23. City of Oakland

IN THE SUMMER of 1909, another balloon was built in Oakland by Van Tassel, under contract to A. Vander Naillen Jr., president of the Oakland Aero Club. The City of Oakland was to be used to advertise Oakland in the upcoming Portola Festival and in races with other balloons. Vander Naillen brought the idea of naming the balloon after the city to the Chamber of Commerce, which would then pay for the expense of inflation and use in the festival. Van Tassel was proposed as the pilot, since he too called Oakland home.1


Park Van Tassel in his ballooning uniform, circa 1909. Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (NASM 72–1132).


The balloon City of Oakland being prepared for launch in downtown Oakland in August 1909. Oakland History Room, Oakland Public Library (F-2280).


City of Oakland just prior to launch, with Park Van Tassel and A. Vander Naillen Jr. on the basket. J.J. Earle Collection, Oakland History Room, Oakland Public Library.

On August 14, 1909, Van Tassel and Vander Naillen Jr. launched in the City of Oakland on its maiden voyage.2 Filling the 80-foot-tall balloon took ten hours. The ceremony included an invocation by the Reverend Nelson E. Saunders and a christening of the balloon with “real” champagne by Jeanne Vander Naillen, daughter of the owner. Dr. C. L. Tisdale served as master of ceremonies. Representing the mayor’s office, a Councilman Rufus Vose wished the two pilots Godspeed and a safe return after the christening. With the ropes released, the balloon floated upward, rather miraculously avoiding a set of high-tension lines and the steeple of the First Presbyterian Church near the intersection of Fourteenth and Franklin Streets. At about 1,200 feet, the balloon was carried west out over the Bay, where it floated for several hours. It was Vander Naillen’s first flight—and he was in for quite a journey. Van Tassel later recalled for the newspapers:

I AM very sorry that our much anticipated trip had such an unfavorable ending. We had intended to make many valuable observations and notes of atmospheric conditions, and but for a careless act of one of our many enthusiastic and excited friends, whereby we were cut loose before having sufficient ballast, we might have successfully completed our undertaking, as far as the scientific part is concerned. The act was [not] of malicious intent, but was a misunderstanding. When we were trying the balloon I called to the men below to haul us down for more ballast. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that we were loose and soaring upward. However, we could do nothing, so we prepared our thermometers and compasses. Passing northeast, then to the eastward, I dared throw out but a small portion of our ballast, with the result that the hills were barely passed over without striking. I must say that the conditions and the day were an ideal combination for an ascension. The day was calm, but the atmosphere clear and the temperature normal. As we passed over Oakland and its suburbs the picture was beautiful in every respect. Far off I saw a column of smoke rising straight and high, and I said to Vander Naillen; “Van, it couldn’t be better, see how still that smoke is? Let us descend a little here.” A slight breeze then caught us and blew us still to the eastward, varying at times a point or two, but still holding the general direction. I told my companion to mark the height and temperature. The height was figured at 3000 feet, showing a temperature of 64 degrees Fahrenheit. Striking a humid portion, we rose to 5000 feet, which was the greatest height attained. The country for miles and the encompassing ocean appeared to wonderful advantage from this height. I had taken with us two carrier pigeons. At 1 o’clock sharp I decided to let one go, Vander Naillen first writing the following message: “Who cut us loose without command? Not enough ballast. Offering $100 for a sack of sand: no takers. Balloon behaving splendidly: 1 p. m.—drifting towards Mt. Diablo. All is well ‘VANDER NAILLEN’” I watched the bird speed back until it disappeared from view, and wondered whether it would reach the point of departure. Everything was as we would want it. I took several photographs of the country below, including several of Oakland. I think we took about half a dozen altogether. For an hour more we enjoyed the trip. The unexpected happened as we neared the Livermore valley. I had just looked at my watch and noticed the time was five minutes after 2 o’clock, when a gentle eddying and trembling of the cage told us of wind. We had just crossed a high hill, skirted over it, when a terrific gale coming down the valley caught us in its powerful grasp and hurled and tossed and dragged us down to the ground, where we struck with a terrible crash, which temporarily stunned us both. The noise of the wind was great, shrieking through the balloon shrouds.

