Falling upwards, p.11
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       Falling Upwards, p.11

           Richard Holmes


  John Wise believed that there was a permanent west–east air current blowing right across the entire American continent. It had perhaps been ordained by God. It was destined to open up the whole vast land, and then the Atlantic Ocean itself, to balloons. Above all it offered the possibility of high speeds over enormous distances, a truly American-style revolution in communications. In 1850 he published A System of Aeronautics to present this case. In 1853 he petitioned Congress for public funding, but was turned down. In spring 1859 he became involved with a private scheme to construct a specially equipped balloon to make a series of pioneering long-distance west–east flights. It was ambitious in size – 120,000 cubic feet, standing 120 feet high – and being constructed of the finest Chinese silk, it cost the very considerable sum of $30,000. Wise intended to finance this as a conventional business venture, with capital from private investors. Together with a number of enthusiasts, he formed the Trans-Atlantic Balloon Corporation.14

  Wise decided on a start point three hundred miles west of Cincinnati, at the booming frontier city of St Louis, Missouri. His declared aim was epic: to fly due eastwards from St Louis to New York, a distance of nearly a thousand miles. If necessary he would skirt the Great Lakes, along the Canadian border. No European ballooning could remotely match this ambition. The voyage was intended to demonstrate that a west–east crossing of the three thousand miles of the Atlantic Ocean was also perfectly feasible. Accordingly, the Balloon Corporation hung a fully rigged sixteen-foot lifeboat beneath the basket, and christened their balloon the Atlantic.

  At this time the competing idea of a railroad network right across America also seemed a viable, if still visionary, commercial proposition, although the Union Pacific railway would not be completed for another decade. Nevertheless, the rate of railway building had increased exponentially. By 1860 over thirty thousand miles of track had been laid, mostly in the north-eastern states, and the railroad clearly offered a potential national transport system at some time in the near future.15 The old Victorian rivalry between the iron horse and the silken cloud was being played out once more.

  After some negotiations, Wise assembled a three-man crew: his young protégé, the twenty-nine-year-old New York balloonist John LaMountain; his chief business investor, Mr Oliver A. Gager from Vermont; and his favourite journalist on the St Louis Republican, William Hyde, whose job was to produce the dazzling publicity.

  Hyde immediately launched into a fine enumeration of the creature comforts the crew would enjoy: ‘Cold chicken, tongue, potted meats, sandwiches … champagne, sherry, sparkling catawba, claret, madeira, brandy and port … a plentiful supply of coats, shawls, blankets, and fur gloves … a pail of iced lemonade … bundles of the principal St Louis newspapers … business cards and perhaps other articles which have escaped me.’16 He also noted that a large official mailbag from the United States Express Company was stowed away on board. This vital piece of cargo represented Wise’s key business idea of establishing the first rapid mail service from the central plains to the eastern seaboard.

  Balloon mail was a real possibility in America at this date, in a way it had never been in Europe. Communications between an ever-expanding western frontier and a relatively stable, prosperous eastern seaboard, were vital in both business and human terms, but still badly served. The Transcontinental Telegraph was not established until after the Civil War, in 1871. Wells Fargo, whose overland mail service only began in 1857, was soon in uncertain competition with Pony Express and other rival mail-coach services. The vast distances that had to be crossed, and the unreliable state of the roads and railways, made air transport a genuine alternative on the eastern or ‘homebound’ routes. Wise hoped to establish his Balloon Corporation as a business monopoly in air mail, which could pay for his pioneer flight many times over, and make a famous return for his investors. A family letter, a billet-doux or a business document from St Louis might reach New York or Washington by balloon in twenty-four hours, not four or five days.17

  They began their epic American trip at 6.45 on the midsummer evening of 1 July 1859. The ‘impetuous state’ of the inflated balloon did not allow them to wait until the symbolic 4 July for their launch. The west wind would take them on a curving north-easterly trajectory of hundreds of miles, across many different kinds of landscape – ‘woods, roads, prairies, farms, railroads, streams, towns’ – over Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, the Great Lakes, and into upper New York State, to the very edge of the Canadian border.18 Both of the passengers, Gager and Hyde, and the two aeronauts, Wise and LaMountain, would write their own highly contentious accounts of the journey. These were dashed off as competing articles for various St Louis and New York newspapers, and rarely agreed with each other.

