Pirates of Niagara

I never cared much for history classes in school with their outdated information and their heavy text books full of boring names and boringer dates. But then a week ago I learned about something that happened in 1827 at Niagara Falls, and since then I’ve been obsessed with history... or at least with one very specific event that took place during the course of it.

The publicity stunt to which I refer was orchestrated by the owner of the Pavilion Hotel in Ontario, Canada… a gentleman by the name of William Forsyth. Together with a couple of his hotel-owning friends, Forsyth staged a wonderfully awful tourist attraction in the hope of increasing tourism at Niagara Falls. After buying a condemned lake schooner called the “Michigan,” Forsyth printed a bunch of advertisements and had them posted throughout New York and eastern Canada. They read as follows:

"The pirate Michigan with a cargo of ferocious wild animals will pass the great rapids and falls of Niagara - 8th September 1827 at 6 o'clock. The Michigan has long braved the bellows of Erie, with success as a merchant vessel but having been condemned by her owners unfit to sail long proudly "above"; her present proprietors, together with several public spirited friends, have appointed her to carry a cargo of Living Animals of the Forest, which surround the upper lakes, through the white tossing and deep rolling rapids of Niagara and down its great precipice, into the basin "below". The greatest exertions are being made to procure animals of the most ferocious kind, such as Panthers, Wild Cats and Wolves; but in lieu of these , which it may be impossible to obtain , a few vicious or worthless dogs, such as may possess strength and activity, and perhaps a few of the toughest of the lesser animals will be added to, and compose the cargo...

"Should the vessel take her course through the deepest of the rapids, it is confidently believed that she will reach the Horse Shoe unbroken; if so she will perform her voyage to the water of the Gulf beneath which is of great depth and buoyancy, entire, but what her fate will be the trial will decide. Should the animals be young and hardy and possessed of great muscular power and joining their fate with that of the vessel, remain on board until she reaches the water below, there is a great possibility that many of them will have performed the terrible jaunt, unhurt!"

As they had feared, the panthers and wolves proved difficult to procure, so a buffalo, two raccoons, two small bears, a domestic dog, and a goose were used in their lieu. I guess even a goose can seem “ferocious” when you’re tying it to the deck of a hell-bound schooner. Did you notice that the advertisement referred to the schooner as “the pirate Michigan?” That’s because, for some reason that escapes logic at least as much as the entire event itself does, the schooner had been decorated to look like a pirate ship. And to make the worst idea ever just a little bit worse, human shaped dummies were tied to the deck alongside the bewildered wildlife.

Noah’s miniature pirate ark set sail, as advertised, at 6:00 that evening before a crowd of roughly 10,000 soulless spectators. When it reached the rapids, its hull was torn open, and the schooner began taking on water. The two bears escaped and swam to safety on Goat Island, but because the other animals were all tied down or in cages, they stayed with the boat for its tumble over Horseshoe Falls. The goose somehow managed to survive and was found floating at the base of the falls, but the less buoyant buffalo, raccoons, and dog didn’t fare so well. Apparently they weren’t as “young and hardy” as they needed to be.

It’s hard to believe that this whole event took place, and that a group of people planned it, advertised it, and actually went through with it. You’d think just one person during the course of the planning would have said something like, “You’re going to do what with my dog?” Such was not the case, though, and history became slightly more interesting.

In closing, I offer this one request: please visit Niagara Falls. There’s no telling what those people will do the next time tourism lags.

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