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11. Back to Albuquerque

VAN TASSEL RETURNED to Albuquerque on June 29, 1889, in preparation for a balloon ascension, with a reporter from the Albuquerque Morning Democrat newspaper, and a parachute jump as part of 1889 Independence Day celebrations. However, the jump would be made by the lighter-weight Joseph Lawrence, while Van Tassel would supervise the launch. Upon joining the Van Tassel team, Lawrence became known as Joseph Van Tassell, Park’s “brother.”1

Joseph Lawrence was born on May 4, 1864, in Hookstown, Pennsylvania. He attended public schools at Hookstown, Darlington, and Beaver, becoming a clerk in a hardware store in Beaver Falls. Lawrence led a very clean life as a child, without using profanity, drinking alcohol, or indulging in any other vice. While employed at the hardware store, he often slept there overnight to serve as a guard. One evening burglars entered the building, only to discover Joe in the store. They opened fire on him and Joe returned fire, with the burglars fleeing the scene.2

At the age of seventeen, in 1881, with the help of his brother Walter, Joe took a position in another hardware store, at Fort Scott, Kansas. From there he moved to Kansas City to work in yet another hardware store. He suffered from rheumatism and was advised to move to Texas, but he moved to East Las Vegas, New Mexico, working in the Coors Brothers hardware store, and then Albuquerque, where he once again took a position in a hardware store. Lawrence met Van Tassel in either Salt Lake City or Las Vegas, New Mexico, or more likely upon his arrival at Albuquerque.

Citizens from both New Town and Old Town Albuquerque came to watch the balloon ascension at the fairgrounds. Many in Albuquerque remembered Van Tassel’s prior success and failure. And given his previous exodus, it is perhaps surprising that no one asked to collect on a long-lost debt. However, just when Van Tassel wanted to make right with Albuquerque, he arrived with his wife’s balloon and was working with a new performer (Lawrence). He tried to launch with both gas and hot air/smoke, but many “difficulties” arose and no launch was made. Once again, Van Tassel found himself a persona non grata in his former town, frustrated that he could not perform and make amends. Locals, remembering how Van Tassel’s balloon had escaped without him at the 1882 New Mexico Territorial Fair, were outraged. Folks who journeyed north from Socorro and south from Santa Fe felt they had once again been deceived by Van Tassel. An anonymous author commented in the Santa Fe Daily New Mexican, “Peague explains why the bear fight did not take place [as part of July 4 celebrations], but Van Tassell does not tell why the balloon did not go up on the 4th.”3 Both Van Tassel and the public in general were beginning to tire of missed ascensions.4

Van Tassel and Lawrence left Albuquerque behind, heading back to San Francisco, making risky but thrilling parachute jumps at cities along the way, with Lawrence as the jumper. It isn’t clear if Lawrence received an equal share of the gate receipts or if he was hired by Van Tassel as his parachute jumper at a reduced rate. At Santa Monica, California, Lawrence (called simply Van Tassell in the papers) made an ascension on July 27, 1889. An estimated twelve thousand spectators watched as he launched in a smoke balloon from a bluff north of the pier at 3:30 p.m. and rose to an approximate altitude of 4,000 feet before leaping with the parachute. He fell quite fast for an estimated 400 yards before the parachute opened, and he landed on the ground safely. The balloon came back to Earth on Ocean Avenue near the home of US senator John P. Jones.5 Later, Park Van Tassel noted to a reporter, “When he [Lawrence] sprang from the balloon over a mile and a half from the earth. He was clear out of sight, the clouds being very high, and a prettier sight you never saw then when the clouds opened, it seemed, and let him fall through.” Lawrence added, “I came down terribly fast,” to which Van Tassel added, “Yes brother, too fast.”6 But Lawrence finally had a successful parachute jump under his belt.

