10. Back to Utah

BY EARLY MAY 1889, Van Tassel made arrangements for an ascension and parachute jump at Garfield Beach,1 on the shore of the Great Salt Lake west of Salt Lake City. With his previous ballooning success in Utah not forgotten, Park was hailed by Salt Lake newspapers as having “unrivaled daring and courage,” with a jump that would be “the greatest test ever attempted in this territory.” Newspapers also reported that Van Tassel had made more than three hundred balloon flights at various locations in America and was engaged to travel to London, England, with his wife to provide a balloon launch at the Crystal Palace grounds in July 1889.2 While no reports of the Van Tassels actually providing exhibitions in London can be located, balloonist Eduard Spelterini and trapeze artist Leona Dare (whose real name was Susan Adeline Stuart) did perform balloon stunts at the Crystal Palace in July 1889.

Van Tassel arrived in Salt Lake City on May 20 accompanied by his manager, a Mr. Fenton, but without Clara.3 Balloon launches were scheduled for May 26. The newly expanded Utah & Nevada Railroad announced that it was prepared to handle the larger-than-expected crowds with special trains departing Salt Lake at regular intervals, arriving in time for the ascension scheduled for 5:00 p.m. Reporters noted that Van Tassel was using a new smoke balloon and a parachute used only once previously, at Santa Rosa, California.4 Donald McLaire, general manager of the Pacific Short Line Railroad, arranged for a special train to bring spectators from Ogden, Utah, to Garfield Beach for the launch.5

Filling of the balloon began on Saturday, May 25, at 4:45 p.m., about the time of the arrival of the last train. However, with the balloon nearly filled, someone managed to step on the sheet of iron that covered the tunnel carrying hot air from the coal fire to the balloon. This caused the tunnel to collapse and let the remaining hot air escape. A new trench was dug in haste. During the ruckus, the partially filled balloon was moved out of the way, and during that process, the canvas snagged and was damaged slightly. Van Tassel worked quickly to repair the trench, stoke the fire, and repair the smoke balloon to continue the inflation. By 8:20 p.m., the balloon was ready for launch, but by this time the atmosphere had begun to cool. A gust of cold air came to the field, and it became clear that a launch this late in the day in poor conditions was futile, so Van Tassel simply pulled a release valve to let the hot air escape. He and his organizers promised the large crowd that remained that they would try again the following afternoon.6 The May 29 edition of the Salt Lake Herald noted that Van Tassel would remain in town to provide a full ascension and parachute drop, “even if it took him all summer.”7


On May 26, 1889, the Salt Lake Herald announced that “The Great Van Tassell,” “engaged at great expense,” would provide balloon ascensions and parachute jumps at Garfield Beach. Digital images,

However, on May 26, the Salt Lake Herald reported that citizens could also see the ascension of “the largest balloon City of Salt Lake” and a parachute jump by “Professor” James William Price8 at Lake Park.9 Price was said to be trying to “beat the world’s record,” but it wasn’t clear precisely which record that was. So here in Salt Lake City were two “professors” of ballooning and parachuting, determined to see whose jump would be the highest, fastest, or farthest, and which of them had the larger balloon. Price’s exhibition included a woman, a daredevil parachutist who used the stage name Millie Viola. Unknown to most, her real name was Ruby Marana Hawker.10 She hailed from Australia, and although it isn’t clear how she came to the United States or became connected with Price, she often told the press she was his sister.11 Price and Viola had made balloon ascensions and parachute jumps prior to their arrival in Utah. For instance, on May 4, 1888, at Paris, Illinois, Price (performing as Professor Sisk)12 made his first parachute jump from a balloon for thousands of spectators.13 He made a similar attempt a week later at Mattoon, Illinois, but just as the balloon was being prepared for launch it caught fire and was released, fortunately leaving Price safely on the ground.14 Later, in the fall of 1888, Viola made her first parachute jump, with Price’s assistance at Chicago, landing in Lake Michigan. On September 10, 1888, Viola and Price15 made a spectacular dual ascension and parachute jump over Minneapolis as part of Minneapolis Day celebrations at the state fair.16 At the time, Price was seventeen years old and Viola nearly fifteen.

