By Alejandro Dominguez Herald Writer
MONROE — It was described as one of the most daring exploits ever undertaken in the Pacific Northwest.
Al Faussett would ride his canoe over the 104-foot drop of Sunset Falls on the Skykomish River and survive the death-defying feat.
“There is nothing to be afraid of, for I have studied the dangers carefully, and I believe I can negotiate these falls where 20 men have lost their lives,” Faussett told the Everett News in a May 30, 1926 story.
Thousands of people showed up before noon that Sunday at the falls, south of Index, to watch the stunt, according to newspaper reports.
With little fanfare, Faussett climbed inside his 32-foot “Skykomish Queen” and shoved off. Rushing down the river, the canoe barely slipped by a rock before plunging down the falls for 20 seconds. The Skykomish Queen emerged undamaged. Fausset came out with only minor injuries to his back and arms.
“That was the one event that made him famous,” said Guy Faussett, his great-grandson.
Al Faussett was 47 when he undertook this first stunt on what he turned into a new career as a professional daredevil. The idea came from a film company that offered $5,000 — more than $60,000 in today’s value — to anyone who dared to ride down the falls in a canoe.
The company eventually backed out, but Faussett decided to do it anyway.
He charged $1 a person to watch. And he set up a booth taking bets on whether he would survive.
He earned $1,500 from that first stunt — most of the money coming from the wagers.
“He craved attention,” Guy Faussett said. “And the money was pretty nice at the time.”
Over the next few years, Al Faussett would ride canoes over waterfalls in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. The appearances attracted thousands of people. And film companies such as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Fox eventually did film the stunts.
And while Al Faussett never attempted his dream plunge over Niagara Falls, he did achieve another of his goals: Lasting fame.
Guy Faussett grew up hearing stories of his famous great-grandfather, but he never paid them much attention.
His grandfather, Irvin, told stories about Al Faussett’s adventures around the Northwest. It was part of the family lore. Guy Faussett didn’t even know if the stories were true.
That changed with a phone call in 1990.
The Oregon Historical Society found long-lost photos of Guy Faussett’s great-grandfather and wanted to show them to his family. Guy Faussett couldn’t believe the pictures when he saw them.
“I was amazed,” he said.
Since then, Guy Faussett, 52, a heavy equipment operator who lives in Snohomish, has collected news clippings, photos and film footage of his celebrated great-grandfather. He’s been interviewed for television shows doing stories about the feats. He plans to give a talk about Al Faussett at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Monroe Historical Society meeting, at the Tualco Grange, 18933 Tualco Road.
Al Faussett was born April 12, 1879, to parents who had emigrated from Ireland. He was the eighth of 10 siblings, who included Robert Faussett, the Snohomish County prosecuting attorney during the Everett Massacre.
The family moved from Minnesota to Snohomish County in 1893. Al Faussett is believed to have lived in Monroe, but some newspaper articles claimed he was from Sultan.
Early in life, Faussett was a logger. He also tried his hand as a boxer, horse racer and even as a gambler.
But he found his true calling as a daredevil.
For his stunts, Faussett built four canoes himself, working with members of the Pilchuck and Tulalip tribes. And he also designed a boat that was built by a Portland company.
He didn’t wear helmets or life jackets. Instead, he wore suits and used inflated inner tubes for padding inside the canoe.
More than once, he built a wooden ramp that extended beyond the edge of the waterfalls so the canoe would avoid hitting rocks at the bottom of the falls and instead would land in deep water.
There was never a stunt where Faussett could claim everything went according to his plan. In one, he got trapped between falls. In another, his manager stole his money while he was recovering at a hospital.
“He was always in the paper for something wild,” Guy Faussett said.
In his jump at Sunset Falls, Al Faussett had only a small air tank and a restraining belt aboard the Skykomish Queen, a canoe he made out of a hollowed-out spruce tree, allowing him to climb inside.
