County has always been fascinated by aerial theatrics
Fantastic fiction, like that written by Jules Verne, has always been popular with the residents of Hamilton County. In 1882, the Noblesville Ledger ran the novel “Around the World in 80 Days” as a serial. A key feature in many of the stories is the idea of airships, giant gas-filled balloons or dirigibles that could travel for miles. In the 1890’s, airships were considered a real possibility and a topic of much local discussion.
It began with extensive coverage of the 1891 E. J. Pennington airship in Chicago, (which turned out to be a fraud). The airship was so popular that when the Wallace circus visited Noblesville in October of 1892, it had a thirty-foot replica of the craft (probably non-flying). Interest in the replica ended locally when Pennington himself conducted an electric railway fraud in Noblesville in 1893. (This incident was featured in Kurt Meyer’s 2014 novel Noblesville.)
Another part of the Wallace show involved actual flight. Lorella Monntrose and her horse Montgolfier did a balloon ascension. Balloon ascensions were a common sight at fairs and festivals, where aeronauts – usually young women – would ascend to a height of 1,000 feet and then parachute to earth. This was very dangerous and there are many reports of fatal falls. Unlike today’s hot air or helium-filled balloons, (like the one at Conner Prairie), the balloons for the ascensions were hydrogen filled, a practice that continued until the Hindenburg disaster in 1937.
Hoaxes and Errors
The fascination with airships reached a peak in 1897 and led to one notable hoax. The Ledger did a front-page story on May 25, 1897 about a flying machine cruising over the Courthouse Square and included an illustration. The tone of the report and the reactions from prominent citizens were all done tongue-in-cheek and should have tipped people off to the joke. However, the newspaper had to confess to the hoax after people kept reporting signs of the ship.
In August of 1909, the Noblesville Enterprise reported on a huge glowing object hanging in the sky over the west side of Noblesville. As it seemed to be over the area known as ''Johnstown'' (which was the neighborhood that had most of the city's brothels), there were comments about Sodom and Gomorrah and divine retribution. However, an Indianapolis astronomer soon asserted that it was the planet Mars, which happened to be in a close conjunction with Earth.
An Unexpected Aerial Visitor
In the early days of aviation, balloon racing was a popular sport. In October of 1907, five balloons racing for the James Gordon Bennett Cup passed over Sheridan and got a great deal of attention. In September of 1910, Hamilton County accidentally became the destination of one racer. A national balloon championship race was organized in Indianapolis by the Aero Club of America, which included a “free-for-all” – a race for smaller balloons that were not members of the club. The smallest balloon in the free-for-all was the “Luzerne” flown by Dr. L. E. Custer of Dayton, Ohio, which had 24,000 cubic feet of hydrogen.
The weatherman had said that there would be favorable conditions for the race, but soon the weather changed and rain began falling. Custer had been in a bad storm in May, when a balloon race had been part of the 500 mile auto race. That time, as the balloon was being tossed around, Custer let out a rope to catch on something and stop. However, what he managed to catch were telephone and electrical lines, which then knocked out power to half the city of Indianapolis.
This time, Custer didn’t want to fly when he couldn’t see the moon. He slowly began to descend until he landed safely six and one half miles northeast of Noblesville. Unfortunately, the local papers are missing from that time, so we aren’t able to find out what the local reaction was.
With the development of the airplane, lighter-than-air aircraft became obsolete and eventually were relegated to recreation and advertising. The only airships likely to be seen in Hamilton County in the future are hot air balloons and the occasional Goodyear blimp.