Falling upwards, p.12
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       Falling Upwards, p.12

           Richard Holmes

  While Wise hesitated, LaMountain, impetuous and determined to show his mettle, seized a hatchet and clambered back down into the swaying and half-swamped craft below. He began cutting the seats and fittings away, plank by plank, getting rid of as much wooden ballast as possible but leaving the canvas sides so it might still float. The waves continually engulfed him as he worked. At one point Wise thought he saw his head whirling away in the spray, and shouted, ‘LaMountain’s gone!’ Then a muffled voice called back, ‘No I ain’t. It’s only my hat!’ He was lying in the bottom of the boat with his arms around the remaining cross-seat.35

  Gradually they threw out everything that could be spared as ballast, every instrument, every bottle of champagne and brandy, even Wise’s own personal valise with all his clothing and a ‘treasured silver cigar case presented by a friend’.36 Lastly they threw out the vital United States Express Company mailbag itself. The Atlantic kept hitting the wave tops, and then staggering back into the air. Its crew hung on grimly in the upper basket for two more hours, praying for landfall. Wise and LaMountain stared ahead, keeping a lookout, and occasionally shouting grimly at each other.

  There were odd incidents. When Gager tried to open the last bottle of champagne with Wise’s special penknife, he was warned sharply by Wise ‘not to ruin’ the edge of the blade. Gager beamed with relief. ‘Do you expect ever to have use for this knife again?’ he asked. ‘Certainly I do,’ came the reply. ‘Then,’ said Gager, ‘you don’t calculate we’ll die very soon.’

  When they saw a steamer, the Young America, butting through the waves below, Wise proposed to ditch in its path and swim for it, but the others refused. So instead, as they shot past, he ordered them to give the vessel three cheers. Coming out on deck, ‘the ladies waved their handkerchiefs and the men began to hurrah’. Wise thought: ‘Little did they dream we were sailing with death warrants in our hands.’37

  After two and a half hours, the balloon finally made landfall on the north-eastern shores of Lake Ontario, near the township of Henderson, in the remote forested regions of upper New York State, just short of the Canadian border. It was still travelling at over sixty miles an hour, and Wise assumed they would all die the moment it hit the trees. The iron grapnel snapped immediately he threw it out – ‘Leviathan tied to a fish hook’ – and the balloon dashed along through the treetops ‘like a maddened elephant through a jungle’.

  In the event it was the big elm trees that saved them, gradually shredding the balloon envelope as it went along, slowing it down, and finally catching the balloon basket in the fork of a stout branch, while the remaining silk tore itself to pieces above the crew’s heads. The four battered occupants, who had not spoken a word to each other during this final ordeal, were amazed to find themselves uninjured, and able to descend fifty feet to the ground with ropes.38

  Wise calculated that they had covered ‘over sixteen degrees of eastern longitude’ across America, a formidable achievement. Allowing for the steadily northern curve which the west wind gave to their eastward course, he reckoned they had actually travelled ‘about twelve hundred miles’ since St Louis, ‘the greatest balloon voyage that was ever made’. In fact the official figure was later set as 809 miles in twenty hours and forty minutes, nevertheless ‘establishing a world distance record that would stand until September 1910’.39 But because of the loss of the mail, the flight had no commercial value whatsoever, though it appears that the mailbag did eventually float ashore at Oswego, on the southern side of Lake Ontario.

  All the same, Wise chose to end his account on a light-hearted note. A small party of homesteaders had come out from Henderson, and stood round the aeronauts as they attempted to assemble the strewn wreckage of the Atlantic. ‘An elderly lady with spectacles made the remark that she was really surprised and astonished to see so sensible-looking a party as we appeared, to ride in such an outlandish-looking vehicle. She anxiously enquired where we came from; and when told from St Louis, she wanted to know how far that was from there, and when informed it was over a thousand miles, she looked very suspiciously over the top of her spectacles, and said: “That will do now.”’40

  William Hyde had a scoop that made his career, and John LaMountain instantly established his name among the most daring of the younger aeronauts. But he also soon became known as an irascible troublemaker and publicity-seeker. He wrote articles accusing Wise of incompetence, indecision and cowardice during the flight, and wildly claimed that he alone would ‘cross the Atlantic in October’.

