7. Falling with Grace

IN THE EARLY 1880s, other daredevils were practicing their art in San Francisco. For instance, tightrope walker Thomas Scott Baldwin1 created quite a sensation by walking a high wire between the Cliff House and Seal Rock, over the waves of the Pacific below. This amazing feat gave Baldwin considerable notoriety as well as the realization that people would pay considerable sums to watch his death-defying exhibitions.2 In 1885 and 1886, he began to contemplate more extravagant ways to entice the public.

In Europe, more than one hundred years earlier, daring aeronauts had already jumped from tethered balloons with parachutes, returning to Earth safely. At first the parachutes were largely rigid, with ribs to help support the structure. Then André Garnerin jumped from a balloon with a flexible parachute made of silk on October 22, 1797, in Paris. His wildly oscillating journey came to a successful end, but not long thereafter, French astronomer Jérôme Lalande introduced a vent in the canopy to improve airflow and reduce the oscillation of a parachute during its descent. Louis Charles Guille made the first parachute descent from a balloon in the United States in New York in 1819.

It remains unclear if Park Van Tassel was aware of these advances or not, but with the hope of launching a new series of exhibitions for the public, in 1886 he began experimenting with flexible parachute designs that included a vent at the top of the chute. Hearing that Van Tassel was planning to make such exhibitions, Baldwin met with Van Tassel and convinced him to join in a series of controlled experiments and jumps to test the designs. These experiments were conducted at the Mechanics’ Pavilion in San Francisco in the fall of 1886.3 It is likely that Van Tassel saw a courageous, lighter-weight “test pilot” in Baldwin, while Baldwin saw a creative opportunity in Van Tassel. No one in the United States had jumped with a flexible parachute since Guille’s flight in 1819. Van Tassel and Baldwin were working on something that would revolutionize aerial exhibition.


Thomas Scott Baldwin, circa 1886. San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

Initial indoor tests with sandbags below the parachute indicated that a lightweight, flexible parachute would open quickly if given sufficient distance to fall. Increasingly larger parachutes were developed and tested. Prying reporters for the San Francisco Examiner made their way to the Mechanics’ Pavilion after receiving word that someone was going to kill himself by jumping with a parachute inside the building.4 Reports indicated that the first jump was made by Baldwin and then at least one jump was made by Van Tassel, from heights of about 80 feet. A reporter noted, “On Van Tassell’s occasion, his 250 pounds tugged so fiercely at the parachute as to send the air rushing through the small hole at the top with a loud hissing noise.”5

In the fall of 1886, a small dog strapped to a parachute was dropped by Van Tassel and/or Baldwin from a tethered balloon at an altitude of 3,000 feet at Seal Rock Park near the Cliff House,6 without injury to the dog. According to historian Howard Lee Scamehorn, Baldwin then made a successful jump inside the Mechanics’ Pavilion to test a human-size parachute.7 In 1889 Van Tassel recalled,

One day when I was at work in the Mechanics’ Pavilion in San Francisco, I got to thinking about jumping from a balloon and I rigged up a parachute and attached weights to it. Well, to make a long story short, I experimented until I got a parachute that would let 210 pounds down easy; then I built a big one, about the time I met Baldwin, and he coaxed me until I let him make the first jump ever made in the world from a balloon. Since then he has become famous and I have kept up jumping.8

The parachute was made of canvas and manila rope and could be attached to and detached from a balloon by way of a rip cord.9 Unwilling to wait further and sufficiently convinced of the parachute’s safety, Baldwin went immediately to the office manager of a local streetcar company and proposed to jump from a balloon via parachute at a cost of $1 per foot from whatever height the manager cared to choose. The manager agreed to a 1,000-foot jump on January 30, 1887.

When January 30 arrived, people took the streetcars, gathering at the Haight Street cable car terminus, and made their way to Golden Gate Park in the vicinity of the music pavilion, where Van Tassel’s Eclipse was in the process of being inflated. Roughly ten thousand to twelve thousand people gathered, although later estimates place the number at thirty thousand. Baldwin arrived on the scene at 3:00 p.m. wearing pink tights. He checked the parachute, which measured 24 feet in diameter and had been affixed to the side of the Eclipse. The rigging was automatic: Once Baldwin jumped from the balloon, his mass and the force of his weight would pull the rip cord, causing the parachute to fall away and open. A tethered ascent of Van Tassel’s Eclipse was made with both Baldwin and M. Blanchard in the basket. Blanchard controlled the paying out of the rope with voice and hand signals, indicating when it was time to stop. At the desired height of 1,000 feet, Baldwin grasped the trapeze bar with both hands and dropped over the side of the basket. Several onlookers screamed in panic, but the parachute opened, although not fully. With increasing speed, after a total descent time of 4.5 seconds, Baldwin landed in a lot attached to a small cottage, having crashed through some small wattle trees. Immediately, the crowd came to see if he was injured. He was not, and after a hearty congratulations by Van Tassel, Baldwin made a back somersault and a short sprint for onlookers.10 News of this accomplishment traveled as far as Europe.11 Baldwin’s leap was the first successful public parachute jump in the West, billed as the first of its kind in the United States—without reference to Guille.


