5. San Francisco

ON JULY 22, 1885, Van Tassel christened a new balloon, the City of London, at Central Park.1 The large balloon could hold 60,000 cubic feet of gas. A test flight was arranged for July 26 at the park.2 The concept was for Van Tassel to launch in the City of London with Clara and a reporter. However, when the time came for the launch, Van Tassel determined that the atmosphere was “very heavy,”3 so he launched unaccompanied in the basket due to the lack of buoyancy. After the launch at 3:30 p.m., the balloon took a southeasterly course into the thick marine layer at 100 feet above ground level. Park unfurled an American flag from the basket before disappearing from view. Climbing steadily up through the clouds, and clearing them at 3,000 feet, he was unable to see any landmarks through a cloud break other than a ferry crossing the Bay to Oakland. Soaring over the Bay, he topped out at 7,000 feet and then cruised to a nice landing at Walnut Creek at approximately 5:34 p.m.4

On Sunday, September 6, 1885, Van Tassel was scheduled to make another ascension in the City of London, from Agricultural Park in Sacramento for the opening of the California State Fair. The inflation was to commence thirty-six hours before the ascension to make sure the balloon would be ready in time. To attract additional attention, Van Tassel donated a $100 prize to the winner of a baseball game between the Alta and Knickerbocker clubs to be on the same field later that afternoon. The ascension was perfect, and the balloon rose to 9,750 feet, remaining in the air for one hour, thirty minutes, coming to a landing on the Norris property, 4 miles west of Arden-Arcade, California. The flight was observed by a very large crowd of spectators at the park, as well as residents of Sacramento and the general vicinity. The weather was also perfect, with only light winds aloft, and the balloon sat over Yolo County and 25 Sacramento for much of the duration of the flight. Park’s skills as a balloonist were solidifying.5

On September 20, 1885, Woodward’s Gardens in San Francisco arranged for a benefit for F. F. Martin, the well-known area aeronaut and likely maker of Van Tassel’s first balloon, City of Albuquerque, as well as the Eclipse. The day prior, Martin had been given a special gold medal as a token of appreciation by the employees of W. W. Montague & Co., a hardware store specializing in iron and brass products, where he worked as a foreman. The medal featured his name on one side and a depiction of the Golden Gate, with Martin’s balloon flying above it on the other side.6 The benefit included a balloon race between Van Tassel in the City of London and James H. Whiteside in the Eclipse, now repaired after its New Orleans ordeal, for a purse of $200 to the aeronaut with greatest distance from the launch point. Eight thousand spectators came to witness the dual balloon ascension, which was said to be “a graceful sight.” The Eclipse drifted southward while the City of London drifted southeast. The Eclipse was a larger balloon, and Whiteside had invited Charles Nye to be a passenger during the trip. After the launch, the Eclipse raced to an altitude of 8,700 feet while the City of London stabilized at 6,000 feet. Whiteside had lost more gas from his bag than expected, and despite making distance, he and Nye soon found themselves in a descent and eventually floating at just 200 feet over the Alvarado marshes of the Bay. They threw ballast overboard to avoid a watery landing. When this barely worked, they threw over everything, including lunch baskets, bottles of soda water, and anchor rope. Despite the effort, the balloon continued to slowly descend, perhaps a result of a temperature inversion, a leak, or a gas valve that had not been seated properly. Soon enough, the pair was looking to jump before impact. They were on the edge of the basket, prepared to do so, when all of a sudden the balloon jerked violently, expelling both passengers without warning as it impacted the marsh. Whiteside fell about 6 feet and hit the ground hard, breaking his leg just above the ankle. Nye tumbled and escaped merely with bruises. Whiteside had clung to the collapsing cord and pulled it in time to rip the balloon wide open, but it still managed to hop and skip for a mile before coming to rest within 3 miles of Alvarado. Nye went for help and returned with a pair of hunters, who built a makeshift chair out of their gun barrels to carry the injured Whiteside to a nearby ranch.

Meanwhile, Van Tassel found a suitable breeze at a lower altitude than Whiteside and made good distance. Along the way, he dropped advertising cards for a Sacramento sewing machine company. One side of the card gave information about the company; the other side included a strongly worded message: “Dropped from balloon City of London—September 6, 1885—Among the clouds this little messenger . . . has been nearer the source of inspiration than most of you, and the words should be heeded.” However, as the sun began to lower in the sky, Van Tassel’s balloon also lost its buoyancy. About halfway across the Bay, he too began to throw everything from his basket. Despite the effort, the balloon continued to descend. Van Tassel yet again stripped to his underwear and climbed onto the edge of the basket. And yet again the balloon impacted the water, proceeded to dunk Van Tassel, and continued jumping and sailing along on the water, carrying Van Tassel along for the ride. This lasted for approximately ten minutes, until the balloon reached the mudflats on the eastern shore. “The basket ploughed its way at the tail of the balloon, leaving a trail as though a steamer had cruised inland,”7 wrote a reporter. Van Tassel and the balloon finally came to rest at the Pacific Salt Company near Mount Eden. He managed to coax some Chinese workers to grab the anchor line to bring everything to a standstill. While they held onto the balloon, Van Tassel went back into the mud to retrieve his missing shoes. Van Tassel returned home with badly cut feet and hands, a cold, and the knowledge that he had lost the race. For all his pain and suffering, Whiteside had beaten Van Tassel for the longest flight by roughly 7 miles.8

