Rochester, N.Y. – Nik Wallenda’s tightrope walk over Niagara Falls on Friday is expected to draw tens of thousands of people.
He’s following in the footsteps of America’s first famous daredevil, whose legend has been told to generations of Rochesterians.
Sam Patch came to Rochester, a rapidly growing mill town, in 1829 with his pet bear and moved in above a saloon. He’d been jumping waterfalls elsewhere, even surviving two plunges over Niagara Falls. He quickly set his sights on Upper Falls.
He made his first leap on November 6, 1829.
“He stayed in the water for a little while, had people thinking maybe he didn’t make it, but in his typical showman fashion, emerged after a time,” said city historian Christine Ridarsky.
Patch didn’t think the first jump raised enough money so he scheduled another.
“He got greedy,” Ridarsky said.
The event was heavily promoted and created controversy.
“There were people very excited about it because it was something new, and there were also the classes here who were very upset by it and disturbed that something like this, a spectacle of this kind, was taking place in their community,” said Ridarsky.
The second jump was scheduled on Friday, November 13. Between 8,000 and 10,000 people showed up. That’s about the entire population of Rochester at the time.
Patch didn’t survive. His fame grew more in death. President Andrew Jackson had a horse named Sam Patch.
Two centuries later, people still visit High Falls to learn more about Patch. Sally Wood Winslow runs the visitors center and commemorates Patch’s final jump every November 13.
“People are curious about why we still talk about him,” said Wood Winslow. “This was just one man’s story, but it was one man that changed the community, that impacted the community.”
The museum shop has some Sam Patch memorabilia, much of it featuring his pet bear. Legend has it that the bear jumped over the falls along with Patch.
“Sam Patch did indeed have a bear. He acquired it just before he moved to Rochester, but other than one newspaper account, there’s no real evidence the bear ever jumped into the falls,” said Ridarsky.
Patch’s frozen body wasn’t recovered until the following spring when he turned up at the mouth of the Genesee River. He is buried at Charlotte Cemetery. His original wooden grave marker read “Sam Patch, Such is Fame.”