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Thaddeus Lowe & the
City of New York

City of New York

Thaddeus Lowe's fabulous airship "The City of New York" with flags flying and the 30' Francis Lifeboat underneath christened "Leontine." Image from Harpers Magazine courtesy Michael Patris Collection.

By Michael Patris

Ninety days to spend on a project doesn't seem like very long at all, but when one is building the largest hot air balloon known to man the time hardly seems sufficient. Yet al the experience Thaddeus Lowe had gathered in his 27 years put this young man at the forefront of American ballooning. The goal was to cross the Atlantic Ocean and Lowe wasn't the only one trying to do it. 

Old enough to be his father, John Wise had some following for being a pioneer balloonist and with his ship, the "Atlantic", to many it seemed all too possible. Since the mid 1930's, Wise had accomplished nearly 250 ascensions, and with his latest balloon being tested, Thaddeus Lowe appeared to be only a minor annoyance to the seasoned flyer. With fellow balloonist John LaMountain and millionaire O.A. Gager as co-backers of the project, the trip across the ocean seemed just a flight away. Not only had these gentlemen backed the "Atlantic", together they had broken a record for the day by flying from St. Louis, Missouri to Jefferson County, New York...a trip of about 800 miles in only 19 hours.

In his teenage years, young Thaddeus bought a copy of the book, A System of Aeronautics which Wise had written on the topic of ballooning. Lowe was thankful for the elder statesmen's knowledge, cut refused to be treated like a child, or a second citizen. Publicly Wise treated Lowe like a young and foolish charlatan, but only until the new balloonist on the block could make a couple of noteworthy flights of his own. Just previous to the maiden flight of the "Atlantic", Wise had made some sort of suggestion to Lowe that they pool their resources and make the flight across the ocean together. Lowe thought better of the offer and chose to remain on his own by building a bigger and better balloon. 

Wish seventeen sewing machines and six thousand yards of twilled cloth, Thaddeus Lowe was now more determined than ever to fulfill his destiny to become the first man to make a trans-Atlantic flight. Detailed notes taken from a Harper's Weekly story dated September 24, 1859, say the City of New York would weigh about three and a half tons, and have a lifting capability of more than twenty two and a half tons. Very impressive by any standards, but the contention was that no balloon could exist in the atmosphere for more than two to three days...much shorter a time than would be needed to cross the Atlantic Ocean.

Professor Lowe, as he was not called, had a plan. Not only would his balloon need to be bigger, and better than the "Atlantic", but for the mere purpose of holding more gas for the longer trip, and also to have the ability to carry what Lowe deemed necessary to survive any potential mishaps. Starting with a special formula varnish, brewed at 600 degrees, and spread on the cloth, this sealant applied in three coats would be the first main difference to insure his success over any competitors. The next step was to twist flaxen cord, and weave it into a network of webbing to hold the enormous inflated balloon. The cord was tested to withstand a strain of 160 tons.

Beneath the cord would be suspended a 20' diameter woven rattan basket that would come to about chest high on the average man. Above this would be oiled canvas to form a type of life capsule open at the top to form a room for the Professor and his passengers. The plan further included a circular seat around the diameter of the basket, and pegs on the cloth walls to hold or support any scientific instruments that may be needed, such as barometers, thermometers and telescopes. Mr. Gager, the millionaire who had worked with Wise, donated a cooking and heating stove that was fueled by lime...a substitute for wood or coal to keep the risk of fire down. Lowe wasn't overly concerned about fire, however, as he once sent a lit candle into the center of one of his smaller balloons as an experiment with no apparent cause for alarm. During this experiment Lowe was flying at about 100 mph.

Beneath his life capsule was to bed suspended a 30' Francis lifeboat christened Leontine, after his wife. This boat was made with newer technology of the day, it featured compartmentalized sections, that way if the hull became damaged, only the part with the damage would fill with water...much like the thinking that went into the ship Titanic. The boat was to have carried provisions for ten people for six months. Professor Lowe was going to look into the foodstuffs that would take up the least amount of space, and deliver the maximum nutrition. The lifeboat also was to be fitted with two copper buoys, six feet in diameter, to aid in any unforeseen landing in the ocean. Once in the ocean, the passengers wouldn't merely be left to the chance direction of the current...their fate had been sealed in this eventuality by both a four horsepower Ericsson caloric engine, and two masts with sails and a rudder...but Professor Lowe had no doubt he would succeed. Even the lifeboat had a folding lifeboat on board.

