Trelawny talks about his experiences at the Falls in his published letters—both in a text that he apparently mailed to no one (dated August 5, 1833) and in a letter to Claire Clairmont (dated December 10, 1833), posted from Charleston, South Carolina. (More about that later on.)
Anyway, in both texts Trelawny writes vividly about a somewhat rash decision he’d made to swim across the Niagara River, just downstream from the Falls. I’d love to reprint them here in their entirety, but I can’t imagine asking readers to deal with all of it, so, instead, here’s a summary of what he said in his letter to Claire—with some of his words in italics.
He begins his account by asking, who can look at a clear river on a hot day without wishing to plunge into it? He described the river below the Falls—the water eddying, whirling, and turbulently boiling in a caldron. And so, he tells Claire, he just must give it a go.
I plunged into the river of the cataract. He says he made it to the other side all right, but, coming back, he ran into some trouble. Let’s let him speak at a little more length here:
I was overpowered by the strength of the current and whirled along headlong till I was drifting towards the rapids—which form a terrific whirlpool in which nothing that lives could float an instant—exhausted and powerless—I for a moment resigned myself to my fate …. I cannot tell how I regained the shore—but this I know, I was so used up I could not see things distinctly for nearly an hour ….
He describes this experience in far greater detail in his un-mailed account—but the details are basically the same. Now … a word in his defense. He was a strong swimmer—and later in his life swam every day in the ocean near his home in England. But the Niagara River? Just above the rapids and whirlpool? Could a person do that?
I wasn’t sure. So in early March 2000, I decided to take a drive to the Falls and find out.