The duo stayed in the Los Angeles area for another week, promising another ascension on August 5, 1889. Prior to the attempt, newspapers suggested that Lawrence would leap from the tremendously high altitude of 10,600 feet and that it would be “the most sensational [jump] that he has ever attempted.” However, on August 5 the afternoon winds were so strong that it was nearly impossible to launch. The crowds were large and patient, and slowly the winds subsided in the late afternoon. The balloon ascension began at nearly 7:00 p.m., and Lawrence leaped to a successful parachute descent, much to the pleasure of the spectators. Once again, papers reported this as a jump by “Van Tassell,” still confused as to which “brother” was actually doing the jumping.7

Continuing on, the duo stopped in Fresno for a parachute jump. This was the first time Park made formal mention of Joseph Van Tassel as his “brother” to reporters.8 Newspapers largely assumed that after Park’s initial jump at the Cliff House, he was the one doing all the jumps. In Fresno, a reporter for the Fresno Expositor interviewed Park at the Hughes Hotel. The reporter described Park as weighing 200 pounds, “built like Apollo and very handsome.”9 When asked how many jumps he had made, Park answered that he had made twenty-eight jumps and that “Joe has jumped six times and Mrs. Van Tassell has jumped once.”10 (With the exception of Clara’s one jump, these numbers were likely exaggerations.) When the reporter asked, “How does it happen that your wife has made but one jump?” Park replied, “Because, sir, I wouldn’t endure the agony I suffered when she did jump for all the money on earth. I think I suffered a thousand deaths. She went up 5,600 feet, but she will never do it again.”11

On August 18, 1889, their launch at Fresno was once again precluded by high winds. More than three thousand people had come from all over the San Joaquin Valley to see the ascension. Roughly one thousand of them had paid fifty cents to be inside the enclosure for the launch, and their money was returned to them at the gate. The remaining two thousand “stood up on their buggy seats and peered over the fence. Horsemen stood on their saddle; small boys glued their eyes to cracks and knot holes; ladies tiptoed in their carriages, and thus, from half-past 2 until 5 o’clock, they endured the heat of the sun, because they wanted to see the show.”12

Determined to make an ascension for the citizens of Fresno, the team set a date of August 25 for the attempt.13 On that date, with two thousand spectators gathered to watch the first parachute jump in Fresno County, the balloon ascended just fine, taking Lawrence to an altitude of roughly 7,000 feet. But a problem with the rip cord prevented the parachute from detaching properly. As a result, Lawrence rode down in the balloon.14 It was Lawrence’s first miscue, but he played out the issue safely.

Park and Joe tried again in Fresno on October 3, 1889, as part of the county fair. At 2:00 p.m., all was ready. Fifty men held tight to the balloon to secure it in position. On the ascent, Joe released fifty thousand small colored cards, which floated down on what little breeze was aloft. At 6,500 feet, Joe cut loose and proceeded to make a perfect parachute jump, landing exceedingly close to the original point of takeoff.15

From Fresno, Park and Joe moved on to attempt another balloon launch and parachute jump at nearby Visalia, California. The balloon ascended just fine, but then Joe had trouble. Instead of the more typical arrangement of securing the parachute to the side of the balloon at its equator, Park and Joe had attached the parachute directly to the bottom of the balloon. A connecting cord passed through a box containing a knife to cut the cord. A jerk on a pull cord for this box should have severed the rope between the parachute and the balloon. Joe tugged away at this pull cord for minutes without success. Meanwhile, a large rent formed in the side of the balloon, causing it to descend. The rate of descent began to increase, and Joe was now in serious trouble of landing at high speed. A reporter wrote, “The last fifty yards seemed as though they were being traversed in a second and the crowd from the back of the grandstand made a rush to see what many feared would be a pulp. The aeronaut, however, was most fortunate. He fell in the softest spot in a wide meadow, on the top of a twenty-foot haystack, which seemed as though it might have been placed purposely to receive him.”16 Lawrence was lucky to survive, and the “brothers” postponed further ascensions until the balloon and the parachute release mechanism could be repaired.17 They headed for San Francisco with loftier goals in mind.

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