Niagara County can look proudly upon its aeronautical history and the accomplishments of aviation pioneers such as Lawrence Bell and Bell Aerospace. But, in a day and age before airplanes and spacecraft, any attempt at lighter-than-air transportation caused quite a stir. This was the case in Niagara County on July 27th, 1858, when the county was completely agog over a promised “Grand Balloon Ascension.”
The five-man Ascension Committee had set in motion a string of events and newspaper coverage that really fed the excitement of this feted day. Even Providence had smiled propitiously on the day offering clear skies and warm temperatures. The scene of the promised aerial display was the County Fair Grounds off Locust Street in Lockport. People commenced arriving about noon and they continued coming in crowds until late afternoon. They came form Albion, Medina, Middleport, Gasport, the Falls, and from Pekin by railcar; they came from Somerset, Wilson, Lewiston and Porter by wagons, buggies, on horseback and a-foot. Never in the community’s history had so many people gathered within her borders to witness an exhibition of any kind. All the streets were crowded and Main Street was impassable. The crowd swarmed the Fair Ground by the thousands and there was not even any room for the usual crowd of those who always attempt to enjoy such things but never like to pay.
About 5pm, a certain Mr. Godard arrived with his Balloon. The crowd waited with bated breath while he got things in order and the process of inflating the Balloon commenced. Slowly, the canvas began to swell, eventually it swelled higher and fuller. Soon it was filled, the ropes were manned and the carriage was attached. Mr. Godard began to fly around like a pea in a pod. The Balloon made a grand surge to the northeast, and it sailed off rapidly, gracefully, beautifully into the ambient air. It rose for about half a minute amid the joyous shouts of the crowd, then it remained stationary for a moment, collapsed, and was soon out of sight. It came down after a flight of less than a quarter-mile. The Ascension Committee, not pleased with the short flight said it was deceived and refused to pay Mr. Godard, stating, “it does not rise to the dignity of a clever “humbug”-it is simply an imposition.” So, to some it might have seemed a failure, but to many others, it must have been viewed as an remarkable achievement. It’s all a matter of perspective. Was the glass half-empty or half-full?
Douglas Farley, Director
Erie Canal Discover Center
24 Church St.
Lockport NY 14094