  No manuscripts, or actual balloon journals, have survived from the journey. The earliest accounts of it exist in the form of newspaper articles, evidently much edited and expanded after the event. So even these ‘first-hand’ witness accounts conform to the literary and newspaper conventions of the time. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Paper claimed to publish extracts from ‘Mr LaMountain’s Balloon Journal’, though this was probably merely an attempt to claim authenticity.19 William Hyde, being a professional journalist, would certainly have kept a reporter’s notebook. This is also suggested by the stylistic difference between the earlier and later parts of his story, which change from deadpan reportage to melodramatics worthy of Poe. Wise himself drily observed Hyde ‘sitting in the boat with pencil and paper in hand, but whether to make notes of his voyage or write his last will and testament I could not tell’.20

  Wise himself apparently kept a balloon logbook, which he used in a series of letters to the New York Tribune.21 But his magnificent, hyperbolic travelogue only appeared fourteen years later, as part of his book Through the Air (1873).fn16 It is a work of conscious art, combining precise technical details with florid passages of aerial description and – most remarkably of all – memorable snatches of dialogue, often shouted from the basket above to the boat below. Running to fifty pages, it forms one of the most memorable accounts of an American balloon voyage of the entire nineteenth century.

  Wise opens his account of the journey with a wide-screen panorama, which captures the paradoxical sense of the whole vast American continent on the move below them, while the balloon hangs steady and detached in the dusk. The mighty land slips rapidly westwards into the setting sun. It was a new version of American pastoral: the stretching, unrolling vision of a rich, powerful, various land.

  In a few minutes after we started we were crossing the great father of American waters – the Mississippi. For many miles up and down we scanned its tortuous course of turbid water. Its tributaries – the Missouri and the Illinois – added interest to the magnificent view … The city of St Louis, covering a large area of territory, appeared to be gradually contracting in its circumferential lines, and finally hid itself under a dark mantle of smoke … The fruitful fields of Illinois were now passing rapidly underneath us, seemingly bound for a more western empire … The plantations and farm-houses appeared to be travelling at the rate of 50 miles per hour … The feeble shimmer of the new moon was now mantling the earth beneath in a mellow light, and the western horizon was painted gold and purple.22

  By nightfall they had moved beyond the Mississippi, and were headed into Indiana. They rose to eighteen thousand feet, where it was starlit, beautiful and icy cold. Wise briefly fell asleep, and dreamed of ‘interplanetary balloon voyages’. The air current, as predicted, was steadily eastwards, but the electrical atmosphere presaged a storm, and the balloon canopy was lit up by the strange, unearthly phosphorescence of St Elmo’s fire, so bright that Wise could read his pocket watch by it. Somewhat unnerved by this – would the hydrogen explode? – they drank brandy, valved gas, and dropped a little lower. Wise noted that by calling down through the dark and ‘talking to the dogs’, he could estimate the nature of the countryside beneath. A single bark indicated a landscape of lonely, is
olated farms; a chorus indicated villages, townships or railheads. Complete silence spoke eloquently of the great open prairies of America.23

  By dawn the next day they were headed over Fort Wayne, Indiana, and towards Lake Erie. At 10 a.m. they were flying lower, and beginning to turn in a more northerly direction, so the intended target of New York City had to be recalibrated as Boston. Approaching Lake Erie, the land was more populated. As more and more people came out from their houses, waving and calling up to them, Wise realised that he was witnessing a historic phenomenon. The balloon was expected. News of their flight had preceded them by telegraph from St Louis. The telegraph lines, following the new railroad network spreading westwards, had anticipated him. The people of Buffalo, Black Rock and Rochester already knew he was coming. In fact, though he did not appreciate it at the time, telegraph combined with railroad had already outdistanced the balloon as a system of communication.24 Nevertheless, the balloon was about to do something extraordinary: overfly the Niagara Falls at a height of about two miles.

