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2. Albuquerque

AFTER HIS INITIAL success at Albuquerque, Park Van Tassel was put in touch with several prominent citizens of Las Vegas, New Mexico, eager to host a similar ascension at that location. Van Tassel and a gentleman named H. Umbrea traveled to Las Vegas and were met with great enthusiasm at the Plaza Hotel for a proposed launch in mid-August.1 The City of Albuquerque was transported to Las Vegas on August 2, 1882, by train. Considerable time and effort went into distributing marketing posters all over town, helping to generate interest.2 However, locals wondered why the balloon wasn’t named City of Las Vegas instead of City of Albuquerque.3

Given that this was the Old West, anything could happen at any time. On the afternoon of August 4, a noted horseman by the name of Kennedy rode on horseback into The Elite saloon in Albuquerque. This was apparently one of Kennedy’s favorite pastimes, as he had succeeded in doing it a few times previously without being apprehended. With Park away in Las Vegas, the replacement barkeep, Jack Stuner, ordered Kennedy and his horse to leave the saloon immediately. Seeing no effect, Stuner seized the reins and pulled the horse out of the saloon, closing the doors. Kennedy immediately turned the horse around and used it to break the doors open, quickly arriving at the rear of the saloon, unwilling to budge. With this second intrusion, Stuner found his way to a revolver and fired three shots at Kennedy in rapid succession. The first missed entirely, the second hit Kennedy in his left side, and the third grazed the head of a bystander sitting near the door of a store opposite the saloon. Those who saw the altercation believed that Stuner was justified in his actions. With non-life-threatening injuries, Kennedy swore vengeance on Stuner.4

Upon learning of the altercation, Park returned to Albuquerque on August 7.5 However, by August 9 Park and Ella had returned to Las Vegas, staying at the St. Nicholas Hotel.6 The situation calmed, and on August 13 it was announced that Park had hired the New Mexican Brass Band to play at his balloon ascension, now scheduled for August 15.7 Filling of the balloon began on August 14 at 9:30 a.m., but all the available gas in Las Vegas was used up by the time the balloon was half-filled with 16,000 cubic feet of gas. The valves were closed until more gas could be manufactured. Sandbags and ropes were used to secure the balloon. However, increasing afternoon winds kept the balloon tossing about. At 3:00 p.m., a dark thunderstorm loomed on the horizon, a product of the regular monsoon season in the Southwest. Park and others began to watch the clouds closely. Within an hour, the afternoon breeze had strengthened to a gale due to the nearby storm. The balloon moorings were insufficient, and soon the City of Albuquerque set itself loose, bounding along the ground until being caught by fencing on the east side of the field. The fence punched large holes that kept the balloon from bouncing all the way to Texas but unfortunately allowed all the gas to escape.8 Repairs commenced immediately. Only two days later, on August 16, the balloon was once again ready for flight. However, the city’s high altitude, roughly 6,500 feet above sea level, made it difficult to attain any buoyancy at all. Reporters noted, “The balloon is full of gas, and she look like she ought to move off majestically, but she don’t.”9 Another issue may have been the type of coal gas used for inflation. (Later balloonists used hydrogen generated on-site by adding iron filings to sulfuric acid.)10 One newspaper noted that “ordinary illuminating gas is too nearly the same weight as our atmosphere to be a perfectly reliable medium for balloon ascensions.”11 Van Tassel made several attempts to launch but with no avail, much to the disappointment of the throngs of spectators.12 Another attempt was made on the morning of August 17. Unwilling to disappoint the crowd, Park conned a man who weighed less to serve as the aeronaut and prepared him for the flight. When the balloon was released from its mooring, it began to rise, but the new pilot failed to throw sandbags over the side to increase the vertical rate of climb. Instead of continuing on its grand ascension, it rather quickly returned to Earth. Park and the pilot had a heated exchange, leading several other men to become engaged in the dispute.13 In the ensuing ruckus, Van Tassel lost his treasured barometer and his gun, which were last seen in the basket, but he managed to collect $500 in donations from Las Vegas patrons and received an invitation to conduct balloon ascensions at an exposition in Denver. Van Tassel returned to Albuquerque without further attempts in Las Vegas.

On the morning of Sunday, September 10, 1882, Park was involved in another unfortunate altercation in Albuquerque. He and two others, including Lou Blonger,14 were out late in a portion of town of ill repute near the intersection of Fourth Street and Railroad Avenue. The area was known for its opium dens and “houses which sell virtue by retail.” One of the houses was operated by a woman associated with Blonger,15 and Van Tassel and the woman began to talk. During the conversation, Van Tassel made a remark that so angered Blonger that he struck Van Tassel with his fist and then hit him over the head with a .45 revolver. Blonger cocked the gun, pointed it at Van Tassel, exclaimed, “You s—of a b—, you can’t talk to my woman in that way,” and then threw the gun at Van Tassel. Van Tassel was taken to a doctor to recover from his wounds, while on September 12 a warrant was issued for Blonger’s arrest for assault with intent to kill. He was arrested and held on $3,500 bail pending a court case in October.16 The results of the court case remain unknown.

