Oregon has long been a land of high adventure. But few contemporary “extreme sport” adventurers can hold a candle to the legend of Oregon’s original daredevil.
83 years ago, a man rode a 12-foot canvas boat over the biggest waterfall in Silver Falls State Park. The run was one of many foamy adventures the high flying whitewater-loving daredevil, Al Fausett, accomplished during his lifetime.
When it came to “daredeviling,” Al Faussett was one of a kind. He never wore a life jacket, a helmet or carried safety equipment of any sort in the heyday of early 20th century daredevils.
Fausett was originally a logger who tackled gritty, dangerous work in the Pacific Northwest forests. But it didn’t take long for the young man to figure out another, albeit more risky way to make a buck in the great outdoors.
“By the time he became a daredevil,” noted his great grandson, Guy Faussett, “His wife said she’d had enough and promptly divorced him. He said, ‘Well, I’ll show you, I’m going to be somebody.'”
Whether jilted by the love of his life or determined to make more money than logging could ever offer, Faussett started to run some of the region’s tallest waterfalls from inside wooden canoes or tiny canvas boats. In fact, he became so well known for his acts that film crews followed his exploits and captured his runs and then played them at the silent film cinemas, so popular in the 1920s.
His many runs included one particular death-defying ride over Willamette Falls.
“Willamette Falls was a very treacherous falls in the 1920s,” noted his grandson. “No dams to regulate flood control back then and many people were killed going over those falls.”
In March of 1928, Willamette Falls was especially swollen from recent winter rain and snowstorms that had blown through Oregon. While the falls wasn’t much of a drop, it was a huge, frothy cauldron of bone chilling cold.
“When Al went over those falls, his boat actually disappeared in the bottom of the main falls envelope,” said Guy. “Reporters noted that he was inside that water for 6 minutes and when it appeared below the falls upside down, floating and bobbing in the whitewater – everyone knew he was dead.”
But Al wasn’t even scratched and he was just warming up.
Guy added, “Al managed to stay alive and folks couldn’t believe it.”
His next run was more ambitious and much taller: South Falls, the tallest falls of the crown jewel waterfall region that is now known as Silver Falls State Park. South Falls is 177 feet top to bottom – a gigantic distance by any measure, but Faussett’s daredevil adventures had led contemporary sponsors to rally and support his runs.
First Hirsch-Weiss, a Portland canvas tent company, built him a boat. Then the Portland-based Columbia Knit Company gave him a sweater for warmth.
On a warm July afternoon in 1928, thousands of folks paid a buck apiece to line the steep banks to see what might happen to Daredevil Al on his next waterfall jump.
Al’s plan was simple enough: build a ramp out over the lip of South Falls and then build a dam back up the creek.
When the time was right, his men would bust open the dam and a rush of water would carry him over the edge. His other so-called safety measures were fairly simple too. For example, he stuffed dozens of rubber inner tubes into his soft canvas boat (it was complete with a roof-top zipper that would seal Al inside) and soften the crash when he hit nearly 200 feet below.
But the dam busting failed and the big rush of water never hit. Instead, two men pushed him over the falls.
And down, down he fell – nearly 200 feet – in less than three seconds. Film footage shows the boat arcing into the pool and then landing upside down.
“And it hit hard like a belly flop at the bottom,” added Guy Faussett. Al was unconscious, knocked out from the fall. He woke in just a few moments in agony with two sprained ankles, a fractured right hand, several broken ribs and serious internal injuries. He was carried away from the scene on the arms of the crowd and even managed a feeble wave before he was rushed to the local hospital.
He was so badly hurt that it took him months to recover but the worst pain was yet to sting: all the money, Al’s big Oregon payday – not only the gate receipts, but the side-bets too – had disappeared with Al Faussett’s manager and neither manager or money were ever seen again.
“Al never saw a dime of it,” noted his grandson.
The missing $5000 was a princely sum for the king of Oregon daredevils who had stared down death from hundreds of feet overhead and according to his grandson, held on to a sobering secret to his very end:
“He really wasn’t even a swimmer. In fact, he was afraid of the water.”