  A striking feature appears in the different impressions the four balloonists had of this historic crossing. The enormous cascade of Niagara, situated between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, drops 165 feet and delivers over four million cubic feet of water every minute. Already established as one of the crowning showpieces of the American wilderness, it was visited by thousands of sightseers, honeymoon couples and celebrities every year. For most of them, it was an image of hypnotic primal power, divine or otherwise. Harriet Beecher Stowe, ‘maddened’ by its beauty, wanted to throw herself over it in 1834. Charles Dickens, on that first American tour of 1842, gazing in wonder at the ‘vague immensity’, exclaimed, ‘It would be hard for a man to stand nearer God than he does there!’25 Thomas Carlyle would use the mighty, unstoppable cascade of ‘bright green waters’ in his essay ‘Shooting Niagara – and After?’ (1867) as an immediately recognisable metaphor for cataclysmic social change, the ‘Niagara leap of completed Democracy’. So Niagara was already a powerful symbolic presence in the British as well as the American psyche. For John Wise and his crew, flying over it, the first human beings ever to do so, it should have been a moment of national epiphany.

  Yet William Hyde, for one, remained unexpectedly cool in his impressions:

  We had reached a height of more than a mile, the barometer marking 23.6 inches. At 12 o’clock we were nearly between the Falls and Buffalo … The famous Falls were quite insignificant, seen from our altitude. There was, to us, a descent of about two feet, and the water seemed to be perfectly motionless. The spray gave the whole appearance as of ice, and there was nothing grand or sublime about it. Passing the western terminus of the Erie Canal, the balloon was borne on directly towards Lake Ontario …26

  This laconic description demonstrates the effect of ‘miniaturisation’ and map-like flattening which was by now well known to European balloonists. But it seems strange for an American journalist, on his first ever flight in a balloon, to have found the mighty Falls so prosaic, so small, so lacking in the anticipated ‘sublimity’. In short, so completely un-newsworthy.

  Yet perhaps this was partly a stylistic pose. The balloon’s altitude allowed all three of Wise’s fellow travellers to adopt a superior attitude, as he wryly remarked: ‘Niagara Falls was deemed rather a tame sight by my companions … and a bottle of Heidsieck champagne that was uncorked in honour of the world-renowned cataract made more of a commotion and a livelier spray than did the Falls, to all appearances. Mr. Gager observed that it was “no great shakes, after all”. Mr Hyde thought it looked “frozen up”. Mr. LaMountain said it would do for a “clever little mill-dam” – convenient water power.’27

  By contrast, Wise’s own description was enthusiastic, a characteristic mixture of the pedagogic and the pious. His companions needed to ‘listen and observe’ more closely. Niagara demonstrated how Nature had been cutting through the rocks over great aeons of geological time. The huge clouds of spray, though apparently ‘frozen’ to the viewer, were in reality combining with the atmosphere to form their own distinctive and dynamic weather system. They also produced several ‘beautiful miniature rainbows’, of miraculous and ‘faery-like’ appearance. Everything showed Nature’s extraordinary mixture of power, delicacy, order and design. Nature was sublime – and God a sublime Engineer.

  Do you see what a wonderful cloud manufactory this Niagara is? Cloud upon cloud is rising up from its evaporized water. See how orderly they take up their line of march eastwards, as they rise up, perhaps to carry their treasured moisture to some distant parching land. It is a sublime spectacle this – a laboratory of Nature – an irrigating engine. Nothing is formed in vain.

  And now listen to its music. It is not a roaring, thundering, dashing, tumultuous sound, but a music of sweetest cadence. Like an Aeolian harp it sends up its vibrations. If it is not the music of the spheres, it is at least the rhythmic language of Motion, wherein we perceive that noble proverb illustrated that ‘Order is Heaven’s first Law’.28

  Yet Nature’s power, embodied in the west wind, was soon to show itself in quite a different manner to the balloonists. Any complacency was about to be violently swept away. By midday Wise realised that they were ‘riding the advance wave of a coming great storm’, a summer hurricane boiling up behind them from the prairies of the south-west. As yet his three inexperienced companions had no idea of this, ‘nor had they the slightest conjecture of what was revolving in my mind’. Wise could already see the thickening, ‘milk-like’ atmosphere above, and the signs of the gathering wind in the shaking trees, the bending fences and the whitened water far below them. Of course the Atlantic remained perfectly steady in the air, but Wise calculated that they were now travelling at ninety miles an hour over the ground, a truly terrifying speed.29

  Ironically, the others were now enjoying themselves immensely, ‘engaged in cheerful conversation’ as they hung unconcerned over the basket, enchanted by the animated vision of America that rose up gleaming beneath them.

