40,000 Watch Balloons Fly

In this attachment are a pair of front page articles from the June 6, 1909 Indianapolis Star that report on the start of the 1909 national championship balloon race of the Aero Club of America. The article in the left column from your POV focuses on the setting for the event in the hours leading up to it. The start of the multiple day event was hosted at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, still under construction at the time. For most in attendance, even the most prominent visitors such as Charles J. Glidden, founder of the Glidden Tour automobile endurance contest, it was their first look at the much publicized facility destined to become an American institution. Of the track grounds and the event Glidden said:
"It's the greatest course on Earth. This race is the most beautiful and the best conducted that human eyes have ever witnessed."
This was high praise from one of the leading automotive event management experts of the day. For the Speedway in drawing its first crowd to its first spectator event it was baptism under fire. The crush of an estimated 40,000 spectators proved overwhelming to a management team unaccustomed to the people flow of large gatherings.
What's more the nature of this competition exacerbated the situation. For many the prospect of seeing at no charge essentially the same show from immediately outside the grounds that they could from within after spending money for a ticket was simply too tempting a bargain to refuse. The roads in what was described as a thickening dark line of conveyances of all types - carriages, buggies and automobiles - clogged to a standstill. Indeed the article suggests that every automobile in Indianapolis was pressed into the service of delivering spectators.
The street vehicles, complemented by the rail and interurban systems, delivered a throng the likes of which Indiana may have never seen before. Governor Thomas Marshall, the future vice-president under Woodrow Wilson, whose services had been secured in the ceremonial duty of wishing the competitors Godspeed and sending the first on their way was hopelessly delayed. Abondoning his official vehicle the governor hoofed it to the Speedway grounds but missed all but three of the ascensions.
When popular Speedway Founder and President Carl Fisher took flight in his balloon, the Indiana, the crowd, the article says, "vented its enthusiasm." Fisher responded by distributing a large bouquet of roses - one at a time - into their hands from his basket well above their heads. The weather was perfect enhancing the sense of an idyllic moment. This article reports that the crowds remained well after the final balloon had disappeared, probably in awe of the spectacle. The report of their departure underscores their number and the characteristics of the day:
"The first good estimate of the enormous crowd was gained when the rush for the gates began. Throbbing automobiles by the hundred pushed their noses together around the gates in what seemed a mass impossible to untangle. Horses pranced and danced among the machines, unable to gain freedom. The trains were crowded and the traction cars were filled to overflowing, many seeking positions on top of the cars."
The second article, the one to the right of your computer screen, focuses more on the competition. A callout box at the beginning lists the balloons, pilots and assistants in starting order. One noteworthy change from a previous report is that the Ohio's pilot Dr. D.H. Thompson had a different assistant than originally listed. Instead of W.E. Mast his aid was a man named J. Blake. Another interesting detail in the box is the number of bags of sand carried in each balloon ranging from four in the Ohio to 50 in Fisher's Indiana. The article compares the number of sand bags in a balloon - called "balloon fuel" - to the amount of gasoline in an automobile in that you can travel further.
The sand provided ballast allowing the pilot to make weight adjustments to compensate for variations in air temperature affecting the volume of gas in the balloon and its ability to sustain stable altitude. With less ballast the pilot runs out of a crucial tool in adjusting altitude. The challenge was that a larger volume of sand meant more weight and that challenged a balloon's ability to ascend. The Ohio was noted to be an older balloon but its exact age is never reported. Several balloons such as the Indiana, Hoosier and Chicago had recently been constructed by Captain George L. Bumbaugh, Fisher's assistant and a recognized national leader in ballooning.
This article again reports on what was seen as a massive crowd that had people climbing trees or sitting atop railroad cars outside the grounds to gain a superior vantage point. The crowd inside was entertained in the pre-race hours by strains of music from military bands and the opportunity to walk among the colorful balloons, some towering eight strories high. Soldiers contained their enthusiasm during the ascensions as they crowded the balloons.
Showmanship was in abundance. There was Fisher with his roses and the Chicago's Charles A. Coey making a grand show of kissing his beautiful wife before ascending 500 feet in the air and unfurling a large silk American flag. A. Holland Forbes the newspaper's pre-race favorite shouted "Watch us win!" at his departure. To add patriotic flair to his roses Fisher's Indiana sported six large American flags. When the Cleveland of pilot A.H. Morgan and J.H. Wade, Jr. attained 50 feet a group of women released 100 miniature balloons.
This article provides an explanation of the handicap race. This event was for balloons that were either too small or too large for the rules of the national championship. The national championship was for balloons not larger than 78,000 cubic feet in capcity and not less than 50,000. The Chicago had a capacity of 110,000 cubic feet while the Indianapolis and Ohio were both 40,000.
A final note concerns the provisions the balloonists carried - typically enough for a week. For example Captain Thomas Baldwin carried 36 eggs, 40 pieces of fried chicken, 50 slices of buttered bread, 10 pies, 24 oranges, five cans of soup, three loaves of bread as well as crackers, apples, lemons, chocolate and cans of fruit.

BalloonRace060609i.pdf2.83 MB