PARKER ALBERT VAN TASSEL was born on July 25, 1853, in Cass County, Indiana, the son of Rufus Van Tassel1 and Nancy Connor.2 Nicknamed Park, he was the third of five children, with older sisters Eliza J.3 and Clarissa A.4 and younger sisters Effie E.5 and Lillie.6 It remains unclear what happened to Nancy; however by 1875 Rufus had remarried, wedding Phebe Lorinda Smith,7 and they had four children together. Rufus was short and stocky, with dark red curly hair and a genial disposition. He sang folk songs and often accompanied them with music played on a saw. Rufus’s father hailed from New York, his mother from Virginia, but Rufus was from Tipton, Indiana, near Terre Haute.8 Little is known about Park’s mother, Nancy Connor, other than that she was born in Indiana in 1828 and was probably the daughter of John9 and Elizabeth Connor,10 both of Hoover, Indiana.
Park encountered his first balloons at a young age at a village fair in Ohio. This event instilled a passionate desire to be an aeronaut. With the help of friends, he proceeded to make model hot air balloons out of paper.11 On October 19, 1872, teenage Park married his sweetheart, Elizabeth Spencer, in Franklin, Indiana.12 They had one son together, Guy Van Tassel, born July 28, 1873. Although it is clear that Park remained in Ohio at least until 1876,13 the marriage to Elizabeth did not last much longer, although no records of divorce have been confirmed. It also isn’t clear precisely what Park did for the ensuing three years.
In 1879, thirty years after the gold rush, Park moved to Stockton, California. He married Ella Block14 on June 10, 1879, in the city of San Joaquin, California. At the time, Park was twenty-six and Ella was only sixteen.15 Park ran a cigar shop in Stockton but quickly tired of that work.16 They had a son named Harry,17 but it isn’t clear what became of him. Within a year of his marriage to Ella, Park once again began experimenting with balloons, but these were now full-size passenger-carrying balloons rather than merely toys. It is not known for sure, but he might have obtained a balloon measuring 30,000 cubic feet, and some rudimentary instruction, from Forestus Fordyce Martin18 of San Francisco, a well-known distributor of balloons during this period. F. F. Martin had migrated to California from St. Louis and partnered with James H. Whiteside of Sacramento in making balloon ascensions in the 1870s.19
Operating under the stage name Professor Van Tassel,20 on August 14, 1880, Park attempted his first ascension in a balloon from Stockton’s Hunter Square in front of several thousand spectators. Unfortunately, Park’s balloon refused to ascend, and the throng of spectators considered Van Tassel’s performance a “big fizzle.”21 Another attempt was made on the afternoon of September 5, 1880, from Sacramento’s Agricultural Park. However, there are no reports of any successful ascension.22 Ballooning was surely harder than it seemed. Park made a trip to San Francisco in January 1881, staying at the Baldwin Hotel, perhaps to obtain further instruction in ballooning from Martin.23
In 1881 Park and Ella decided to leave Stockton. It remains unclear what caused this decision, but they boarded a train on July 22 and headed south, first through Fresno and then to Arizona Territory, stopping in Tucson.24 The railroad itself was rather new to Arizona, as the first train ever to stop in Tucson did so on March 20, 1880. The famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral would take place in nearby Tombstone in October 1881, only a few months after the Van Tassels continued on the train to Albuquerque, New Mexico Territory, where they made a new start on life in what was then a small town of only two thousand people.
After settling in Albuquerque, Van Tassel shipped the large balloon he had likely purchased from Martin from Stockton to Albuquerque by train.25 The balloon arrived in time for the gas lines at the center of the city to finally be in operation, a key ingredient for balloon inflation.26 Despite his difficulty with balloons in Stockton and Sacramento, in May 1882 Van Tassel expressed interest in making a public ascension for the citizens of Albuquerque.27 During this time, Park and Ella began to socialize with others in Albuquerque. They helped the Albuquerque Guard celebrate George Washington’s birthday on February 22, 1882, three years before the day was adopted as a federal holiday.28
Putney’s Warehouse at First Street and Railroad Avenue (now Central Avenue) near what was then the center of New Town Albuquerque, 1882. This is close to the location of Van Tassel’s balloon launch. Cobb Memorial Photography Collection, Center for Southwest Research, University of New Mexico (000–742–0494).
Park Van Tassel owned The Elite tavern, located in the Albuquerque Opera House. Local newspapers routinely let their readers know when new shipments of whiskey were expected at the saloon.29 As would be the case for the rest of his life, rather than correct people who misspelled his last name, Park simply adopted the spelling “Van Tassell,” even in some of his own advertising. Albuquerque could be a rough town. On the moonlit evening of Sunday, May 7, 1882, a great excitement was generated in Albuquerque’s Old Town. High from a telephone pole just outside of Van Tassel’s saloon was the form of a man hanging from a noose. The coroner was called, and a crowd gathered in the area. But in the end it was revealed that the man was merely an effigy made of straw, either a practical joke or a message to others.
An advertisement for Park Van Tassel’s The Elite saloon from the Albuquerque Journal, May 25, 1882. Digital images, newspapers.com.
