Historical Reminiscing with Robert B. Hitchings
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Up, Up and Away in my Beautiful Balloon
Song, 5th Dimensions, 1967

On October 18, 1819, an unusual advertisement appeared in the Norfolk & Portsmouth Herald newspaper concerning Ascension of Air Balloons. A Mr. Nappy, a Hot Air Specialist, was a pupil of Professors Blanchard and Montgolfier pioneers of Ballooning in France. Mr. Nappy informed the public that he would raise 3 Hot Air Balloons of different sizes on Tuesday, October 19, 1819, at Newsum’s Wind Mill, providing the weather would be good. Newsum's Wind Mill is where the Marine Hospital (1827) in Portsmouth, Virginia, is located today. One time this land was covered with many windmills giving it the name Windmill Point. According to the newspaper article, “If the weather was not right, Mr. Nappy’s show will go on the next fair day.” He also stressed, “The money collected will go to a friend who lost the use of his limbs and cannot work.”

Apparently the balloons never left the ground because the Norfolk & Portsmouth Herald newspaper never carried any articles about Mr. Nappy’s Air Balloon Ascension.

But one of the best balloonists in our area was none other than George Elliott (1800-1855) who had his first flight in August 12, 1834, and continued to be active in 1854. He died in 1855. He was a showman and was quite the performer.

1854 was an extraordinary year for the inhabitants of the city of Norfolk, that year only 9 years old. Norfolk had become a city in the summer of 1845 and things were looking good for this new city.

During the summer Norfolk had its annual County fairs at Norfolk’s Fair grounds, which today would be Lindenwood section of Norfolk. Like every County Fair, it had a series of successful events showing off who we were. It was a chance to celebrate agricultural heritage and county rural life with a pie eating contest, pig and chicken races, plus cock fighting. It was a time to show off your wares and products. Many gun shop owners and leather shops exhibited their newest items. And there was the medicine man with his newest Wizard Oil bottles of ointment or liquids that would cure all sorts of ailments like rheumatism, headaches, piles and even baldness. Many of these products contained large volumes of alcohol. Just to watch the medicine men run up and down the stage selling their wares to cure all was a treat to see.

The Fair Grounds were filled with carts, wagons, gigs and drays loaded with all sorts of articles to exhibit and sell. Everyone had a stall selling their wares. It was an exciting event for the area. On display there was poultry, vegetables, household articles, and worthy mothers and their fair daughters of the surrounding counties were present selling their cakes, pies and candies.

Farmers were eager to show off their stock of vegetables, farming implements, etc. During the morning a fine show of horses of various classes was ridden around the race track by their owners for all to see. Judges were on hand to judge the best of the best in different categories.

However, many balloonists were on hand too to take passengers up to the sky. One such person that made it to the fairs and stayed over for a few months in 1854 was Professor George Elliott, the celebrated Aeronaut. According to his advertisement, he was invited by the leading scientific men of Virginia. From Magnolia Springs on the Seaboard & Roanoke Railroad, 13 miles from Portsmouth, Virginia, he was to make his grand voyage in the air with his magnificent Balloon called the Isabella.

The Southern Argus announced on September 19, 1854, “This wonderful explorer of the sky will ascend until only the eye of GOD can see and witness his roaming through boundless space.” Tickets for this event were 25 cents for ground spectators. Refreshments were served and the Pennsylvania Ship’s Band played lively music.” Great guns in the distance echoed as Professor Elliott got underway. Just to witness this extraordinary event was extravagant and thrilling to many. A round trip ticket in his balloon, Isabella, was only $1.00.

Within a few minutes the silken balloon Isabella rose up, and as she was ascending, cheers of the locals could be heard gracefully and majestically. Soon his balloon reached a mile in the sky. Professor Elliott, so proud, looked down toward the citizens, lifted his hat and rolled into space with the wind. The Norfolk crowds went wild.

However, on one occasion on October 10, 1854, with many spectators observing, the Balloon Isabella set off from Magnolia Springs again and ran into a wee bit of strong wind. She was thrown off course and near the great Dismal Swamp. Professor Elliott threw out the ballast and the Isabella “shot up like an arrow, “until she reached up nearly four miles from earth. Unfortunately a gas leak was discovered and the Balloon started to descend very fast. Many people who witnessed this event thought the worst was about to come. Professor Elliott was a showman and he knew how to guide his balloon Isabella to safety. He did just that.

As he guided his balloon he descended into an impenetrable veil of white mist which hid his descent. As Professor Elliott descended, the grandeur of the Dismal Swamp was displayed with its ragged tree tops, and dismal curtain of moss and huge vines and cypress and water oak trees. All around him was a thicket of trees and vines. As he descended onto the canopy of trees he did not disturb the white and gray cranes or herons who had gone to sleep. Gone to roost. Not one flew away. As reported in the Southern Argus newspaper, “Many of these birds would be stretching their necks and addressing Professor Elliott in their affectionate and familiar language of "Chuck, Whack, and Ughk.” Down below one could hear the owls hooting, saying, “Who, Who, Who are you.”

