About the Holiday
March 29, 1848 was a cold day. How cold? It was so frigid that rivers feeding Niagara Falls turned to ice and reduced the flow of water to such an extent that Niagara Falls’ 3,160 tons of water per second came to a halt. Today, locals—and weather aficionados—remember this auspicious natural phenomenon.
Queen of the Falls
By Chris Van Allsburg
Niagara Falls, spanning the border of Canada and New York state, has always attracted crowds of visitors who come to marvel over the roaring avalanche of water as it “drops from a height that is as tall as a seventeen-story building” and sends “up an endless cloud of mist at it crashes onto the rocks and water below.” But on October 24, 1901 the crowd was there for a very different reason. What was it? Well, that story begins back in Bay City, Michigan, where Annie Edson Taylor, “a short, plump, and fussy sixty-two-year-old widow” had just closed her charm school and was worried about how she’d pay the bills.
She mulled and pondered, pondered and mulled her situation. Then she saw a newspaper article about Niagara Falls, and “like a cork popping from a champagne bottle” she had the idea to make her fame and fortune by going over the falls in a barrel. No one had ever tried a stunt like this before, but Annie seemed to know just how to do it. She designed a special barrel, but when she asked the barrel maker to build it, he refused. He told her that “if she wanted to kill herself, she’d have to do it on her own.”
When Annie went back three days later, though, she was able to convince him to build her barrel, and so construction began. The finished barrel was “four and a half feet high, with wire bands wrapped around it, and weighed more than one hundred and sixty pounds.” Inside there were handles and pillows and a leather belt that would strap her in tightly.
Annie had the mind of an engineer and also the genius of a public relations guru. She hired Frank Russell to be her manager and visit Niagara Falls ahead of her to whip up enthusiasm for her daredevil exploit. To sweeten the pot, she told him that she was 42, believing people would be more interested in a younger adventurer. Frank Russell saw money in his—and Annie’s—future. He went to Niagara falls to arrange for newspaper reporters and hired Fred Truesdale to put the barrel into the river that would take her over the falls.
When Annie stepped off the train, she did not look the way reporters had expected. Many “wondered if the promised trip over the falls was just some kind of hoax: the barrel might go over, but would it really carry Annie Taylor inside?” As Annie answered questions, however, the reporters began to think she really might “go where no man or woman had gone before.”
Annie’s plunge was set for 10 days later. This gave them time to stir up excitement among the locals and anyone else who wished to come and witness her daring feat. Her barrel was put on display in the hotel lobby, and articles appeared in the newspaper touting the intentions of “the fearless Mrs. Taylor.” On the established day, Annie arrived at the cottage of Fred Truesdale. Her barrel was waiting and a small crowd had gathered to see her off.
Fred and his assistant, Billy, rowed Annie and the barrel to a small island near the falls. There Annie took off her hat and jacket and crawled backwards into the barrel. She strapped herself in and packed the pillows around. Then Fred sealed the lid as Annie called, “‘So long, boys.’” Fred and Billy rolled the barrel into the river and secured it to the boat with a rope. The men rowed the boat near a spot in the river known as the “‘Point of No Return’” where the current was so strong that it would carry any boat over the falls. Fred “tapped on the barrel with his oar and told Annie he was going to cut the rope.” She answered back, “‘All righty.’” With a slice Annie’s barrel bobbed and spun in the raging river, “slamming against rocks and waves, sometimes disappearing entirely from sight, sucked beneath the surface.”
Annie held on for dear life. At the edge of the falls, Fred had told her, there would be a moment of calm. Suddenly, Annie felt this while at the same time hearing the roaring water. “‘Oh, Lord,’” she whispered, and then she was gone.” Some spectators screamed, some cheered, but most just stood still hunting for the barrel at the bottom of the falls.
“Suddenly, the barrel bobbed to the surface.” Still, everyone held their breath, wondering what had happened to Annie. When the barrel neared shore, men jumped in and dragged it onto the rocks. They removed the lid, and called her name. A weak “‘Where am I?’” answered back. Annie had survived the fall, although she was dizzy, bruised, and battered. Annie soon recovered from her injuries, and began traveling across the country to meet the hundreds of people who lined up for tickets in every city to see the ‘Queen of the Falls.’
When the people saw that Annie was an elderly widow instead of a dashing young adventurer, however, they lost interest. Fewer and fewer people came out to see her. When Fred Russell realized he would not be getting rich, he left Annie, taking her barrel with him. But Annie was not to be counted out. She recovered her barrel and hired a new manager named Billy Banks. Eventually, Billy also abandoned Annie and took her barrel for good.
Annie was down, but not out. She had a new barrel made and placed it in a park near Niagara Falls. She sat at a table nearby with postcards and a pamphlet about her amazing feat and invited passersby to buy them and meet the Queen of the Falls. Annie never did get rich and famous, but ten years after her wild ride she told a reporter that despite her disappointment on that point, she was proud to be able to say that she had done “the greatest feat ever performed.”
With his superb storytelling skills, Chris Van Allsburg reveals all the excitement and quirkiness of Annie Taylor’s wild idea and even wilder ride to readers. This true story of a bygone era and the utter audacity of a woman who tested her mettle against one of nature’s most formidable challenges will astound kids—and Annie’s nonchalance will make them (and adults) laugh. Perhaps more important than the facts of Annie’s stunt are the facts about Annie herself. Behind the etiquette teacher lay a smart, enterprising, and even scientific, woman who had the grit and self-confidence to attempt the “impossible.” Readers will also see that even when things don’t work out exactly as planned, they can be proud of their personal achievements. Van Allsburg’s sepia-toned photographic-style illustrations set readers in the early 1900s, catch Annie in the moment of her big idea and inside her barrel, and unveil the beauty of Niagara Falls.
Fascinating from beginning to end, Queen of the Falls is a wonderful book for kids interested in history, daredevils, and creative ideas.
Ages 6 – 9
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011 | ISBN 978-0547315812
Learn more about Chris Van Allsburg and his books as well as discover a gallery of illustrations, videos, and even a TED Talk on Queen of the Falls on his website!
Niagara Falls Runs Dry Day Activity
Eggs-citing Ride Experiment
Even though Annie Taylor’s barrel was strong on the outside, she knew that she needed to protect herself inside. She used pillows, a handle, and a leather strap to keep herself from getting hurt.
In this experiment I invite you to design a container that will protect a raw egg from breaking when it is dropped from different heights. I’ll let you ponder what materials you will use—because that’s the fun part!
So get your creative thinking caps on—and get cracking…Umm…I mean…get going!
- Raw egg
- Some kind of small container
- Materials to protect the egg
- Using a variety of materials and your scientific knowledge, create a container that will protect a raw egg from breaking
- Place the raw egg inside the container and seal it shut
- Drop the container from as high as you can, for example, from the top of the stairs or a treehouse.
- Be sure to ask for an adult’s help or permission when choosing where to drop your egg.
Picture Book Review