William Markoe and His Balloon
by Rhoda R. Gilman
Winter 1962 (Volume 38, number 4, pages 166-176)
The first aerial view of Minnesota was achieved
on a clear day in September, 1857, when two men
in a wicker basket suspended from a balloon gazed
down on the frontier town of St. Paul. It struck
them as curious that the surrounding country,
which to earthbound travelers seemed substantial
enough, appeared from the air "like one vast marsh."
The city they had just left and the expanse of
lakes and ponds around it looked as though they
lay in the bottom of a huge bowl whose sides
sloped gradually up to the distant horizon.
Delighted and a little awed by the view thus
spread for the first time before human eyes,
the balloonists were able as they rose higher
to identify the waters of the St. Croix River
to the east and the town of Shakopee to the
southwest. They could see "as on a map" the
sweeping curve of the Mississippi, with
St. Anthony, Fort Snelling, "and every settlement
and point for a circle of 25 or 30 miles around."
Though the two adventurers were carried by the
first balloon to rise over Minnesota, they were
scarcely pioneers in the science of aerostation.
By 1857 ballooning had become a well known
curiosity of the budding scientific age. The
design and navigation of balloons had been perfected
within a surprisingly short time after the first
flights were made in 1783, and though experiments
both weird and sensible were tried from time to time,
no real improvements had been hit upon. Napoleon
had employed the unwieldy craft for reconnaissance
in 1794, and in the decades that followed they had
achieved a certain limited military value. Beyond
this, no one had thought of a practical use for them.
The popular imagination, however, was easily caught
by the soaring spheres, and professional aeronauts
did a brisk business throughout Europe and the United
States with their public exhibitions of daring and skill.
Some of these navigators were simply showmen; others
were seriously interested in developing the balloon
as an instrument of flight. Few of either type found
their way to the frontier, for the risks of flying in
sparsely populated areas were great and the financial
returns were small.
Thus Minnesota's first balloonists, instead of being
professional aeronauts or traveling performers, were
substantial St. Paul citizens, and their craft was a
local product, having been designed, built, and financed
in the city itself. Its owner and pilot was William Markoe,
a former Episcopal clergyman and an amateur scientist.
Markoe was an unusual man from almost any point of view.
Born into a comfortably prosperous Philadelphia family,
he decided to enter the ministry and was ordained in 1849.
Accompanied by his bride of a few weeks, he took up the
duties of a parish in Delafield, Wisconsin. Five years
later the couple abruptly returned to the East, where,
within a few months, they announced their conversion to Catholicism.
Finding himself with a wife, two small sons, and no profession,
Markoe went to Wisconsin, sold his property, and then looked
toward Minnesota Territory, where the land boom of the 1850s
was in full swing and paper fortunes were made overnight. There
he saw opportunities that promised "a rich increase of my means."
Accordingly, in the month of June, 1856, the family moved to St. Paul.
A palsied right arm prevented Markoe from engaging in regular business,
but real estate investments and the management of rental property yielded
an income, while in his leisure time he turned his attention to a
long suppressed interest in aeronautics. For despite his earnest,
rather retiring disposition and the manner of a "high-toned, elegant
gentleman," William Markoe nursed soaring and unconventional dreams."
As a boy of seventeen he had become acquainted with William Paullin,
a well known Philadelphia balloonist, and had made one ascension from
Camden, New Jersey. Writing to Paullin years later he could recall
"with what zeal I used to hold the cords during inflation and with
what a gratifying boyish sense of self-importance I used to take
part in the management of your ascensions and order about the
gaping boobies who wanted to help but were rather afraid of the big
thing; and when I recollect our ascent together and the whacking
bump and the upset we got when we struck, I feel quite like a boy again."
At the same time, however, a deeper emotion had taken hold of him.
The "exquisite delight and happiness" of sailing through the
air—of fulfilling man's age-old dream of flight—awakened in
him a passion for aerial navigation and the conviction that in
some way he would play a part in introducing it.
No doubt the hand of destiny seemed present when a few years later in
New York he witnessed an exhibition by a peripatetic inventor named
Rufus Porter. It consisted of a model airship, or "aeroport," which
its originator claimed would carry as many as a hundred passengers
from New York to California in three days. Designed on somewhat the
same lines as later dirigibles, it was to be driven by a steam powered
propeller and guided by a rudder. In the course of a fantastically
varied career Porter had edited several magazines, and he possessed
nearly as much flair for words as for mechanical devices. He anticipated
that "within a few months these aerial machines may be seen soaring in
various directions and at different elevations, some apparently among
or above the clouds, and others, like swallows, sailing leisurly [sic]
just above the surface of the earth."
