Steve Lee - Big Story

Life On The Line | Charles Blondin heroic tightrope walker

July 21, 2022 Steve Lee
Life On The Line | Charles Blondin heroic tightrope walker
Steve Lee - Big Story

In 1830, a six-year-old boy was in the audience of a travelling circus here in France. He watched, spellbound, as an acrobat walked the tightrope. With his eyes glued on the man in the roof of the Big Top, his destiny called him. He would go on to mesmerise vast open air crowds across Europe and America, putting his life continually on the line in a relentless quest for adventure. His name was Jean Francois Gravelet but he became known to the world as The Great Charles Blondin. 

We all take calculated risks placing our personal safety in the hands of doctors, ppilots and car mechanics. But some go much further in pursuit of the ultimate risk behind the wheel of a car, on the side of a mountain or on the end of a bungee rope. But there’s an even greater risk we take, drifting through life wondering if God exists but never doing anything about it.

Back to the story. Blondin’s celebrity among 19th century circus crowds here in France was unprecedented. It was to carry him across the Atlantic Ocean to a famous waterfall on the border of Canada and the United States. It’s a story of thrill-seeking, wild adventure and death-defying courage.

Many years ago now, I surrendered my life to God having come to the realisation that he created me for a purpose. I prayed he would use my ordinary life to reach others with the transforming message of his son, Jesus. Only then did I find out that it’s one thing to believe in God but quite another to put your trust and your future in his hands. It has taken me on a journey I could never have imagined possible.

At 35 years of age with a fortune in the bank, Charles Blondin made the announcement the world was waiting for. After years of speculation, he would walk on a 1,000ft rope spanning two clifftops above the treacherous waters of Niagara Falls and in winds strong enough to bring down a helicopter if it happened today. One false move would send him spinning to his death. 

On 30th June 1859, everything was ready. One end of the tightrope was secured to an oak tree, the other to an iron girder anchored into the rock face. Guy ropes were positioned at 30ft intervals that reached down to the riverbank while those in the centre section were attached to huge sacks of salt suspended above the rapids. But there was an inaccessible section above midstream where the tightrope sagged as much as 50ft and swayed in the wind like a giant hammock. 

Crowds turned out that day to see Blondin perform lining the cliffs from end to end on both sides of Niagara while others filled the grandstands that had been built for the occasion. Bets were laid on whether he would live, die or simply lose his nerve at the last minute and refuse the crossing, but Blondin had no fear.

At 5pm he stepped boldly onto the rope on the American side and after 30 minutes he was safely across. The crowd went berserk as a brass band struck up the French national anthem, the Marseillaise. The music was drowned out by deafening shouts of "Blondin! Blondin!"

He walked that great tightrope a second time on the 4th of July, American Independence Day and again on the 14th of July, Bastille Day here in France. Many variations followed including the use of a wheelbarrow, stilts and even a blindfold. The most famous crossing was when he carried a man on his back having offered a reward to anyone who would dare the treacherous journey.

Several accepted but had a change of heart after seeing the rope close up. And so the job fell to Harry Colcord, Blondin's friend and manager. As the two men approached the tightrope, Blondin turned to Colcord and gave him these instructions. You must place your entire trust in me and on no account attempt to balance yourself. Then with a flourish they started out. 

Blondin boldly made his way inch by inch along the tightrope but it would not go to plan. At the 150ft marker he badly needed a rest and told Colcord to climb down. The reluctant volunteer’s heart nearly failed him as he sat astride the rope with his arms around Blondin’s waist. After two minutes, he was ordered back on only for a second rest to be demanded at the 300ft marker.

Above midstream where there were no guys to tension the rope, Blondin stumbled and then ran to the next marker, where he expected to pause and regain his balance but it hung limp. It is thought that a bookie’s accomplice had sabotaged the tightrope in an attempt to collect the bets from those who had gambled on Blondin’s life.

He turned his head to speak to Colcord, “You must put your trust in me and your life in my hands or we will both die.” And then, staring straight ahead Blondin ran to the next guy rope and it held. As he approached the cliff top with his terrified human cargo, the frenzied crowd surged forward nearly forcing the two men over the edge. Blondin made a final determined dash and the spectators parted to let them through.

The crowd at Niagara Falls that day in 1859 numbered over 25,000. Among them was the Prince of Wales who would later become King Edward VII. But despite the shouts of adulation and confidence in Blondin's prowess, no one would trust him with their life. There was a very big difference between the people in the grandstands and the men on the tightrope. 

Jesus never asked anyone to join a religious movement, he invited them to follow him. He made it clear that if you want to walk on the water you’ve got to get out of the boat. He is still looking for people who will follow him like that today. That’s the decision I took many years ago and it has been the greatest adventure.

Harry Colcord trusted his life to Charles Blondin and, in return, Blondin carried him safely to the other side even though there were great challenges to face. If you place your trust and faith in God, he will carry you safely through this life whatever it sends your way. He has carried many people across the great divide, and he has never lost anyone yet.