Price made his ascension at Lake Park in Utah on Sunday, June 2, 1889, but the launch was delayed by an hour and a half, and Price failed to jump via parachute. He remained with the balloon for a safe landing after spending some time hovering over the Great Salt Lake. On June 5, Viola made a successful balloon ascension and parachute jump at Lake Park.17

It is conceivable that this set of crosstown rivals could have conspired to cause Van Tassel’s inflation troubles on May 25. However, Van Tassel’s troubles were all of his own doing. He had made the mistake of bringing the wrong balloon with him to Salt Lake—a smaller balloon, appropriate for his wife but not for him—and the delay on May 25 was related to this issue. The thirty-five-year-old Van Tassel now found himself in a considerable bind. He had promised a balloon ascension and a jump, and not only were people expecting him to fulfill the promise but the competition was making him look like a fraud. A jump had to be made, but he was unable to do so! What to do?

One accounting of what actually transpired came to light in 1900 in the pages of the Nebraska State Journal. A man named Dudley Cochran provided his version of the events:

I came to make my first drop in a most peculiar way. My partner and I were doing trapeze work in Salt Lake City at Garfield beach when the Union Pacific was just opening it. We had good work and enjoyed it and got good salaries. One day we went into a restaurant and saw a bill of the first balloon ascension in Utah. It was to be made by Professor Van Tassel at the beach on the next day and it was spread out big, I tell you. My partner and I knew mighty little about the balloon business and pronounced the thing a fake and said so pretty loud in the hearing of a man who had entered after us and was taking our talk all in. I remember that I said I would make the ascent for $100. The show bills told of the immense sum that was being paid the professor and I made the boast that I would go up for the much smaller sum.

The next day you better believe I felt like a monkey when I saw the man we saw in the restaurant approach while we were walking on the beach and especially when he began talking balloon. It turned out that he was the great Van Tassel, with a record a mile long and a pocket full of coin. And he was in a fix. He had come all the way from San Francisco to make the ascent and on opening up his canvas, he found that his wife’s balloon had been packed instead of his own. His wife was as accomplished an aeronaut as he and her balloon was much lighter than his, so much lighter that he could not make a successful ascent with it. He reminded me of my talk of the previous day and more as a poke at me suggested that I go up in place of himself. He thought he was giving me the merry ha-ha and offered me $400 if I would make the ascent. He was to get $1,200 for it, but he said he would have to throw up the contract as it was impossible for him to ride the light bag. I was making each week with my partner a fraction of what he offered me. I had my brags and a fellow in the show business feels like sticking to them. This was a poser of a proposition. There wasn’t any hole to crawl into anywhere so I just stood and looked at column after column the professor had in newspaper clippings telling what he had done and which he kept shoving my way when he saw me weakening.

It was an actual fact that I had never seen a balloon ascension myself and that I simply knew they were possible and that parachute jumps were often taken. The upshot was that I decided to go it against the demands of my partner and against my own feelings, you better believe. The professor, who had no idea that I had nerve enough to take the offer, was a little dazed himself and he left me any number of chances to back out. I guess he didn’t want to cart my bones home and take the responsibility but I hung on and I walked out of the dressing room on the eventful afternoon decked out in my prettiest tights and feeling as if I was going to my funeral. I wouldn’t go through the preliminaries again for a family I had to feel everything I felt on that occasion. The balloon was a huge bag, even if it was Van Tassel’s lightest. It was a ninety-footer, made to go higher than blazes for a spectacular fall. Maybe you think it didn’t look big tugging away at the ropes. The professor gave me one more chance to back out and when he saw I was game, he shoved a $100 note in my hands as an evidence of good faith and got me in the harness while I was stowing the money away in my flashy garments.

