Found Staten Island Stories 2: A Thrilling Balloon Trip, Stapleton, 1906

By Andrew Wilson
August 1, 2016

This is the second in a series of of posts highlighting some of the fascinating stories from the historical Staten Island newspapers now being digitized and uploaded to the web.  Find out more about this project at .

America's first, and now iconic, aerial photo of the lower Manhattan skyline was nearly lost to a Staten Island clothesline.

 Air Ship Sails Over New York Bay and Comes to Grief Near Flushing

After waiting for several days for a favorable wind, Prof. Leo Stevens made a balloon ascension from Stapleton on July 21, 1906, that proved to be thrilling.  When the balloon first started about 3 o'clock it tried to go through a nearby tree. Then it got tangled up in some woman's clothes line and smashed into the side of a brick building, nearly upsetting the basket containing the occupants.  After a while it got clear of the island. Hovering over the waters of the bay, it sailed speedily toward Manhattan. The route was over Governor's Island and then Lower Manhattan where 100,000 people watched it with breathless interest ...

Albert Leo Stevens, a Pioneer

Albert Leo Stevens

Albert Leo Stevens , c. 1910-1915  (Library of Congress)

Albert Leo Stevens (March 9, 1877? – May 8, 1944) was a pioneering balloonist and parachute designer.  He began making balloon ascensions in 1889 at age 12, and started manufacturing balloons and dirigibles in 1893.  In 1895, he made his first parachute jump from a church spire in Montreal, Canada.  He flew one of the first dirigibles in the U.S.  He helped develop the new "manual free type" parachute design that allowed the jumper to release the chute when desired. The chutes would first be tested in airplane jumps over Oakwood Heights, Staten Island in 1911. The design, for the Switlike parachute company of Trenton, N. J.,  is still in use today.

Under the auspices of the Aero Club of America, Stevens teamed up with the Parisian balloonist Charles Levee of the Aero Club of France.  On July 7, 1906 Levee told the New York Times: "Stevens and I had succeeded in making a high altitude record in ... Pennsylvania ... but no one seems to have heard about it.  We had ascended three and a half miles...Then a bottle of champagne was thrown out, and we timed it, learning that it took three and a half minutes to hit the ground."  The Times also reported that they would be testing a new "water anchor" in New York City—a bag designed to be dropped on a rope which would then fill with ocean water and hold the balloon fast for a rescue by ships at sea. The two aeronauts were joined by veteran Collier's Weekly photographer James H. Hare in an attempt to capture the first-ever aerial view of lower Manhattan.

The easiest way to get a balloon over lower Manhattan was to find a source of lighter-than-air gas upwind from the Battery.  The New York and Richmond Gas Company  was just that place.   However, their gas was not helium, as one might expect in a modern weather balloon, but the heavier "natural" gas (methane) leading to considerable difficulties— and thrills—for this trio of daring balloonists.

New York and Richmond Gas Company

In this advertisement the  New York and Richmond Gas gas tank is visible.  The company was located in the Stapleton/Clifton area, and so the balloonists began their journey nearby.  

New York and Richmond Gas at Stapleton/Clifton

The Gas Works (with circular storage tanks) at Stapleton/Clifton, near Bay St. and Willow Ave.  

(Complete map in the NYPL Digital Collections )

Balloon Launch, Stapleton, Staten Island, 1906

James H. Hare, Charles Levee and Leo Stevens  (Photograph by James Hare/Collier's)

"It was with the object of making the first photographs of the heart of the skyscraper section of New York from a balloon that I engaged Mr. Charles Levee and Mr. Leo Stevens, and the balloon Aero Club No. 2, for an ascent for Collier's. I got the photographs, but I also had an experience, concluded by a ducking in the Sound, which was more thrilling than any I had as a photographer in either the Cuban or the Russo-Japanese wars.  Previous ascents of the Aero Club had been made from One Hundred and Thirty-eighth Street, where the proper gas could be had and the facilities generally were good. As the winds almost invariably carried the balloon when it rose from One Hundred and Thirty-eighth Street away from Manhattan Island I had to seek another point of departure. Governor's Island was the ideal spot, but out of the question, as the military station there has no gas. Finally, we chose the station of the New York and Richmond Gas Company at Clifton, Staten Island.  It was not the fault of the company, which was most accommodating in every way, that their illuminating gas was poorly suited to our purpose.  My expectation was that the winds would carry us straight across the bay and over the Battery. The pilot balloons we sent up, however, seemed to bear out the skepticism of the fisherman on this score, for they went in every direction but the one we wanted. Day after day we waited for a favoring current until one of the patient crews of sightseers, which gathered each morning, expressed the opinion that I was a fake working in the interest of the passenger service of the Staten Island ferries.  

Balloon Launch Stapleton, Staten Island

The Balloon Colliding With a House at The Start  (Photograph by Burton/Collier's)

On Sunday, the 15th, we had partially inflated the bag when I decided that the light was too unfavorable for photography. We left the bag inflated overnight at some hazard of having it carried away by the wind. On Monday, the 16th, the currents were not flowing straight toward New York, but I gave word to let go. But we did not budge. Our gas was weak. We had over six hundred pounds of ballast in the basket, Mr. Levee maintaining that the amount was necessary in order to rise out of contrary currents of air.  We kept dumping out the sand till we had only fifty pounds left. Then as we rose the basket caught on a clothes-line, which Mr. Stevens cut with his balloon knife just in time to save us from a spill. What became of the wash I never looked down to inquire, for the next minute we were hanging to the cornice of a tenement while the bag stirred with the breeze over the roof.  My film  camera was smashed, and I was left with only my large camera and about twenty plates when, the balloon disengaging itself from the house, we went up so gently that it seemed to me as if we were still and the earth was sinking away from us.