When we struck the balloon heeled over, and, acting as a sail, dragged the bumping cage, furrowing it through the ground down the hill. We clung to the ropes on the bottom of the cage, putting forth all our strength to keep position. As we crossed a small creek and struck the opposite bank, the basket being practically horizontal, the lower edge struck first, completely overturning us for a second. Here we lost the camera and instruments. The ropes were our salvation, for if they had not been there we would have been thrown out again and again, and probably been killed.

We now began to rise gently, for a short distance, when we were again caught by the wind and dragged over fields, crashing through barb wire fences and cutting into the ground like a plow. I cannot remember how many times we arose and descended, each time striking the ground with a terrific blow. The cage was smashed and worn clear through from the dragging, while the solid oak ring, from which the cage was suspended, was entirely demolished. When we finally landed in a field about seven miles north of Pleasanton the balloon had about collapsed, and we were both bleeding in many places and so weak that we could barely stand on our feet.

C. Orloff, a rancher, first saw our plight, and attempted to assist us by trying to make fast the anchor, but he was unsuccessful. He arrived at the scene and greatly assisted us in getting straightened out. I looked back over the path we had traveled and followed it plainly—a great, broad, devastated track. We had been dragged for about 2000 feet, breaking through half a dozen barb wire fences. Passing slowly and painfully along the way, we gathered up the camera and other instruments, which we found together when we first struck, all being seriously damaged. These and the balloon, which, strange to say, was uninjured, and the fittings we piled upon a wagon one of the farmers brought and had it taken to Pleasanton, where we followed shortly, after having bandaged our bruises at the house of Orloff.

Ralph Coxhead and his companion, C. Brown, had followed us from Oakland, and arrived on the scene in time to take us to Pleasanton for the incoming train. The gale was a fifty-mile wind, and in all of my twenty-nine years of ballooning I have never experienced such a disastrous and terrible adversity; it is the worst experience I have ever had. The balloon itself is first-class in every respect. IT is made of cotton fabric, containing 750 panels in the block system of construction. The capacity is about 45,000 cubic feet.

You see, we were continually thrust down by the eddies and currents that circled through the valley. We could have outdistanced them if, in the first place, there had been sufficient sand, but we dared not throw out more than we did, as we had to keep a certain amount for making a landing, which requires careful and quick controlling of the bag. I shall make another ascension in the same balloon next Sunday from the Aero Club grounds at Sixty-third street and Telegraph avenue. Joseph Hidalgo of San Francisco will accompany me. A strange coincidence with reference to the entire affair was how our second pigeon went through all the terrible hammering and remained in the little cage uninjured. When I took it out and attempted to send it with a message it could not fly, possibly being dazed with fright. I left it at the farm house. P. A. VAN TASSELL.3


A. Vander Naillen Jr. (center) and Park Van Tassel (lower left) described their harrowing landing in the San Francisco Call, August 15, 1909. Library of Congress.

Vander Naillen Jr. noted, “It is an experience I shall never forget—one I do not care to go through again, and I am happy to have passed through all with but a few bruises and a stiff leg, outside of the general shaking up.”4 The total flight duration was four hours.

The first annual Aero Show of the newly formed Pacific Aero Club, based in San Francisco, took place on Wednesday, August 18, 1909, at the Dreamland Rink. The exhibition included static displays of aircraft as well as lectures by prominent members of the club. Professor Joseph Hidalgo spoke on the history of aerial navigation; the lecture was included in a book in 1910.5 At the Aero Show, Van Tassel exhibited “a pilot balloon,” a small balloon that could be used to test air currents before liftoff of a larger balloon.6 On the night of the exhibition, the Pacific Aero Club challenged the Oakland Aero Club to compete in a balloon race.7

The Portola Committee was in charge of the Portola Festival, held in San Francisco from October 19 to October 23, 1909. The festival commemorated the discovery of San Francisco by Gaspar de Portolá, the first Spanish governor of California. It was advertised to be “more magnificent and attractive than either the Mardi Gras of New Orleans or the Veiled Prophets of St. Louis.”8 The Portola Committee offered a silver cup to the winner of two different races, each two hours in duration, with longest distance traveled being the goal.9 The Portola Cup would be the permanent property of the winning club. On August 22, 1909, Van Tassel made an ascension in the repaired City of Oakland with Geneve Shaffer and Joseph Hidalgo, both of the Pacific Aero Club.10 It was a final test of preparations before the Portola Cup balloon race.