Don’t tell me anything about people getting afraid. I guess if I hadn’t had the life belt strapped about me and if the ropes to the bag had not been allowed loosened, I would have thrown the $100 note at the professor and flew for the lake or anywhere to get out of sight of the monster that I was tied to. I was jerked up before I could hesitate. Instinctively I had followed advice carefully pumped into me, to run along and give a spring as the balloon was freed for the ascent. It was not one-tenth as bad as I thought. My limbs were through rope loops and the life belt around my waist would have held me if I had lost consciousness. But I actually began to enjoy myself though for a moment, I was limp. The earth spread out a huge saucer below me. Gradually I saw the lake below, from end to end. In a few moments, I looked over the mountains near and then across into the valleys beyond. Then I saw other lakes and other mountains. It was a fine day and the sight was so novel that when the signal pistol was shot from below for me to cut loose, I was simply wondering what held me up and how fine it was. The balloon had gone into a cloud and the hundred feet of rope that held me ran upward seemingly supported by nothing. Then I went into the cloud too and as the mist struck into me, I felt for the first time what I was there for.

The pistol shot suddenly recurred to me as a signal to drop. The trip had been so interesting that I had clear forgotten all about the end but you better believe I tumbled to myself then. The bag was still rising and I got out of the cloud and sent my hand out slowly for the rope which would cut me loose. I got it in my hand and stopped. If I had ever seen a parachute drop before and had known how long the old style chute takes to open, I never could have pulled the rope. As it was, I drew my hand back and thought, with my heart in my throat, Just one pull and—. Say, but it was all I could do to hang on for a minute. Just one little pull and—. I felt for my $100 to see if it was safe and reached out for the rope. I tried it and it was all regular. Then I determined to do the business and raised my hand to give it the jerk. That rope seemed to hold the future, my life, my death, a thousand terrors.

The aeronaut who tells me he can drop several hundred feet straight and know what is going on all the time, I would like to see for a few minutes somewhere alone. Ten thousand sea sicknesses in one wouldn’t do it justice. Eternity in a jumble, dreams, horrors, then insensibility to everything but dread were my feelings. I didn’t look up to watch the chute to take notes when the wind came in. I couldn’t. No one can. I hung on like the devil and let her rip. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t move. I could just grip with a dying man’s hold the slender ropes that seemed to support me no longer. If the chute had not opened, I would have been unconscious long before the mile between myself and the ground had been covered. The fall would not have hurt me a particle for a few more seconds would have made me dead to all pain and as it was, I expected the thud any moment with less and less certainty where I was or what I was doing.

Then in a moment, I was sailing down admiring the saucer of the earth once more in all its beauty. The chute had slowly opened and I was falling only a hundred feet or so a second. Off a little way the balloon was just turning over for its drop. Then the ground grew nearer and larger and I fell with a thud that nearly drove my legs into my body right on the lake beach. An offer of $25 had been made to the first man who would get me if I fell into the water and the first thing I heard was a hurry up call from a fellow making for the shore in a row boat. “Jump in the water and let me get you and I’ll divvy.” But I prized my green suit and ignored the offer and felt for the $100 as the professor came running up brimming over with congratulations. I was only a short distance from the starting point.

It seems that I had made a star ascension. I had tumbled from the clouds in earnest. When I cut the rope, I was entirely out of sight from below in the clouds. The time I sat holding the string in my hand thinking it over was so long that those below thought the gear had fouled.18

It remains unclear how many in the audience actually knew that it was not Van Tassel who had made the leap from the sky but another daredevil with the Van Tassell stage name.

Millie Viola made another jump on June 10 at Lake Park.19 While clearly the two teams of ballooning parachutists were competitive in Salt Lake, additional reports suggested that Price made use of a Van Tassel balloon on his attempt of June 2, 1889.20 But it remains unclear how those reports could be true if Van Tassel had brought just his wife’s balloon with him, unless his larger balloon had also arrived by train. Van Tassel and Price would soon see each other again under more collaborative circumstances, so it seems they left Salt Lake in friendship, perhaps even with a future partnership already planned. However, after appearing at Salt Lake, Price and Viola continued on their planned tour, with a paired ascension from Columbia Gardens in Helena, Montana, on July 9. On July 10 they made another spectacular paired ascension, to an altitude of 6,000 feet, and leaped simultaneously from their balloons to return to Earth via parachute.21 And while Price and Viola were in Montana, Van Tassel continued on to his more familiar stomping grounds of New Mexico.

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