More than a century ago, a Bay City teacher chased her dreams over the edge of Niagara Falls

Annie Edson Taylor ­– the first person to survive tumbling over Niagara Falls in a barrel ­– has been recognized in Canada for decades. But it wasn’t until this past summer that the legendary “Queen of the Mist” was officially recognized in her adopted hometown of Bay City.

Taylor, who commissioned a Bay City company to build her barrel, is mentioned on a plaque on the Canadian side of the falls, on several websites about Niagara Falls, on the Niagara Falls Info website, as well as in a 2011 off-Broadway musical called “Queen of the Mist.” Her manager, Frank M. Russell, also hailed from Bay City.

This past summer, several Bay City people worked together to commemorate Taylor here.

It took the work of longtime Bay City Rotarian and history expert Dee Dee Wacksman; Rob Clark, director of Corporate Communications for Michigan Sugar; and Bay County Historical Society Director Mike Bacigalupo to commemorate her story in Bay City.

“Few people in Bay City were familiar with her story, so I thought it was time for her to have some recognition here,” Wacksman says.

Wacksman has portrayed Taylor in historical reenactments and lectures for the past several years. She says she contacted sculptors in hopes of having a statue erected, but after talking to some others about the idea, decided against that. Wacksman wasn’t alone in wanting to pay tribute to Taylor in a special way.

Clark expressed his desire to recognize Taylor after he took his family to the Canadian side of Niagara a few years ago. They took the Journey Behind the Falls, where they were met by an image of Taylor with her barrel. “There behind the falls is a plaque recognizing Taylor – in Canada, and we have nothing here, where the whole thing started. How can we not have something that recognizes this woman in our own town?” he asked.

A plaque at the Third Street Waterfall Park tells the story of Bay City’s Annie Edson Taylor. Taylor is the first person to successfully plunge over Niagara Falls in a barrel.Who is Annie Edson Taylor?

Born in Auburn, New York, in 1838, Taylor was a schoolteacher. For years, she taught etiquette to the children of wealthy families. She was a widow whose savings was quickly drying up. Taylor came to Bay City in the late 1890s believing she could make a living teaching dance and the social graces to the children of the lumber barons. Unfortunately, she arrived at about the same time the lumbering industry was declining. As the number of students dwindled, Taylor started to look at ways she could generate an income for herself for retirement.

“She had been reading about people travelling to the Pan-American exposition in Niagara Falls, where she’d visited as a child,” Wacksman says. At the same time, Taylor “wanted to do something that no one else in the world had done.”

She started planning a trip over Niagara Falls, even designing the barrel she’d use, and coming up with a plan to succeed where others had failed.

Taylor enlisted the help of the West Bay City Cooperage, which was located where Meats & Mooore is now, 1411 S. Wenona St. She had the barrel built to exacting specifications at the company, which was better known for building beer kegs for Kolb Bros. Brewery.

As Taylor designed her barrel, she was hoping to make a living by touring and lecturing about her adventure. She carefully selected the wood and oversaw construction of the barrel, which was 4 ½ feet high, 3 feet in diameter, and weight 160 pounds. The bulk of the weight was an anvil attached to the bottom so the barrel would remain upright in the river as she went over the falls.

She hired Russell as her manager. He who went ahead of her to Niagara to create publicity for the feat.

Though others had gone over the falls in barrels before, Taylor was determined to survive it. She studied the falls and knew exactly where to get into the river and where she would land. According to popular lore, a few days before she got into the barrel herself, Taylor sent the barrel over with a cat inside, who survived with just a cut on its forehead.

On October 24, 1901, Taylor’s 63rd birthday, she climbed into her barrel, and strapped herself in with her favorite pillow and some stuffing for protection. Her assistants secured the top and used a bicycle tire pump to fill the barrel with fresh air. She went over the falls and was pulled from the river after dropping the 158 feet into a pool at the bottom.

With that, Taylor became the first person to survive going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. For anyone to compete the feat was historic. It was unheard of for a woman to accomplish the challenge. Taylor was a single woman taking on a monumental challenge in the time just before the Women’s Suffrage movement.

Visitors to Meats & Mooore can learn more about Taylor’s life and adventures in a mural near the business entrance.Local recognition of Taylor’s feat

Over the years, Taylor’s effort has been commemorated in historical reenactments, in books, and in an amateur film. Taylor also chronicled the event in a book, but here in Bay City where she called home, there was little permanent tribute.

Over the last year, Craig Owczarzak, owner of Meats & Mooore, said he was approached by artist Gordon (Gordie) Jamison about painting the historical event at his store. Owczarzak, who has owned the building since the mid-1970s, says Jamison had done his homework. He had researched both the building and Taylor’s stunt, so Owczarzak agreed to having the murals painted. Now, images of Taylor with her barrel are painted around the entry to the building. Jamison also painted other images of men working at the cooperage, and what it may have looked like at the time.

While Jamison painted images on the city’s West Side, Clark, Wacksman, and Bacigalupo got together and came up with a plan for a tribute at Waterfall Park at the end of Third Street. Bacigalupo and his wife, Donna, had the sign fabricated by Zentx in Freeland. They worked with Wacksman and Clark on writing up the history. Earlier this year, the sign was placed at Third Street Waterfall Park.

After her stunt, Taylor worked to earn enough money to return to Bay City, but died penniless in 1921. She spent years trying to find her barrel, but never succeeded. Many believe her manager took the barrel for himself. Taylor was buried in Oakwood Cemetery at Niagara Falls, New York, alongside a handful of others who tried unsuccessfully to navigate the falls.

Clark says though he can’t condone Taylor’s stunt, “to deny her a place in daredevil history, or any history, seems as crazy as the stunt she successfully pulled off. My whole point to this was we need to recognize this woman and her accomplishments because it’s a really interesting piece of history, and Bay City is all about recognizing its history.”

Signup for Email Alerts