Although Markoe was intrigued, he was in no position to pursue the subject.
He did, however, examine the plans carefully and take one of Porter's
pamphlets, which, he reread from time to time, gradually becoming convinced
of the invention's workability. Several years later, while living in
Wisconsin, he determined to contact Porter and find out what progress
had been made.
The inventor's response was cordial—bubbling with confidence and enthusiasm.
His machine was almost ready to launch, but, he revealed to Markoe, "his
great difficulty was want of funds." The young minister at once sent
him a thousand dollars and soon persuaded several of his relatives to invest
also. A more experienced man might have been prepared for what
followed: "Again and again I received accounts from him of the progress
of the work; again and again he wrote me that everything was almost
ready; that he was getting ready to inflate; that in about a month or a
week he expected to be afloat; but invariably it would follow that some
unexpected 'adverse circumstance' had knocked the whole concern on the
head until the next season, when very much the same series of events
would be gone through again." Finally Porter became seized with the
conviction that the Second Advent was at hand, and gave up work completely.
Markoe was philosophical about the money lost but bitterly disappointed at the
abandonment of the aeroport. He still felt the project was feasible, and
soon after his arrival in St. Paul he wrote once more to Porter, suggesting,
with touching patience, that the inventor go to Minnesota, where the two men
could work together on the flying machine. By that time, however, Porter's
fertile brain was occupied in producing a whole anew crop of marvelous and
Discouraged, Markoe wrote to his old friend, Paullin, telling him the story
and hinting that he intended to go ahead with aerial experiments on his own.
Paullin was obviously skeptical of Porter's scheme, and he cannily
suggested that Markoe gain some experience in a conventional balloon
before launching anything more ambitious.
Markoe quickly saw the wisdom of this advice and set about planning for
the construction of a balloon. It proved to be a complicated and difficult
project. There were few experts in the field and they frequently disagreed
or were reluctant to share information with potential rivals. One who
showed no such narrow attitude was John Wise of Lancaster,
Pennsylvania—probably the best known American balloonist of the
time. Markoe wrote Wise requesting a copy of his book, A System of
Aeronautics, and the correspondence which followed resulted in a warm
friendship between the two men. To Wise Markoe confessed that when he
revealed to other friends his enthusiasm for flying "they smile as if
they tho't I might be a little cracked."
14 His family also showed a
lack of sympathy, for at one point his mother tartly informed him
that his devotion to ballooning indicated "a deterioration of character
in one who has held the dignified position of a minister of the Gospel."
Nevertheless Markoe persevered. In January and February, 1857, while
Minnesota's commerce with the world was frozen along with the waters
of the Mississippi, he started to buy hardware for his balloon's
fittings and found a local basket maker with sufficient skill to
construct a wicker car six feet in diameter. Locating a workman
willing to make the outsize wooden hoop for its rim was more difficult
and required "all kinds of expostulations, entreaties, and
blandishments." At last, however, the car was ready for the final
touch: twelve yards of turkey red and ten yards of green calico,
along with twelve large green tassels.
In March Markoe built a shed behind his house to accommodate the
balloon operations and then began to manufacture the giant bag.
Nineteenth-century balloons were commonly made of silk or linen,
the material being treated with varnish to render it airtight.
Preparation of the varnish was a critical step, for the compound
had to remain soft and pliable after drying and could not contain
ingredients that would rot the cloth. Paullin generously contributed
his formula, which included, according to the inquiring reporter of
the St. Paul Pioneer and Democrat. "About one and a half barrels
of linseed oil, a half barrel of other material as costly, and some
thirty or more lbs. of an ingredient rarely found here in larger
quantities at a time than five or six lbs."
Before the brew could be applied, however, some 750 yards of Irish
linen were painstakingly cut into gores of the proper shape and size,
Markoe having worked out the pattern first on lengths of wallpaper.
He also devised a machine for speedily putting on the varnish and an
ingenious set of racks for drying the material. All went well, and he
regarded his own inventiveness "with most complacent self-satisfaction"
until he found that the varnish would not dry indoors. In the weeks
that followed he was forced to take the gores out one by one on sunny
days and spread them along his garden fence.
