Skywalk at Niagara, 20th Anniversary
Jay Cochrane was a boy who ran away, joined the circus, and became the greatest highwire walker in history. His skywalks were engineering marvels, making his roadway across vast distances in the sky.
Beginning May 21, 2022, we celebrate the 20th Anniversary of Jay’s first skywalk in Niagara Falls, Canada. It began a “Decade of Skywalks” with his final skywalk on September 17, 2012. He died from cancer on October 30, 2013, in Niagara Falls, the site of some of his greatest walks across the sky and where his philanthropy made him a local hero.
In the summer of 2002, Jay brought highwire walking back to Niagara Falls after a 100-year absence. Jay planned to skywalk a distance of 600-feet three times daily between his two 20-story free-standing towers over the world globe of Planet Hollywood. The summer would begin with the SKYWALK AT NIAGARA, a spectacular skywalk from the Sheraton on the Falls to the top of the Casino Niagara Tower.
From June 30, 1859 to July 3, 1896, highwire walks were a regular performance over the Niagara River below the falls. Jean Francois Gravelet, known as the Great Blondin, walked a wire across the gorge 23 separate times during the summers of 1859 and 1860. James E. Hardy was just 21 when he walked on July 1, 1896. His final wirewalk on July 3 was so anticlimactic that it only received a brief two sentences in the Niagara Falls Journal of July 10, 1896.
The tide had turned against “stunting” at Niagara Falls. Jay Cochrane made his first petition to skywalk at Niagara Falls in 1995. Jay wanted to perform a majestic walk over the brink of the falls. The Niagara Parks Commission refused to bend and denied the application, saying that they would never allow daredevil performances.
“I’m not interested in walking over the gorge and maybe stopping halfway and cooking something on a stove as some have done,” he said. “That is just a stunt. My goal is to achieve the longest skywalk in history.”
“It’s a form of ballet. It’s a form of balance. It’s a form of gymnastics. A form of acrobatics. It’s all in balance,” said Jay.
Jay was not a daredevil and he was not a stunter. His performances were works of art, with planning for musical accompaniment and Jay speaking to the crowd from the wire. He knew the risks involved in highwire walking.
“You better be afraid. Because the moment you let your guard down and you think it can’t get you, that’s when it’s gonna get you. So you pay attention,” said Jay.
In 1965, a tightrope at Varsity Stadium in Toronto collapsed and he suffered a broken pelvis, two broken legs and other fractures and was told he would never walk again. Jay prevailed. After an arduous recovery, he was asked to make a crossing 40 stories high between two skyscrapers to help mark the opening of the Hudson Bay Centre tower in Toronto. And so began his skywalking career.
In 1995, he became the greatest highwire walker of all time when he crossed 2,130 feet above the Yangtze River, skywalking across Qutang Gorge, one of China’s legendary Three Gorges.
He applied again in 2002 to walk a 3,500-foot wire strung between buildings on each side of the Niagara Falls border, but was denied. So “Skywalk at Niagara” was born, the first skywalk above the buildings of Niagara Falls, Canada.
Jay Cochrane stepped off the pinnacle of the Sheraton on the Falls Hotel, 30-stories above the Clifton Hill district, taking one tentative step at a time toward the Casino Niagara Tower, 220-feet away.
Wearing an electric-blue sequin jumpsuit, Cochrane battled a cold wind estimated at 15 to 17 mph as he navigated a wire about five-eighths of an inch wide. He was intent on the wire, locking his gaze on the narrow highway in the sky.
From one corner of the Casino Niagara Tower, Jay appeared against the roaring water of the famous cataract. The Canadian Falls were spectacular in the background as Jay traversed the 220-feet between the structures, 400-feet above the ground. He was high above the brink of the Falls, and the only human to ever stand in that spot in the sky for a portrait against Canada’s greatest natural wonder.
At that moment, he was one of the greatest Canadians alive.
His return to his homeland of Canada was where he wanted to be. Niagara Falls was his passion, and over the next decade, his skywalks became higher and longer over the city he loved. In 2005, he completed the greatest highwire walk in North American history. The “Skylon Tower Skywalk” began atop the Niagara Fallsview Casino at a height of 364 feet (111 meters), traversing a distance of 1,250 feet (381 meters), and finished atop the Skylon Tower at a height of 520 feet (160 meters).
In 2012, Cochrane eclipsed his 2005 performance, skywalking to the tallest structures in Niagara Falls. In his twelve-week residency, Jay walked a wire 48 times in the greatest building-to-building skywalk in North American history, crossing the 1,300 feet (400 meters) distance between the Niagara Fallsview Hilton Hotel North Tower at a height of 581 feet (177 meters) to the top of the Skylon Tower at a height of 520 feet (160 meters) in the heart of Niagara Falls. On September 17, 2012, Jay Cochrane made his final crossing, finishing with a cumulative distance world record submission of 11.81 miles (62,400 feet) or 19.01 Km (19,019.52 meters). It was a fitting tribute to his “Decade of Skywalks” in Niagara Falls.
Jay’s love of Niagara was a passion. In the summer of 2002, he raised nearly a hundred thousand dollars in donations. Over the next decade, Jay Cochrane would continue his philanthropy with the Boys and Girls Club and Tender Wishes.
“He just couldn’t do enough for us. He would come to our summer parties for the kids and sign autographs and be with the kids,” said Jill Taylor, wish chair for the organization.
Wayne Thomson, who was mayor when Cochrane performed in Niagara Falls in 2002, called him “a true friend” whose feats were “spectacular.” “I doubt that anybody else could have accomplished what he did. He was so talented and confident at what he did, it was just amazing,”
“People ask me how I want to be remembered in life and do I want to be remembered as the greatest wire walker that ever lived and ba ba ba ba ba”, said Jay. “And I say to them, I said you know, if you regard me that way and you think of me that way, that’s very kind and very sweet of you, and I thank you very much. But how I really want to be remembered, here is a person who cared about children around the world, and made a difference. That’s quite enough for me.”
It’s time to celebrate Jay Cochrane’s accomplishments with a permanent memorial. It should be in Niagara.
Learn more on JayCochrane.com