Need a Bridge? Need a Kite. Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge 1848

Need a Bridge? Need a Kite. Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge 1848

On November 9, 1847 after quite a contentious competition, an Engineer, described as swift and impetuous, Charles Ellet Jr. of Philadelphia, was awarded the contract to construct a bridge at the chosen site. Ellet, also known to be flamboyant, bold and ambitious, was extremely anxious to be the first man to bridge the Niagara River. This had been his burning desire since 1833 when he believed the Niagara offered him the greatest challenge. After studying suspension bridges in France, Ellet is quoted as saying, about the bridge across the natural chasm, that he did not know “…in the whole circle of professional schemes, a single project which it would gratify me so much to conduct it to completion.”

Ellet was about to begin construction in January of 1848 when he was faced with his first obstacle. The building of a suspension bridge is commenced with the stretching a line or wire across the stream. However, it was the turbulent roaring rapids, the 800-foot wide gap, and the 225-foot high shear cliffs of the Whirlpool Gorge that made a direct crossing impossible. Ellet and his colleagues, to ponder this dilemma, held a dinner meeting at the Eagle Hotel in the Village of Niagara Falls, New York. The conversation revolved around various methods to get the first line across the Gorge. Ellet, himself, proposed the use of a rocket. A bombshell hurled by a cannon was suggested. Some thought a steamer might navigate the rapids, knowing that the Whirlpool Rapids would devour any smaller craft and that ferries were too far upstream.

Local ironworker, Theodore G. Hulett (future Judge), suggested offering a cash prize to the first boy who can fly his kite to the opposite bank. The promotional prone bridge builder probably enjoyed exercising originality and invited the areas youngsters to a kite-flying contest.

There was a tremendous turnout for the kite contest that was held in January of 1848. The kites began appearing on the Canadian side of the gorge, taking advantage of prevailing winds from West to East. The first to succeed in spanning the gorge with his kite, named the ‘Union’, was fifteen-year-old American, Homan Walsh. Homan crossed to the Canadian side of the gorge by ferry just below Niagara Falls, and walked the two miles along the top of the cliff to the location that the bridge was to be built. Homan had to wait a day for the wind to cooperate; it was a kite contest after all! However, on the second day, the winds were perfect and Homan’s kite went right up and flew high above the gorge.

Homan’s kite flew all day and into the night. At midnight, as he had expected, the wind died and the kite began to descend. Then there was a sudden pull of the line, and it went limp. He realized what happened. Homan’s kite string had broken. It was cut on the edge of the sharp rocks and broken ice. The bad luck continued for Homan Walsh, the ferry wasn’t crossing the river because the broken ice made it too dangerous. He was marooned on the Canadian side in the town of Clifton for eight days. Fortunately, he stayed with friends while he waited for the ice to clear enough to resume ferry service.

Finally, after eight days, he was able to go back to the US side, retrieve his kite, and repair it. Homan Walsh then made his way back to the Canadian cliff side, where he was able to fly the kite to the opposite bank. There it was caught and attached to a tree. He won the kite-flying contest on (or about) January 30, 1848, and was awarded the cash prize. His cash prize was either five or ten dollars (US). Accounts vary, depending on publications.