Wednesday, October 20, 2010


    Perhaps the most enigmatic of all American stamps, the "Buffalo" balloon stamp is certainly among the premier rarities in aerophilately. This stamp begs the question, “What is an airmail stamp?” Described variously as “experimental,” “semi-official,” “a carrying label,” and even as a vignette or cinderella, the fact remains that it was the first of its kind ever issued. Since it was privately issued for use with a standard U.S. postal service 3-cent stamp to pay for air handling of a mailed piece, it was (if one includes both private and government issues) the world’s first airmail stamp.
  The stamp is an accurate representation of the enormous 92,000 cubic foot “Buffalo” balloon of Professor Samuel Archer King (1828-1914), and was designed by John B. Lillard, a clerk in the Wheeler firm and a passenger on the great flight. The engraver of the stamp was John H. Snively, a scientist who provided apparatus for experiments on the flight. The Buffalo balloon launched from Nashville, Tennessee, on June 18, 1877, and dropped a number of covers, probably in containing envelopes or drop bags sewn to brightly colored nine-foot streamers.  After a Gallatin, Tennessee, landing, there was a second flight the next morning. There were also other, later flights of the "Buffalo", and covers could have been flown on any of those flights.
   Few if any Buffalonians realize not only was the balloon named, honoring this city, "Which has shown so much interest in Aeronautics"(S.A. King), it was actually built right here in Buffalo, quite possibly the first aircraft ever built in the city.  The story follows.

Buffalo Courier Aug. 2, 1873 - Buffalo Morning Express  Aug. 3, Commercial Advertiser 
A Stamped Cover Flown in King's Balloon "Buffalo"
  For some time, past arrangements have been in progress the design of which was to induce Professor S. A. King, the celebrated aeronaut, to visit Buffalo for the purpose of making a Balloon ascension. The gentlemen having the matter in charge desiring to have the ascension a little more noteworthy than is usual on such occasions and also to have it in some benefit to the cause of science... Having satisfied themselves that the requisite amount of funds to defray the expenses of the undertaking, would be cheerfully subscribed by our liberal minded citizens, they opened a correspondence with Prof. King inviting him to come on with his monster balloon "Collossus" of about ninety thousand feet.  But the "Colossus" proved to be an unlucky balloon, having been twice wrecked by storms when fully inflated...and although well repaired, she was not considered by Prof. King to be just the thing.  He therefore replied that he would accept the proposition made to him, but instead of using the "Colossus" would come to Buffalo and build a new balloon to be named after the place of residence of those through whose liberality, the means for it's construction were to be forthcoming.
Prof. Samuel Archer King
    The co-operation of Prof. King being secured, it was found necessary to build a balloon expressly for the ascension. This work has been going on for several days and as public curiosity has been excited to a great extent regarding this matter, a reporter  of the Express called on Prof King yesterday for the purpose of gaining such information as would be of interest to our readers.
Since Prof. S. A. King has been in town, the public pulse has been felt with regard to raising funds for the proposed ascension, and the response has been unexpectedly liberal. Buffalo is advancing in both population and enterprise, and little matters of this sort show the fact. Thursday the cloth for the balloon was bought. The cloth selected is that which combines in the greater degree the qualities of firmness and lightness. Through the kindness of Capt. E. P. Dorr, a large room in the Aetna Insurance Building has been placed at the disposal of Prof. King, and the bag of the balloon will be built there.  The work of cutting out was commenced yesterday, and it is a very scientific operation. Those who have never investigated the work would be astonished to see how much mathematics are required in perfecting the pattern. Next in order will be the stitching. When the bag is subsequently varnished, all will be in readiness, as the car, net, etc. are already built. ...It will be the largest airship that ever rose in the country.
Aetna Insurance Buildings ( left) Where Balloon was constructed
Prime & Lloyd St.
  The Professor was found in a large room in the Aetna Insurance Co.'s building (Prime & Loyd Streets), busily engaged in supervising the construction of his airship, which is to be one of the largest size. The bag is to be of the best Wamsutta Mills cotton, of which fourteen hundred yards will be used. The cloth was first cut from patterns prepared by the Professor, and is now being sewed into five sections of twelve breadths each as a preliminary.  The cotton cloth is joined by a raised seam about an eighth of an inch wide, sewed twice  in order to secure strength. Stays, made of four thicknesses of cloth and about one half inch in width, are next sewed on to morning the sections horizontally and thirty nine inches apart. There are to be twenty four of these stays on the balloon. The sewing of these stays having been finished, the several sections will be seamed together, the seams joined, then the bag will be ready for varnishing, which process will take about two weeks, several barrels of varnish being required, together with the utmost care, to prevent the spontaneous combustion of the whole mass.
 The work involved in construction will be seen in a glance to be considerable. The seams are each 95 feet in length from "valve" to "neck," 60 in number, each done twice, make 3,800 yards of stitching, while the stays require nearly as much more. This work is being done on seven Singer Sewing Machines, operated by girls, who are under the immediate supervision of the professor.