On September 30, 1854, Professor Elliott had extended his stay here in Norfolk to give a special treat to the boys and girls of Norfolk. At Market Square two miniature balloons were sent up, exciting hundreds of boys and girls and grown-ups. The balloons were made of tissue paper about the size of a hog-head. Each balloon had a small burning spirits of wine with pieces of sponge situated to a small wire at the rim of the balloons. When the small fire ascending destroyed the oxygen, creating hydrogen, they were able to rise and float above the house tops of downtown Norfolk. The soaring balloons gained altitude very quickly and sailed through the air until lost from sight over the city, though the spectators could still see the lights of the balloons.

The most remarkable feat to take place was when Professor announced in the Southern Argus newspaper that on October 28, 1854, a Portsmouth lady, an aeronaut of reputable fame, would travel up to 70 feet in the air and taking off at the Fairgrounds in Norfolk. According to the newspaper, this was his 108th ascension and would be his last. Tickets for this event were 50 cents a gentleman and his lady $1.00 Tickets were issued for large families and schools at reduced prices. The name of the lady who climbed into the silken-fairy balloon, Isabella, at the Fairgrounds has been forgotten through time and her name was not mentioned in the newspaper. As the balloon went up, this fearless woman started waving her American Flag and throwing down flowers to the exuberant audience below. After this thrilling performance she was lowered down with much fanfare. The Pennsylvania's band struck up music and rifle fire could be heard in the distance. As one person said, “The sight was indeed beautiful, like a novel.” After this performance Professor Elliott entered his balloon and rose to five hundred feet. He threw out his flag and boots and steered it into a southeasterly direction. As his balloon Isabella sailed away from the Fairgrounds, he triumphantly looked at the people of Norfolk below and bid them Adieu. Up in the clouds he saw the beautiful green landscapes, farms and tributaries spread out in a splendid relief. At 5 PM his balloon descended 5 miles away into a large crowd of farmers delighted to see this sight. He had landed on Mr. Bell’s farm in Princess Anne County six miles from the city on Mr. Charles Drummond’s farm. It was a smooth entry and there to assist Professor Elliott was Mr. Bell, Mr. Nimmo and Mr. Charles Drummond. Having his balloon secured and placed on a boat, Professor Elliott was accompanied by Mr. Drummond to his home at the end of the creek for dinner and refreshments.

At 9 PM Professor Elliott traveled to Portsmouth and proceeded to the house of Mr. James M. Meginly (1822-1868), a native of Pennsylvania and a machinist whose wife, Margaret R. Meginly (1832-1911), had so gracefully preceded him in his ascension.

After his successful appearance on November 2, 1854, he moved on to Richmond, VA, to exhibit his ballooning skills. He bid farewell to the citizens of Norfolk.

A few days later on November 7, 1854, the Southern Argus carried the latest news of Professor Elliott in Richmond, Virginia. It seems he was exhibiting in his hot-air balloon when a man named Carrier got into the basket for a ride. This crazy man cut the main cord and the balloon took off with the swift wind. Mr. Carrier lifted his hat off to the audience and bid farewell. Professor Elliott fainted in the basket, but regained conciseness and brought the balloon down to safety three miles away. It was truly a hair-raising experience.

Over the years and after the Civil War, Norfolk and Portsmouth had many balloonists calling themselves professors of ballooning. In the 1800s itinerant balloonists traveled the countryside giving their audience a thrilling show. This sport was a treat to all that witnessed this event. And many times these Balloonists had big advertisements in the local newspapers and local bands to entertain the crowd. And sometimes refreshments were offered too. It was a big event when a balloonist came to town.

Like so many balloonists of the past, Professor Elliott's name has fallen through the cracks of time. Yes, he was a showman and left his audience spellbound. He was a spectacular and dramatic performer with a high profile, and in the end he showed people of our area the art of flying in the sky, even if it was in a balloon.

Sources:

Ascension Air Balloons, Norfolk & Portsmouth Herald, October 18, 1819.

September 19, 1854, Southern Argus, BALLOON ASCENSION

BALLOON ASCENSION Extraordinary, Southern Argus, October 19, 1854.

 

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Robert B. Hitchings is a seventh generation Norfolk resident, graduating with an Associate's Degree in Biology from Old Dominion University and BA in history from Virginia Wesleyan University. During his studies he was awarded a scholarship at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, England, and he was an exchange student at Brooks-Westminster College, Oxford, England. From 1999-2014 he worked as head of the Sargeant Memorial History Room at Norfolk Public Library, and since then has headed the Wallace History Room at Chesapeake Public Library. He is also the President of the Norfolk County Historical Society, and for six years was a columnist for The Virginian-Pilot. Robert may be reached at nchs.wallaceroom@gmail.com