Wednesday, February 9, 2011
Fort Wayne's Earliest Aviation Event
One of the most intruiging images in the History Center's collection is a copy of a damaged ambrotype from 1859, depicting what is thought to be Fort Wayne's earliest aviation event - the launching of a balloon from what appears to be a central part of Fort Wayne. In August of that year, Professor W. D. Bannister was induced to visit the city after a group of citizens raised $419.22 to pay him to make the ascension. A newspaper of the time commented that Bannisterhad been the partner of "the unfortunate Thurston," who had made an unplanned ascension a year earlier in Ohio by holding onto the valve of a balloon with no basket or ballast. He could not let go, and his body was found six months later in poor condition. Danger surrounded the making of such flights in this era, which only added to the public's excitement.
According to the Fort Wayne Weekly Sentinel, the ascension took place at a site near Barr and Main streets because of its proximity to a gas main that was needed to inflate the balloon with 18,000 cubic feet of natural gas. The launch went unexpectedly well. Bannister took off about 11 in the morning of August 30, floating eastward into Ohio to Delphos. There he encountered a thunderstorm, prompting him to take the balloon higher to avoid the lightning. In the process, the balloon lost much of its gas, and the professor was forced to land near Ada, Ohio, a distance of some 100 miles from Fort Wayne. The next day he returned to the city in triumph with his balloon.
The above ambrotype presents several questions. Unfortunately, the History Center owns only a copy, and the location of the original is not known. Therefore, we cannot enhance the image to make it more clear. Ambrotypes were made on glass with a painted backing that often became chipped, especially when images were taken out of their cases.
Several landmarks are visible which help us to date the image, the most prominent being the distinctive edifice of First Presbyterian Church, which can be seen in the upper left. The church stood on the south side of Berry Street at the east side of Clinton Street. In the foreground a sign with "Grocery" can clearly be seen, so we know the image has not been reversed. These points establish that the camera is looking southeastward in the direction of the church. The buildings in the foreground are apparently situated on Calhoun Street, just south of Main, which indicate that the balloon probably occupies a place in Courthouse Square. So here is the problem: this location does not square with the newspaper account that the launch took place at Barr and Main. So, either the newspaper was wrong and the balloon took off from the courthouse, or, more likely, we may be looking at the celebration of Bannister's return on August 31, rather than his launch on the 30th.
In any case, this ambrotype is one of the earliest outdoor images of Fort Wayne that we can actually date, and thus it occupies an important place in the history of photojournalism of our city.