The balloon, when inflated, will be in the form of a sphere, excepting of course, the elongation of the neck. The circumference will be about 170 feet, the diameter 56 feet. It will contain 90,000 cubic feet of gas, having a supporting capacity of about 3,600 pounds.  The height from the bottom of the car to the top of the bag, will be about 82 feet.
   The network, car and anchors are ready, having been forwarded from the east some days ago. The network is of cotton twine one hundred and forty three threads each, each cord being strong enough to maintain between three to four hundred pounds. The car is of basket-work, oval in shape, with an out-rigged side and back for seats, and will accommodate fourteen persons, although it is not likely that more than six will make the ascent.  In addition there will be a smaller basket fastened to the rings above.  Two anchors will be carried, one an ordinary boat's anchor, for catching in the ground, the other a grapnel for roots, bush or fences. The gas will be controlled by a valve in the top of the balloon, twenty-five inches in diameter, which when opened will permit gas to escape at the rate of a thousand feet a minute. As a safeguard against accidents, a collapse chord is inserted in the side of the balloon in such a manner, that a strong pull will open an entire breadth, permitting all the gas to escape at once. This will be only used in case of great danger, such as would be occasioned by the dragging of the car.

Buffalo Courier August 12, 1873 There are few spectacles more attractive than a grand balloon ascension, and every means will be taken to advertise this one sufficiently to bring many thousand people into the city. The surrounding country will be thoroughly billed, arrangements will be made with railroads for special trains: indeed we anticipate that "Ascension Day" will be a general holiday. It is the intention of Prof. King to make as long and notable trip as possible.  One that will always be notorious in the annals of ballooning. He has a habit of carrying out his intensions. 
Buffalo Express August 21, 1873   The  work of constructing the "Buffalo"--which is to be the name of the mammoth balloon in which Prof. S. A. King intends going up early next month--is rapidly progressing.  The cutting and stitching of the cloth was commenced some three weeks ago in a large room in the Aetna Buildings.  The stitching on the immense airship is now nearly finished, and before the close of the present week the "stitchers" will be discharged. 

The decorations
of the bag of the balloon deserve special mention.  They have been elaborated by the artists in the employ of Fred Stanfield, the scenic painter of the Academy of Music, and have cost a nice little sum. From the neck or bottom of the balloon crimson stripes, alternating with the white cloth, will run up a distance of about thirty feet. Above this, surrounding the balloon, is a drapery of azure blue, with tassels pendent; above that a band in crimson, a foot wide, and above that, scroll work in purple.  Above the scroll work, in the middle of the globe, is the name "Buffalo", in letters seven feet high, and upon the other side, the picture of a wild Buffalo will be delineated.

August 30, 1873  Buffalo Daily Courier   Prof. King has devoted his entire time to the construction of this balloon, and we are convinced has made the most beautiful airship that has ever sought the upper regions of the world. It will be larger by fifty percent than the immense "Hyperion" in which Mr. King has made two ascensions from this city, and larger than any balloon that has ever left the ground. Prof. King stakes his reputation as an aeronaut upon the perfection of this balloon, and has spared no time or expense in it's construction. The stitching was all finished last night and today the balloon will be taken to the country to receive it's coat of oil.

Commercial Advertiser Sept. 8 1873  
   The mammoth balloon "Buffalo", built by Prof. S. A. King, for the ascension from this city on Tuesday the 16th., will receive the third coating of varnish, and the fourth and finishing coat will be put on, probably next Wednesday, should the weather be favorable for drying. Everything will be in readiness by Monday next, and the balloon will probably be removed to the place of filling on the night of that day, to be in readiness for commencement of operations on Tuesday.  Arrangements have been made with the Buffalo Gaslight Company for tapping the main pipe in Church Street probably in the park or the Terrace, and furnish ninety-one thousand feet of gas, which will be necessary for the full inflation of the balloon.

Buffalo Express  Sept. 15 1873  
Prof. King's mammoth balloon "Buffalo" is almost completed. The fourth and last coat of varnish will be put on today, and, weather permitting, the ascent will positively take place tomorrow. The airship will be removed from it's present quarters at Cold Spring to the Terrace Park from which the ascent will be made at an early hour Tuesday morning, and the work of inflation will commence immediately. It is expected that everything will be in readiness and the start made between the the hours of twelve and one. Buffalo takes an active interest in the subject of balloons like the rest of the world and is to witness tomorrow the fulfillment of an important enterprise in this line.
  Through the liberality of our citizens Mr. King has been able to construct the finest airship ever made on this continent. He has carefully superintended all the details of the work and our citizens are to look upon a new product of their industry of which they, as well as the distinguished aeronaut, have every reason to feel proud. In compliment to the city which has manifested so warm an interest in his welfare, he has christened his skyward bound craft, The "Buffalo". With three or four companions he will sail early tomorrow afternoon for his initial cruise in his new and beautiful aerostat, and all will unite in wishing the party a pleasant and prosperous voyage.