The first Portola race was held on October 10, 1909, and featured balloons from three Pacific Coast clubs: the City of Oakland (also known as Greater Oakland) of the Oakland Aero Club, the Queen of the Pacific (also known as the Queen City and named in honor of San Francisco), operated by the Pacific Aero Club, and Fairy, owned by A. C. Pillsbury of the Seattle Aero Club.11 The activities started from the circus grounds at Eleventh and Market Streets in San Francisco, with the true rivalry between the Pacific and Oakland clubs. Somewhat ironically, this wasn’t just any rivalry. When the passengers for each balloon had been announced, several women were included. Piloting the City of Oakland was Van Tassel, along with passengers Vander Naillen Jr. and Margaret Miller. Piloting the Queen of the Pacific was Ivy Baldwin, along with passenger J. C. Irvine, president of the Pacific Aero Club, and Geneve Shaffer. J. C. Mars would fly the Fairy in the name of the Seattle Aero Club with no passengers.12

Shaffer in particular was heavily engaged in aeronautics, along with her brother Cleve, in the Pacific Aero Club. She had already flown in balloons and gliders, and she and Cleve were constructing a powered aircraft that would include a Curtiss motor. But just prior to the race, it was announced to the public that, for unknown reasons, the race would be limited to male passengers, a decision reached by members of the Pacific Aero Club.13 The decision generated considerable division within the club, especially when it was announced in the local papers that Geneve had backed out of the flight because she was afraid, which was hardly the case.14 She was allowed to christen the new Queen of the Pacific just before the race.


An aerial view of the City of Oakland during inflation, photographed from the balloon Fairy in San Francisco on October 10, 1909. Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (NASM A-49912-B).

One hundred thousand people gathered to watch the ascension of the three balloons.15 Problems with inflation left the City of Oakland with insufficient buoyancy for additional crew plus ballast, so Van Tassel flew alone. The Fairy launched first, at 2:30 p.m., the Queen of the Pacific was next at 2:46 p.m., followed by the City of Oakland at 3:05 p.m. Less than ten minutes after launch, the Fairy was at a height of 8,000 feet to test the upper air currents. Mars discovered that the currents were offshore and pushing the Fairy toward the ocean. Coming down to lower altitudes, he piloted the Fairy to a landing near Dumbarton Bridge shortly before 6:00 p.m. It was the first bit of land that he encountered after launch.

Van Tassel in the City of Oakland also headed in the direction of San Jose but landed in the San Francisco Bay near South City around 8:00 p.m. Having traveled 18 miles but still short of his goal, he was picked up by a boat piloted by Joseph Mesten and Charles Bridley of the Pacific Aero Club.

The Queen of the Pacific also followed a heading toward San Jose. An hour later, shortly before the balloon descended into the Bay, a launch party on a boat caught its 300-foot drag rope and rescued the passengers, taking them to shore near San Mateo. Without sufficient room in the boat, the Queen of the Pacific was abandoned in the Bay where it landed. A life preserver was attached to the balloon to mark the spot where it went underwater. A long search was made on October 13 to recover the balloon, bring it ashore, and prepare it for another launch.16

News of the rescues didn’t arrive back to San Francisco until 11 p.m., after considerable anxiety on the part of both clubs.17 The Queen of the Pacific had traveled a distance of 30 miles, winning the race.18 However, disputes between the Pacific and Oakland clubs arose in the newspapers. Should the winner be declared on total time aloft? Or should the winner be declared on total distance made, irrespective of time?

In light of the troubles in determining who won the first race, a second race was scheduled for October 24, 1909, this time starting from the showgrounds at Sixty-Third Street in Oakland, with a goal of San Jose. In this race, the Queen of the Pacific was piloted by Ivy Baldwin, with Geneve Shaffer as passenger, while the City of Oakland was piloted by J. C. Mars, with Margaret Miller as passenger. Once again the winds were light and variable, and not much distance could be made. The Queen of the Pacific landed about 2 miles from the starting point, with the Oakland landing slightly farther away and thus winning the second race. A third race was needed to determine the winner of the Portola Cup.19


The balloon race of October 10, 1909, made front-page news in the San Francisco Call the following day. Library of Congress.

