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Peter Nissen's boat, posthumously rescued

Daredevil IX: Boats and Survivors

We continue our look at the daredevils of Niagara Falls here at the Nightmares Fear Factory in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada. We tip our hat to them, and in honor of their memory we invite you into the depths of the Fear Factory itself, where you might yourself feeling some of the same things that those men felt, high up and alone over the Niagara Falls.

It’s just that you’ll be creeping through the dark and cold halls of the Nightmares Fear Factory, instead.

Welcome back to the Daredevils of Niagara Falls.

Today we enter the twentieth century. We have one long and several short entries, and we’re beginning to run into some of the stranger things that people have tried so that they can entertain the crowd of the Niagara Falls tourist industry.

We begin with I.H. Ashley, from Chicago, who built himself a small lift out of aluminum tape and a clutch to lower himself from the Upper Suspension Bridge to a small boat waiting down in the rapids.

He was successful, and made it out alive. This would be the only time history records I.H. Ashley entertain the Niagara Gorge.

Next, we have a man named Bowser.

Peter Nissen’s idea was centered around conquering the Niagara Gorge with a boat. In essence, he wanted to sail the length of the thing, despite all the horrifying obstacles in his way including the dreaded Whirlpool Rapids which feature so largely in this chronicle.

Because typical boats would probably be smashed into sawdust within two minutes of trying to sail the Gorge, and also because Peter was a bit of a snowflake, he decided to build his own boat to try to take the Gorge, through it, and to Lewiston like Charles Percy had done a decade earlier.

NIssen tried it a few times. The first time, in July 1900, he was only technically successful. What happened was, Peter got himself marooned in the Whirlpool Rapids, and had to be dragged to shore. The next day, he finished the trip from the back end of the Rapids to Lewiston.

Feeling perhaps like that wasn’t quite good enough, though, Nissen rebuilt his boat and decided to try again in October 1901.

He extended the length and shortened the beam (which for laypeople is to say he made his boat longer and wider) while adding a steam engine and some ballast. There were some creative features like a hiding spot in the form of a crawl-space under the cockpit, too.

When he tried again, after a bunch of test runs in the calmer part of the Niagara River, Nissen set sail once again and this time successfully made the journey all in one go. Since the boat was so stable and smooth, he went back with a friend to do depth soundings in the Whirlpool Rapids. Predictably, though, once he got nice and comfortable the old familiar story with the Whirlpools reared its head. It swallowed the boat, and nearly killed everyone on board as it dragged the vessel to the bottom.

Get those ghosts a party yacht, I say.

We’ll list off a few short ones.

Captain Billy Johnson jumped from the deck of a Maid of the Mist and swam the river.

Joe Chambers swam from a point past the Whirlpools and wound up somewhere in New Jersey with the use of a life preserver.

Martha Wagenfurher went through in a barrel, and got lost in the rapids for a bit. She had to be pulled ashore, survived, but was apparently quite sea-sick.

So nobody died this time, but there will more fatalities to come while we watch the endless march of people literally dying to entertain the fickle people of the Niagara Falls tourism industry.

Just like we try to do.

Come visit us at the Nightmares Fear Factory, where the ghosts of the fallen daredevils may well be waiting to meet you too.


1.  Daredevil Man vs Nature

2.  Funambulists

3.  The Barrel Ride Pioneer

4.  Daredevil Anna Taylor

5.  Graham's Barrel

6.  Daredevils Dixon, Hardy & Webb