Snippets 106. Charles Richard Weld (1813-1869) was assistant secretary and librarian to the Royal Society, and is best known for his history of the society, published in 1848. Between 1850 and 1867 he wrote a series of travel journals, one of which was A Vacation Tour in the United States and Canada, published in 1854. He was inspired to write this volume by his half-brother’s visit to the same continent between 1795 and 1797 (published as Weld’s Travels in America) and a desire to see how things had changed over the intervening half-century. The following quote concerns his visit to Niagara Falls, where he learnt just what a dangerous place it could be.
The terrific power of the rapids was made very apparent by a circumstance which happened a short time previous to my visit. A large barge, used for navigating Lake Erie, had, by some miscalculation or mismanagement, been allowed to come within the influence of the current of the Niagara, about six miles above the falls. Powerful horses were attached to the towing line; but as their strength was unequal to resist the rapids, the people on board, four in number, wisely fastened themselves to the rope, and, severing it, allowed the barge to drift down while they were dragged on shore. Contrary to all expectation the ship did not go over the falls, but was stranded on a ledge of rocks about 150 yards above Goat Island. There I saw her, and I certainly imagined it would be easy to reach her, for the water did not seem very rapid or deep; but, although the cargo presented great temptation to enterprising voyageurs accustomed to navigate canoes in tumultuous waters, one man alone was sufficiently bold to make an attempt to secure them: this was a person named Robinson, better known as the “Champion of the Rapids.”
Launching his canoe a considerable distance above Goat Island, he steered for the barge, and was successful in reaching it; but to the surprise of the spectators, who were anxiously watching his proceedings, he declared he did not think it possible he could regain the shore. The greatest excitement prevailed. Innumerable suggestions were proffered: at length, Robinson found his only chance of escape was to embark in his canoe, and drifting down the rapids, endeavour to reach a rocky islet within a few yards of Goat Island, and fearfully contiguous to the edge of the Great Fall. Failing this, certain destruction was inevitable. It was a moment of terrible suspense. Battling with the fierce rapids, amidst which the tiny canoe was a speck, Robinson struggled with the energy of despair; and watching his opportunity, succeeded by an almost superhuman effort in bringing his canoe sufficiently near the rock to permit him to spring upon it. Here he was safe, being drawn to shore by ropes, but his canoe was of course speedily precipitated over the cataract.
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