Thomas Baldwin rising over the skies of San Francisco on January 30, 1887, in the basket of Van Tassel’s Eclipse, with a parachute tethered to the side. San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.


Baldwin’s leap from the Eclipse showing the parachute opening below the balloon. San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

After the initial excitement, the Eclipse was brought back down. Not one to waste a fully inflated balloon, Van Tassel launched with an “adventurous bystander,” Joseph M. Masten, and landed approximately an hour later, about 3 miles south of Redwood City, at about 4:30 p.m. He had reached a height of 13,000 feet.12

Another demonstration was arranged for April 3, 1887. At Central Park, Baldwin, William Ivy (performing as “Ivy Baldwin,” Thomas’s “brother”),13 and Van Tassel prepared the Eclipse for flight. However, nearing the appointed time of 2:30 p.m., the crowds were scant, so Van Tassel thought it best to postpone the launch until after a baseball game between the Vallejo and Damiana teams. After the game, however, strong gusty winds arrived, making the Eclipse difficult to restrain. As the balloon swayed from side to side in the wind, an assistant grabbed the canvas, hoping to help, but instead put a large hole in the balloon’s side. Rather than provide further risk to the balloon and the people nearby, Van Tassel pulled a rope to release the gas from the balloon. As a reporter later noted, “In a minute more the proud bubble lay in a disorderly heap on the ground, and the exhibition was declared an end.”14

Shortly after this, Baldwin departed the Bay Area for Quincy, Illinois, to make parachute jumps from considerably high altitudes using untethered balloons. These were successful and led Baldwin to take the concept to New York City and then London, England, making many leaps and generating a considerable monetary reward. Van Tassel, meanwhile, was left entirely out of the equation, despite his initial collaboration. The resulting split between the two aeronauts was deep. Baldwin was surely the more courageous daredevil, and without this additional source of income, Van Tassel was left to ponder other ways to make money from balloons or muster the courage to make jumps on his own.

In early 1887, Van Tassel finally secured additional funding through the San Francisco Daily Examiner. He took a reporter/artist from the Examiner and a photographer up in the Monitor to take pictures of San Francisco at altitudes of 1,000, 1,500, 2,800, 5,500, and 7,200 feet. The results were then printed in the Sunday paper, showing the general public what the city looked like from high above for the first time. The reporter noted that up high, it was easy to hear sounds from the ground, including clucking chickens when floating high above the Jersey farms.15 The photographer for the flight on April 15, 1887, was Edwin H. Husher of J. W. Talber & Co., working on behalf of the Examiner. The camera measured 10 by 8 inches and was affixed to a swivel. When held over the side of the basket, it could be aimed in different directions. Husher believed that these would be the first aerial photos taken in the United States, unaware of a photo taken by James Wallace Black and Samuel Archer King over the skies of Boston on October 13, 1860.16 However, Husher’s images were likely the first aerial photos taken over California. Several homing pigeons were also carried on board to send messages back to Earth.

The launch was well attended by a large crowd, including F. F. Martin and M. Blanchard. Twelve photo plates were taken, resulting in six good negatives. W. K. Burton, a writer for The Photographic News, noted, “Some difficulty was experienced in landing, Husher contriving to get out of the balloon on the top of a tree with his plates unbroken, with the natural result that the balloon, with its two other occupants, bounded into the air again, and only landed for the second time at a considerable distance.”17 The resulting photos and their publication in the Examiner helped catapult the career of young editor William Randolph Hearst.18

On May 27, 1887, Park traveled to Sacramento to discuss the opportunity for a balloon ascension on July 4 with the city’s Fourth of July Committee.19 On June 1, he attended a meeting of the committee at the Sacramento Court House, with Mayor Eugene Gregory as committee chair. Van Tassel offered to make a balloon ascension for the cost of $600 or a balloon ascension and parachute jump for the price of $1,000. The committee decided to pursue neither offer, as the prices were considered quite high. However, the newspapers on June 9 suggested that he would in fact provide a balloon ascension on July 4.20 Perhaps in an attempt to pressure the committee to change its decision, Van Tassel provided a balloon ascension on the afternoon of June 9. There is no record of a parachute jump.

Van Tassel was hired by the Los Angeles Examiner to fly the same large balloon used for Husher’s photography in San Francisco, now renamed the Daily Examiner, to take photos of Los Angeles, Pasadena, Santa Monica, and other locations. The ascension on Sunday, June 26, 1887, was coupled with a baseball match between Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo for a pennant offered by the Examiner. Special trains brought people from all over southern California to Sixth Street Park in downtown Los Angeles. For instance, someone from San Bernardino could take a train and witness the baseball game and balloon ascension all for $3.40.21

