Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The First Zeppelin Flight

Graf Ferdinand von Zeppelin was so instrumental in the development of lighter than air vehicles that "zeppelin" has become a synonym for them.  But his very first flight in such a wonder of the age occurred not in his native Germany, but in a most unlikely the United States....and in what had until very recently been a frontier town.  The time and place?  1863, St. Paul,  Minnesota.

You might imagine that this was a little out of his way.  Goodness, it was a little out of everyone's way.

The Count had come to America as one of the numerous foreign military observers assigned to one side or the other in the Civil War.  He arrived on our shores in late 1862 or early 1863.  He appears to have actually met with Abraham Lincoln and obtained a military pass and permission to follow the Army of the Potomac.  He does not seem to have been involved in much actual combat, but did take an interest in the observation balloons then in use by the Army.

For some reason, perhaps boredom, Zeppelin left the Army of the Potomac.  It sounds as if his position  was rather....flexible in this regard.  He made his way up through New York, supposedly along the way observing draft riots in New York City and swimming under Niagara Falls.  (An element of caution might be in order, the Count did have a bit of Baron von Munchhausen in him!)

Implausibly he took ship on the Great Lakes and made his way all the way to Superior, Wisconsin at the far end of Lake Superior.  He was by this point in company with some Russians, perhaps with a goal of seeking the headwaters of the Mississippi.  If that was their goal they took a very wrong turn, going south instead of northwest.  Probably their goal all along was to get to St. Paul, capitol of the new state of Minnesota.  Their journey along a dismal military trail passed fairly close to my cabin, and involved "great hardship". I assume they were a tasty meal for the ancestors of the mosquitoes that have bothered me in recent years.

On August 17th Zeppelin checked into the International Hotel at 7th and Jackson Street in St. Paul.  He was at this time still accompanied by a "Mr. Donsemaren" of Russia.

On the day the weary travelers checked in, the empty lot across the street was occupied by an "enclosure" of a traveling balloonist.  This was John Steiner, a German from Philladelphia.  He had actually served with the observer corps of the Union army for a while but quit due to his pay being in arrears.

In an interview given late in his life von Zeppelin recalls that there was considerable difficulty obtaining enough gas to inflate the balloon.  Indeed, a contemporary newspaper account says that the balloon could hold 41,000 cubic feet but that the local gas company could only supply 36,000.  This made for a somewhat curtailed schedule of flights, but Ferdinand von Zeppelin seems to have been one of those making an individual ascent in the tethered "captive" balloon.

And he was hooked.

Graf von Zeppelin spent the rest of his life pursuing the dream of flight.  One wonders if on his death during World War One he felt remorse over the use of his flying machines for dropping bombs.

Here is the International Hotel as it appeared in 1865.  The empty lot from which von Zeppelin made his first flight is in the foreground.

Photo credit Minnesota Historical Society.  Used with permission

And here is the same spot today.  Coincidentally it is still a mostly empty lot, but the Winter Carnival parade did fill the parking spaces up a bit.

The Romans had a notion that the spirit of a place, the "genius" as they would put it, was a persisting thing.  Maybe they are right.  Just around the corner from where the Count first took to the skies we find this:

Up, up and into the Void...

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