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Willoughby: Aeronauts in Aspen

Crowd in St Louis in 1910 enjoying a balloon launch during the “million population” event. Library of Congress/Courtesy photo

My generation is enamored with astronauts. 1880s Aspen favored Argonauts. You might be surprised to learn that Aspen also turned its attention to aeronauts in the 1890s.

Stories of aeronauts piloting balloons were popular beginning in the late 1880s, but most of the articles were about the danger. There was a death in Cleveland when the pilot struck a house. In London an aeronaut was driven out to a sea death. There was a multiple day story when near New York a balloon with an empty basket was spotted and the pilot could not be found. The famous aeronaut M. Foult was killed falling from his balloon near Brussels. A female balloonist was injured in a parachute descent.

Balloons also produced humor like, “It will be tough on the aeronaut and his wife if they should have a falling out.”



The first balloon demonstration around Aspen was in Glenwood in 1893. The headline after the event tells most of the story, “Aeronaut in Glenwood falls 3,000 feet.” That may have been an exaggeration as was this description of the balloon’s ascent, “up and up and still up went the great air vessel until it looked no larger than a football and the man beneath it a mere speck in the sky.”

A large crowd watched the event. After it reached its final height wind caught it and it drifted until it was above the swimming pool. As they watched the balloon began a slow descent and then the aeronaut, hanging from a rope, ‘shot toward the earth’ for a couple hundred feet. Then “ at the other end of the rope something spread out like the wings of a great bird.” He hit the ground moving rather fast on the riverbank where he wasn’t hurt but his clothes were dirtied.



Aspen’s first balloon demonstration was two years later in 1895. It was arranged by two locals, Tom Curry and Pres Swan. Curry was the Exalted Ruler of the Elks and Swan a city council alderman. Both were active in mining with Curry at one time having a lease on the Durant and Swan very involved in the Golconda and later was the foreman for work in the Cowenhoven Tunnel.

The two partners were thinking of getting into the balloon exhibition business and arranged for Professor E. E. Harris to demonstrate his skills for Aspen’s Fourth of July celebration. Harris was 33 years old at the time and had been in the balloon business for fourteen years. He came a few days early and was interviewed by the Aspen Times.

He described his balloon as 60 by 45 feet and that it was filled with air in about 30 minutes using coal oil and benzene. The paper, having reported many aeronaut accidents, asked if it was dangerous and Harris replied it was and gave a recent example in Salt Lake City where his balloon drifted over the lake leaving him two miles from shore. Then the balloon blew away and he was not able to recover it.

The plan was that Harris would make two ascents, one right after the baseball game where he would perform his usual program. After reaching his greatest possible height he would drop his trained dog in a parachute and then parachute himself. The second performance would be in the evening where he would raise his glowing balloon as part of the fire works. The 1,500 people who attended were worried about the dog, but the balloon developed a 35-foot rip before it could take off ending the event.

Since he had a contract he rescheduled for a couple days later making his ascent from an empty lot to the west of the Jerome. He rose 1,000 feet in half a minute. Harris jumped out and began a parachute descent, but in the beginning the chute was slow to open and the crowd thought he was going to be killed. It opened in tine to save him and he landed about two hundred feet from where he started, but on top of a building having dropped between four electric lines onto a tin roof. The balloon came down on the corner of Mill and Hopkins.

Swan and Curry were going to have Harris teach them the trade, but concluded that they it was too fraught with problems. Harris bought into a mine lease concluding that, “it is less dangerous to handle dynamite in a tunnel than to come down in parachutes.”

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at redmtn2@comcast.net.


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