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.
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 amphitheater 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 dolphin balloon will sail around the amphitheatre.
4:00 p.m.: A Pioneer Balloon will be set off, carrying the tripcord 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. 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:
“Started at 5 hr. 6 min. bar. 30-356 ther. 88 Loosed one pigeon with a paper on which I marked time, height of bar, and ther, with “all’s well” and, unless the wind increases you may expect me in Albany this evening.
At 5 hr. 20 min. over a large creek – sent the inhabitants and Evening Journal.
At 5 hr. 38 min. within hailing distance of the earth Conversed with several men; understood the name of one to be Edward Haswell; that the name of the town was Bethlehem. On enquiring the name of the next large town in the direction I was going, understood him to say Cairo; distant 30 miles; send down a copy of the Address and an Eve. Journal; threw out a ballast and hoped to reach Cairo.
At 6 hr. 4 min. bar. 25 -02- ther.70. Very little wind and the country beyond in my course covered with trees; made preparations to descend; on approaching the earth made two ineffectual attempts to land; threw over each time 20 or 30 lbs. ballast.
At 6 hr. 47 min. the anchor grappled with the earth and brought me to the farm of Mr. Peter Slingerland, half a mile from the village of Stoney-Hill (town of New Scotland [ near Clarksville] ), and 12 miles from Albany; started the other pigeon, which, after hovering for a few minutes about the Balloon, took its flight homeward; – several; gentleman arrived to whom I threw a line and was towed up to the village, and slighted in the meadow of Mr. Slingerland.
Among the gentlemen who assisted me to land and secure the Balloon, were Nicholas Miller, Henry and Albert Slingerland, William and Moses Segar, Matthew Flansburgh and Tunis Slingerland; took tea at the house of C.P Slingerland where I had the pleasure of an introduction to the ladies of the village.
After passing three quarters of an hour pleasantly with my new friends, to whose kindness and hospitality I desire to render my warm acknowledgements, Mr. Moses Slingerlands took me with the Balloon, into his wagon and started for Albany – we soon met Mr. Charles Low of Albany, who left after the Ascension, in pursuit of the Balloon, and who returned with us. On our way back we met with Messrs Ewens’, Burhans, Wand’s and Clark’s and arrive at Mine Hust’s of the Eagle, a few minutes past 11 o’clock.”
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.”
Here’s a description of the ascension from a young man named James that appeared in Parley’s Magazine on September 14th, 1833.
“I went with my brother to Mr. Meek’s garden last Thursday to see Mr. Durant and his balloon. The day was very pleasant, and the sky bright and clear. There were vast crowds of people assembled, and I could see several women and children on the tops of the houses, all looking out for the balloon. I was afraid some of them would tumble off. Several little balloons, with no one in them, were sent up first..The balloon was tied down to the ground by cords, and seemed to be trying to get away. At about five o’clock, Mr. Durant took his seat, in the car, as it is called. The people now began to shout, and hurrah, and crowd forward to get a sight of him. My brother placed me on his shoulders, so that I was as tall as any of them. At last the cords were cut, and my heart beat as if I were going up in the air myself. The people shouted, and I shouted, and everybody shouted. Mr. Durant waved a flag as he rose. The balloon rose up like a bird, and sailed away till it seemed like a speck. At last it flew out of sight; and, taking me down from his shoulders.”
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.
*From “Charles F. Durant – Early American Aeronaut, Father of the Propaganda Leaflet” by Dr. Max Kronstein; The Airpost Journal, August, 1944.