Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Greatest Stunt: Jumping A Car Across the St. Lawrence River

Although ticket refunds were offered, Ken Carter maintained that the 1976 attempt to jump the St. Lawrence River had been postponed, not canceled, and would likely take place in spring 1977 – which it didn’t. In June it was announced that the plan had been revived for September, but with a different car — a rocket-powered Lincoln Continental Mark IV, powerful and sturdy, but hardly an aerodynamic vehicle. Work resumed on the launch ramp in anticipation of a long-delayed but substantial payday.

Each week from July into September, newspaper articles touted the jump, adding to the growing frenzy and Knievel-like atmosphere. When questions were raised about potential issues with large freighters that daily plied the waters of the St. Lawrence, Carter assured everyone there would be no problem. But the truth was that he had no control over that aspect of the jump. St. Lawrence Seaway authorities announced that water traffic would continue as usual, and that “Carter will have to schedule his jump between the vessel movement.” To calm any doubts that might have surfaced, he confirmed at an Ottawa press conference that all systems were go. “The only thing that’s going to stop me this time is my death. If I die before the 25th, then I won’t be there.”

Five days before the jump, Carter’s claims of television coverage were questioned by reporters, who were told by ABC that the network was “not interested.” Finally, during an interview, Carter’s frustrations boiled over: “I just don’t give a damn what ABC says, I don’t give a damn what NBC says, I don’t give a damn what anybody says. I just want to jump a river and I just want to jump it in style!”

But pronouncements by daredevils back then were similar to boasts by wrestlers — often exaggerated, sometimes invented, and always geared towards the next promotion. The reality was that no networks were covering the jump, and despite lofty predictions of 50,000 or more attendees, few tickets had been sold, which was difficult to grasp when his recent jump in Morrisburg had drawn a crowd of 7,000. But in the face of such abysmal attendance predictions, it came as no great surprise when the St. Lawrence leap was once again postponed.

For most of the next year (1978), Ken was busy planning to jump the Snake River Canyon in hopes of succeeding where Evel Knievel had failed. But while negotiations were under way in Twin Falls, Idaho, Carter received word that Canadian officials would rescind permissions they had granted in relation to the St. Lawrence jump if he didn’t soon confirm plans to complete it. Several months later, he announced the leap would take place on July 1, 1979.

In June of that year, newspaper advertisements pronounced in bold print, “Evel Knievel Has Never Been This High: The Ken Carter Rocket Ride to New York, Sept. 25th.” During a late-August interview with the Ogdensburg Journal, Carter said he would jump “sometime around Labor Day weekend. The paving’s done, the ramp’s finished. I’m ready. I’m finally ready.”

But there were still plenty of doubters, and rightfully so. The jump, after all, had been similarly advertised back in 1976, and yet here were his followers, three years later, experiencing déjà vu. Form held true once again, and Labor Day weekend passed without Carter making the leap. The culprit, he said, was “inclement weather,” and the jump would happen very soon. Days later, meeting with reporters at “Carter’s Mountain” (the steel and concrete ramp that replaced the initial dirt version), he announced that the jump was rescheduled. “We are here to stay. We will not leave the site until the jump is made…. We are ready to go on September 23, and we may go earlier if the new chutes arrive. If so, we will give the press 24 to 48 hours’ notice.”

Carter’s jump vehicle was a yellow Lincoln Continental driven by hydrogen peroxide engines with a remarkably high fuel consumption: not 50 miles per gallon, but 50 gallons per mile! As reporters watched, a test run reached an estimated 230 miles per hour, strongly suggesting that there would be no delays this time. Rocket experts were part of his team, and all seemed confident of success.

On September 14, nine days before launch time, it was reported that Carter’s yellow Lincoln, valued at $250,000, had been stolen. Many assumed it was a ploy to garner more publicity or to avoid jumping, but a spokesman for Montreal police confirmed that both the hauler and the car had been reported missing. By the next day, after headlines proclaimed the terrible news, it was announced that a member of Carter’s team had taken it and “went off with his girlfriend” without telling anyone.

On September 21, two days before the big jump, it was again postponed, ostensibly to avoid a conflict with an auto race, the Canadian Grand Prix. The new target for jumping was given as “early October.”

What came to light at that time, and might well have had a bearing on events soon to follow, was that a team from the National Film Board of Canada had been following Ken Carter for the past few years, documenting the less than glitzy background work of traveling from town to town and performing stunts at each stop, as opposed to the dramatic headlines generated through promotional efforts. On September 26, the Film Board said that their project was completed and had accomplished its mission. Jumping the St. Lawrence was merely icing on the cake, they said, and if Carter wanted it included in the film, he would have to complete the stunt by week’s end, at which point the movie crew would wrap up the shoot. Film Board representative Barry Howells said, “It’s our opinion we have a film regardless of whether or not he jumps. We have a film in the can of everything he’s done for the past three or four years.”

Next, the conclusion: a stunning and bizarre climax on the St. Lawrence River.

Photos: Ken Carter (still-shot from The Devil At Your Heels); advertisement, Potsdam Courier and Freedom (1979); “Carter’s Mountain,” nickname for the ramp under construction at Morrisburg, Ontario (still-shot from The Devil At Your Heels)

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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

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