Daredevils of the Sky—Early Aeronauts in Utah

D. Robert Carter
History Blazer, May 1996

A colorful hot air balloon tugged at the ropes tethering it to the beach near Great Salt Lake. “Professor” Staley, billed as the Prince of the Air, firmly gripped the dangling rope tied to the trapeze bar suspended from lines attached to the balloon’s netting. Hand over hand he climbed the rope and mounted the bar. At his signal the tethers were cut, and the balloon began its steady ascent. He performed a trapeze act as the gas-filled orb rose to perilous height. At more than 1,000 feet above the ground, the aeronaut jumped from the bar and hurled earthward at dizzying speed. Then his parachute opened, and he slowly and gracefully dropped to earth. Spectacles like this made ballooning one of Utah’s favorite spectator sports during the last two decades of the 19th century. Of course, ballooning did not originate in Utah. In 1783 Frenchmen Joseph and Jacques Montgolfier launched a large balloon filled with warm, foul-smelling smoke and the word aeronaut was born. Later that same year Francois Pitatre de Rozier and Marquis d’Arlandes accomplished the first free flight. These aeronauts and others who followed gained instant fame.

Not until 1792 did Jean Pierre Blanchard, a French balloonist, and his companion, a small black dog, make the first manned (and dogged) free flight in America. His ascension was staged from the walled yard of Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Prison. Tickets sold for the hefty sum of $5.00 each. The occasion drew such luminaries as President George Washington and future presidents John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe.

In later years balloons were used for observation during wars and delivering mail, but their most remunerative use proved to be entertainment. The main objective of aeronauts during the 19th century was to delight a pleasure-craving public. As superstars of that era, balloonists barnstormed the country with their varnished or rubberized cloth balloons, provided thrills and excitement to audiences, and eventually worked their way into the American West. At first, merely ascending skyward in a balloon and bringing it back to earth was enough to awe crowds in Utah. When that became commonplace, new thrills were added. Balloons lofted horses and their riders skyward. Night flights accompanied by fireworks were staged. Female aeronauts with formfitting costumes were a real draw, and trapeze acts were popular. Both animals and humans parachuted from balloons.

One of the first itinerant balloonists in Utah was “Professor” P. A. Van Tassell, an aeronaut of some fame. He visited Salt Lake City in the summer of 1883 and made several successful ascensions. On July 24 his balloon rose from Washington Square to a great height and finally alighted in Red Butte Canyon. There was no set ticket price, but viewers were encouraged to contribute whatever they could to the “Professor” who depended upon aeronautics for his livelihood. High winds, storms, and malfunctioning equipment frequently caused the postponement of performances and changes in the program. In July 1888 “Professor” Joseph Gomes scheduled a balloon ascension and parachute jump into the Great Salt Lake at Lake Park. The large crowd at the resort was disappointed when weather prevented the event. The next week the ascension and drop of a Miss Wheeler at Lake Park was advertised. This performance drew a smaller audience because of the previous cancellation. Those hoping to see Wheeler in her revealing costume were disappointed when she failed to arrive in time and was replaced by a boy.

From the mid-1880s through the turn of the century, bathing resorts around the Great Salt Lake and Utah Lake were common sites for balloon ascensions, and some Utah boys became balloonists to take advantage of this aeronautics craze. One of these locals was E. E. Harris who operated out of Pleasant Grove and performed at Garfield Beach around Utah Lake. His July 14, 1894, performance at the Provo Lake Resort thrilled the audience and made many women scream. After ascending 2,500 feet, he parachuted from his balloon. Many people feared he would hit the water before his chute opened. When it finally did open, Harris realized he was not as far out over the lake as he had intended. In an effort to guide the chute farther over the lake he almost overturned it. The watchers were delighted when he landed gracefully in the water about fifty yards from shore. Two weeks later the aeronaut drew a crowd with a double parachute jump. The small dog of Sam Schwab, a local clothier, was attached to an 8-foot parachute and made the jump with Harris. Provo’s Evening Dispatch reported Sam’s assessment of the event: “If de barachute dond oben de dog am a det dog.” To which Harris replied, “So am I. He takes no greater chances than I do.” Harris later ran afoul of the Humane Society and ceased using animals in his act.

Ballooning was undoubtedly dangerous because of unpredictable winds, fires, violent landings, and faulty balloons and parachutes. In August 1894 a storm nearly caused Harris to lose his life in Utah Lake. It was almost 10 p.m. before his balloon was ready for the ascent. A strong wind blowing over the lake from Spanish Fork Canyon caused the balloon to swoop over the water at a low altitude. The crowd feared Harris would drown in the rough waters as he abandoned his careening craft and jumped into the lake. The boats sent to search for him found him laboring through neck-deep water. He was covered with mud and a trifle worse for wear when he reached shore, but he was in good spirits despite his close call and the prospects of losing his $100 balloon.

In 1892 it was reported that “Professor” Van Tassell who had performed in Salt Lake again in 1889 had fallen from his balloon into the sea near Honolulu and been eaten by sharks. The story was corrected by a visiting aeronaut, “Professor” Leonard. He reported that a man had indeed gone up in Van Tassel’s balloon, fallen into the sea, and been eaten by sharks, but that man was not Van Tassel. The popular aeronaut was still alive and making ascensions.

With the advent of the airplane in the 20th century, Utahns gradually lost interest in aeronauts, and the balloon era ended. Not until recent time has hot-air ballooning regained its popularity, thrilling people again with the sight of aeronauts over Utah.

Sources: Donald D. Jackson, The Aeronauts (Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1980); Salt Lake Herald, May 17, July 21, 1883; July 6, 7, 17, 1888; May 24, 1889; July 5, 1893; Provo Evening Dispatch, July 11, 17, 28, August 9, 1894.