Friday, June 03, 2016

The United Airship Company

This article is an excerpt from my book, “Hillside Pleasure Park, Belleville, New Jersey”.  Belleville’s great amusement venue, Hillside Pleasure Park, provided an opportunity for aeronautical engineers, adventurers, entrepreneurs, to earn funding for their research and development as well as an opportunity to display their advanced technology.

        It is easier to understand the intense interest in these flights when one realizes that these were the earliest days of aviation.  It had been less than half a decade since the Wright Brothers flew for the first time.  Glen Curtis was making frequent headlines with his astounding flying boat and other advancements in aircraft design.  There was talk about flight for the common man in the near future.  The opportunity to see men flying brought large, excited crowds to Hillside Park for these events.  The park was on the cutting edge of entertainment.

        There were both hot smoke balloons and dirigibles. The early dirigibles were manufactured in Belleville by the United Airship Company.  One had been used for aerial photography.  Photos of Belleville’s water-front taken from the air still exist in the historical archives.  Another was sold to entrepreneurs who flew it over Asbury Park.  The airship which flew to Newark and back created a sensation that even P. T. Barnum would have applauded. 

        Dirigible pilots had a bit more control over their gas filled, motorized, cigar-shaped craft than did the hot smoke balloon aeronaughts who were little more than circus stunt performers.  Patrons of the park were willing to pay extra for special event  tickets to watch dirigible races.  One young dirigible pilot, feeling the need of some publicity, performed a feat that was the talk of the town for some time after.  Here is his story as it was reported at the time :
        “A small dirigible balloon, bearing a youthful aeronaut, went on a rampage over the lower end of Manhattan and over into Brooklyn yesterday.  After an exciting journey through the air, in which he bumped up against a chimney or two, brushed along the sides of a few skyscrapers, and came tumbling into City Hall Park the young aeronaut and his machine fell into a tree top at Gates and Nostrand Avenues, Brooklyn, and there he remained until a squad of Brooklyn firemen arrived and plucked him out.

        The young man who went through this rather eventful experience was Frederick F. Owens, who is employed at Hillside Park, Belleville, N. J., to make daily ascensions whenever the weather is suitable.  Owens wandered through the air far out of his bailiwick yesterday, and it nearly cost him his life.  Although he had steered his dirigible over the Jersey meadows and all around the Newark section in the last few weeks, Manhattan Island was an undiscovered spot for him so far as aerial journeying was concerned.

        Owens decided early yesterday morning that in view of Hamilton’s record-breaking feat of the day before, he had better bestir himself and draw a little public attention his way.  He called up Mayor Gaynor’s office at City Hall on the telephone and wanted to know if he would be allowed to alight in City Hall Park.  Robert Adamson, the Mayor’s secretary, told Owens that he would have to see the Park Commissioner about that.

        But Owens was in a hurry.  He decided to take a chance on alighting anyhow, so, climbing on to the stage like structure beneath the sixty-foot bag of his dirigible balloon, the young aeronaut gave the word to cast loose and headed his aircraft toward Manhattan.  Rising gradually into the air from Belleville, he skirted over Jersey City, and borne along by the light northwest wind, quickly crossed the North River.  Near the Manhattan shore he lost his exhaust pipe, which put one of his cylinders out of commission.  He was soon hovering over City Hall Park at a height of 1,000 feet.

        Some one in the park saw him and a shout went up: “Here comes an airship !”  It brought most of the officials at City Hall hastening to the windows and out upon the steps.  Owens began to circle slowly above the park, gradually descending.  The news soon spread through the City and County Courts and the park rapidly filled with men and women, all craning their necks to get a view.

        Three times Owens circled the park, and on the last lap he picked out what appeared to be a likely spot to alight.  He stopped his motor, thinking that the dirigible would drop easily to the ground.  But it was caught in a gust of wind and was borne swiftly towards the office buildings along Park Row.

        Owens turned and skirted over the top of the Hall of Records, intending to alight there, but soon found that he could not.  In dodging the building, his switch line fell out as it dangled in the street a dozen men sprang forward, gave a sharp pull, and the rope broke close to the balloon.  This put his motor entirely out of business.

        Up went the dirigible again and collided against a chimney of the Hall of Records, tearing away part of the aeronaut’s platform.  Owens made a flying leap for the cordage which held the platform and grasped the framework at the base of the bag.  There he held on with one hand while he securely fastened the valve of the gas bag.  Up went the balloon again, and, carried by the wind, sailed over toward Park Row, narrowly escaping the Pulitzer Building.

        Still gradually rising, it swung toward Brooklyn Bridge while the crowd in City Hall Park shouted excitedly.  Owens narrowly missed the high bridge tower close to the Manhattan shore.  Over the Brooklyn Navy Yard went the balloon.  The motor was working well again by this time.  Owens tried to locate a place in the navy yard where he could alight, but the trees were too dense.

        Hovering over Fort Greene Park, he saw what appeared to be a favorable open space, but just then the sun came out and expanded the gas and the balloon shot up several thousand feet.  For nearly an hour he kept circling over that section of Brooklyn, while crowds in the streets and on the roofs watched him.

        At last, about 11:20 o’clock, Owens espied the flat roof of the Long Island Storage Warehouses, on the southwest corner of Gates and Nostrand Avenues.  He tried to alight there, but missed the roof and dropped into a back yard several doors away.  He threw out several bags of sand and again the balloon started to rise.  It swung across the street and slammed into the top of a tree in front of 391 Gates Avenue.

        Owens grabbed hold of a limb and held on for dear life.  Policeman Welge of the Gates Avenue Station sent in a call for the reserves, and also sounded a fire alarm, and in a few minutes the crew of Truck Company 52 and several dozen policemen arrived.  A crowd of several hundred persons had gathered and they were shouting advice to the unfortunate aeronaut.  The firemen put a ladder up the tree and told him to come down.     

        “Say, I don’t want to lose this balloon,” yelled
Owens.  “If  I let go now it will shoot up like a rocket.”

        The firemen tossed Owens a rope and he tied it to the balloon, then, with a dozen men tugging at the rope, the dirigible was dragged to the street.  Owens watched it safely down and descended the ladder while the crowd cheered him.

        The balloon was badly damaged by contact with the chimney and with the tree.  It was soon packed into an automobile truck and carried back to Belleville.

        Owens said afterward that he was not thinking of paying New York another visit via the air route very soon.”