Sewing the pieces together presented a sticky problem. Wise reported
little luck in the use of sewing machines, but Markoe was convinced
that a satisfactory one could be found. After trying a number of them,
he ordered a model manufactured by the Singer company. But when he put
it to work, he found that the glue like varnish prevented the material
from feeding properly. The result, time after time, was shattered needles
and torn linen.
At last he sold the machine, wrote an indignant letter to
the company, and hired a brigade of seamstresses, "four women for the first
day, six for the second, fourteen for the whole of the following week; eleven
for another day, eight for the next three days, and two for one and a half
more." A final coat of varnish, applied by hand over the seams, occupied three
boys for a full day.
When completed, early in August, the balloon measured 126 feet in circumference
and 50 feet in height.
Markoe called it the "Minnesota." As the time for its
launching drew near, its owner and would-be pilot began to have second thoughts.
He had purposely designed it on a large enough scale to carry several people,
hoping to share the cost of ascensions with some of his more adventurous friends.
Now it occurred to him that additional money might be made by staging public
ascensions and charging admission. In such a venture. the name and reputation of
Wise would be a great advantage, and he proposed that the Pennsylvanian make
the first several flights with him and share the profits. "The expense of my
operations has been very heavy on me," he wrote, "and I must do something to
remunerate myself; and yet I do not much fancy undertaking the burden and
responsibilities of a public ascension the first time. Your presence and
experience would be a great relief to me ."
Apparently Wise toyed with the idea but in the end decided against it.
Nevertheless Markoe felt compelled to go ahead with the plan for a public ascension.
'His out-of-pocket expenses had come to almost a thousand dollars, and each
inflation would cost him over a hundred more. He proposed to sell tickets at a
dollar each until a sum of five hundred dollars had been subscribed. The proceeds
would be held by a disinterested party pending a successful ascension, in order
to assure St. Paul citizens that he had "no disposition to secure the funds, and
then fail in his undertaking."
Ticket sales fell far short of the goal, but this apparently did not deter Markoe.
What did keep him waiting nearly a month was the construction of St. Paul's
first plant for producing illuminating gas. Work had been proceeding on it all
summer, but not until September 19 did the gas works go into operation. With
the problem of inflating his craft thus seemingly solved, the balloonist scheduled
his ascension for September 22.
The day dawned clear and there was scarcely a breath of wind when at 8:00 A.M.
the crowd began to gather in the yard of the gas works at the corner of Rosabel
and Fifth streets. Inflation proceeded slowly, for the capacity of the giant bag
strained the output of the new plant, and by 10:30 it was apparent that the balloon
could not be more than half filled.
Four men were scheduled to make the flight: Markoe, William S. Crawford, a dry
goods merchant, Samuel S. Eaton, an insurance and real estate agent, and H. H.
Brown, a young Philadelphian who, according to Eaton, had been "in the Indian
The shortage of gas eliminated Eaton and Brown, and it was further
necessary to dispose of all excess weight in the car, which one reporter noticed
was "well supplied with provisions and necessaries for a long journey." Out went
ballast, groceries, blankets—even overcoats. Then at about 11: 00 A.M. Markoe
and Crawford gave the word to cast off.
The yard of the gas works was thronged with ticket holders who had paid the dollar
admission fee, and a crowd estimated at three or four thousand lined the bluff above.
A band had been recruited for the occasion, and it struck up a "stirring air" as
the balloon rose slowly and gracefully into the sky, followed by the cheers of
those who witnessed the territory's first aeronautical expedition.
Not far above the city the balloon became stationary, and its occupants had to
jettison even more items to lighten it. A three hundred foot coil of rope and
the remaining ballast were thrown over, and the town was showered with "water,
some liquor, and other refreshment." At last the aeronauts were rewarded by once
more seeing the earth sink away below them; a northerly current of air caught the
balloon, and they drifted off across the Mississippi in the direction of Hastings.
The day continued fine, and the two men had no cause to regret the overcoats
they had left behind. They experienced the "delicious sensation" of calm that
is peculiar to balloon travel: an illusion of hanging motionless in a silent
sea of air, while a changing panorama of farms, lakes, and forests slipped
past beneath them.
Noon found them above Hastings, from which a freshening breeze carried them
westward over the valley of the Cannon River. As their speed seemed to be
increasing and the area of continuous settlement did not extend far in that
direction, Markoe decided to bring their craft down and end the voyage.
He pulled the valve rope while his companion prepared for lunch, taking
out a large pan of chicken pie thoughtfully provided by Mrs. Markoe.