While New Mexico remained only a territory of the United States, on July 4, 1882, the citizens of Albuquerque celebrated Independence Day in a large way with decorations, parades, bands, burro races, sack races, wheel-barrow races with blindfolded contestants, firecrackers, and a baseball game between the Albuquerque Browns and a hand-picked team from the Opera House. In the late morning, the crowd focused its attention on Second Street between Railroad and Gold Avenues in New Town. There, Park Van Tassel’s balloon was being inflated. Despite the use of the city’s new gas system, the inflation took far longer than expected. However, the citizens were so excited over the prospect of a balloon launch that during the two-day inflation, local gas customers volunteered to go without gas service. An inflation such as this used coal gas, originally designed for commercial use as illuminating gas.30 The gas offered some mild buoyancy but only about half of the equivalent volume of hydrogen gas.31 Without an understanding of the mechanics of balloon inflation, the spectators became increasingly restless, believing that there was no way Van Tassel’s balloon would ever fly. As it became clear that the balloon was, at best, going to be launched in the late afternoon instead of the morning, the crowd headed for other events in Old Town. The streetcars headed for Old Town were full for the next two hours.
At 5:00 p.m., however, word spread quickly that the balloon would lift off at 6:15. The crowds once again flooded the streetcars, heading back for New Town. Van Tassel, who stood 6 feet tall and weighed 225 pounds, did not want to disappoint the crowd, but even after two days of inflation, the balloon remained at only two-thirds its total capacity. At 6:15 he stepped into the newly christened City of Albuquerque, only to find that his weight plus the 45 pounds of ballast was well beyond its lifting capacity. When all the ballast was removed, the balloon was coaxed to begin its slow ascension with only Van Tassel on board. A wayward bag of sand thrown overboard struck a spectator, who later filed suit.32 The balloon floated to the south and continued skyward to the clouds to a maximum height of 14,207 feet above sea level, as measured by Van Tassel using a barometer. At apogee he pulled on the release valve rope to allow gas to escape and initiate his descent. Soon after, the balloon began to descend with increasing speed, and from the fairgrounds, a posse headed out on horseback for the likely landing location, with a wagon to help bring the balloon back to town. In a mild panic to slow the rate of descent, Van Tassel was busy throwing everything he could overboard, including his coat, lunch, and water. He managed to land uninjured in a cornfield near Old Town. By the time the horsemen arrived, they found Van Tassel releasing the remaining gas from the balloon. The balloon was loaded on the wagon, and the successful aviator finally arrived back to the point of takeoff at 9:00 p.m. Upon arrival at The Elite, Van Tassel was greeted by a hero’s ovation, with everyone in agreement that the ascension had been a complete success. Van Tassel’s flight was not only the first successful balloon launch and piloted flight in Albuquerque history, but it is also credited as the first piloted flight of any kind in New Mexico.33 Park Van Tassel’s adventures in ballooning had just begun.
The initial balloon ascension by Park Van Tassel in Albuquerque on July 4, 1882. It was the first flight in the history of New Mexico. Cobb Memorial Photography Collection, Center for Southwest Research, University of New Mexico (000–119–0743).
A unique firsthand accounting of the events of July 4, 1882, was captured in a series of letters between William B. Lyon and his fiancée, Corie Bowman. On June 29, William wrote, “The balloon is here sure enough. I caught a glimpse of the basket one time but have not seen the monster itself.”34 He continued on July 3: “As I write, they are inflating the balloon to go up tomorrow. It is a mammoth affair, but I couldn’t care to trust myself in it in this country. I think I will not go to S. F. but stay to see the balloon.”35 And on July 4, he wrote,
This evening at 6 P. M. we had a most beautiful balloon ascension which was advertised to come off [between] 10 & 12 this morning. I waited all day for the confounded thing and missed thereby a dinner at Mr. F. and an engagement to go with them to the Old Town to see the races etc.
There was some trouble about the gas which could not be supplied in sufficient quantity. That was the alleged reason though it was generally believed that it was a concerted arrangement to keep the crowd away from the Old Town for the benefit of the saloon here. But finally everything was arranged and the renowned Prof. Van Tassel, who ordinarily is a whiskey slinger in one of the numerous musical palaces under my window, stepped in the basket and after one false start, cut the rope that held him down, and the immense dome softly and easily mounted into the air. There was a gentle current of air blowing to the S. E. and the balloon at first took that direction, rising more rapidly as the Prof. emptied a bag of ballast over the heads of the crowd. Higher and higher it went, the Prof. industriously waving the flag of his country and scattering advertisements. I wonder if there ever was a balloon or balloonist that went up without waving the conventional flag.
When about goodness knows how high, the balloon entered into a current of air going N. E. and of course went along, seeming to pass almost directly over the Old Town and towards the river. There was something grand, majestic and awe-inspiring in the sight, and I enjoyed a sensation rarely experienced in this country where awe-inspiring visions are not an everyday occurrence.
I have just heard, 10 P.M., that the Prof is back, but have heard nothing more. There is a brass band playing and a big bon fire burning in front of his saloon.36
Spectators at the 1882 balloon ascension follow the balloon on its voyage through the sky. Unfortunately, the balloon itself is not seen in the photo. Cobb Memorial Photography Collection, Center for Southwest Research, University of New Mexico (000–119–0744a).
Newspaper advertisements for Van Tassel’s balloon launch, such as this one from the Albuquerque Morning Journal on July 2, 1882, ran for a week prior to the event. Digital images, newspapers.com.
After the balloon events left their mark, on July 5 he wrote, “I saw the balloonist a few minutes ago, but heard no particulars of his ride.” In the top margin he wrote, “I couldn’t tear myself away from the balloon and so missed the pleasure of sitting in the broiling sun and seeing the noble game of base ball butchered as I hear it was.”37 Albuquerque was now as captivated with the majesty of ballooning as was its new hero, Park Van Tassel.