At 6:00 a.m. on June 26, a team began to inflate the balloon for the ascension. However, they quickly realized that the flow of gas was far less than expected and that something was wrong. They discovered that someone had placed sand and rocks in a pipe running from the gas main on Sixth Street to the balloon to tamper with the process of inflation. Rumors spread that perhaps the culprit was from a competitor newspaper. Very carefully, the crew assembled 2-inch piping to circumvent the damaged portion. While this improved the flow, the inflation was already far behind schedule; there was no way to fill the balloon properly prior to the baseball game at 2:00 p.m. The launch was scrubbed, much to the dismay of the roughly two thousand people who had shown up early to see the balloon ascension and game. Van Tassel considered launching after the game, but a Mr. McDowell, who was in charge of the event for the Examiner, announced that since the goal of the flight was to take photos of Los Angeles, this had to be done in the proper lighting of the height of the day. The launch was postponed to the following day, Monday, June 27, with photographer Husher scheduled to leave for Montana the day after. Accompanying Van Tassel and Husher was Frank Ward of Pasadena, who was in charge of making sure that the various points of interest in the community were noted to Husher during the flight. The balloon used for these photography trials was 65 feet high when fully inflated and had a basket of about 5 feet in diameter and 3 feet in depth. On the baseball diamond, the Los Angeles team beat the team from San Luis Obispo by a score of 9–8.22

About twelve hundred people returned the following day, June 28, 1887, to the Sixth Street baseball field to witness the balloon ascension. At 7:00 a.m., the superintendent of the gas company, J. S. Kaneen, showed at the park and turned on a valve that allowed gas to flow from the main to the balloon. Four hours and fifteen minutes later, the valve was shut off, but the balloon was only about three-quarters full. Despite this, Van Tassel set to work to prepare the balloon for flight. The photographer hopped in, but there was insufficient lifting capacity to include Frank Ward, so he was left behind. Van Tassel and Husher launched at 11:33 a.m. The balloon rose, passing up over the Belmont Hotel and Brea Ranch beyond the city. The course then shifted to Cahuenga Pass, toward Santa Monica, passing to the north of Vicente Ranch and then to the east again along the mountains, in the direction of the San Gabriel Valley. The balloon finally landed at 1:40 p.m. in the San Fernando Valley, having been in the air for a little more than two hours and having reached a maximum altitude of 14,300 feet. Van Tassel and Husher were considered heroes for making the flight, as these were the first aerial pictures of Los Angeles.23 Interviewed by reporters from the Tribune that evening, Van Tassel said,

We went up in a bee line to an altitude of 8,000 feet, and after hovering over the city for a while we struck a current which carried us over the San Fernando Valley, where we reached the highest altitude ever reached by any aeronaut on the Pacific slope viz. 13,000 feet which great height was reached by throwing out ballast. Mr. Husher, during our flight, took the plates, which he considers the most perfect ever taken by any living being from a balloon. The ascension was the most successful I have ever made, never having reached such a great height before, for everything was in our favor, and I was never so near to heaven as to-day. Mr. Husher is the most enthusiastic balloonist I ever had up with me and he never had a better opportunity of photographing the country. After taking all the plates needed we found ourselves hovering over Burbank. Up to this period I had not pulled the collapsing cord, but the natural escape of gas caused the balloon to gradually lower to the earth. After passing Cahuenga pass the balloon grazed the earth, within ten feet. At a given signal we got out of the balloon, but hung on to the basket like grim death, as there was nothing underneath for us to jump on except cacti. We both let go together, Mr. Husher being rolled for several feet up in the cacti. After jumping out, the balloon being relieved of its weight, arose to a distance of several hundred feet and landed out of sight a couple of miles distant. A boy raced on to us and wanted to know if any one was killed. He afterwards brought us to the balloon, which was found grunting and suffering from the effects of the cacti. The young lad brought us to his father’s residence, where we were royally entertained, the boy afterward driving us into town. It was 5:45 o’clock when the balloon landed at Cahuenga Pass, fourteen miles distant. The ascension was a success beyond the greatest expectation, and a graphic account of the trip, together with all the plates, will appear in Sunday’s Examiner.24

Edwin Husher remained in the Bay Area until 1890 and then continued with his career in photography in Detroit, Michigan, through 1903. He later sold his interest in a photography-related company and returned to southern California, first as a farmer and then as a real estate agent.

As a part of the July 4, 1887, celebrations, Van Tassel made a balloon ascension from Capitol Park in Sacramento. At 2:15 p.m., he and two passengers, Jerry Payne and Ralph Donohue, went aloft. The balloon was barely able to ascend due to weight, and despite Van Tassel releasing bags of ballast and pouring sand from a sandbag off the side, it just cleared the rooftops of buildings on the north side of L Street. The balloon drifted to the northern limits of the city and then encountered reverse winds at 2,000 feet. These brought it back to the southeast and then directly east, bound for Brighton. A successful landing was made at 3:30 p.m., 1 mile south of state senator Joseph Routier’s farm in a field owned by William Criswell.25 Meanwhile, fifteen thousand people attended an open-air concert at Capitol Park that evening, with the event capped by a fireworks display.26 Van Tassel left Sacramento on July 6 bound for San Francisco, staying at the Pacific Ocean House hotel in mid-July.27

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