This proved a mistake, for the descent was rapid and they had scarcely
begun to eat when Markoe, glancing over the side, saw the shadow of their
balloon, looming huge and round on the field below them. He threw over the
grapnel, but a puff of wind caught the sagging gas bag and pulled it
rapidly across the stubble. At the end of the field the car hit a fence
with a bump that emptied the chicken pie over Crawford's head.
Markoe, meanwhile, was calling to a curious but fearful group of farmhands,
asking them to catch the rope and secure the balloon. These
Norwegian-speaking immigrants failed to understand, and one of them
started for a gun. His employer, who had seen a balloon before, stopped
him. Thus reassured, the men quickly secured the ropes and helped the
two aeronauts subdue the flapping monster and fold up the billowing
yards of linen.
They found that they had landed on the farm of William Greaves in Goodhue
County about five miles from Cannon Falls. The balloon was undamaged, and,
in fact, the only casualty of the trip was Crawford's gravy soaked Prince
Albert suit. Their host at once hitched up his team, loaded aeronauts, car,
and balloon into his wagon, and drove them to Hastings, where they were just
in time to catch the steamer "Frank Steele" on its way up the river to St. Paul.
The flight had covered a distance of forty five miles and lasted an hour and
a half. "Thirty miles an hour!" marveled the editor of St. Paul's Daily
Minnesotian. "Commend us to the balloon for fast traveling, after all."
As to the altitude reached, there was considerable speculation and disagreement.
With no instruments whatever, the aeronauts could only guess at their distance
aloft, and they placed their highest point at about three miles. A correspondent
of the Minnesotian took issue sharply, noting that "A view from a point
three-fourths of a mile high, in a country like ours, unbroken by mountains,
should have a radius of about fifty miles, which is quite as much as the
passengers in the `Minnesota' claim, and of course as much as they enjoyed."
He also argued that at a height of three miles the travelers would have needed
their overcoats–and more modern scientists might add that they would have
begun to need oxygen.
Perhaps it was because of this discussion that Markoe carried a "mountain barometer"
when he made his second flight. The instrument had been the property of the
explorer Joseph N. Nicollet and was loaned to the balloonist by the
Minnesota Historical Society.
The ascension it was to measure took place on October 8, 1857, from the grounds of
the Third Annual Territorial Fair in the square before the Capitol.
For its second voyage the "Minnesota" was inflated at the gas works and towed
to the fair grounds. The gas problem must have been at least partially solved,
for this time there was sufficient lift to carry three passengers. Markoe took
with him the two men who had been forced to stay behind on the first ascension.
Weather conditions were not the best, for a steady southwest breeze promised to
carry the balloon quickly outside the line of settlement and over the
wilderness to the northeast. Therefore Markoe planned only a brief flight,
and the supplies were limited to "a hamper of provisions and a case of
Beaumont & Gordon's best."
At 10:30 A.M., before the governor and an assemblage of distinguished citizens,
the aeronauts "received the adieus of their friends without emotion" and stepped
into the car. The ropes were let go and the balloon rose majestically into the
air, disappearing in the direction of White Bear Lake.
After about half an hour Markoe, according to plan, opened the valve, and they
started to descend. The landing was complicated, however, by the wooded nature
of the country. A clear space was finally spotted, and the pilot tried to bring
his craft down within it by valving more gas. He was defeated by the wind, which
threatened to drive the balloon into the trees on the edge of the opening.
All ballast was frantically dumped overboard, and the balloon rose quickly.
On the second try, in another clearing, the same trouble occurred, but having
no ballast left, the crew were powerless to raise the balloon. The car settled
momentarily in the top of an oak tree, tangling the net and tearing loose the
valve ropes. It then bounced upward and descended again, this time in a marshy pond.
Here the accounts of the balloonists become confused and contradictory. It is
only too evident that they were excited and that things happened quickly. Grappling
irons were thrown over, but either there was difficulty in securing them or the
ropes broke. They reached the edge of the water, and Eaton (possibly at Markoe's
request, but most probably not) committed the cardinal error in balloon
navigation: he jumped out of the car to tie the rope. Relieved of 160 pounds,
the balloon shot upward like an arrow. Eaton himself seems to have been uncertain
whether the rope broke or tore through his hands. In either case, he clung to it
long enough to hear Markoe's shouted order that he stay with them–a command he
found "quite impracticable to follow" as he sat in the tall grass watching his
companions disappear over the treetops.