Faussett later wrote that water filled his canoe, making the tank useless.
“I was forced to hold my breath the best I could,” he told the Everett News.
He had one regret with that first stunt: He made the jump before he made sure everyone paid.
His next jump came just months later, on Sept. 6. He went over the 25-foot Eagle Falls along the Skykomish River. Newspapers all reported that, mid-drop, Faussett opened the canoe’s hatch and shouted to his friends. Some of the newspapers claimed it was to show that he was still inside the canoe.
The Everett Herald reported he got stuck and needed help.
After that, Faussett tried riding over smaller waterfalls, but those stunts attracted little attention.
He tried to ride Snoqualmie Falls, but the King County commissioners prevented him because there was no fence to prevent his audience from slipping into the water.
Instead, he attempted to navigate the rocky waterfalls on the Spokane River on June 1, 1927. He was unsuccessful because the canoe, called the 777 of Seattle, got stuck between the falls. A newspaper reported he could have died if people hadn’t pulled him out.
He suffered a slight concussion, a bruised back and slight injuries to his left knee and arm.
Al Faussett wanted to try again, but that never happened.
Instead, he headed for Oregon.
He went to what is now Silver Falls State Park near Silverton, Ore., where he dared to go over the 177-foot waterfall in 1928.
The event attracted at least 2,000 people. Faussett wanted to charge admission but the park was so big that many people got in without paying, said Lou Nelson, president of Friends of Silver Falls State Park, a nonprofit that supports the park.
No one had ever attempted to ride over the falls before Al Faussett, although people had made money by pushing cars off the edge and charging 50 cents a head.
To ensure his canoe made it to deep waters, Faussett had installed a cable with a harness that controlled where the canoe would land.
It snapped in the middle of the drop.
He survived but he had to be hospitalized. To make matters worse, his shady manager disappeared with all the money, according to newspaper articles.
“He was trying to raise $33,000,” Nelson said. “He didn’t make any money.”
But it did earn him a holiday. Friends of Silver Falls created “Al Faussett Days” in 1995 to celebrate his stunt.
Though now called “Historic Silver Falls Days,” held every second weekend of July, Faussett is still honored along with the rest of the park’s history, Nelson said.
“He’s our most famous visitor,” Nelson said.
He made two other big jumps in 1929, one over the 212-foot Shoshone Falls on the Snake River, near Twin Falls, Idaho, and another over the 83-foot Celilo Falls near The Dalles, Ore., a waterfall on the Columbia River that was engulfed by water after a dam was built.
During the trip over the Celilo Falls on Sept. 22, 1929, he was urged by members of a nearby tribe to skip the stunt and, if he was going to do it, to eat salmon so he could survive. He declined to eat the salmon, saying he didn’t want his survival attributed to anything other than his wits.
He made it, but that was the last waterfall he ever rode.
Just weeks later, Wall Street crashed, bringing on the start of the Great Depression. People no longer would pay to watch Al Faussett risk his life.
For years, Al Faussett gave up his daredevil days. But he never forgot about his big dream of riding the Niagara Falls. He continued working on a new canoe even though he was getting older and his health was going.
He got the permit for his stunt, but died of kidney failure on Feb. 16, 1948, before his canoe was completed in Portland, Ore. His body is buried in Monroe.
Al Faussett would be happy that he is being remembered, Guy Faussett said.
“He would be glad that I’m keeping his story alive,” he said.
Alejandro Dominguez: 425-339-3422; firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Monroe Historical Society is preparing a presentation about Al Faussett’s exploits at 7 p.m., Thursday at the Tualco Grange, 18933 Tualco Road, just outside of Monroe city limits. A potluck begins at 6:30 p.m.
The meeting is open to the public. It will feature a talk by Guy Faussett, who has been researching the life of his ancestor for more than 20 years. It includes photographs, newspaper clips and film footage of Al Faussett’s several drops.
Al Faussett featured on an Oregon TV show: