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Minnesota Moment: The Great Balloon Ascent of 1881 goes up, up and awry

September 7, 2018

What happened: The Great Northwest balloon began its journey from Minneapolis to Boston.

When: Sept. 12, 1881.

An abrupt landing: The flight of the Great Northwest balloon also ended on Sept. 12, 1881 on Randolph Avenue in St. Paul.

The back story: Ballooning of the day was a mix of ballyhoo and scientific inquiry. Aeronaut Prof. Samuel King wasnt a real college instructor, but he had gained a reputation for his innovations and experiments in atmospheric exploration, as well as assisting the pioneers of aerial photography and meteorological study. It was said that Thomas Edison took interest in Kings work.

King and his crew intended to lift off from the south Minneapolis grounds of the Great Northwestern Exposition, a State Fair rival begun in the late 1870s by promoter and entrepreneur William King. (No relation, but hes the fellow who lent his name to Kings Highway and Northrup-King Seed Co., among other endeavors.)

Weather delayed the first few attempts to get the Great Northwest aloft, but its hardy crew of seven finally ascended at 5:39 p.m. near what we know today as 24th and Franklin avenues in the Seward neighborhood. Next stop, Boston!

Alas, weather and gas loss doomed the voyage hours after liftoff, and the great balloon came down on Randolph Avenue by the Mississippi River Boulevard. Samuel King may have regretted including five newspapermen in the crew. They didnt hesitate to call the entire affair a flunk and a fizzle.

The reputation of both Kings took a hit. William King lost money on the venture, and the exposition closed in the red, which might be one of the reasons the State Fair eventually prevailed. Despite the failure of the Great Northwest balloon, Samuel King kept at it. He made more than 450 balloon trips and was still drawing crowds at the 1893 Chicago Worlds Fair.

Alas, ballooning didnt fare so well in the Gopher State. The flight of the Great Northwest was the last major balloon flight in Minnesota in the 19th century.

James Lileks

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