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Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Zen Zeno “The River Kid”

by Diane Janowski
Elmira City Historian
Stephen Peer crossing the Niagara River.

My job as City Historian requires me to answer questions – lots of questions. Many start with, “Did this really happen?” Sometimes I can answer, “Positively,” or “Absolutely not.” Then, there are the questions with answers that are somewhere in-between.

A few weeks ago, I received an email from a family that had a question about their father who lived in Elmira in the 1940s. “Dad” often spoke of his being 4 years old, walking out onto the winter ice on Brick Pond, falling through and drowning. Fortunately, he revived within a few minutes. The family wanted to know if the Star-Gazette reported the drowning incident. In the process of researching, I found out other things about the child that the family did not know. “Dad” was a frequent visitor of the St. Joseph’s emergency room with at least two other incidents before the age of four – once for getting cut with a piece of glass, and the other for falling out of a cart - both newsworthy enough for the Star-Gazette. However, I did not find mention of his drowning. That is not to say that it did not happen. He may have recovered very quickly and not needed medical attention. The family did enjoy reading about the two other incidents.

Another recent question came from a childhood friend of mine, Lu Randall, whose grandparents lived on my childhood street five houses up from my parents. Lu recalled her family’s lore about the contractor who built that house at 506 Esty Street. She told me a long fun story. I asked myself if this could be true.

After much searching, I found a January 16, 1956 Kingston (NY) Daily Freeman article written by Frank Tripp about this contractor (Zen Zeno, or rather, Oliver Hudson Hilton according to his birth certificate). Apparently, Frank and Zeno were old friends.

Tripp’s article described Zeno as a high wire performer and contortionist, and the only (self-proclaimed) person to cross Niagara Falls on a tight rope without a balancing pole. Tripp said he had known Zeno for more than 50 years before knowing this tale.

Oliver Hilton was born in Niagara Falls in 1887. From an early age he was a daredevil and called himself “Zeno, the river kid.” In the summer of 1896, exhibitionist tight roper James E. Hardy crossed Niagara Falls sixteen times on a rope with a balancing pole. After Hardy’s crossings, laws were passed prohibiting tight roping across the river and the falls. The half-mile rope still stood in 1897 and ten-year-old Zeno claimed that the rope was calling him.

Young Zeno said he climbed onto the rope with no balancing pole and no shoes at 7 PM on September 16, 1897, on the Canadian side. Twenty minutes later, he was on the American side. Police quickly grabbed him and arrested him for illegal entry via a tightrope. When they found out he was a US citizen they let him go after a good hollering. As a historian, I find no proof supporting this story - as it was not part of a show, nor is there a police report on the matter. He was just a kid fooling around on a rope. But, did he really do what he said he did? I don’t know.

Zeno, who had the “daredevil bug,” claimed this tightrope walk changed the course of his life. He worked for circuses and vaudeville until 1917 when the US army claimed him and he became Oliver Hilton again. Oliver was 30 when he joined the Company H 310th Infantry in Elmira. His service papers did not give a reason, but he received an honorable discharge five months later.

Apparently, Oliver learned some new skills in the army. I found him in the “Situations Wanted” column of the Star-Gazette February 5, 1926 advertising himself as a carpenter with wallboard expertise. This must be how he came to build the Esty house at about the same time.

The 1920 census says he lived at 724 Robinson Street with his wife Maude (around the corner from Esty Street). He was listed as a contractor. The 1930 census lists him at 357 Riverside Avenue still with his wife, and his occupation was “furrier.” The 1940 census says he lived at 402 Pennsylvania Avenue still with his wife, and he was still a furrier at the same address.

Oliver H. “Zeno” Hilton died December 15, 1977 and is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery. 

“Zeno, the River Kid” by Frank Tripp, The Kingston (NY) Daily Freeman, 16 January 1956, page 9.
1920, 1930, 1940 New York census

Email from Lu Randall.

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