4. World’s Fair

SINCE THE TIME of his departure from Albuquerque, Park and Ella were largely out of contact yet still married. In January 1884, Van Tassel returned to San Francisco with the City of Salt Lake.1 A planned ascension for Sunday, January 27, was postponed by a week due to weather.2 Newspapers reported that Van Tassel planned to fly from San Francisco to the east and over the Sierra Nevada. But it is unlikely that he ever made a flight in January 1884, as it was quite a rainy and cold time. In fact, one of San Francisco’s rare snowstorms occurred on February 7, 1884, when two inches fell in the city. The Las Vegas Daily Gazette in New Mexico still tracked Van Tassel’s doings and noted, “Park Van Tassell, the busted balloonist, and Harry Pratt, a former hotel ‘worker,’ both well known in New Mexico, are living off the good citizens of San Francisco.”3 An ascension was attempted on Sunday, February 17, at Recreation Park, with no clear documentation of success.4

Van Tassel traveled to Ella’s hometown of Stockton and made a successful ascension on Saturday, April 19, 1884, but for unknown reasons managed to rise to only 1,000 feet before landing several miles to the east of town. After landing, Van Tassel lost control of the mooring, and the unmanned balloon continued on without him, coming to rest 16 miles from town.5 Stockton never was all that forgiving. However, through these travels and ascensions with varying degrees of success, Van Tassel’s exploits were becoming well-known in the West.

It remains unclear if he tried to patch up his marriage while staying in Stockton, and he did not stay long in the area. In May 1884, Van Tassel traveled to Los Angeles, and in early June it was announced that he would make an ascension on Saturday, June 7. Despite the growing size of Los Angeles, balloon flights were still rather uncommon there, and large crowds were expected.6 On June 15, 1884, it was announced that Van Tassel would make another ascension as a part of a bicycle race.7 However, instead of making this flight, Van Tassel hopped on a train for San Francisco via Mojave and Tehachapi, arriving on June 16.8 He immediately started building a new, larger balloon, with work extending throughout the fall of 1884. The resulting silk balloon named Eclipse, measuring 58 feet in diameter and 110 feet high, was built under the direction of Van Tassel and F. F. Martin at the Sutter Street Railroad Company. The Eclipse was completed in November 1884, with eight seamstresses sewing it together over a period of ten days.9 Billed as the largest balloon on the West Coast or in the United States, depending on the newspaper, the Eclipse held 65,000 to 85,000 cubic feet gas, sufficient to carry an estimated 2,800 pounds aloft.10 The Eclipse was built especially with the New Orleans World’s Fair in mind.11 Van Tassel now dreamed of tremendously long cross-country flights. Whereas in the past he had voiced grandiose plans to fly over the Sierra Nevada, his new desire to fly from San Francisco all the way to New Orleans made those earlier dreams appear rather tame. Van Tassel also sought to have couples be married in the balloon basket in flight, “provided a priest or Justice of the Peace can be found who will be willing to risk his life on such a trip.”12 Descriptions of the Eclipse were carried nationally in the New York Times, Washington Post, and other newspapers.

The Eclipse was test flown at Central Park,13 a baseball yard in San Francisco, on November 30, 1884. San Francisco had been a center of ballooning in the West for two decades, with heightened interest beginning in 1874. However, on October 5, 1879, a tragic balloon accident at Woodward’s Gardens resulted in the deaths of two balloonists: a Professor Colgrove and Charles H. Williams. Van Tassel’s test flight in 1884 was the first well-publicized launch since that tragedy and was considered a rebirth of ballooning for the city. Spectators turned out to watch balloon launches with a morbid curiosity—perhaps they might witness a disaster. Newspapers noted that at “about noon the nucleus was formed of an immense crowd that desired to see the bag soar aloft and explode and murder some of its passengers.”14

As preparations were being made for launch on November 30, Van Tassel noted that the balloon was only about three-quarters inflated owing to some error with the gas supply. This lack of lifting capacity meant that only two passengers could go up with him rather than the expected three. Those who wanted to fly had been invited to fill out cards in advance; Van Tassel would select the lucky passengers. He reviewed these cards, eliminating kids who simply looked forward to getting away from their parents for a short time. After the review, he announced that E. K. Dunlap would make the trip, as he was a government employee interested in balloons. Van Tassel looked to others in the crowd to see who else might join them. Among the applicants was a heavyset woman who weighed more than Van Tassel could afford. A newspaper recounted the banter:

“You can’t go,” said Van Tassell.

“I will,” was the reply.

“You can’t, you weigh too much. Take her away somebody.” And she subsided.

“Can I go?” asked a reporter.

“How much do you weigh?”

“Only 140 pounds.”