Balloon over the Staten Island Ferry

Crossing New York Harbor (Photograph by Burton/Collier's)

I have suffered from vertigo when I looked down from steeples or high buildings, but at no time on this trip did I feel the slightest dizziness. At first as we shot up it looked as if we would go to New Jersey instead of toward New York. Mr. Levee said that on account of insufficiency of ballast we should have to descend at once,otherwise&be driven out to sea. His viewpoint was that of the aeronaut; mine was that of the photographer. I had been to three weeks of bother and a good deal of expense, and I proposed to remain up a little longer. I told him that we might throw out our sea-anchor to the tug which Collier's had engaged to follow us, and the tug might tow us to a point off the Battery, at any rate.

Then the wind suddenly favored us.  We were carried straight over Governor's Island to Battery Park, passing a little to the northeast of the new Custom House.  I could not have had a better position for the photographic effect I sought than at that moment, only the light was unfavorable, there being a slight haze. The tops of the skyscrapers were a thousand feet below us.  I could distinguish easily the individual figures like so many pencil dots on the pavement. A group of dots directly beneath was the curb-brokers at their buying and selling. Not one sound of the hum and roar, of the clanging of electric cars or the whistling of the tugs, could I hear. New York was remote; it was a picture rather than an organism. You see it in the photograph as I saw it.  North of the Produce Exchange another current gently carried us across the East River. When I exposed my last plate on the Brooklyn Bridge my work was done, and I told Mr. Levee he might descend whenever be pleased.

Aerial View of Lower Manhattan from a Balloon, 1906

The lower end of Manhattan Island photographed from a height of about 800 feet.  Battery Park with the elevated railroad winding through it occupies most of the lower portion of the picture' the small park slightly above it is Bowling Green with the new C

Brooklyn Bridge from a balloon, 1906

Directly above the Brooklyn Bridge.  To the right of the pier are the Roosevelt Street Ferry slips; to the left, the first long wharf is that of the New Haven boats, with the "C. H. Northam" lying alongside; the dark rectangle farther on is Fulton Market,

We had a glimpse of Brooklyn and then we were shot back to Manhattan again in the region of the Williamsburg Bridge, only to cross over to Long Island once more, where we passed over Calvary Cemetery.  When we saw a big vegetable garden Mr. Levee decided to descend there, and he opened the escape valve, but a burst of the sun from behind a cloud rarefied the gas and we went on to Flushing Bay, where Mr. Stevens threw out the sea-anchor. It occurred to me that all my pains would have been for nothing, of course, if my plates got wet. I wrapped them in a rubber cloth I had with me and packed them in my leather bag, and it was well that I did. We had now thrown out everything in the way of ballast we had, including the mineral water and the lunch, and we were already slowly descending when we threw out the sea-anchor. Once the anchor took hold and the rope drew taut the effect was like lowering your forearm from the elbow. The anchor was the elbow and the basket was the hand. We were completely submerged not once but twenty times, at least, I should say. I was too occupied to keep count. On each occasion we came to the surface gasping and spluttering. I emptied the water out of the leather bag and prayed that it had not soaked through the rubber cloth on to the plates. The anchor was spasmodically taking us down, and the bag of the balloon, wind-driven, was spasmodically lifting us up. We skittered along like an artificial fly on a leader. We were jerked and twisted about until I was covered with bruises. It was in the midst of the flying-fish flight that my fingers touched a small flask in the basket. Mrs. Stevens had sent it along in case of need. We judged that the psychological moment for its use had arrived. 

All three had life-preservers on. We might have let go the basket and saved ourselves further immersion. But I held on, because I wanted to save my plates, and Levee and Stevens because they did not want to be separated from the balloon. Meanwhile ferryboats and tugs passed us by without offering assistance. You see, everybody had read the report in the newspapers that the object of our ascension was to try a sea-anchor, and the captains and pilots thought that they were witnessing the test, and that we did not want to be disturbed. As a matter of fact, the sea-anchor was an incident, and the whole object of our effort was the plates which were being doused again with each fresh plunge. Finally a rowboat with two young men in it came alongside, and I tossed my plates to them. As they were safe I did not mind sticking to the balloon. A sailing boat with auxiliary motor power which took the balloon in tow later on had a busy time after it had punctured the bag with its bowsprit and mast and its propeller got caught in the ropes. When the propeller was disentangled, the balloon was drawn into Classon Point and I jumped into the row-boat and hastened home with my precious plates and found on developing that some of them had been water-soaked only around the edges.

Staten Island Balloon Rescue

The End of An Eventful Voyage In the Air  (Collier's

The Legacy of the Trip

There is no view of New York City more iconic than the aerial view of lower Manhattan.  The skyline has changed through the years but the image of skyscrapers with the Island of Manhattan spreading out behind has made the city instantly identifiable in countless news reports, travel ads, movie scenes, etc. The Battery hums all summer long with packed tourist helicopters overhead.  Staten Island itself is transforming as "The New York Wheel," soon to be the world's largest observation wheel, begins to rise from St. George.  Millions are being spent there, in hopes that even more tourists will want to view lower Manhattan from on high.  Since 1906 it has been the visual shorthand for our city.

Staten Island is filled with these fascinating, but little known, places and stories: More to come.

The Richmond County Advance was digitized  uploaded to the web from the collections of Historic Richmond Town.  Funding for the digitization of Staten Island newspapers was provided through The New York Public Library's Innovation Project, which is made possible by a generous grant from the Charles H. Revson Foundation.