Charles Hilton — the man who tightrope-walked Great Falls

Charles Hilton was a 28-year-old shoe-shop worker, and a Civil War veteran shot twice in the legs, with a dream, guts and, most certainly, flair.

submitted by David Gudas

Charles Hilton walks a tightrope over the Great Falls between Lewiston and Auburn in 1872. Hilton was a local shoe-shop worker, a former circus performer and a Civil War veteran who had been shot twice in the legs.

submitted by David Gudas

Charles Hilton walks a tightrope over the Great Falls between Lewiston and Auburn in 1872. Hilton was a local shoe-shop worker, a former circus performer and a Civil War veteran who had been shot twice in the legs.

submitted by David Gudas

A crowd on the ground stares up at Charles Hilton as he walks a tightrope over the Great Falls with a wood stove strapped to his back on July 4, 1872. He stopped on the rope, sat and cooked ham and eggs.

submitted by David Gudas

Charles Hilton preps for one of his tightrope walks over the Great Falls in 1872. Hilton had a special wheelbarrow with a rope-groove in the tire that he pushed along the tightrope.

Nearly 150 years ago, he walked a 1,200-foot tightrope over the Great Falls between Lewiston and Auburn — dangled upside-down by his toes, cooked on a wood stove and navigated a wheelbarrow — in front of a throng of people expecting him to fall to his death.

Instead, he walked into local history.

"'Was I tired?'" Hilton said to a local reporter years later. "I should say that I was."

Make that nearly forgotten local history.

When he found the sepia stereoviews of a man tight-roping the falls in the Maine Historic Preservation Commission office in 2003, David Gudas, a Lewiston city employee and history buff, thought they might be of Jean-Francois Gravelet who performed in the mid-1800s as Charles Blondin.

Blondin was a tight-roping rock star, and all of the signs were there: the wood stove, the wheelbarrow, the derring-do.

Gudas posted the pictures on Facebook this summer as part of a "Growing up in Auburn" page stocked with way-back photos.

After a little asking around, Doug Hodgkin, Bates College professor emeritus and the Androscoggin Historical Society's recording secretary and newsletter editor, recognized the walker as Hilton.

According to Lewiston Evening Journal archives, Hilton was born in Brooklyn and was a circus performer who fought with the 15th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment before moving to Auburn. He got a job at the Ara Cushman shoe shop, which eventually became the largest shoe factory in the country, Hodgkin said.

Hilton talked at work about walking the Great Falls. Co-workers pitched in to buy the rope, custom-ordered from Bath, 700 pounds and 1.5 inches wide.

His boss was not a believer.

"Everybody helped but Mr. Cushman himself," a man named N.B. Tracy, Hilton's friend, told the paper. "He decided it was too risky and fool-hardy and declined to help any man commit suicide."

Nonetheless, Hilton got permission from the water company and Cowan Mill to sling the rope from one side to the other.

He prepped for three weeks and claimed city of Lewiston officials agreed to pay him $300 for the stunt.

On the morning of July 4, 1872, it was showtime.

A most trying ordeal

Two performances, morning and afternoon, dazzled the crowd.

Hilton donned a blindfold. He laid on his back. He pushed a wheelbarrow with a special rope-grooved wheel. He walked out with a wood stove strapped to his back, had a seat, lit a fire and cooked ham and eggs.

"I broke my eggs and threw the shells into the river," Hilton told a reporter. "Everything was as advertised. I didn't eat the food for the reason that I wanted to carry it ashore to pass around among the people."

The hard part? Not dangling from his toes but waiting for his little wood stove to cool.

"'It wasn't the walking but the sitting that almost took the gimp out of me," he said. "Under ordinary circumstances this would have been a very pleasant thing, but it was one of the most trying ordeals I ever experienced. I was afraid that I wasn't going to be able to get upon my feet."

But he did, and he made it, the only time in memory that someone has walked the falls.

Bruce Aikin, a volunteer at the History Center of Niagara who has written about the famous Blondin for the Sherlock Holmes Society, said tightrope walking was a big to-do back in the day. Lots of people aspired to be Blondin, who performed on a rope stretching across Niagara Falls eight times in 1859.

"He claims to have been the originator of the tightrope; before that, they all crossed on slack ropes," Aikin said. "I love the way they always expanded the numbers. Some people claim that there was one performance he had 250,000 people — I think you need to take at least a zero off of that."

Blondin was so well-known he got a passing reference in "The Sign of the Four," the second book in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock series.

In an 1897 interview with Hilton on his career highlights, a Lewiston Evening Journal reporter wrote: "We find him 54 years old, the rival of Blondin in his day, suave, gentlemanly, traveled, home after a score of years, full of stories and settling in Auburn where he has decided to live and spend his days."

Lewiston never did pay up for the big feat. Hilton turned down a $90 gig to walk between the De Witt House and the city belfry; too dangerous.

His most difficult job, he said, was tightrope-walking a 400-foot stretch in Bangor as entertainment for a Democratic convention. His biggest paydays came in crossing the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia and Copley Square in Baltimore ($500 each).

Hilton broke several bones in his lone fall, walking a rope between the Maine Central passenger station in Auburn and the top story of a shoe factory on Railroad Street. He'd crossed three times when the wire broke and he fell on a pile of bricks.

Ever a pal, Tracy in 1915 described the original Fourth of July walk as "the greatest feat ever performed by any man in this country before or since, as no man has ever dared to walk directly over the falls, all foaming white and roaring, as the falls were that day."

Weird, Wicked Weird is a monthly feature on the strange, intriguing and unexplained in Maine. Send photos, ideas and tightropes to kskelton@sunjournal.com.

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KATHRYN PENDLETON's picture

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Growing up in Auburn page is incredible.. Lot's of regular folk's memories and photos. Dave Gudas is the gem of this group.

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