On the morning of August 25, 1875, Captain Matthew Webb of Dawley, Shropshire, 27 year-old master of an English sailing vessel, woke up in a Calais hotel to find himself famous. The day before he had done the impossible: he had swum the English Channel, the first person in history to do so. While he slept that night the world heard all about him—how he had plunged off the Admiralty Pier at Dover and had battled currents and high seas for 21� hours over a 50-mile zigzag course to reach the sands at Calais.
Days of glory awaited the Shropshire lad. At Dover, where a huge throng welcomed him upon his return, the mayor of the city said, "In the future history of the world I don't believe that any such feat will be performed by anyone else." Webb became a national hero. Crowds mobbed him wherever he went. Dignitaries clapped him on the back. A public subscription organized by Lord Stanhope netted him �2,000. The Prince of Wales opened his royal purse and handed him �5,000. Thousands flocked to see the stocky 5-foot 8-inch blond captain cleave the waters with the powerful stroke that had conquered the Channel. ( Webb used the breaststroke, the crawl being then unknown. At the rate of 25 to 27 strokes a minute, he swam low in the water, with mouth and nose under, blowing porpoise-like as his head emerged.)
Acclaimed as the world's greatest swimmer, Webb toured English resort beaches giving swimming exhibitions and staging feats of endurance. A couple of years of this, however, and interest in him began to slacken. He became more and more of a stunt man and would pick up a few purses by betting that he could stay in the water for a certain number of hours. Once at Scarborough he won �400 by swimming about for 74 continuous hours.
He came to this country in 1879 and swam from Sandy Hook to Coney Island, covering 16 miles against strong tides in eight hours. Following this feat, Webb returned to England and acquired a wife and a manager named Fred Kyle.
In 1881 he reappeared in the United States to bolster his diminishing fortune, but little money came in. He won $1,000 by defeating George H. Wade of Brooklyn, "the champion ocean swimmer of America," in a five-mile match race at Brighton Beach, near Coney Island. In Boston he remained in a tank of water for 128� hours (with a 15-minute interval of rest at the end of each 24 hours). The stunt failed to cause much excitement and brought him no money.
In the summer of 1883 Kyle got him booked at Nantasket Beach, Mass., to give daily exhibitions of swimming. The captain was now no longer the shining Shropshire lad who had brought fame to England eight years before. At 35 he weighed 200 pounds, and his closely cropped hair was thin on top. With him at Nantasket, where he was no great attraction, lived his wife and their two small children.
What was needed, Manager Kyle thought, was another big one like the Channel swim—something that no man had ever tried before. Like the Niagara River rapids below the falls, for instance—perhaps the angriest stretch of water on earth. If Webb could get through them he would again have done the impossible, and there would be a fortune in it.
A GORGE OF BOILING WATER
At the foot of Niagara Falls there is a huge circular gorge of constantly boiling water. The Niagara River empties out of the gorge and is relatively quiet for a brief stretch. Then, about two miles below the falls, it gathers momentum as the walls of the river close in. Through this ever-narrowing funnel a tremendous volume of water, wild for want of room, reaches a pace of nearly 30 miles an hour and throws the surface into a series of great billows that break up to 30 feet high. These are the Whirlpool Rapids, some three-quarters of a mile in length, and below them is the Whirlpool itself, a giant disk of foaming eddies and furiously revolving water. Uprooted trees caught in the rapids are tossed end over end like twigs and, in the Whirlpool below, have been known to boil about for weeks at a time before escaping downriver.
On June 10, 1883 the captain came to Niagara Falls to examine the rapids. Attired in a pearl-colored derby and gray frock coat, he drove along the river on the Canadian side and surveyed the rapids from the heights above. Then he walked down to the water's edge for a closer view. A few minutes' study seemed to satisfy him. "A rum bit of water," was his only comment. Kyle meanwhile was trying to persuade the proprietors of the various falls hotels to post $1,000 as a guarantee and the railroads to run extra trains. He asked for 40% of the excursion proceeds, but neither hotels nor roads were interested, and the two men returned to Nantasket.