  The grand panorama of the two Great Lakes, with innumerable cities and towns in full view, the railroads and canals on which were trailing sundry snake-like lines of moving trains, with all the concomitants of a thickly-populated district, and silvery lines of tortuous watercourses, interspersed with golden patches of grain-fields, garnished with the music of steam-whistles, ringing of bells, firing of guns, shouting from a thousand throats; indeed, the country below had become thoroughly alive for many miles to the flitting of our airship among the clouds.30

  It was only when Gager noticed Wise’s unaccustomed silence – ‘Professor, what in the world makes you look so contemplative?’ – that the reality of their position began to dawn on the others. William Hyde’s cool, journalistic style alters noticeably from this moment on.

  A terrible storm was raging beneath us, the trees waving and the mad waves dashing against the shore of Erie in an awfully tempestuous manner. But above the careering whirlpools and thundering breakers swam the proud Atlantic, not a cord displaced, not a breadth of silk disturbed, soaring aloft with her expectant crew and gaily heading for the salt crests which bound our vast Republic.31

  Up till now, there had always been the possibility of landing at any point they chose. Gager had suggested that Wise drop off himself, Hyde and the mailbag at Rochester, where they could pick up the railroad for New York.32 Wise agreed to try this, but pointed out that not only was the west wind increasing savagely, but they were being driven northwards, towards a second vast stretch of water. Lake Ontario is not the biggest of the Great Lakes, but it is huge all the same, covering an area of over seven thousand square miles, and stretching some two hundred miles. Being deep (in places nearly a thousand feet, compared to Lake Erie’s more modest two hundred feet), it is subject to massive building waves and vicious storms. Wise was desperate not to take his crew over it in these ‘tornado’ conditions. ‘Crossing the second lake’, he shouted to Hyde, would be ‘sheer recklessness and hardihood’. He sent all th
ree crew members down into the lifeboat, ready to leap out immediately with the mail, if he could get a grappling iron to hold for a moment.

  But despite valving much gas, Wise failed to achieve even the briefest touchdown on the wind-blasted foreshore. Caught in the now screaming north-easterly air current, and flying far too low, they were swept towards a last line of trees before Lake Ontario. ‘LaMountain cried up to me at this moment, with emphatic voice, “Professor what’s to be done?” – “Throw everything overboard you can lay your hands on,” was my reply, “or we shall be torn to pieces if we strike the ground.”’33

  With no ballast left, LaMountain threw out the lifeboat’s brass ‘propeller gearing’, thus effectively disabling it. At last the Atlantic rose, cleared the trees, and shot out ‘like a bullet’ over the huge expanse of seething lead-grey water. ‘O! how terrible it was, foaming, moaning, and howling,’ thought Wise to himself. In minutes all land disappeared from view. ‘I guess we are gone,’ remarked Hyde simply. LaMountain, possibly with the stylistic help of his newspaper editor, subsequently recalled: ‘Above, the clouds were black as ink; around the winds were howling as if alive with demons; and below the water, capped with foam … swept up in swells fifteen feet high, that ran in every conceivable direction.’34

  The balloon had now lost too much gas, and was sinking again. Their situation was, in Wise’s words, ‘dismal enough’. The great waters of America were going to swallow them up. They hit the wave tops several times, and Wise called everyone back up into the basket. There was a fierce dispute as to what they should do next. Wise thought they should take to the lifeboat and cut away the balloon. LaMountain thought the opposite: they should stay in the balloon, and cut away the lifeboat as so much useless ballast. It was a terrible dilemma. In these storm conditions it was not clear whether the boat would actually float, or the balloon would actually fly. Both moves would be irrevocable, and either might prove fatal.

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