Yet again, Van Tassel prepared for a balloon ascension in Albuquerque, as a part of the Second Annual New Mexico Territorial Fair, which began on September 18, 1882, and continued for roughly a week.17 Calm air greeted Van Tassel on the morning of September 20, and the balloon was inflated at the corner of Third Street and Gold Avenue. The inflation took more than one day to complete, ending near noon on September 21. Once it was filled, approximately one hundred men and boys pulled the balloon by rope to the city exposition grounds, where it was to be launched. However, during the transfer, the main rope holding the balloon disconnected, likely due to some-one’s carelessness. Those closest to the basket jumped on to keep the balloon fixed to the ground. Despite their efforts, the City of Albuquerque took to the sky, unpiloted. With very calm air aloft, the balloon reached apogee almost directly above the exposition grounds, roughly 1 mile high. Everyone at the exposition grounds was left wondering how and where the balloon would descend on its own. The balloon eventually burst as the gas inside it continued to expand, with no means of pressure relief, leading to its rapid descent. The partially filled balloon acted like a large parachute, floating off to a landing about a quarter of a mile north of the point of launch. It was brought back to the exposition grounds in a wagon. Van Tassel felt terrible about these events, and given all the recent difficulties in Las Vegas and Albuquerque, he was left wondering if he should continue in ballooning at all.18 There was word that he would try again on September 23, but it remains unknown if he had any success.19 Van Tassel and Frank Norris set off for San Francisco to obtain a new balloon to replace the now destroyed City of Albuquerque. They intended to return from San Francisco with a balloon christened El Montezuma and fly it at Chihuahua, Mexico.20 However, there are no known reports of balloon flights by Van Tassel in Mexico.

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For his second ascension, Van Tassel continued with advance advertising, such as this one from the Albuquerque Journal from September 20, 1882. Digital images, newspapers.com.

In early October, Van Tassel returned to Albuquerque. He continued running The Elite saloon in the Albuquerque Opera House, which had opened as the city’s first theater on June 13, 1882. For a time in October 1882, Park, Sam Truer, and Charley Robinson were on the bill as local talent performing on its stage.21 But it seems Van Tassel backed out of this opportunity at the last moment. Growing weary of Albuquerque and perhaps out of growing discontent in his marriage with Ella, in November Van Tassel sold The Elite to Harry Post, a well-known Albuquerque resident and bartender.22 Ella had spent several weeks in October visiting her parents in Stockton, and she returned to Albuquerque on November 7, 1882.23 She left Albuquerque for San Francisco via the Newhall Pass near Los Angeles in late January 1883, apparently without Park. Their marriage was strained.24 Van Tassel had difficulty paying his bills, and criticism came from all directions. A Las Vegas newspaper noted, “If Las Vegans had considered this sufficient cause to thump him, he would now be sleeping where balloons and flying machines do not trouble the wicked.”25 The Las Cruces Sun News commented, “Park Van Tassell, the Albuquerque aeronaut, has disappeared, owing over $1000. Gone up in a balloon.”26 John Koogle of the Las Vegas Daily Gazette noted on February 13, 1883, “PROF. PARK VAN TASSEL has at last disappeared. He has skipped to parts unknown. He has collapsed his business, but he seems to have been filled with better sailing gas than his balloon was, at this city, last summer. Park is certainly a magnificent fraud.”27 The concerns continued to resonate all the way into spring 1883, when a reporter in Las Vegas noted, “The citizens of that city would do well to buy Park a balloon that would go to the sun. He would be appreciated then.”28 In early February 1883, Park found himself in an altercation with a Mexican, a fight that ended with Park “thumping” the Mexican over the head.29 Despite being lauded as the first aviator in New Mexico’s history, Van Tassel now found himself entirely unwelcome. He moved to Peach Springs, a very small town on the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway in northwestern Arizona, feeling remorse about the way newspapers treated him in Albuquerque.30 From there, he wrote to the editor of the Albuquerque Journal, stating for the record that he did not owe the large sums that were implied and that small bills still owing would be paid as soon as possible. The journal editor responded that “Van is going into business out there and if his friends here are in luck he will make money and pay them what he owes them.”31 Sadly, in just one year after his greatest ballooning success, Van Tassel had lost his second wife, his first balloon, his saloon, and his connection with Albuquerque. Another change of scenery was needed.

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