9. North by Northwest

UNDETERRED BY THE fiasco in San Jose, the Van Tassels traveled by train to Portland, arriving on September 10, 1888, for a planned parachute jump with the repaired National on September 23.1 The balloon was filled with gas in Portland and then transported by barge to a launch location at City View Park, 3 miles up the Columbia River. Yet again, disaster struck before launch. Van Tassel enlisted locals to help steady the filled balloon with guide ropes as it was being moved onto the barge, but some of them let go while crossing a slippery set of logs. In the ensuing chaos, Park Van Tassel and two helpers, John Murphy and David Kafka, became entangled in the ropes and fell into the river, with Murphy falling from a height of 30 feet. While no one was seriously hurt, the freed and unpiloted National rose on its own to an estimated height of 10,000 feet, drifting 9 miles to the southwest before catching on fire and descending rapidly to Earth. It was later surmised that one of the guide ropes had been too close to burning sawdust at the launch location, and over time an ember ignited the gas inside the balloon. The destruction of the balloon was an estimated loss of $2,000, with another $150 worth of gas wasted in one big “poof.” According to a reporter, Van Tassel said, as he watched the balloon sail away,

There goes my all. If all had gone well there is where we would have been sailing along as nice as you please, a perfect trip and a perfect day. If I had not fallen into the water and could have got near her I would have climbed into the car, and could have managed her . . . I think she will travel about forty miles. She is up about 8000 feet and there is a strong wind. If I can recover her I will make the ascent next week . . . there goes $2600 and all I have in the world.258

Van Tassel and a friend from the Merchants Hotel searched for the balloon, finally locating it several days later about 3 miles west of Taylor’s Ferry. Van Tassel offered $50 to any local who would bring it to Portland, and five days later a rancher named R. Malloy brought the remains in. He noted, “I saw the thing light and followed it up. It took me the greater part of the day to extricate it from the brush and trees amidst which it fell. In coming down, the balloon broke a tree fifteen inches in circumference, and knocked the top off another.”3 It became clear that the stories of the balloon being lost to fire were incorrect.4 Van Tassel examined the balloon and spread it out at the Gambrinus Gardens dance hall for repairs. He recalled, “The platform at Gambrinus Gardens is the best place I could get. I tried to engage the Mechanics’ Pavilion, but they are working in there, preparatory to the fair. The Gambrinus hall is about eighteen feet too small for the balloon. I shall have to make several new sections, do about 3000 yards of stitching, have eight or nine people working at it, and will be put to an expense of between $600 and $700, not to mention my loss of business.”5

He declared to the press that he would attempt another flight with the National after October 7.6 The repaired balloon was inflated on a barge on October 13 and towed on the afternoon of October 14 to City View Park. From there the balloon was carefully moved with the help of twenty men “and nearly a hundred boys shouting and dancing about” to the judges’ stand in the park.7 There, Van Tassel and news reporter A. A. Ritchie climbed aboard in front of about twelve hundred to fifteen hundred spectators. They launched around 4:00 p.m., ascending to 12,800 feet over Portland and then moving in a southeasterly direction toward Willsburg. Passing 5 miles east of Milwaukie, the balloon finally landed 11 miles east of Rock Creek at 5:45 p.m.8 A newspaper report suggested that the Van Tassels would “leave for London in a few days,” although the reporter likely meant London, Oregon—not London, England. With all the difficulties, and with Park’s trepidation about more parachute jumps by Clara, Park decided that from then on, if there were going to be parachute jumps, he would make them.

Together, they traveled to Seattle as planned, but their new balloon didn’t go with them. A dispute arose with a Mr. Hodgson, who owned the depot in Portland where the balloon was housed. Hodgson would not release the balloon until he had received payment for the services of his band, which had likely played as a part of Van Tassel’s ascension. Hodgson’s attorney suggested that they ask the courts to see whether anyone wanted to buy it. If not, Hodgson would keep the balloon as his own and “go up myself.”9 The balloon ended up being sold to a musician named J. H. Ross for $100, with the sale handled by Constable Samuel Simmons.10

On November 2, 1888, Van Tassel arrived in Seattle, where it was announced that he was building a new 35,000-cubic-foot balloon, a relatively small one, similar to the balloon used for his inaugural flight in Albuquerque. Built at Turn Verein Hall,11 the balloon was to be completed by the end of November. Van Tassel suggested that he’d make a test ascension to 600 feet from a barge in the bay.12

Meanwhile, following his sensational demonstrations of balloon-assisted parachuting, Thomas Baldwin embarked on a trip to Australia to make similar exhibitions there. Australian aeronauts had already caught on to the mechanics of the operation. For instance, a thirty-eight-year-old Australian watchmaker named J. T. Williams made his own ascension and parachute descent from 6,000 feet at Ashfield, a borough of Sydney, in December 1888.13 Williams had never been up in a balloon before; nor had he made a parachute jump before. But the jump was a success and is often considered the first parachute jump in Australia’s history. Another American aeronaut, known as Professor Bartholomew, had also reached Australia. He began making parachute jumps in December 1888.14 Australia was hungry for American talent and a welcome market for the spectacle of trapeze work and parachuting from balloons. Baldwin was eager to capitalize.

