Jean François Gravelet-Blondin (February 28, 1824 – February 22, 1897) was a French tightrope walker and acrobat.
Blondin went to the United States in 1855. He was engaged by William Niblo to perform with the Ravel troupe in New York City and was subsequently part proprietor of a circus.
He especially owed his celebrity and fortune to his idea of crossing the Niagara Gorge (located on the American-Canadian border) on a tightrope, 1,100 ft (340 m) long, 3.25 in
(8.3 cm) in diameter and 160 ft (49 m) above the water, near the location of the current Rainbow Bridge. This he did on June 30, 1859, and a number of times thereafter, always with different theatrical variations: blindfolded, in a sack, trundling a wheelbarrow, on stilts, carrying a man (his manager, Harry Colcord) on his back, sitting down midway while he cooked and ate an omelet and standing on a chair with only one chair leg on the rope.
During his lifetime, Blondin’s name was so synonymous with tightrope walking that many employed the name “Blondin” to describe others in the profession. Two streets in Northfields, Ealing, London are named in his honor: Blondin Avenue and Niagara Avenue.
A well-known play has been written inspired by Blondin’s feat of going across the Niagara River with a man on his back. Crossing Niagara by Peruvian playwright Alonso Alegría ends with a plausible replication of the feat itself but invents the character of the man—in this case a boy—who took the ride. The play had its premiere in Lima in 1969 and, since then, has been performed in about fifty countries, most recently in Spain (2006) and Venezuela (2008). In an English translation, the play premiered in London at the National Theatre (c. 1975) and in New York at the Manhattan Theatre Club (c. 1982).
During the run-up to the Presidential election of 1864, Abraham Lincoln compared himself to Blondin on the tightrope, with all that was valuable to America in the wheelbarrow he was pushing before him. A political cartoon appeared in Harper’s Weekly on September 1, 1864 depicting Lincoln on a tightrope, pushing a wheelbarrow and carrying two men on his back—Navy Secretary Gideon Welles and War Secretary Edwin Stanton—while John Bull, Napoleon III, Jefferson Davis, and Generals Grant, Lee and Sherman, among others, looked on.