Concluding that the others were well on their way to "the British Possessions,"
Eaton picked himself up and set out to discover where he was. The spot at which
he had been dropped proved to be near Forest Lake, and he was forced to trudge
wearily all the way to White Bear Lake before finding a horse to carry him to
St. Paul. His report upon arrival there produced some anxiety over the other
This was not altogether unfounded, for soaring upward, Markoe and Brown discovered
that because of the broken valve ropes they were powerless to release more gas and
come down again. Meanwhile the wind was taking them ever farther into the wilderness.
It was a distinctly unpleasant situation.
Looking upward, they could see the end of one rope dangling from the neck of the
balloon, some fifteen feet over their heads. Brown, being the younger of the two,
volunteered to try and reach it. He took the end of the broken section in his
teeth and climbed up the ropes as far as the wooden hoop, or load ring, which
gathered in the lines below the balloon. Hoisting himself through the hoop, he
secured a foothold on it, and standing up, dizzily suspended in mid-air, succeeded
in knotting the two ends of the valve cord together.
By then they had reached a considerable height. Markoe guessed it at two or three
miles but admitted that he had been too busy to take readings. With the valve
cord repaired, the aeronauts descended quickly and landed unceremoniously in a
dense wood. The car caught in the branches of a tree, to which they tied it
securely and remained until all the gas had escaped and the balloon had
collapsed. Their shouts for help were soon answered by a nearby farmer,
who had seen the balloon descend and was trying to locate it. Getting down
themselves was no problem, but disentangling the balloon from the branches
proved a long chore. Before they finished, two or three trees had been cut
down and the linen bag was somewhat torn.
They found themselves in eastern Anoka County, four or five miles from the
spot where Eaton had been left. After spending several hours in a fruitless
search for him, they loaded the remains of the precious balloon in a farmer's
wagon and set out for St. Paul. There they arrived shortly after their
The second ascension with its perilous mishaps proved a fitting climax for
the territorial fair. In a longer view it also climaxed the feverish boom
years of the 1850s during which St. Paul grew from a back woods village to
an aspiring metropolis, whose dreams reached to the sky and whose feet were
mired in the ankle deep mud of its sidewalks. With the economic crash which
swept the country in the autumn of 1857, these dreams collapsed as completely
as any punctured balloon.
Like most other St. Paulites, Markoe suffered financially from the effects
of the panic, but he clung to the hope of making further aerial experiments
and during the winter succeeded in reconditioning and enlarging the "Minnesota."
In May, 1858, he petitioned the city council for permission to erect a wooden
enclosure for his balloon work and to charge admission in order to defray part
of the cost, "Although the intention in this plan is not, strictly understood,
to hold a mere exhibition."
Permission was granted, and a board fence was put up near the Fuller House on
the northeast corner of Jackson and Seventh streets. The first ascension of the
new season was postponed several times because of unfavorable weather, but
finally, on a Saturday morning in early June, Markoe decided that the
conditions were right. As the huge bag slowly swelled with gas, the wind began
to rise, and by the time the inflation was completed a near gale was blowing.
Unwilling to disappoint his audience and lose his large investment in gas,
Markoe persisted, but before the car could be attached, a fierce gust caught
the balloon. In the words of the Daily Minnesotian for June 7, 1858: "The
leviathan flopped and struggled, and swayed down to the ground . . . but so
firmly was it held at a hundred points, it could not yield to the blast, and
a monstrous rent was torn top to bottom in the linen, letting out the gas in
a moment, and the folds of the material fell like a cloud on the spectators,
while the escaping gas nearly suffocated those nearest it."
Thus ended the "Minnesota." Either Markoe's energy or his resources failed,
for he never tried again. He had nevertheless achieved for a brief time the
substance of his dream–more, perhaps, than is granted to most men with such
lofty visions. As he had written to his friend, Paullin, on September 26,
1856: "neither money nor the glory of the thing is my object; it is simply
the delight of the thing itself."
Minnesota, like other areas, saw many balloon ascensions for entertainment
and sport through the rest of the nineteenth century, but it was nearly a
hundred years before an increased interest in the upper atmosphere aided
by the introduction of plastic brought real scientific importance to man's
oldest means of flight. When, at that time, the state for which Markoe named
his craft gained world prominence as a center of balloon manufacturing and
flying, it had good reason to recall its earliest aerial pioneer.