On January 1, 1889, Park Van Tassel attempted to launch in his balloon at Seattle but failed due to a lack of sufficient gas. The next day, he launched at 1:00 p.m. along Jackson Street near the Seattle Gas Company’s plant near Fifth Avenue. He launched with the intent of finding an air current that would carry him over the harbor, where he would leap and then land with his parachute in the water. However, after launch, no air current to take him over the harbor was found. He leaped from an altitude of 7,000 feet, hoping the parachute would do its job properly. The first 500 feet of the descent were made with a tremendous velocity, as the parachute took its time to open. When the parachute finally did open, the jolt was so severe that Van Tassel lost his handhold and for a time was secured to the parachute only by the strap around his waist. This was considered “indescribably thrilling” by reporters for the Post-Intelligencer. He regained control of the hand rings and proceeded to descend in a safe manner for two minutes, landing unharmed in waist-deep water at the foot of Denny Way. He was picked up by a small boat while his balloon came down eventually at Smith Cove. This death-defying leap was Park’s first successful parachute jump.15 Rather quickly thereafter, Park returned to San Francisco by train.

Once back in San Francisco, Park announced that he would make a parachute jump near the Cliff House for the city he called home.16 On February 10, 1889, a crowd of ten thousand came to witness the feat. A light but unusual offshore breeze was blowing, so the launch was moved a half mile inland from the Cliff House to a sheltered location. Unfortunately, the gas at that location was insufficient to fill the balloon to its maximum capacity, something that was now becoming a routine problem. Rather than risk looking like a failure in front of ten thousand spectators, Van Tassel decided to remove the basket entirely and dangle from the balloon with only a rope as his seat. After taking the balloon aloft, he jumped at approximately 1,300 to 1,500 feet above the dunes near the Cliff House. For the first 200 feet, the parachute failed to open and he gained significant speed. It was clear to most on the ground that Van Tassel’s legs had become entangled in a rope, preventing the parachute from opening fully. He gave a few quick jerks with his legs and finally the rope was freed. At an altitude of just 500 feet, the parachute opened fully, slowing Van Tassel down to a light landing on a nearby sand dune. The crowd was ecstatic. However, the initial high rate of speed was an overly concerning experience for Van Tassel, enough to make him seriously question any further parachute jumps. The press noted that “Van Tassell was a little pale and said that for a moment he thought he was lost.”17 His unpiloted balloon remained aloft and drifted west with the breeze, coming to rest in the Pacific, roughly 8 miles from shore near San Pedro Point. The balloon was picked up by the City of Puebla as it left San Francisco for Port Harford. Other than being soaked, the balloon was not damaged. It was returned by train from Port Harford. Meanwhile, reporters wondered how many jumps Van Tassel had left before the reaper would catch up with him.18 The Santa Cruz Sentinel reported, “It is only a question of time when Van Tassell will drop out of existence.”19 He was wondering the same thing, but the income was too good to be ignored. Through the repeated stunts up and down the West Coast, Van Tassel had generated considerable notoriety, perhaps even more so when balloon launches or parachute jumps did not go as planned. The death-defying leap near the Cliff House further cemented his fame. The press reported, “It need hardly to be said that his thrilling jump has contributed largely to the name of the daring aeronaut.”20 News of his harrowing stunt was mentioned in various newspapers worldwide, sometimes in parallel with stories about Baldwin and other daredevils.21


A balloon prepares to launch from Ocean Beach just south of the famous Cliff House (on the left) at San Francisco. This is likely Van Tassel’s 1889 jump or a similar event from the period. Note the advertising billboard for Eclipse champagne on the cliff face. The California champagne company may have paid to have Van Tassel give his balloon the same name. San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

Van Tassel arranged to provide a balloon launch and parachute descent for the grand opening of Kroncke’s Park in Santa Rosa on April 6, 1889. The balloon was moved to the field the week prior for staging. As with previous launches, event organizers made arrangements for the transportation of large crowds, by rail to Santa Rosa and from there to the park. For unknown reasons, on April 6 the balloon launch was pushed to the following Saturday, April 13. And on April 12 it was announced that the ascension would take place on April 20. It remains unclear whether the ascension ever happened.22 What is clear is that Van Tassel was at the Bay District horse track on April 20. He attended opening-day races of the Pacific Coast Blood-Horse Association and did not make a balloon launch.23 After that, Van Tassel once again set off on a journey through the West.

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