Wednesday, September 15, 2010

September 15, 1861 – Air Mail Route from San Francisco Opens

California posed a new problem to the United States. While territories connected it with the East, California gained statehood almost spontaneously in 1850 thanks to the gold rush, becoming the first state separate from the Capital. Communication was difficult, to say the least. The new technology of telegraphs and railroads offered possibilities, but the lines would have to be constructed at immense cost. Wells, Fargo, & Company held a virtual monopoly on the task of express mail with a sea-and-land route across the Isthmus of Panama, cutting months off the journey around South America. An overland route would be even faster, and Congress sought a solution with a pledge of $600,000 in yearly subsidies. In 1858, the solution was found with the Overland Mail Company, a start-up with William Fargo on the board of directors. Over one million dollars would be spent improving its route across the West, which included way stations, horse corrals, and defenses against highwaymen and rogue Indians.

While mail could now be delivered, however expensively, by brave and hardy men, the passenger service was troubling. People were crammed into tiny carriages that bounced and rocked with every step the racing horses took. While some way stations offered places to sleep, coaches were hot-seated by their drivers and horses, and no one knew exactly when the next coach would come through, leaving passengers stuck in the middle of the West for days at a time. Food was expensive and notoriously bad. The option of crossing the Isthmus of Panama took much longer, but the comfort made it seem more practical.

Aeronauts John Wise and John La Mountain approached Fargo with a solution. As a pioneering American balloonist, he had made his first flight in 1835. Over the next years, he continued a serious study of aeronautics as well as making grand performances at county fairs. When the Civil War began, he was in competition with Thaddeus Lowe for the Army Balloon Corps to aid the Union with reconnaissance from the air. Lowe had beaten him to the Battle of Bull Run, but Wise had papers giving him the right of way. As Wise launched his balloon, it became entangled in brush and destroyed, ending his career for the Civil War. Lowe would go on to be Chief Aeronaut for the Union.

Wise planned to return to a normal life for some time, using balloons as perhaps a map-making tool, but the showman La Mountain met with him, inspired about the West. Years earlier, the two had worked on a transatlantic project, but the balloon had crashed and nearly ended their partnership. On his own in 1859, Wise had made the first air mail delivery in the United States, delivering 123 letters from Lafayette to Crawford, Indiana. Why could they not do the same for overland delivery over the Rockies?

They posed the question to Fargo. A smooth, peaceful sail over the mountains with no threat of robbery or attack sounded like a much more reasonable trip to Fargo, though the idea of balloon passenger service was uncanny. La Mountain suggested it could be at the very least a public relations demonstration, which caused Fargo to agree. The two set off on a ship through Panama, arriving in San Francisco and immediately launching their balloon on the third anniversary of the Overland Mail to the shock of newspapers around California. Newspapers in the East did not know the story until the balloon arrived in Kansas City, Missouri, on September 20. They had touched down twice at way stations to replenish fuel and food for their passenger, newspaperman and adventurer Bret Harte. The press latched onto the story from Harte's accounts, and Fargo was impressed enough to send Wise and La Mountain back with supplies for a larger balloon.

By spring of 1862, Wise and La Mountain had created a two-story balloon with privies and a lounge for their passengers. The balloon, dubbed the California, carried as many as fifteen passengers in comfort as well as whatever mail could be used as ballast. For years, the eastbound California would fly, landing in Kansas or sometimes Missouri, depending upon the wind. Wise and La Mountain improved their steering capabilities, but the possibility of floating west was made impossible by the “high winds” (what we now know as the jet stream).

On May 10, 1869, the transcontinental railroad was completed. Fargo pulled funding from the expensive, though pleasurable, balloon project despite Wise and La Mountain's pleadings. Progress had changed the world, Fargo explained, even the Overland Mail Company was being shut down. Armed with their savings, they built the Odyssey and began their transatlantic attempt in 1873 from New York. Neither was heard from again. The Atlantic would not be crossed until British aeronauts made a west-heading route to Barbados in 1958-9.

In reality, the crash crossing Lake Ontario did indeed end Wise and La Mountain's partnership. Wise and La Mountain performed additional ascensions, with La Mountain working under Lowe during the Civil War in the Balloon Corps. Wise would make his final ascent in 1879 at age 71, disappearing over Lake Michigan.

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