Civil War Balloon Flights Were Not Leisurely Flights of Fancy


Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe's Life Rose Like the Incline and Balloons He Developed Before It Came Crashing Back to Earth

On This Date In History: This date in 1861 was not a good day for flying. At 3:30 AM on April 20, 1861 Thaddeus S C Lowe decided it was a good time to test his new 20,000 cubic foot balloon called Enterprise. I’m not sure if the balloon was shown in the Star Trek movie that showed all of the previous vessels called Enterprise. I don’t think that I recall that being the case. Anyway, he took off from Cincinnati before the sun comes up and his little test mission turned into a misadventure. He got whisked away by 100 mph winds aloft that sent him to South Carolina. He thought he’d get welcomed like a crowned prince like the Wizard of Oz. Instead he was arrested as a spy. Apparently the professor was absent minded as he had no clue that 6 days before Fort Sumnter had fallen and the Civil War had begun. Fellow academics convinced the state authorities that Lowe was on a scientific mission and they let him go.

Lowe's Intrepid

I’m not sure if Professor TSC Lowe was ticked at being arrested or if his buddies were wrong because Lowe promptly went north and became the leader of the Union’s Army of the Potomac Aeronautic Corps of balloonists. Lowe designed and built several balloons for a whole Union fleet with the largest being the 32,000 cubic foot Intrepid that required 1200 yards of silk. This was a group of mainly civilians who made some 3000 flights in the first two years of the war. They would tether up and view the battlefield from aloft and then use a telegraph to wire down the enemy position and direct artillery fire. It was the forerunner to aerial reconnaissance. In fact, later in WWI, the airplane was used initially for recon missions until it was discovered you could drop bombs from planes or put machine guns on the plane and shoot down enemy planes and blimps. Anyway, on this date in 1861 Lowe himself was shot down. Somehow he ended up behind enemy lines. I don’t know if he got caught up in another 100 mph wind or enemy fire cut his tether or if he was just going on another “scientific excursion” but down he went and he was captured again. His wife Leontine was a witness to the whole thing. Did she sit and cry? Did she hope that academics would again get her husband set free? Nope. Instead, she personally led a raid of nighttime commandos who moved in and rescued the professor before he could be captured again.

Railway was cool but it cost Lowe his fortune

Before the war, Lowe had established a reputation for new theories and study in Chemistry, Meteorology and Aviation. He had a dream of a transatlantic balloon flight. I guess he got rich because after the war, he moved to Pasadena, CA and built a 24,000 foot house.  The professor made a bunch of money after he invented the ice machine in 1865 followed by a number of other inventions.   He also founded Citizen’s Bank, which I remember as a kid being the sponsor of my friend’s Little League baseball team.   He tried to build  a railroad to Mount Wilson but, when that fell through, he built a rail line to Echo Mountain and then on to the summit of  the mountain named for him and the Lowe Observatory among other things. Funny thing is the guy ended up living with his daughter in her Pasadena home as he lost his fortune.  Seems his financial grasp had extended beyond his reach when it came to that railroad up the mountain overlooking Altadena.   Makes you wonder if now California will rename its mountains something like Mount AIG or Mount Lehman Brothers.

Weather Bottom Line:  Count yourself lucky if you got any rain out of the frontal passage on Friday.  It was the 83rd day of Louisville having temps 90 or better this year which betters the old mark of 81 days in 1954.  While the upper air was too warm and the air too dry to support much in the way of rain, the front will bring a halt to the hot weather as highs will be in the upper 70’s on Saturday and Sunday.  A winter-like low will drop into the Ohio Valley and southern states beginning early in the week.  This will greatly enhance our much-needed rain chances on Monday and clouds and scattered showers should hold temps in the low to mid 70’s for a good chunk of the week ahead.

4 Responses

  1. Wow! Mrs. Lowe was not one to sit around, fan herself and worry. What a woman of action! Pretty cool.

    I wonder if the Star Trek Enterprise was named after Thaddeus Lowe’s first balloon? Apparently there were several sailing ships before Mr. Lowe’s balloon that were named “Enterprise”. Oh, well. That would be interesting to know.

    I hope that this is the end of the hot weather! I’m done and am ready for fall.

  2. I”m afraid that I was wrong about the end of the 90’s several weeks ago. This time, it may be it. We’ll have to chat sometime soon. In the meantime, I’m on Fox 41 tonight at 10 pm. I’m very grateful to both Mr. Lamb and Vincenzo…and to you for your persistent patronage to my little blog.

  3. I went to church (revival) this evening and got your message just a couple of minutes before you did the weather. I’m glad that I didn’t miss it. It was good to see you on the ‘ol tube again! A nice job but, of course, I would have expected nothing less. I’m happy to see that you’re looking well; you seemed very relaxed and at ease. I’m glad to see that. Here’s to hoping your poor sunflowers get some badly needed precipitation. My marigolds could use some too!

  4. I appreciate the kind words. I actually messed up as the last weather I went too long…I think it was the “my shower in the afternoon” story. But, the folks there at Fox are very nice and courteous. I feel badly that I went over because when that happens it puts a burden on other people…and like I said..they are really great people and I don’t want to let them down. I appreciate Fox letting me help them out.

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