NIAGARA FALLS, NEW YORK - Each year, more than eight million people visit Niagara Falls, the famous waterfall along the U.S.-Canada border known as the “Honeymoon Capital of the World.”
The famous natural attraction is also a magnet for daredevils and local officials hope the latest planned stunt will give the economy a much-needed boost.
Dozens of people have plunged over the cataract in barrels or walked on tightropes stretched across the river gorge below Niagara Falls. But for more than a century, strict laws discouraged such stunts. However, they'll be back in the spotlight on Friday, when seventh-generation circus performer Nik Wallenda attempts to walk high above the waterfall on a five-centimeter thick wire.
City officials in Niagara Falls, New York, are allowing the stunt in a bid to lure foreign tourists to their side of the falls, to help revive the city’s depressed economy.
Signs of the economic downturn are evident at the Haunted House of Wax in Niagara Falls, New York, where tourists are greeted by two signs, one that beckons visitors to meet ghoulish wax figurines and another advertising the building for sale. It's a common sight in a downtown that is also dotted with empty lots and cheap gift shops.
This file photo shows the American side of the falls as seen from Niagara Falls, Ontario.
People like Paul Gromosiak, who has lived here for 70 years, remember the glory days.
He keeps a homemade model of Niagara Falls on his kitchen table. Cotton balls represent the waterfall’s famous mist. Little flags on toothpicks mark stunts from the past 200 years. He's already added one for circus performer Nik Wallenda.
Gromosiak wrote a book about the death defying stunts at Niagara, including the first man to cross the river on a tightrope in 1859, and the first barrel-ride over the falls - by a woman and her cat - in 1901. Large crowds have always flocked to watch daredevils try to conquer the falls. Gromosiak says the city was most alive during these times, but that changed when he was nine.
According to a radio report of the event, 200,000 people watched Red Hill ride his intertube barrel over the falls in 1951.
“Red Hill, Junior, went over the Horseshoe Falls with a piece of the Blarney Stone, a baby doll, rabbit’s foot for luck," Gromosiak says. “It fell apart and so did he.”
Stunts were outlawed after Hill's death. While many daredevils asked for waivers, none were granted, until last year.
Niagara Falls officials say they were swayed by Nik Wallenda’s promise to re-create that daredevil atmosphere, but do it safely. His family, the famous “Flying Wallendas” have performed high wire stunts for nearly 200 years.
The stunt is already attracting attention. Hundreds of spectators watch Wallenda practice on a wire three meters above a mostly empty parking lot.
"It is something I am never going to see again in my lifetime," says local resident Paul Mroziak, who hasn't seen a crowd this big in a long time. "I would think that it would help tourism, cannot hurt it, that is for sure."
Sparking a comeback
Since the 1960s, the population of Niagara Falls, New York, has fallen by half. After practice, Wallenda tells the crowd his wirewalk will start the city’s comeback.
“How cool would it be if we could say that the economy in Niagara Falls, New York, changed after Nik Wallenda walked from one country to another?” he says.
He signs autographs and tells the group to support local businesses.
Maggie Daniels, a tourism professor at George Mason University, says one event can only go so far.
“Honestly, the next thing is going to come up. There are things like this happening all over the globe all the time," she says. "I do think it is kind of a unique, interesting thing to do. But the week after, people are going to be saying, ‘What other crazy thing is going on in the world?’”
Still, local tourism board president John Percy believes Wallenda's walk is the city’s best shot at turning around its sagging fortunes. Tens of thousands of spectators are expected to attend. The stunt will air live on television around the world. Percy expects ripples to be felt for years.
“That alone, that value of that publicity is worth its weight in platinum, not even gold," he says. "It is worth millions and millions to this destination. Any destination would give their right arm for that kind of publicity."
Percy adds that Nik Wallenda’s biggest impact may be the door he has opened for other daredevils to challenge the falls. Requests have already started pouring in. Officials have pledged they will not allow any more stunts for 20 years, but they have been persuaded to change their minds before.