  Finally, he publicly challenged Wise to a suicidal trans-American balloon race, three thousand miles across the continent, riding the west wind from the Pacific to the Atlantic. ‘If Mr Wise considers the matter of sufficient importance to test our relative capacities – scientifically considered – in a trial trip from San Francisco to the Atlantic seaboard, with balloons of equal size – he knows my address.’41

  In fact the possibility of this madcap scheme actually coming to fruition cooled overheated heads and partly reconciled the two men. Amazingly, the wreckage of the Atlantic was retrieved, and Oliver A. Gager, undeterred, paid for LaMountain to construct a new, smaller balloon from its remains. With this, LaMountain undertook a series of shorter but equally perilous flights, one of which landed him deep in the Canadian wilderness, north of Ottawa. It was mainly memorable for the three weeks it took him to hike back to civilisation on foot. Meanwhile Wise quietly returned to St Louis, and continued his propaganda for balloon mail, long-distance flights, and the discovery of spiritual hygiene in the upper air. But nothing could change the fact that the great dream of crossing the Atlantic had eluded them all.


  In many ways the most ambitious of the American aeronautical ‘Professors’ was Thaddeus Sobieski Coulincourt Lowe (1832–1913). The unlikely extravagance of his name led many people to believed he was a Polish burlesque artist. In fact he was a formidably serious and well-organised man from New Hampshire, and his doting mother had named him after the hero of the Scottish romance novel she had been reading, Jane Porter’s Thaddeus of Warsaw. Six feet tall, headstrong, unmistakably glamorous and with imposing moustaches, Lowe believed passionately in ballooning as a new science, and to the end of his life he would make characteristically bullish statements about it: ‘Every invention, every innovation in the history of the world, has been laughed at. Columbus was renounced as a faker; Morse was called a crank; Franklin a fool; Charles Darwin ridiculed for years. It seems to be the fate of every man or woman who discovers a new fact, to be made the subject of attacks of the most violent nature, without rhyme or reason.’42

  Like Wise, like LaMountain, Lowe harboured the big dream of flying eastwards across America and then the Atlantic. He said this had come to him like a revelation in childhood: ‘I remember as a boy lying on my back under the trees, I had often seen through the leaves overhead, the clouds moving in different directions, the higher ones going East and the lower ones West, and it occurred to me that once in this upper current, I could sail across the Atlantic and land on the continent of Europe.’43

  In his autobiography, My Balloons in Peace and War, Lowe describes his balloon apprenticeship as part of a lifelong vocation to fulfil a uniquely American destiny. At the age of twenty he read John Wise’s A System of Aeronautics, which confirmed his dream of riding on the continuous high air current, or permanent west wind, blowing eastwards across America, and just waiting to carry a balloon to glory. But he saw this vocation as essentially scientific, rather than semi-religious, as Wise did: ‘My fondness for science found expression in many ways. I saved every dollar I made – read all the scientific books I could obtain – courted the society of men who knew something – and tried to store my mind with knowledge that would be of service to me along the line of scientific investigation.’44 One of the men whose society he courted most assiduously would be a genuine professor, the great American physicist Joseph Henry (1797–1878).

  From the first, Lowe had extraordinary single-mind
edness and drive. He found work early as technical assistant to an itinerant chemistry lecturer, but within a year was studying and lecturing on the chemistry of gases for himself, using a ‘portable laboratory’. Increasingly these lectures included hydrogen-balloon demonstrations. So he was much struck when a pretty nineteen-year-old French actress named Léontine Gaschon appeared in the front row of his lecture audience, and expressed lively interest in the hydrogen balloons flown by her countrymen like Eugène Godard. A week later, on St Valentine’s Day 1855, Lowe married Léontine, and they went on to fly many balloons and have ten children together.45

  Lowe’s first recorded flight, in a home-made balloon, took place the year following his marriage, in 1856, when he was twenty-four. Within another two years reports of his ascents were appearing in the newspapers, and he celebrated the laying of the first Atlantic telegraph cable in 1858 with a series of well-publicised flights from Ottawa and Portland, Maine. The idea of the Atlantic cable of course served to sharpen business interest in the idea of transatlantic balloon flight, and Lowe was soon in correspondence with John Wise’s Trans-Atlantic Balloon Corporation in St Louis, on a possible collaboration.