The third and final race took place on October 31, 1909, with both balloons staying aloft for the full two hours. The Queen of the Pacific traveled 25 miles, while the City of Oakland traveled a half mile farther for the win. Given the interest in and growing memberships of the two rival clubs, Robert Martland of the Oakland Aero Club thought of affiliating with the Aero Club of America. To do so, two hundred or more members were required, and J. C. Mars and Park Van Tassel set out on a campaign to secure that number.20

On March 31, 1910, Van Tassel test-flew a new “balloon-dirigible” at Neptune Gardens in Alameda as a part of an aviation meet. Thousands of spectators watched from the grandstand and bleachers.21 On April 3, Van Tassel and a youngster from Berkeley named Sidney Vincent ascended in the City of Oakland at an aviation exposition at Alameda, determined to fly farther than the distance established by the Queen of the Pacific the day before on its flight from Alameda to Stockton. But when Van Tassel and Vincent launched, instead of heading east, they headed west toward Redwood City. At one point it seemed they would be carried out to sea when a valve on the balloon became stuck. However, they landed on the side of Scarpet Peak near Half Moon Bay before reaching the shoreline.22 Van Tassel also offered to make an ascension in Marysville, California, as a part of its Independence Day celebrations, but in the end the city declined.23

On May 19–21, 1910, the Pacific Aero Club held its second annual Aero Show in San Francisco. Among the many aircraft displayed, President J. C. Irvine of the Pacific Aero Club exhibited his now “battle-scarred” Queen of the Pacific while Van Tassel displayed his new 8,000-foot dirigible, 14 feet in diameter and 63 feet long.24 At the Emeryville Race Track on July 3–4, 1910, an aviation meet included balloons, parachute drops, and a race between a Curtiss biplane and Farman biplane. Van Tassel was a noted participant at the event, as the theme of the meet was not only to help celebrate Independence Day but also to depict the history of aviation from ballooning to aeroplanes.25 High winds were a perpetual issue.26 As a part of the effort, Van Tassel repeatedly attempted to make an ascension in his balloon-dirigible. But the winds precluded the fun.27

Later, on October 2, 1910, Van Tassel ascended in the balloon Diamond at Oakland, along with two passengers, men named Mathewson, and Wishar.28 It was the inaugural flight for the Diamond, and Blanche Bonham was given the honor of christening the large balloon with California champagne. Vander Naillen Jr. served as master of ceremonies, and Councilman Harold Everhart of Oakland gave a short speech. At first the balloon drifted south, but then it started moving west toward the Bay. Van Tassel brought the balloon lower and found a westerly current in the direction of Newark. Apogee was at roughly 5,220 feet, and at one time the balloon dropped from 4,900 feet to just 55 feet above the water. At 6:15 p.m. the balloon landed in a marsh 5 miles south of Alvarado, near Hunter’s Point. The landing was made in a 35-knot wind and was sufficiently hard that Van Tassel was ejected from the basket on impact, but he and the other passengers were uninjured.29 News of the adventure made it all the way back to Salt Lake City.30 Undeterred, and with better air currents, Van Tassel once again launched at Oakland, in October 1910, in an unknown balloon. He made a landing near Alvarado in Alameda County, covering a distance of 20 miles in two hours.31 At the time, Van Tassel (now age fifty-six) was living with his sister Minnie E. Crew (age sixty-three) in Alameda.32


Liftoff of the City of Oakland with passengers Park Van Tassel and Sidney Vincent from Alameda, California, on April 3, 1910. Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (NASM A-49912).

By November 1910, Van Tassel had leased an empty lot on East Nineteenth Street in Oakland and established a service taking seven to eight passengers aloft in his captive balloon Diamond. The balloon had a volume of 50,000 cubic feet and was inflated at night from the local city gasworks.33 He also traveled to Bakersfield to make captive flights with the Diamond.34 In Bakersfield, Van Tassel announced his intention to make a long-distance cross-country flight from Bakersfield to Los Angeles in his balloon-dirigible.35 He planned to take a newspaper reporter along and possibly two other passengers, but no definite date was set. Also in Bakersfield, Van Tassel made a captive test with the Diamond to evaluate a new dirigible engine. But the balloon ended up bursting at 1,500 feet with no passengers on board. According to reports, the balloon burst “as the result of being stopped too suddenly by the engine.”36 Van Tassel’s source of additional income was now in tatters.

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