William Ivy was born on July 31, 1866 in Houston. He left home at age 10 and became a paperboy for the San Antonio Light and Express
That was my first job too! Except I worked for the Seattle Times
. I wish kids these days had more opportunities to do that kind of thing. Long ago, paper routes got taken over by adults, and then newspapers got taken over by something else. Such is the way all things change and become. Anyway, the paper route is where me and Ivy’s lives diverge – or maybe not. I hope not.
In San Antonio, Ivy got good at walking across a high-wire strung across the San Antonio River. He also dove off a bridge to win bets, and did trapeze stunts hanging from a tree branch over said river. Naturally, when the Thayer Dollar Circus came to town, Ivy ran away with it. It was 1877; he was 11. Actually he’d already run away from home, so this was just the next phase of development.
In the circus Ivy hooked up with two brothers named Baldwin to do high-wire and trapeze. He changed his name to Ivy Baldwin became one of the Baldwin Brothers.
Balloon stunts were getting big in circuses in those days. One day in Terre Haute, one of the balloonists got drunk and didn’t show up for work, so Ivy filled in. At 5’ 3.5” and 120 pounds he had a great build for it, as well as an innate desire to be up in the air.
Balloons in those days were made out of something like a bedsheet, held over a stack from a wood fire in a covered trench by 20 or so men. The soot from the fire would cling to the interior seams and help to seal them. When the balloon was hot enough to ascend, it would go as high as 3,000 feet and slow to a hover as it cooled.
As the balloon went up in front of spectators, one of the men would get “caught in the ropes.” That was Ivy. He’d hang from a bar by his knees, or by his toes, and perform acrobatics as it went up. At about 2,500 feet he’d let go, free-fall, and pull a parachute from a sack.
With the Baldwin Brothers, Ivy traveled all over the world doing all kinds of stunts. In 1890, the Emperor of Japan was so impressed that he had a special kimono sewn for Ivy depicting balloons, parachutes, and crazy leaps.
Ivy broke from the Baldwin Brothers in 1893 and went solo, basing himself in Denver thereafter. He’d already gained a strong affinity for Colorado as home; in 1890 the Baldwins had been a major part of the opening of Elitch Gardens Amusement Park. Ivy became something of a Denver fixture. Say, if a new saloon was opening, he would be seen walking between rooftops. This was free-wheeling, wild west Denver. When he did the same stunts back East he had to comply with local regulations, which often stipulated a net. One time in Baltimore, to stay legal he ran out and got an old fishing net at the last minute and laid it on the ground beneath his tightrope.
In 1894 Ivy joined the Army Signal Corps to help get its balloon program going. This was the very early days of the “air” force, and the Corps was near to giving up when Ivy and his wife Bertha sewed up a new balloon in their living room. He became a sergeant in charge of ‘the’ military balloon, and went with it to the Cuba to serve in the Spanish-American war. In 1898 he and an associate were shot down near enemy lines a day before the Battle of San Juan Hill near Santiago de Cuba (on the southeast coast near Guantanamo). This made them the first American aviators to get shot down. They landed in a river and survived. Ivy finished his enlistment in 1900 and was honorably discharged. Later, he served in World War I.
A contemporary of the Wright brothers, Ivy in the early 1900s got involved in the design-build and testing of prototype aircraft – and in the many crack-ups of them. But he never lost his life, nor his affection for ballooning, parachuting, and – especially – his first love: tightrope walking.
In 1906 or so, Ivy began a long association with the El Dorado Springs Resort in the stunning El Dorado Canyon, which is 9 miles southwest of Boulder. This is where I “met” Ivy, while doing research for my hiking book a few weeks ago. El Dorado is now a rustic state park with hiking trails, and has been a rock climbers’ mecca since the inception of the sport. But in the early 1900s it was a major commercial resort. On summer days, El Dorado attracted tens of thousands to its artesian water-filled swimming pools and carnival atmosphere. Fine hotels such as the New El Dorado catered to honeymooners such as Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower. Glenn Miller played the dance hall.
There is a spot in the El Dorado Canyon entrance that cries out for a tightrope walker. This is the span between Bastille Rock, on the south side, and Wind Tower on the north. It’s about 600 feet across and almost the same amount of feet high.
Ivy did the walk more than 80 times over decades. Sometimes he did it backwards. One time he had to stop and hang by his knees for about an hour to let a storm pass.
Ivy said his act was “the greatest poison in the world” because “one drop could kill you.” But it never did. He died at the age of 87, in bed in his house in El Dorado Springs. By then his daredevil life had exceeded standard expectancy by 45 and 20 years, respectively, of what it was when he was born and when he died.
A few years before, in 1948, on his 82nd birthday, Ivy walked El Dorado Canyon for the last time. The wire was set lower than usual and for a shorter span, but only on the insistence of his daughter. The event was filmed by LIFE
Magazine, and you can watch the video here
. The best part is seeing smiling, fit Ivy step off the other end, wave, and climb down the rocks.
One source said that Ivy felt so good after his “final” walk that he did it again the next day.
This is the part where me and Ivy’s life stories will re-converge. I’ll keep on changing, becoming, and exploring, all my life, and when I’m 82 I’ll keep doing the shit that I love to do, including the shit I loved to do when I was ten years old. Call it poison. And get up and do it again the next day.
It would be nice to die in bed, but we don’t have a say in that matter do we. Or to quote Maggie (Molly) Brown, another oddball Coloradan who I wrote about last month:
"I am a daughter of adventure. This means that I never experience a dull moment, and never know when I may go up in an airplane and come down with a crash, or go motoring and climb a pole, or go off for a walk in the twilight and return all mussed up in an ambulance. That's my arc, as the astrologers would say. It's a good one, too, for a person who had rather make a snap-out than a fade-out of life."
(written shortly before she died in bed in her sleep)