  It is nonetheless astonishing that by July 1859, the very month of Wise’s Atlantic flight over Lake Ontario, Lowe had made his own separate bid for national fame, and somehow organised the financing of a rival balloon, the City of New York. This was far bigger than Wise’s Atlantic (a ‘mere’ 120,000 cubic feet), with a capacity of 725,000 cubic feet, stood two hundred feet high, and carried a dangling three-ton steam-powered lifeboat. In autumn 1859 this monster was grandly installed in the grounds of the Crystal Palace, at Forty-Second Street and Sixth Avenue, in the heart of New York, where it attracted huge crowds of sightseers, and wide but sceptical press coverage.

  Indeed, the City of New York had distinct teething problems, notably the fact that it could not get off the ground. Having been ceremoniously connected to the New York gas mains through an enormous gasometer, the balloon was still less than one-third inflated after fourteen days of constant supply. This effort threatened to black out the drawing-room lamps of the entire city, making the ambitious enterprise increasingly unpopular. It did not help that the fall weather was freezing. Lowe arrived to supervise the inflation himself, wrapped in an enormous fur coat, looking and acting like ‘a Russian bear’, according to press reports. He also renamed his balloon the Great Western, in an attempt to twin it with Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s iron Great Eastern, the largest ship ever constructed, which was shortly due to arrive in New York harbour after its first transatlantic crossing. Neither strategy had the desired effect. The balloon was now leaking slightly faster than it was filling, and the stench of gas filled the Crystal Palace park and drifted across Forty-Second Street. This first attempt to inflate the Great Western was finally abandoned, and it never got off the ground in New York.

  Undaunted, Lowe took it the following spring to Philadelphia, at the invitation of the Benjamin Franklin Institute and the Philadelphia Gas Works, together with encouragement from the Philadelphia Inquirer.46 These three patrons – the learned institute, the gas company and the newspaper – were representative of the three wealthy American lobbies which still expressed a strong if speculative interest in supporting a transatlantic balloon. The scientific establishment sought new technologies. The commercial world sought new sources of investment. And the press sought a steady supply of new human-interest scoops. There would soon be a fourth interested party: the US Army. What it sought was also something new and suddenly urgent – military intelligence.

  But Lowe had overplayed his hand with the Great Western. Possibly misled by his wealthy New York backers – he was still only twenty-eight – what he had built was essentially a brilliant publicity machine, rather than a safe flying machine. In June he did achieve a brief, lumbering test flight into New Jersey (with a terrified journalist from the Inquirer aboard). But on 8 September 1860, during yet another attempt at inflation, the monster simply exploded. Nothing was left to prove it had ever existed but a few fragments of coloured balloon-cloth blown across the rooftops of Philadelphia (and few mocking cartoons).47

  But it was now that Thaddeus Lowe demonstrated the inner buoyancy of his own character. Refusing to accept defeat, he shrugged off the disaster and immediately set to work on a quite new approach to his Atlantic balloon scheme, turning away from commerce and back to pure science. He at once wrote to the greatest acknowledged expert on chemistry, electromagnetism and meteorology in America: Professor Joseph Henry, first Director of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

  Professor Henry received innumerable applications from scientific cranks, but he took Lowe seriously. In a decisive exchange of letters, Henry confirmed the ‘meteorological phenomena’ of the American West Wind. A high, permanent, ‘prevailing easterly air current’ had been fully established by ten years of ‘continuous observation’ at the Smithsonian. He therefore gave his opinion that a balloon of ‘sufficient size and impermeability to gas’ could indeed travel on this wind across the Atlantic. His one proviso was shrewd and strictly practical: Lowe should undertake what we would now call research and development. He should take much smaller balloons, fly them eastwards over land (not over the ocean), gaining practical experience ‘accumulated by voyages over the interior’, and thus ensure that the whole project should be ‘thoroughly tested’ before he finally set out.48 Professor Henry added one paradoxical but masterly suggestion: Lowe should only take off on days when the wind at ground level was demonstrably blowing the wrong way, to the west. Observers would then see with their own eyes that once he had gained sufficient altitude, he would invariably find the predicted easterly air current, and the balloon would triumphantly turn back and head for the distant Atlantic.

