In 1827, William Forsyth of the Pavilion Hotel with the help of John Brown of the Ontario House and General Parkhurst Whitney of the Eagle Hotel in Niagara Falls, New York staged the very first tourist stunt at Niagara Falls.
Forsyth bought an old condemned lake schooner named “Michigan”, which was 4.9 metres from keel to the deck. The water depth at the crest of the Horseshoe Falls was close to 6 metres deep, contrary to the current depth of 1 to 1.5 metres.
The hotel owners advertised prior to the event that they would send the schooner over the Horseshoe Falls on September 8th 1827. Printed sheets were delivered throughout Western New York and Upper Canada. The announcement stated: “The pirate Michigan with a cargo of ferocious wild animals will pass the great rapids and falls of Niagara – 8th September 1827 at 6 o’clock.”
The Michigan has successfully braved the bellows of Erie as a merchant vessel: The ship was no longer used because it was condemned unfit to sail long proudly. So her present owners appointed her to carry a cargo of Living Animals of the forest surrounding the upper lakes. The ship was to pass through the white tossing and deep rolling rapids of Niagara and down its great precipice, into the basin “below”.
It was believed that if the vessel took a course through the deepest of the rapids it would easily reach the Horseshoe Falls unbroken. It was also states that if the animals obtained are young and possessed great muscular power and remain on board until she reaches the water below, there would be great possibility that many of them will have performed the terrible trip, unhurt.
The reason for the “pirate Michigan” in the ad was because it was decorated to look like a pirate ship with human shaped dummies tied to the deck.
Contrary to the advertisement of panthers, wild cats and wolves, the actual animals included a buffalo, two small bears, two raccoons, a dog and a goose. Some reports also included two fox, fifteen geese and an eagle.
On September 8th 1827, with a crowd estimated at 10,000, the ship was towed by Captain James Rough from Black Rock to Navy Island. At this location the “Michigan” was pointed towards the Falls in mid-river and prior to the voyage, visitors were allowed to board the schooner and view the condemned animals.
At approximately 6 p.m. (as planned), the schooner “Michigan” was released into the currents of the upper Niagara River and drifted towards the Falls. As it reached the rapids, its hull was torn open and began filling with water. The two bears jumped free into the rapids and managed to swim to safety at Goat Island. The other animals were caged or tied to the ship and when it reached the base of the Falls, only the goose had survived and was caught by Mr. Duggan.