“Too heavy; can’t take you.”

“Can I go?” said Eugene Hahn.

“What weight?

“About 104.”

“All right, jump in. Now, then, gentlemen, let her up slowly. Now then all ready; let go, let go.”15

Another newspaper noted, “A round, rosy, plump, pretty young woman was among the disappointed candidates for a peep into heaven, she having had the promise of a front seat from the earliest inception of the ‘Eclipse.’ When firmly informed that it was impossible for her to go she shed a few pearly tears, looked mad enough to bite a nail in two, and then suffered herself to be led away by her young man, who was evidently as highly elated as she was disconsolate.”16

At 3:00 p.m. the ropes were released, and slowly they rose, at first drifting toward the southwest. Given the typical westerly afternoon breezes, this was very atypical and immediately caused concern that the balloon would head out to the Pacific Ocean. At a height of about 2,500 feet, Van Tassel secured an opposing current, taking the balloon back over the park and from there over San Francisco Bay toward Black Point and Alcatraz. After Park dumped some sandbags over the Bay, the Eclipse rose and changed course again, heading toward Mount Tamalpais. By this time, most in San Francisco had lost sight of the balloon as it floated high and away, reaching its apex of 9,400 feet.17 At 5:00 p.m., however, arriving ferry passengers from Sausalito stated that the balloon had been seen descending in the hills behind their town. This was soon contradicted by ferry passengers from Tiburon, who stated that the balloon had landed in Raccoon Strait in San Francisco Bay and that the aeronauts were being rescued. There was a great deal of confusion.

In reality, after hovering near Tamalpais, the Eclipse floated toward Angel Island and Alcatraz and over Point Tiburon. There it remained rather motionless for quite some time. The balloon slowly began to deflate and descend into the cold waters of Raccoon Strait. Without being able to alter their course, Van Tassel and Dunlap stripped down to their undergarments and prepared for a swim, while Hahn chose instead to climb the balloon rigging. The balloon eventually impacted the water and was dragged by a light wind for about 500 yards across the Bay before all three were rescued by small boats that had put out from Sausalito. Captain Charles Brown, with his tugboat Annie Hart, made considerable haste to provide a rescue. He “opened the furnace doors, threw in a box of hams, a paper of matches and several cords of pitch pine, and in short order the tug was speeding toward the wrecked balloonists.”18 In the course of events, Van Tassel lost most of his clothing; Dunlap lost most of his clothing, a gold watch, and other jewelry; and Hahn lost his coat. The rescued aviators were taken to Angel Island, where soldiers provided them with dry clothes. The aeronauts and the waterlogged but flight-tested Eclipse returned to San Francisco by tugboat in the dark.19 News of these exploits and Van Tassel’s exceptionally large balloon spread across America,20 through newspapers and scientific journals such as Nature,21 even around the globe to India.22

On January 1, 1885, Van Tassel was scheduled to make an ascension in San Jose,23 but the flight was postponed to January 8, when Van Tassel made a successful ascension, taking off at 8:15 a.m. with passengers R. B. Reedy and A. E. Blanchard. They landed without issue in a wheat field near South Fremont in Alameda County, 11 miles north of their point of takeoff. They returned as a group to San Jose at 7:00 p.m.24 After becoming romantically interested in Clara Coykendall of San Jose during this time, in early March 1885, Park finally provided Ella with a divorce decree at Stockton.25 He continued with his ballooning, typically not charging any admission to event attendees but charging a fee to event organizers and asking the public for donations to help offset costs.

At this time the World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition (1884–1885) was being held at Audubon Park in New Orleans. Management arranged for Van Tassel to bring the Eclipse to New Orleans for demonstrations at the exposition. To help pay for this journey, Van Tassel wrote to cities and towns along the way to see if other exhibitions would be possible. One letter was written to a Major White, superintendent of the gasworks in Houston, to determine if it would be possible to obtain 50,000 cubic feet of coal gas for a balloon ascension there.26 But there is no record of balloon flights along the way, so it is assumed that he went directly to New Orleans.