  Accordingly in spring 1861, Lowe took a much more modest balloon, the thirty-three-thousand-cubic-foot Enterprise, to the early home of experimental ballooning, Cincinnati, Ohio.49 He was scheduled to take off in the second week of April. But then the balloon went up in a quite different way.


  Spies in the Sky


  On 15 April 1861 the newly elected President Abraham Lincoln declared an ‘insurrection’ in America’s Southern states, and sent out a call for seventy-five thousand troops to volunteer – but only for a brief three-month period.1 His aim was rapidly to crush what was then seen as a local and ill-organised farmers’ ‘rebellion’ in the deep South, largely in the six cotton-growing slave states – South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana – which had formed a loose armed Confederacy. The ‘rebellion’ was initially a scattered and desultory affair, having begun with the storming of Fort Sumpter in Charleston harbour, South Carolina. But the seceding states, joined by Texas, soon founded a new Southern capital in distant, rural Montgomery, Alabama, over a thousand miles from Washington, and brazenly elected a new Congress there.

  With a huge preponderance of men, weaponry and industrial materials, the North or Union appeared to have an unassailable advantage, and intended to bring the South to heel with a brief and punishing blockade. However, by the end of May, four more slave states – Tennessee, Arkansas, North Carolina and part of Virginia – had joined the Confederacy. Moreover, several brilliant generals had rallied to its ranks: notably Robert E. Lee and ‘Stonewall’ Jackson – and the spirit of Southern patriotism, the spirit of ‘Dixie’, had caught light. With startling confidence the rebels dashingly moved their capital north from Alabama to Richmond, Virginia, a mere ninety-eight miles from Washington, and soon had some two hundred thousand troops in the field.2 They also repudiated the anti-slavery rhetoric of the North, and began to create the powerful mythology of a graceful, productive, agrarian South, shamefully set upon by a brutal, bullying, mechanised North. In a curious way, balloons would eventually contribute to both sides of this propaganda warfare. From then on the conflict escalated into a full-blown civil war, which would endure for four long and terrible ye
ars. By the end, Lincoln would have been forced to raise over a million troops.

  The rebels’ provocative initiative in occupying Richmond in April 1861 effectively dictated the first eighteen months of the conflict. Other early campaigns were fought in Missouri, the Shenandoah Valley, and distant Tennessee; and the rebel city of New Orleans in Louisiana fell in April 1862.3 But for the Union the early watchword became ‘On to Richmond!’ In consequence, most of the early fighting was restricted to the state of Virginia, stretching between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Atlantic Ocean.

  It was an area divided by four great rivers running south-eastwards (like the fingers of a spread hand) into Chesapeake Bay – the Potomac, the Rappahannock, the York and the James. Moving between these, the conflict was highly mobile and violent, yet strangely indecisive. It involved a series of back-and-forth manoeuvrings, alternately to subdue or to defend the rebel stronghold. The campaign opened with the First Battle of Bull Run, just west of Washington, in July 1861, and ended with the Seven Days Battle just north of Richmond in July 1862.4

  Balloons were present at most of these bloody encounters, and especially in the latter phase, fought along the narrow strip of land between the James and the York rivers, known as the Virginia Peninsula. Balloon operations were restricted, even marginal, but in some cases were crucial in supplying military intelligence. Yet their value was always disputed. Remarkably, they played virtually no part in the war after the Battle of Fredericksburg (on the Rappahannock river) in December 1862.5 But for the aeronauts, all Atlantic schemes were hastily put aside from April 1861 onwards. Instead, the great rivalry between Lowe, Wise and LaMountain shifted to the struggle to become appointed as the official aeronaut of the Union army. In this endeavour, patriotism, rather than profit, seems genuinely to have motivated them.6

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