Charles Ferson Durant, (Born Sept. 19, 1805 – died, Mar. 2, 1873) has been called “America’s First Aeronaut,” and the “father of air leafleting.” (Balloon flight had been the rage in Europe for fifty years before Durant hopped into a basket and attempted it in America. There had been an incident of a balloon flight in the States prior to Durant, in 1793, but the balloonist was French, not American.)
“On July 9, 1824 the French aeronaut Eugene Robertson made a balloon ascension at Castle Garden in New York in honor of the Marquis de Lafayette. An 18 year old New Yorker, Charles Ferson Durant, became so enthusiastic at witnessing Robertson’s ascension that he followed the Frenchman to Paris. There they made two ascensions together in 1829. The young American then returned to New York and was the first U. S. citizen to become a professional aeronaut in this country. He was also the first person to use balloons which were made in America. In his career he made a total of 13 flights, the first one, on September 9, 1830 from the same place where Robertson had made his start in 1825. The interest of the public and of the New York Press was so great that he made a second flight soon afterwards, on September 22, 1830.” (1)
Durant chose to stage his seventh flight in Albany on Thursday, August 8, 1833.
Always embellished with a great deal of spectacle, Durant’s flights were a mixture of showbiz and science. After smarting from footing the bill for preparatory expenses at his first ascension, Durant learned to solicit underwriters for the event several weeks in advance. This post ran in the Albany Evening Journal on July 25, 1833:
“Mr. Durant is an American – a native of New York, where he is engaged in business, and sustains an unblemished reputation. The interest universally taken by the most intelligent and respectable citizens of that place, in his success, is a sufficient voucher for his worth. He is studying his serial profession as a science, which he entertains sanguine hope of reducing to purposes of practical utility.
“Mr. D. Has made six ascensions, all from New York Castle Garden. It has been his good fortune never to disappoint an audience either by failure or postponement. He superintends, personally, the construction and inflation of his balloons. At his first ascension, so incredulous were his friends and the public, that no person would hazard a dollar of the heavy prepatory expense. He therefore embarked his all in the enterprise, which, most fortunately for him, proved a successful and triumphant display of American genius and intrepidity.”
He found a willing backer in Mr. Leverett Cruttenden, of the Eagle Tavern. Tickets to the event itself were 50 cents apiece, with an audience of from four to six thousand expected. He had barely broken even at his first expositions, but by time he hit Albany he was netting somewhere around $2,000 a show, a tidy sum in 1833.
An amphitheatre was erected at the corner of Swan and Fayette (later Lafayette) at “Meek’s Garden” (most likely a bastardization of “Meiggs,” the family who lived there).
This wasn’t just Durant climbing into his balloon and flying away, it was a four-hour spectacle, replete with pre-show and live music.
The series of events didn’t much vary from venue to venue. Here was Albany’s schedule:
1:30 p.m.: Spectators will be admitted, and then witness his apparatus for generating hydrogen gas (barrels of decomposing, water, iron, and sulfuric acid), while he boasted that it would produce ten thousand ft. of hydrogen.
2:00 p.m.: Cannon shots will announce the moment when Durant would begin inflating his balloon.
3:00 p.m.: A small balloon will be set off to determine wind direction.
3:30 p.m.: A gold dophin balloon will sail around the amphitheatre.
4:00 p.m.: A Pioneer Balloon will be set off, carrying the tripcolored and the American flags.
4:30 p.m.: Mr. Durant will begin attaching his car to the balloon and making final flight preparations.
5:00 p.m.: Mr. Durant will board the balloon’s basket and then cut the tethers. Durant will wave the star-spangled banner as he gradually and majestically ascends.
It is not known whether Durant, as he had in his first ascent, prefaced his flight by floating near ground level and tossing out handbills to the spectators. On his second flight, he carried his farewell address up with him and dropped them from altitude. He was the first to use air leaflets in America. This is one of them.
Durant’s balloon rose to an average altitude of one mile above the river. Because the balloon contained about 800 feet more gas than he intended, it was fully distended, and any attempt to go higher would have led to the balloon’s explosion.
A Mr. Thurber, of Mechanic Hall, Troy, had given Durant several carrier pigeons for the flight, to signal his progress. Here are excerpts from Durant’s flight log:
Durant had flown 12 miles in 1 hour 47 minutes. He received a raft of accolades for his feat, including this resolution from the electors of the town of New Scotland:
“RESOLVED: That we view the late ascension of Charles F. Durant as one in which the curious and candid were equally pleased – as he passed majestically over some of our rocks and mountains – making a safe and welcome landing in Slingerland’s valley, one of the oldest settled places in the town.”
On August 30, Mr. Durant packed up his gear and left Albany for New York.
“Ascensions” in Boston and Baltimore followed before Durant, heeding the pleadings of his wife, abandoned his aeronautical activities and dedicated himself to experiments with silk culture. During his ballooning years, he collected all the newspaper recountings of his exploits, plus his leaflets and logs. All are available for viewing at the New York Public Library.
(1) From “Charles F. Durant – Early American Aeronaut, Father of the Propaganda Leaflet” by Dr. Max Kronstein; The Airpost Journal, August, 1944.