In early 1886 Van Tassel made an ascension in another new balloon, Fred-ricksburg, one of the largest balloons ever flown in the Bay Area. The initial flight was scheduled for Telegraph Hill on January 10, 1886.9 Inflation began on schedule on Friday afternoon, January 9, and continued through to Saturday afternoon. Large crowds filled an auditorium nearby and eight thousand more packed the hill, with another ten thousand in the general area. But cold temperatures and a lack of sunshine made it impossible to get the required buoyancy for lift. The gas condensed as fast as inflation progressed, with no warmth to expand it.10 Duncan C. Ross, the manager/advertiser of the exhibition, was incensed when it became clear that there would be no launch and did his best to understand why. They would try again on January 11.11

On January 11, the balloon was filled by noon, and Van Tassel lifted off at 2:40 p.m. The atmospheric density “considerably reduced the balloon’s lifting power,” and Van Tassel gave his position as aeronaut to a lighter-weight amateur pilot, W. E. Blanchard (probably of no relation to the famous French aeronaut Jean-Pierre Blanchard). Blanchard had made only two prior ascensions under the instruction of experts. Van Tassel provided considerable instruction before liftoff. Thousands of spectators cheered when the balloon was finally cut loose. Blanchard piloted it solo to an altitude of 2,000 feet before finding a current, first toward the southwest and then east over Hunter’s Point. Ballast was dumped, and the balloon again drifted southwest, making a landing near San Bruno.12

Van Tassel returned to Telegraph Hill for a successful flight on Sunday, January 31, 1886, this time accompanied by a young woman named Frankie Eceelle.13 Two weeks later, he again rose from San Francisco from a point near the Haight Street cable car terminus. This time another young woman, seventeen-year-old Ollie Wilson, was his passenger, and they carried an additional 150 pounds of ballast. Directly after launch, a current carried the balloon west toward the Pacific Ocean. Van Tassel immediately released 50 pounds of ballast (a risky strategy, as this meant there would be hardly any ballast remaining to help control the final descent) and climbed to 3,400 feet, but there was no current headed in the opposite direction. Instead of risking a landing at sea, he opened the release valve on the balloon and landed at Golden Gate Park, only about 500 to 600 yards from the starting point. It was a short but phenomenal flight given the lack of total distance made.14 Later that same day, Van Tassel launched in the City of London at 3:35 p.m. from Telegraph Hill, and the balloon drifted to the east out over the Bay. Van Tassel “amused the spectators by standing on the edge of the basket and performing hazardous antics.”15 After ascending to approximately 2,000 feet, the balloon began descending over Goat Island to a mere 500 feet over the Bay. Van Tassel tossed ballast overboard. The balloon rose again but then began another descent, and this process repeated several times. He passed over an Oakland-bound ferry and held a conversation with its passengers, who suggested he land near the boat to make an easier rescue. But with 50 pounds of ballast remaining, he decided to continue on. Nearing the East Bay, air currents began to reverse his course back toward San Francisco. As he frantically tossed the remaining ballast over the side, landing in the Bay became the inevitable outcome. The tugboat Relief was nearby and saw the landing at roughly 4:40 p.m., about a half mile from the Harrison Street wharf in Oakland. Van Tassel was once again plucked from the Bay, with the balloon towed to the Spear Street wharf at San Francisco. A large group of onlookers had witnessed the splashdown.16

On February 21, 1886, Van Tassel was at it once more, this time launching from Golden Gate Park using gas from the city gas mains. Launching promptly at 2:30 p.m. in the City of London, he immediately took an easterly course and rose to a height of 2,000 feet. He then encountered a wind from the northeast, which blew the balloon back toward the ocean. He descended, hoping to find the former westerly wind, but he could not find it and instead came down over the foothills south of Golden Gate Park. After landing, the balloon was not well secured and rose back into the sky without an occupant. It did not travel far, and Van Tassel recovered it soon thereafter at the Almshouse farm.17

Van Tassel was increasingly dissatisfied with the lack of sufficient buoyancy. He sought a balloon that was even larger than the Eclipse so he could carry multiple passengers. In March 1886, he began drafting plans for a massive balloon with more than 600,000 cubic feet of volume to make a complete crossing of North America, something considered rather foolhardy at the time.18 Construction began in March and was completed by early May 1886. At the same time, Van Tassel and J. H. Love, an amusement manager at Woodward’s Gardens, secured a short lease of space for flight testing.19 At Woodward’s Gardens they also arranged for a company of comedians to entertain the public on March 14, 1886.20 The new Monitor was billed by newspapers as the “largest balloon ever built in the United States” and christened by Estelle May Thompson in front of invited guests at the Mechanics’ Pavilion.21 This impressive building was a wooden exhibition hall of approximately 18,000 square feet located on the block surrounded by Hayes, Polk, Grove, and Larkin Streets in San Francisco and built in 1857 for the Mechanics’ Institute Fair.22 The capital required for the development of the balloon came via a new company, the Pacific Captive Balloon Company, led by Van Tassel. The balloon was 119 feet tall and 180 feet in circumference, held 150,000 cubic feet of gas,23 and required 23,000 yards of cloth made in strips and then triple-sewn.24 The basket measured 9 feet in diameter, with a depth of nearly 4 feet, and was designed to hold up to fifteen people. The first ascension was scheduled for May 30, with a stated goal of crossing “the Sierra Nevada by the close of the first day.”25 This ascension would be, according to news reports, Van Tassel’s thirty-eight balloon flight.26 Van Tassel showed up at Woodward’s Gardens on May 23 to erect the balloon, and a large throng of spectators also arrived at Woodward’s Gardens. They were disappointed when Van Tassel carted the balloon away for unknown reasons.27 But Van Tassel had his reasons: he was off to make another balloon exhibition tour of the West.

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