Thursday, July 12, 2007

Experience Albuquerque's wacky balloon history at museum

by Mo Palmer

Well, folks, you are missing the boat, or perhaps the gondola if you haven't seen our new balloon museum. It is super.

Interactive stuff for kids — they can sit in a replica of the Double Eagle II — the first balloon to cross the Atlantic — inflate and deflate mini-balloons and examine exhibits.

I gave one of my snoozy speeches there on July 4 and ate enchiladas, taquitos, chips and salsa, and bizcochitos — free — while a band of actors re-created our town's first balloon flight, 125 years ago. Very entertaining. I learned a lot, and now I get to inflict it on you.

It seems "Professor" Park Van Tassel piloted the first balloon to ascend into New Mexico's skies of azure, as Elizabeth Garrett calls them in our state song. If you don't know that, go look it up.

Balloon pilots often called themselves "professor." Remember Professor Marvel in "The Wizard of Oz," whose balloon went off course and dumped him in the art deco Emerald City? Balloons were big in imagination. After all, they allowed man to fly long before the Wright Brothers did. Later in life, Van Tassel called himself "Captain."

It's not clear when Van Tassel came to town; he's not in the 1880 census, but hardly anyone is. Sometime around then, he opened "The Elite," one of Albuquerque's armada of saloons, where he offered "the finest liquors in New Mexico." This hot spot was somewhere between the railroad depot and the stinky ditch that bisected Railroad Avenue (Central) between Second and Third.

It's an interesting family: There's an entire genealogy Web site devoted to this bunch. There were enough sons in one generation to have a baseball team — their photo in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Van Tassel apparently hung out with the Blonger Brothers, Lou and Sam. Sam served as Albuquerque's town marshal for a spell. Sam once left Lou in charge while he was out of town. Lou later served as a Colorado inmate, after running a big bunko scheme. Google the Blonger Brothers to learn more about these dudes.

But in 1882, Lou Blonger and Van Tassel were cruising down the seamy side of north Fourth Street, passing "houses which sell virtue by retail," according to the Albuquerque Evening Review. Interesting way to put it.

The two got into an argument, and Blonger bonked Van Tassel with his walking stick, followed by a blow with a .45 revolver. Van Tassel was floored, and the contretemps ended with first aid — no doubt followed by liquid refreshment for the pain.

Van Tassel launched his balloon on July 4, 1882. It was filled with illuminating gas — a type used to produce lights. This was new to New Town, with the first lamps lit at the Metropolitan Saloon — no less than colored globes outside. Gas wasn't free, but the good pilot threw himself "under the direct patronage of the people," i.e., collections were taken up. He called his craft "The City of Albuquerque." Maybe to encourage donations.

The balloon was filled at Second and Gold, conveniently next to the gas plant. Everyone turned out, then they had to hang out for a long time. The envelope filled at an escargot pace. Gas pressure was low because saloon revelry the night before sucked up too much fuel.

Oddly, in an interview done when he was an old geezer, maybe my age, Van Tassel recalled the denizens of Albuquerque going without heat or light so he could take off. Memory is selective; they probably didn't need heat on the Fourth of July.

The people waited. And waited. And waited. Finally they jumped on the mule-drawn streetcar and drifted to Old Town for a baseball game and the races.

They returned in time for the 6 p.m. event, which finally took place after Van Tassel asked disappointed passenger John Moore to debark. He also threw a ballast bag of sand overboard and "completely covered" an innocent bystander, who subsequently filed a lawsuit. Maybe that's why Van Tassel later sneaked out of town owing money, but that's another story.

The vehicle reached 14,207 feet before ignominiously landing in a cornfield. Still, a grand success along the Rio Grande.

Van Tassel at some point married Jenny, a balloonist and parachute jumper. A planned leap in Los Angeles almost didn't take off when the police chief had a major snit, fearing she would die and make his fair city the home of a female suicide. The mayor intervened, and Jenny's jump went off without another hitch.

Van Tassel's aerial show traveled extensively. He was thought eaten by sharks in Hawaii when trouble ensued with the craft. It was only his brother, Joseph Lawrence, who succumbed to Jaws, while Van Tassel sailed on down the line.

Jenny Van Tassel's final flight, in Bangladesh for the entertainment of the Nawab(monarch), went awfully awry, and Jenny fell to her death in front of her husband and her mother.

Park Van Tassel died of heart failure in his late 70s.

He attempted a few more flights here, but ballooning didn't get really big until the first fiesta at Coronado Mall in 1972. Now it's huge.

For the next few weeks, the Anderson Abruzzo International Balloon Museum will be augmenting an exhibit based on Jules Verne's "Around the World in Eighty Days," with a Saturday series. Your "balloon" will land in different places, where you can learn, see the exhibit, sample some eats and be entertained. Check with the museum for details.

Up, up and away!

Originally published in The Albuquerque Tribune, Thursday, July 12, 2007.
The Tribune articles are used with the permission of Scripps Howard.

Transcription note: As this was a Thursday, it wasn't part of the regular history series.