This is a story about Joseph Lawrence Van Tassell. But before we get to Van Tassell, let’s look at a predecessor and his attempts at the first successful aeronautical event in Hawaiʻi. At the time, the technology was hot air balloons.
Emil L Melville had advertised a balloon show where he would hang from a trapeze in his 86-foot balloon. For Melville, third time was the charm.
The headline on the first attempt tells the story, “An Immense Audience – No Ascension.” It goes on to note, “The crowd continued to surge into the (Kapiʻolani) Park until about the time set for the ascension when there were from 3,000 to 4,000 persons within the enclosure and perhaps 2,000 more in the surrounding grounds.”
“Promptly at the advertised hour 2 o’clock (March 2, 1889) Prof Melville arose from a nap with which he was refreshing himself in a room near the grand stand and dressed himself in a gay suit of tights.” (Hawaiian Gazette, March 5, 1889)
“What the process is actually remains a professional secret … the canvas in a few moments began to flutter and fill then bulge out into something like rotund shape. … Matters were in this struggling stage at 5:45 o’clock … a wreath of smoke curling up from the upper slope of the cloth … Another burst … Many of the helpers ran off panic-stricken … The next scene was a grand and speedy dispersion (of the crowd.”) (Hawaiian Gazette, March 5, 1889)
A week later, the paper noted, “’There could not have been a better day,’ (March 11, 1889) was the universal remark, suggested by the very slight stir in the air and such motion as there was being off the sea. The balloon filled up beautifully – was in fact every moment looking more like an article of that name until it had about three fourths of its capacity-charged with concentrated caloric and smoke.”
“The furnace roars once and again and next thing the aeronaut thunders out ‘All let go!’ … and away the monster creeps laterally … off she goes and then up, only the spectators in the inner rings observing the gallant Professor Melville dragging headforemost to the trapeze – he had no time to fasten on the parachute.”
“Up through the wicked spikes of the young algeroba (kiawe) thicket the aeronaut was dragged … Now the balloon is fast sinking with the man’s weight. It disappears behind the bush and almost immediately soars majestically aloft but there is no man dangling from the trapeze.” (Hawaiian Gazette, March 12, 1889)
Finally, on April 6, 1889, “ … Prof Emil Melville with the assistance of sailors from HBMS Cormorant was inflating his balloon, the one used in the two previous attempts to fly skyward. About half-past 2 o’clock … the balloon was up. Sure enough there it was sailing gracefully over the town at an elevation of two or three thousand feet.”
“… a little steady gazing was rewarded by the vision of a streak of red the aeronauts athletic costume … going through movements on the bar which made the balloon sag and sway at intervals.”
“At a point nearly over Palace Square the balloon was noticed to be descending which caused the rush of hundreds to the water front to see the finish of the aerial voyage. … The aeronaut let go when near the surface of the water dropping in about four or five feet depth on the reef inside the breakers off Kakaʻako. His balloon in a few seconds took the water having careened on its side under a gust of wind.” (Hawaiian Gazette, April 9, 1889)
Joseph Lawrence Van Tassell was another balloonist who came to Hawaiʻi.
Some credit him with the first flight in the islands, but it is clear from the above, that Melville made it on his third try (although unceremoniously with a dunking in the water.)
Like Melville, Van Tassell staged a flight from Kapiʻolani Park, collecting admission fees from spectators. On November 2, 1889, “The attendance at Kapiʻolani Park … was not so large as it ought to have been. About five hundred persons were in the enclosure, but there was a much larger number outside. Many people witnessed the ascension from the top of Punchbowl and other commanding positions”.
“… It progressed so rapidly and in such a thorough manner that at four o’clock ‘let go’ was heard and the balloon ascended gracefully into the air. (At the appropriate time,) “the aeronaut partly opened the parachute and a few seconds later parted from the balloon, coming down in a very graceful manner”. (Daily Bulletin, November 4, 1889)
What’s it like? “We go up in a balloon which holds 75,000 cubic feet of gas and lifts 2,800 pounds. … The parachute is fastened to the side of the balloon with a rope. … Underneath the parachute is an ordinary trapeze. When we get ready to jump, we swing out of the balloon throwing one leg out of the trapeze under the parachute.”
“Then we cut it loose at the same instant pulling a cord that collapses the balloon. We fall the first two hundred feet with terrible rapidity and then comes the most dangerous part of the jump, next to landing, for in falling the two hundred feet the parachute opens and it brings up with a jerk that almost hurls you off the bar.” (Hawaiian Gazette, November 26, 1889)
Then, a fateful event.
Van Tassell promised a special show to honor King Kalākaua on his 53rd birthday; he had no trouble selling tickets. He promised to ascend from the crater Punchbowl then parachute to a landing in the palace grounds. (hawaii-gov)
“The inflation commenced about 2 o’clock and the big bag was quickly filled. … At 2:19 pm the aeronaut declared himself ready and with a pleasant wave of the hand to a few friends he straddled the iron bar of the parachute and grasping the ropes gave the order ‘let go’ and started on his ride”.
“The point of starting was so well sheltered from the brisk trade wind that was blowing that the balloon had an excellent opportunity to rise upward which it did to a height estimated at between five and six thousand feet. “
“The balloon now caught the force of the trade wind and commenced to set slowly towards the south-west, passing over the Palace at which point it had been arranged by the aeronaut he would cut loose and begin his descent.”
“Slowly the balloon passed to a wind directly over the corner of Richard and King streets where it was discernable, now at 2:22 o’clock after being up three minutes, that Professor Joe had at last cut loose.”
“The parachute however instead of coming, as was hoped, directly earthwards seemed on the contrary to have been caught by the trade wind and lifted upward, and also drifted rapidly towards the sea.”
“And now commenced a race between the balloon and parachute to seaward, the parachute with its living freight for the first few minutes appearing to be equal in height with the balloon.”
“The lighthouse is reached, no drop! the outer buoy, no stop! On goes the parachute, on goes the balloon. Now appears the danger, there is no provision for assistance, the parachute is now two miles from shore and still receding. At last he drops …”
“From 3 o’clock until 5:30 search, diligent and careful was made, the sail-boats cruising in different courses, Minister Thurston in the “Hawaii” going well in shore and the tug making circles that covered all probable points.”
“No trace of man or parachute could be found ….” (The balloon was later recovered,) “Prof. Joseph Lawrence Van Tassell had made his last leap, had jumped into eternity and had added his name to the list of those daring spirits of his profession who had joined the great majority.” (Hawaiian Gazette, November 19, 1889)
On November 18, 1889, Van Tassell became Hawaiʻi’s first air fatality. The image shows an advertisement for the November 2, 1889 ascent and jump from a balloon.