A Year: Day to Day Men: 28th of February, Solar Year 2018

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February 28, 1824 marks the birthdate of Jean-Francois Gravelet, known to many by his stage name Charles Blondin.

In 1829, when he was five years old, a circus troupe performed near his home, and Jean-Francois Gravelet became enthralled by the tightrope walker. It was the first time he had ever seen anyone attempting such stunts. He was so impressed that he felt compelled to try and accomplish the same kind of feats.

Instead of discouraging this rather risky pursuit, Gravelet’s father, who was a gymnast, supported his son’s ambitions. That same year he enrolled his son in the Ecole de Gymase, a school focused on physical education that was located in Lyon, France. Gravelet proved to be quite adept, and after only six months of training he made his amateur performance debut. Billed as “The Little Wonder,” the future Blondin became a popular attraction, as his performances demonstrated surprising skill and originality.

In 1851 he was recruited by an agent for William Niblo, the famed theatrical promoter, to perform with the Ravel Troupe of family acrobats in the United States at Niblo’s Garden. Gravelet then toured America with the troupe that, at one point, performed in New York City, working for P. T. Barnum as part of the world-famous circus impresario’s “Greatest Show on Earth.” During this period, Gravelet assumed his stage name, Charles Blondin.

Charles Blondin toured with the Ravel Troupe for several years. Seeing Niagara Falls for the first time in 1858, he became obsessed with the idea of crossing the gorge on a tightrope. On June 30, 1859, a crowd of 100,000 people witnessed Blondin’s historic feat. For this first attempt, Blondin used a single three-inch hemp cord that was 1,100 feet long and rigged 160 feet above the Falls at one side and 270 feet at the other.

After this first successful crossing, Blondin performed the stunt many times throughout the next year. Each time the crowds grew larger, and he employed different and much more dangerous variations. Once he crossed the Falls while blindfolded. On August 17, 1859, he crossed the Falls while carrying his manager, Harry Colcord, on his back. On September 14, 1860, he traversed the tightrope while walking on stilts. During this period of his career, he became known as “the Prince of Manila,” because the rope he used was made of Manila hemp. In all, Blondin walked across Niagara Falls 17 times.

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