Every eventuality seemed to be taken in stride. When asked what the travelers would do in the event they got off course, and landed in another country than expected, Lowe simply replied, "They would carry passports to Great Britain, France, Spain and Portugal." When asked what he would do if he found himself on the coast of Africa, the Professor thought for a moment and said, "They would carry fireworks to not only ward off any wild animals, but to signal any passing ships in the area." 

The guest list was another matter. Seven to ten people were to make the historic flight. Two to three scientific seamen, one scientific landsman, a member of Congress, and the editor of a New York newspaper...possibly Horace Greeley.

Everything seemed to be in place for the grand event, Lowe gave the order to send the balloon and equipment to the grounds of the Crystal Palace in New York for the inaugural flight. B now it is early November 1859, and the inflation of the gigantic City of New York had begun. After a short time, however, it became apparent that the balloon was not filling up its nearly 500,000 cubic foot bag with coal gas as had been promised by the city. Someone at the gas company had mistakenly thought 50,000 cubic feet of gas was needed, not the required half million cubic feet. Lowe was devastated. The professor became the butt of jokes, both in person, and in the newspapers.

While nearly everybody gave up o the professor, it had come to the attention of one man that there was still a good possibility that this project could be saved. Dr John Cresson was a member of the Benjamin Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, he also happened to be the President of the Philadelphia Gas Works. On his personal guarantee to provide the needed gas free of charge, and to p ay for shipping the balloon, the project could be salvaged, but not before winter had set in. Dr. Cresson also didn't want to pass up an opportunity to beat out New Yorkers on having a world record flight launched from his beloved Philadelphia. Both Lowe and Cresson decided to wait until better weather for the inaugural flight. The balloon and instruments wee packed away, and Lowe headed for Charleston, South Carolina for testing air currents in smaller balloons.

Springtime 1860 brought the promise4 of a great balloon flight, but there was already rumbling about more testing overland before the great trans-oceanic trip took place. Horace Greeley, famous for his, "go west young man", was successful in persuading Professor Lowe to change the name of the ill-fated City of New York, to the Great Western, so as not to have any painful reminders of the last unsuccessful attempt to fly the world's largest balloon. 

By June 28, 1860, all the proper arrangements had been made, and the trial flight was finally going to take place. Thaddeus Lowe arrived at the Point Breeze gas works to find a huge crowd marveling at the sight of his balloon being inflated. The conditions were just right, and today the maiden voyage was to take place. Although Lowe had no concerns about the flight, he couldn't help but think of the failure in New York the previous year. Five men climbed into the balloon basket, and set forth on a journey not to be equaled for some time. As the ballast was tossed aside, the balloon began to rise above the crowd that was waving, and trying to chase after it. An editor from the Philadelphia Inquirer was one of the five flyers, and was amazed at the view. The balloon had passed right over his office, and as if to pay tribute, Lowe tossed more ballast aside...shooting the balloon directly upward to about three miles in altitude.

After a while it began to get dark, so the travelers put the balloon down for the night in New Jersey...nearly eighteen miles from their starting point. As the balloon came to rest, the Professor couldn't help but notice the air bag had been dragged by some of the men trying to assist on the ground. Lowe could only hope there wouldn't be any damage. By now, any nay sayers had been silenced by having seen the gigantic balloon fly with ease after lifting about sixteen tons. 

When September rolled around, Professor Lowe and all the supplies were finally ready. It as agreed that September 8th would be the launch date, and there was great jubilance. A written message from John Wise was sent to Lowe congratulating him on his trial flight, and offering his years of experience to accompany the crew. The Professor couldn't help but remember all the verbal abuse and grief Wise had given him over the past few years, he promptly burned the letter.

The balloon, having been loaded the morning of the 8th, and the passengers having said their farewells, it seemed as though the moment they all had waited for would finally come. Just as the ropes were being let loose, there was a tremendous gust of wind, and the inner envelope for the gas was ripped to shreds. All this work, and there would be no trip. The canvas was old from having been stored, the dragging on the ground hadn't helped, and probably the winter freeze was a contributing factor. 

All this having been done, a few days later a group of professionals and scientists led by Dr. Cresson, signed a letter telling Professor Lowe that thee would be no more support for his project until Joseph Henry from the Smithsonian Institution gave his blessing. Henry knew Lowe and supported the project, but would insist that there be another long distance flight over land before the final blessing for the trans-oceanic flight would be approved and supported. Lowe consented, and promptly packed a smaller balloon for the train trip to Cincinnati, Ohio.

Thaddeus Lowe's next adventure would be a hair-raising experience and a near brush with death as he drops directly into the Civil War. You can read of this adventure in Echo Mountain Echoes Volume # 3 Summer Issue.

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Last modified: February 12, 1999

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Jake Brouwer
All articles and photos were provided by:
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Copyright 1999