© 2024 WVIK
Listen at 90.3 FM and 98.3 FM in the Quad Cities, 95.9 FM in Dubuque, or on the WVIK app!
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Great Balloon Ascension

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

A short reprint from the New York Times appeared in the Argus on July 2nd, 1892, describing the white parachute, "no larger than a boy's toy," falling from a balloon high in the sky, and a "nervy aeronaut" clinging to it with one hand. Rock Islanders were invited to witness the same at Black Hawk's Watch Tower at 4:30 p.m. Sunday, July 12th.

The nervy aeronaut, Professor W. R. Gould, did show up in Rock Island that Sunday, but it was not until his second try that the stunt finally worked—almost without a hitch.

The professor's first attempt on July 12th could well have been his last. By four o'clock Sunday afternoon, a large crowd packed Watch Tower Hill. Across the Rock River, on Vandruff's Island, the professor and an assistant lit a fire in a trench underneath the balloon. The winds were on the gusty side, and it took until 6:30 for the balloon to lift off. Two hundred feet up, on the way to 1,500 feet, the balloon began to settle, and the professor had to make a quick decision: disappoint the crowd or jump anyway.

Professor Gould jumped, and plummeted toward the ground. At sixty feet, the parachute finally opened partially, enough to slow the professor's fall so that he was able to walk away from the shrubbery in which he landed with only a sprained ankle.

He announced that he would try again in two weeks.

His second attempt, on July 27th, was the almost perfect one. The weather cooperated. The balloon rose slowly at precisely 4:15. A current of air took the balloon 400 yards to the east.

At that moment, the Argus reported, the Professor cut loose, dropped 200 feet, the parachute opened, "after which the descent was more gradual" until he landed in a corn field.

A perfect jump, except for one unadvertised event. Just prior to the flight, Professor Gould passed his hat through the crowd for contributions to pay for his show.

He was lucky to get the hat back. This part of the act, the Argus noted, "was not naturally received with much favor by the crowd." Why, if he had been killed in the act, what good would those contributions have done him?

Rock Island Lines is underwritten by the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.