This post is by Anne Boissonnault, Archives Intern
August 2nd marks a particularly lofty day in New York’s history of aeronautics. On that date in 1819, Louis Charles Guillé ascended in a balloon full of hydrogen gas over Vauxhall Gardens in Manhattan (a pleasure garden and theater near present day Astor Place) and descended using a parachute. Guillé was not the first to make an ascent by balloon in the United States, a distinction which is reserved for thirteen year old Edward Warren, who went up as a passenger in a “captive balloon” constructed by Peter Carnes on June 24, 1784, in Baltimore, Maryland.
The first ascent in a free balloon occurred in Philadelphia on January 9, 1793, when Jean Pierre Blanchard — who is better known for having been the first to navigate a lighter-than-air craft across the English Channel — ascended and remained aloft for forty-six minutes before he landed in Deptford Township, Gloucester County, New Jersey.
Happily, Louis Charles Guillé was the first to make such an ascent in the city of New York, and what is more, the first to come down using a parachute. A record of this ærostatic ascension can be found in a number of newspapers, but a particularly lively account is to be had from New York merchant, and Irish immigrant, Jacob Harvey:
“The ascent was for a moment impeded by a few tall poplar trees which surrounded the spot, but upon clearing these, the adventurous Æronaut, swiftly advanced towards the ethereal regions, amidst the repeated shouts of the astonished multitude. The weather was rather unpropitious – a gust of wind from the North West accompanied by a slight shower, carried the balloon with amazing rapidity towards the Sea. Much alarm was expressed for the safety of Mr.G, in consequence of the rolling of the Parachute occasioned by its want of proper poizing – but he was too safely lodged, to be easily thrown out. In ten minutes he had reached the height of 1500 fathoms, when, fearing the effects of a gust, which was approaching, he disengaged himself from the balloon. This was the awful moment! And had not the Parachute, instantly yielded to the pressure of the wind, and unfolded itself, he must have unavoidably perished. The anxiety of the Spectators had become extreme, and great was their joy, at beholding the slow and majestic manner in which Mr. G descended from his lofty station. Half an hour’s gentle “sailing,” brought him once more to “terra firma,” at a place on Long Island, six miles distant from Vauxhall Gardens. He returned to the City the same evening, and attended the Circus, where he was received with much applause.”
According to the New-York Evening Post, Guillé’s balloon was found several days later and nearly thirty miles from New York City at Fort Neck, South Oyster Bay, Long Island. Guillé went on to complete successful balloon flights in Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, initiating a popularization of aeronautics in the United States. By the 1890’s, ballooning had become a common activity, in large part thanks to further work by such æronauts as Eugène Robertson, John Wise, and Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe.
Jacob Harvey went on to record in his commonplace book other such notable events as an outbreak of Yellow Fever, the Adams-Onis Treaty, and a General Meeting of the City of New York on the subject of slavery in the new states. The commonplace book, along with other of Harvey’s journals and correspondence, provide a rich source of material for the study of 19th century New York, and are available to researchers in the recently processed Jacob Harvey Family Papers.