Ohio History Journal

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Thomas Kirkby:

Pioneer Aeronaut in Ohio




The decade of the 1830's marked the dawn of American aeronautical history.

Although the first American balloon ascent had been made on June 24, 1784, when

Edward Warren, a thirteen year old Baltimore lad made a captive flight in a home-

made balloon, the citizens of the young republic remained aloof from so impracti-

cal an enterprise as free ballooning.1 The American tour of Jean Pierre Blanchard

in 1793 demonstrated that even a highly successful European aeronaut, the first

man to fly the English Channel, could rarely draw a large enough crowd of paying

spectators to meet his expenses. While the flights of Louis-Charles Guille in 1819

and Eugene Robertson in 1825 attracted wide attention, balloon ascents remained

infrequent and were confined to the large cities of the East Coast.2

The return of Charles Ferson Durant to the United States in 1830 heralded a

"golden age" of American aerostation. Having studied in Europe with Eugene

Robertson, Durant was to become the nation's first professional aeronaut. His

ascents were well publicized and attended. Durant's first American flight, at Castle

Garden, New York, was followed by a national tour which proved that an aero-

naut could profitably devote full time to ballooning. George Elliot, Samuel Wal-

lace, Hugh Parker, Nicholas Ash, and others followed his lead in introducing the

wonders of manned flight to the people of New York, Baltimore, and Charleston.

Despite the fact that no ascents had been made in the state, Ohioans had taken

an early interest in aeronautics. As early as 1815 a Mr. Gaston had announced to

the citizens of Cincinnati that he would release a large free balloon prior to a fire-

works demonstration.3 Cincinnati newspapers carried front page accounts of major

European and American ascents, placing particular emphasis on such sensational

events as the death of Madame Blanchard in 1819.4 The "aerial steam-boat" con-



1. Jeremiah Milbank, Jr., The First Century of Flight in America: An Introductory Survey (Princeton,

1943). Milbank offers a fine introduction to nineteenth century ballooning.

2. Ibid., 35. Milbank reports that Louis-Charles Guille brought a balloon to Cincinnati in 1819.

However, a check of the city's newspapers for the period failed to disclose any mention of his presence.

In view of the fact that the Cincinnati papers regularly printed accounts of Guille's eastern ascents, it

seems improbable that they would have ignored a flight in their own city.

3. Cincinnati Liberty Hall, May 15, 1815. Gaston's Fourth of July exhibitions were a yearly tra-

dition in Cincinnati. The balloon portion of the program was evidently designed to attract crowds for

the more important pyrotechnic display. Although Gaston's aerostat was large enough to carry a man,

no manned flights were attempted.

4. Mme. Madeline-Sophie Blanchard, wife of aeronaut Jean Blanchard died when her balloon

caught fire during a fireworks exhibition in Paris.


Mr. Crouch is supervisor of education at the Ohio Historical Society.