Boston, MA – July 4, 1892

Boston, Massachusetts – July 4, 1892

 

      As part of some July 4th celebration activities, Boston city officials had organized a balloon ascension from the Boston Common. 

     Just after 4:00 p.m. Professor George Augustus Rogers of Malden, Maine, his assistant Thomas Fenton, and a reporter, Delos E. Goldsmith, stepped into the gondola of the huge balloon named the Governor Russell, and prepared for lift-off. 

     When the Governor Russell was released, it rose several hundred feet and began drifting towards Dorchester, but then the wind changed and carried it out over Boston Harbor. It continued on this course, steadily rising higher, and before long it became apparent the craft would be blown out to sea – a ballonist’s worst nightmare, for it meant almost certain death if rescue was not readily available.  As the balloon drifted towards Thompson’s Island, Rogers attempted to release some of the gas by opening the release valve, but had trouble doing so, and a lager tear in the fabric resulted.  As the gas rushed out, the balloon fell rapidly, crashing into the water and completely collapsing.  

     As the occupants floundered, Rogers sank beneath the waves and disappeared.  Fenton and Goldsmith managed to stay afloat and were rescued by men in a rowboat from Thompson’s Island.  A passing tugboat also gave assistance, and took both men to the mainland, but Fenton died before they reached shore from inhaling the poison gas from the balloon.  Goldsmith later recovered.     

     Professor Rogers was an experienced balloonist having made 112 ascensions since 1870.  Ironically, this wasn’t the professor’s first aviation accident.  On July 4, 1881, Rogers took off in a balloon from Point-of-Pines in Revere, Massachusetts, and arrived over Nahant, Mass. where the balloon fabric suddenly ripped, causing him to land upon some telephone wires.  It was reported that he received “injuries from which he never fully recovered.”   

     Rogers left behind a wife and family.  His body was recovered on July 15, found floating in the water near the L Street bathhouse. 

    Thomas Fenton, 34, was survived by his wife and six children. This was his first trip in a balloon.

     The accident left city officials wondering if balloon ascensions should be allowed in the future, with some going on record as stating any future requests would be denied. 

Sources:

New York Times, “Three Balloon Accidents”, July 5, 1892

New York Times, “The Boston Balloon Accident”, July 6, 1892

Burlington Weekly Free Press, (Burlington, VT.) “Aeronaut Rogers’ Body”, July 21, 1892

 

Samuel A King’s Balloon “Colossus” – 1872

Samuel A. King’s Balloon “Colossus” – 1872

     In January of 1872, famous aeronaut and balloonist Samuel A. King, (1828 – 1914), of Boston, began constructing what would be, when completed, “the largest balloon ever made in America”.  The name of the balloon was to be “Colossus”.

     The balloon, it was reported, would have a circumference of 191 feet, with a capacity to hold 100,000 cubic feet of hydrogen gas.  It would require 1,200 yards of Lyman cloth to make, which would be custom manufactured for this specific purpose.  To give the balloon added strength, twenty-four bands of four-thickness cloth would encircle the sphere.  The entire balloon would be coated with an oil based varnish to make it air tight in order to prevent the massive amount of gas from wicking out through the fabric.

     The pilot and passengers would be carried in two custom made cars suspended beneath the balloon, with one car situated above the other.  The upper car would be smaller than the lower one.  The top car would carry scientific instruments and passengers, while the lower one more passengers and ballast.  The entire balloon, empty, would reportedly weigh between 1,400 and 1,500 pounds, and when fully inflated would have a lifting capacity of 7,000 pounds, which could equate to fifteen or twenty passengers. 

     It was expected that the Colossus would be completed in time for its scheduled inaugural launch from the Boston Common as part of the city’s Fourth of July celebration.   Construction would take place at Mr. King’s residence and workshop located at 179 Chelsea Street in Chelsea, Massachusetts.  

     On June 6, 1872, as the balloon was nearing completion, it was seriously damaged by fire.  Portions of the balloon fabric had been spread out on a vacant lot between Chelsea and Watts Streets where it had received the first of four coats of the oil-varnish.  As the fabric was left to dry, a storm approached, so workmen carefully rolled it up to prevent moisture damage.  At some point after the storm had passed, the fabric was unrolled, at which time sections were found to be on fire due to spontaneous combustion caused by solvents in the oil-varnish. 

     Professor King was away in Philadelphia at the time making arrangements for the completion of one of the passenger carrying baskets, and was notified of the setback by telegraph.  

     Fortunately the balloon was salvaged, and repairs completed in time for it’s anticipated ascension from the Boston Common on July 4th.   On that day thousands came to watch the event.  This was to be Professor King’s 164th balloon ascension, and he was going to take twelve passengers with him on this historic flight.  “In my judgement,” King told a reporter, “although you can’t depend much on the weather, we will find ourselves about ten o’clock to-night somewhere up in the mountains of New Hampshire.”  His comment about the unpredictability of the weather would prove to be prophetic.  

     Most of the twelve passengers were newspaper men, but at least one was a scientist from Washington, D.C., who planned to record atmospheric conditions with scientific equipment.   While the balloon was being inflated on the Common, at least four citizens approached King with cash offers if he’d take them along on the flight, but all were refused.    

     The scheduled time for lift-off was 4 p.m.  Shortly after 2 p.m., as the balloon was about 80% inflated with Hydrogen gas, a violent storm suddenly appeared, and when the sky opened up spectators were sent running for cover in all directions.  The strong winds whipped at the balloon which swayed back and forth tugging at its moorings.  Whether it was struck by lightning or not is uncertain, but suddenly there was a loud boom as the Colossus abruptly exploded.  The fabric was in shreds and the massive giant immediately fell flat on the ground.  One newspaper described the scene afterwards as such: (The balloon) “…lay inanimate on the earth a dirty mass of cotton shreds, dragged and slimy in the rain and mud.”

     Fortunately there were no reported injuries due to the explosion.

      Sources:

     The Daily Dispatch, (Richmond, VA.) “A Colossal Balloon”, (Copied from the Boston Advertiser, May 23, 1872.     

     The Tiffin Tribune, (Tiffin, Ohio), “The Largest Balloon In The World Ruined By Spontaneous Combustion”, (Copied from the Boston Advertiser), June 20, 1872.

     The New York Herald, “Boston’s Big Gas Bags – Serious Catastrophes To Science In Boston”, July 5, 1872

 

 

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