On March 14, 1885, a newspaper announced that Van Tassel’s large balloon would soon be making captive ascensions at the New Orleans fair.27 This was further advertised on March 18: “No instance has ever occurred in the South of more absorbing, thrilling interest, than the aerial journal to be taken by Prof. Van Tassell and companions on Thursday afternoon, 3:33 o’clock, from Exposition Grounds.”28 At the exposition grounds, a high boarded enclosure was prepared near the St. Charles Avenue entrance for preparation of the balloon. On Wednesday, March 18, the top of the balloon could be seen “rising like the convexity of an enormous yellow pumpkin” above the fencing. Park was described as a “hale, athletic, large-sized and pleasant-faced man.”29

Spectators were advised to arrive early for the ascension at 3:30 p.m. on March 19. However, when they began to arrive, the balloon was still only partially inflated. According to the gas meter, 65,000 cubic feet of gas had been put into the balloon, but somehow the balloon was just slightly more than half-full, probably owing perhaps to an issue with the gas meter. This generated concern, and the gas supply was shut off during the discussion. While Van Tassel had intended to take several members of the press along for the ride, with the balloon half-filled, he resorted to flying solo. The fencing around the balloon enclosure was knocked down, and the balloon with all its netting and its large circular basket, 8 feet in diameter and 5 feet deep, stood at the ready. According to a reporter, inside the basket were, “a bottle or two of wine, a bottle of water, a number of printed bills advertising Minnesota spring wheat, and an overcoat.”30 Van Tassel climbed aboard armed with a knife in his hand and a small barometer in his breast pocket.

At 5:00 p.m., only one hour and thirty minutes behind schedule, the balloon was released from its moorings and began its ascent, drifting to the east, away from the setting sun, in a good westerly breeze. At about 1,000 feet it leveled off, continuing to the east. The crowd that had gathered cheered in excitement and watched as the balloon sailed off, becoming the size of a dot in the sky. Meanwhile, Van Tassel scattered the Minnesota wheat advertisements overboard and they sailed to Earth.

Park Van Tassel had intended to land near plantations that lined the Mississippi River. Instead, he had quite a harrowing experience. After about fifty minutes of flight, and reaching a maximum height of about 4,000 feet, the balloon began a rapid descent. Despite efforts to manage the descent properly with ballast, the balloon and its cargo landed “very rapidly” in a swamp on the west side of the Mississippi near Algiers.31 Upon impact, Park opened the valve to release the remaining gas, but the strong wind made it impossible to drop his anchor to slow his rate of progress. He pulled the collapsing cord, which tore the top of the balloon open and immediately let all remaining gas escape. But with Park still stuck in the swamp, the wind continued to blow the decaying balloon across the Mississippi River. It came to rest at a plantation on the other side. Park dragged himself out of the swamp and swam across the river in search of the balloon, finding it already “attacked by the natives, the netting cut to pieces and all the property divided out and confiscated.”32 He refused an offer to hire a horse for $10 for just a few miles and finally recovered his property, hired a wagon, and brought the remains of the Eclipse back to New Orleans, where he arrived at about 10:30 p.m.

Van Tassel’s balloon may have been wrecked, but the flight caused considerable notoriety. His ascension at the fair made national news,33 with many considering it to be the “event of the day.”34 On the return journey to the West Coast by train, Van Tassel passed through Galveston, Texas, staying at the Tremont Hotel on March 27.35 Continuing on, he passed through Mojave, California, on March 30, arriving back in San Francisco on March 31.36

Only two days later, on April 2, 1885, Park Van Tassel (age thirty-one) married Clara A. Coykendall (age twenty-four)37 at San Jose.38 Clara came from a prominent local family; her father was a partner in the firm Andrews & Coykendall, a popular local importer of the best ham, cured beef, and lard. Hoping for more for their popular socialite daughter, both of Clara’s parents were reported to be “violently opposed” to the marriage. Park was a previously divorced man without much savings and with what they viewed as a crazy profession. They did not attend the ceremony.39 Undeterred, Van Tassel continued with all the arrangements, including a special enclosed cab from the Auzerais House to a Presbyterian church. There they were married by the Reverend Minton in a private ceremony with only two witnesses present.40

Continuing with the wedding theme, Margey Dabney, a young aerobatic performer, and his fiancée, Kate Myers, were married in Van Tassel’s balloon over Stevens’ Park in Oakland on Saturday, May 30, 1885. Some reports suggest that once the vows were said, the balloon rose above the park, with the married couple tossing chunks of cake over the side.41 However, a report in the San Francisco Examiner relayed quite a different story. It seems that just before Margey Dabney stepped into the balloon, his elder brother Lee stepped in front of him in protest of the marriage, backed up by both their parents. A man named Stevens, the owner of Stevens’ Park, asked Lee to step aside, and when he did not, Stevens hit Lee. A free-for-all ensued, with a dozen participants combating about the balloon. Police officers finally restored peace, and it was resolved that Margey and his fiancée would go up in the balloon but would not be married aloft, as the minister had fled the scene. By the time Margey, Kate, and Park all were established in the basket, a lot of gas had escaped, so the balloon could carry only one person. So Park Van Tassel made the flight on his own.42 In just a short time, Van Tassel had toured Utah and Oregon, provided demonstrations at San Francisco, and gained national attention with his large Eclipse at New Orleans. Once again he was married. His life was on the rise.

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