loaned his barrel to Martha Wagenfuhrer, who became the first woman to successfully navigate through the rapids and whirlpool alone. On September 7th 1901, Graham arranged a double performance with friend Maude Willard. The plan was that Willard would ride in the barrel through the rapids to the Whirlpool, here Graham and herself would swim to Lewiston.
The plan was executed as Willard rode the barrel through the rapids but disaster struck when she was caught in the whirlpool for several hours before they rescued her. Upon the rescue, Willard was found dead and the cause was believed to be due to suffocation. She took her pet fox terrier on the journey with her. When they examined the barrel, the dog’s nose was lodged in the barrels only air hole.
On July 17th 1905, Graham competed in a swimming race in the lower rapids, below the Whirlpool, to Lewiston against William J. Glover Jr. Glover, who was 32 years old won against the 45 year old Graham. Both wore life preservers and neck braces for this dangerous event.