Balloonist came to Duluth in 1892 with grand plans for great heightsThe year was 1892, and the new pavilion off the incline railway on Skyline Parkway had become a great gathering place early that summer to take in the views. On July 19, the News Tribune announced that balloon aerialist “Professor Baldwin” had been booked as the next pavilion act.
By: Mike Creger, Duluth News Tribune
The year was 1892, and the new pavilion off the incline railway on Skyline Parkway had become a great gathering place early that summer to take in the views, hear a military band or enjoy the cornet work of Jessie Millar, who was touring with a vaudeville act.
Millar, “the clever child soloist,” was about to be eclipsed in Duluth by a man who began his career in the circus.
On July 19, the News Tribune announced that balloon aerialist “Professor Baldwin” had been booked as the next pavilion act once Millar’s engagement ended.
Balloonists had become popular in the 1880s and came to be known as “flying professors.”
The man who came to Duluth that summer was clearly the most famous of them all: Thomas Scott Baldwin.
While most aerial acts featured a simple ascension of a tethered balloon, Baldwin decided to showcase his trapeze skills within the act. Crowds in San Francisco were stunned to watch Baldwin do flips and somersaults from a trapeze bar hanging from a balloon.
But even that wasn’t enough for the daredevil. In the late 1880s, Baldwin got the idea of attaching a parachute to a free-floating balloon.
Once up in the air, he would switch hands from a large ring attached to the balloon to a ring with the parachute, and he then would float down. The balloon would drift away, to be retrieved later.
Baldwin was paid by the foot, meaning the higher he rose and then dropped, the more money he received.
The act was audacious, and America could not get enough of it.
Learning from the past
Baldwin’s act wasn’t the first experiment with parachutes. Joseph Montgolfier, whose name is attached to next weekend’s balloon festival in Duluth — Le Festival des Montgolfières à Duluth — was a co-inventor with his brother, Jacques, of the first manned balloon some 100 years earlier.
Baldwin read about Joseph Montgolfier’s experiments with parachutes, which included strapping one to a sheep for a fall from a high tower. The sheep was unhurt. Baldwin used a dog, also unhurt, for his experiments.
Once satisfied, Baldwin tried the parachute act himself in front of 30,000 spectators at Seal Rock Park in San Francisco in 1887. His next parachute drop was done in his hometown of Quincy, Ill.
He then toured the East Coast and Midwest. On that tour, he ran into Buffalo Bill Cody, who told Baldwin that he had to take his tour to Europe, where “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show” had just received wild acclaim.
He eventually did go to Europe and the Far East and was soon known around the world.
But by 1891, Baldwin had grown tired of touring, and he left much of his show to assistants, who had also learned to parachute and perform other tricks in the air.
Accounts from the News Tribune state that Baldwin himself came to Duluth in the summer of 1892. He was preparing for a tour of Mexico in the fall.
Promotion for Baldwin’s act was breathless in Duluth.
“He jumps from the clouds,” an advertisement for the pavilion read. “The daring aeronaut and parachute jumper famous throughout the world, who will ascend in a balloon to the awful height of eight-thousand feet and then make a terrible leap with the aid of a frail parachute.”
The newspaper said no one had dared take on the skies of Duluth with a balloon before, and they were highly interested in why Baldwin had dared. In the end, it didn’t matter that Lake Superior loomed or that the wind could whip a balloon or parachute to oblivion. Baldwin relished the challenge.
At 6 p.m. on Aug. 3, 1892, Baldwin and his “big balloon left the earth.” A large crowd watched from the pavilion as a barrel was filled with flammable material and lit. The smoke and heat was ushered into the balloon through a trench dug below the pavilion.
The wind rushed the balloon down the hill and the crowd followed, the News Tribune reported. Baldwin had planned to go higher for his jump but found he was rapidly approaching Lake Superior. Just three minutes into the flight, he cut the parachute loose and floated down, landing on a tenement building on Sixth Avenue West, about a half-mile from the pavilion. The parachute clung to the roof of the building and Baldwin found himself hanging from the side of the building with a badly scraped hand from the brick face. He climbed into an open window to safety.
The balloon was found in an alley near the Jackson School at 422 W. Third St.
Baldwin made several ascensions that week, each time reaching a higher altitude than the day before with little incident.
He returned in August 1893 for a similar weeklong engagement and seemed to have perfected the winds of Duluth, often landing a mere 100 yards from the pavilion.
Glut of thrills
By this time, the number of practicing balloonists had exploded and the country was littered with aspiring Baldwins. The next record of a balloon and parachute act in Duluth is from 1896, when Henry Menier was booked at the pavilion. Baldwin could make as much as $1 for each foot of altitude, making $1,000 and more for most jumps. By the mid-1890s, second-rate acts flooded the market and were getting as little as $100 per jump.
Balloon acts in Duluth went dark after the pavilion burned down in 1901. It was never rebuilt.
By the late 1890s, Baldwin began showing more interest in controlled flight with the use of motors attached to dirigibles, known today as blimps. Baldwin’s work eventually led to military reconnaissance contracts. He again earned national fame as his “California Arrow” became the first airship to start and land from the same spot in 1904.
Baldwin’s interest then turned to airplanes, and he made fame again as a barnstormer.
During World War I, he oversaw the U.S. Navy’s air corps and then worked on balloon inspection and production for the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co.
Close followers of aeronautics lament that Baldwin mostly has been forgotten despite the advances he made in the three phases of burgeoning flight.
He died in 1923 to acclaim as the “Columbus of the Air.”
End of an era
Duluthians who knew Baldwin as the man who jumped from a balloon probably lost track of him as more acts came to county fairs, carnivals and White City, the playground at the end of Park Point. Balloon acts had lost their luster, and Northland residents were relegated to watching monkeys parachute.
The only excitement was fear of an injury, which happened a lot as more people got into the field.
By 1906, the News Tribune ran a story with the headline, “Ballooning not attractive trade.” An old performer named Thomas Knight was interviewed and said originators such as Baldwin took more chances with flimsier equipment and created real thrills. Now it was old hat. Knight had been visiting friends in West Duluth.
“Things were different in those days,” Knight said. “During the time I was in the business, and ascension was a novelty worth going miles to see.”
In 1909, the paper ran a story from a reporter on the East Coast who also noticed the balloon’s golden era was over.
“To see one of the great spheres go, rising up in the air, is about the same interest as the starting of an automobile. … And who knows but that the coming of aeroplanes and dirigibles will be hastened so that the same condition will prevail.”
Baldwin was wise to move with the times, as was the girl with the horn act he once followed here in Duluth. Jessie Millar stayed with the cornet but learned to juggle with clubs in order to spice up her vaudeville show, which ran into the 1920s.