America’s First Balloon Flight

This week would not be complete without paying homage to the first American to attempt air flight by flying in a balloon. On September 8, 1830 Charles Durant did exactly that. He flew from Castle Garden in the Battery Park section of lower Manhattan to Perth Amboy, NJ, a distance of some 25 miles.durant-561x445

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. Nonetheless, as crowd of people, including President Washington, witnessed the event.

The New York Postreported on the Durant balloon ride as such:
The spectacle drew many persons to the Battery, which was literally covered with an immense multitude of every age, sex, condition and color, whose faces were all turned upwards. It is estimated that upwards of 20,000 persons were collected to see a man risk his neck for their amusement and for their money.

Durant outfitted himself in a top hat and tails for the journey and dropped copies of poems expounding on the pleasures of air travel. His journey lasted about three hours until he landed in the midst of a farmer’s field.

In 1831, Durant penned an essay in the Journal of Commerce called “A
New York Balloon Ascension,” describing one of his flights. He wrote:

“Here burst upon my sight one of the most imposing views I have ever
beheld. Call it majestic, splendid, or sublime, — invoke a Shakespeare’s
mind to describe, or a painter’s to portray it, — they, and even thought
must fail to conceive the rich downy softness and white fleecy
accumulation of clouds piled in waves as far as the eye could reach,
covering the earth, and closing to my sight the land, water, and
everything, animate or inanimate, that I had so long and often viewed
with delight. Above me nothing but a clear, cerulean expanse, — the
golden sun-beams spreading over the vast ocean of clouds, and extending
through immensity of space where sight is bounded, and from whence even
thought returns, unable to traverse the confines of the vast field
beyond. Here was a scene sufficient for the writer to fill volumes, and
the painter to exhaust his skill, in trying to delineate the infinitely
delicate and mellow tints reaching to boundless extent.”
(Writers Almanac)

This was certainly effusive writing about his journey. No wonder he wanted to continue. His ride in 1830 was the first of thirteen reported such flights Charles Durant made between 1830 and 1840, until his wife’s protestations made him give up his hobby. Durant died in 1873, but not before introducing thousands of Americans to the wonderment of a man in a colorful balloon hovering above their heads.Unknown

Today, hot air balloon festivals are organized in just about every state in the country. The most notable one is in Albuquerque, NM every October. This year the festival will feature more than 500 hot air balloons in all shapes, colors and sizes.  There’s also a large festival on the east coast in October as well, called the Carolina BalloonFest. Since these balloons can only fly when the air is stable, it’s best to launch early in the day before the sun heats the earth and creates thermals. So come early and marvel at what Charles Durant started.



Becky Lower loves to write about events in American history that had an impact on the people of the time. She has yet to include a hot air balloon ride in any of her books, but it’s an idea worthy of consideration.  Check out her American historical romances