Commercial Advertiser September 16, 1873  
"The Buffalo" was completed in readiness for the voyage yesterday afternoon at Cold Springs, Prof. King himself giving the finishing touches  to the valve, by which the balloon can be exploded if necessary. The preparations were made at the corner of Church Street and the Terrace, the gas pipe was tapped and everything made ready for the inflation.  The Balloon was not removed from Cold Springs, however, until this morning on account of the dubious nature of the weather. This morning early the balloon was brought from Cold Springs, and preparations were made for commencing the inflation. The wind still blew high, but Prof. King decided to proceed with the work and make the ascension today.

Commercial Advertiser Sept. 18, 1873   The "Buffalo" which is, without a doubt, the most beautiful as well as the best constructed balloon that ever left American soil to soar beyond the clouds.  ...She is of ninety-one thousand cubic feet capacity, with an extreme height, when inflated, of eighty-four feet from the bottom of the basket to the valve on top, and is the largest balloon ever ascended in this country.  
   We presume most of our readers feel some degree of curiosity as to the "out-fit" of the balloon... as to the scientific instruments there was a fine aneroid barometer for measuring altitude; a hygrometer(a wet and dry bulb thermometer for measuring humidity and temperature); a pocket compass and a repeating watch,-the latter taken in order, if necessary, time might be ascertained after dark.  The barometer and hydrometer, were in charge of Mr. Holden, by whom observations were taken and recorded every two minutes. For ballast there were eighteen bags of sand weighing from fifty to seventy-five pounds each.  A basket containing four carrier pigeons, furnished by Mr. John Fantom, of this city, also were taken.  The "stores" consisted of an elegant and sumptuous lunch furnished by Mr. P. L. Hodges, of the Bloomer House, and other "refreshments" provided by Messrs. L. Gillig and Sons, P. J. Hanour, D. J. Sprague, V. L. Tiphaine and F. B. Harvey.

"Buffalo"Balloon on the Terrace, Buffalo NY
Buffalo Express Sept. 17 1873   
Ascension of the "Buffalo" Yesterday--A large Crowd and a Magnificent Sight
...The history of ballooning is an interesting one. To soar aloft into an unknown region possesses a fascination for those who behold as for those who ascend. Certainly the large number of people who congregated yesterday on the Terrace to witness the ascension of Prof. King in his new mammoth balloon "Buffalo", evinced the deep curiosity and interest generally felt.  The new city buildings and all the other edifices in the neighborhood of the Park were covered with people, anxious to get the best possible view of the novel and unusual sight.
Within the Terrace Park the monster received it's inspiration of the subtle fluid which should bear it upward among the clouds, together with it's precious freight of five human lives. The inflation was finished about 1 o'clock, and the immense globe swayed to and fro, impatient of restraint and longing to be free of it's earthly ties. Inflated, the gigantic airship stood eighty feet high, and, beautifully painted by Mr. Stanfield, the scenic artist of the theatre, projected a very handsome appearance.
"Behind us, the tree-tops glowed with a variety
of lights and shades reflected from the clouds"
It's name "BUFFALO" was painted in large letters, and the whole effect of the painting was very fine an reflected credit upon the artist. Prof. King is a very genial gentleman, who has made the science of ballooning a study, and having made before this, one hundred and sixty-eight ascensions, he possessed sufficient experience in trusting they believe in his aerial vessel.

   Everything being in readiness, the passengers were ordered into the basket. A hundred willing hands at the request of Prof. King, took hold, and the basket and balloon were moved toward the westerly line of the enclosure, to the end that the telegraph wires, and the spire of the neighboring Cathedral, might be avoided... Watching for a lull in the wind he gave the word to "LET GO!" and up went the "Buffalo". It was a triumph of skill, and was one of the nicest feats ever performed by an Aeronaut.  The party consisted of Prof. Samuel A. King, Mr. Luther L. Holden of the Boston Journal, who has made 20 previous ascensions with Prof. King, Mr. George H. Nicholas of the New York Herald, Mr. Walter T. Chester of the Buffalo Courier, and the reporter of the Commercial Advertiser.

Prof. King's Mammoth Balloon "Buffalo"
Altitude 2,000 Ft. From Buffalo to New
Jersey, Five states traversed in 13 hours
Clearing everything handsomely, we were quickly looking downward, while the cheers of the immense multitude rent the very air around us.  Ten thousand steam-whistles, as it seemed, lent the aid of their brazen lungs (if they've got any, which is somewhat problematical) to swell the loud acclaim; and even the tower bell added the weight of it's influence towards increasing the general uproar. Those in the balloon waved hats and handkerchiefs, and cheered with might and main, in response. 

Editors Note:   The story goes on for a few more days as they track across New York State, on their way to NYC, sending homing pigeons to report their progress back to Buffalo. They described beautifully many incredible scenes on their voyage.  The blog would go on for days and days if I tried to put it down on "paper". This was a well documented voyage by the reporters and scientific in nature, taking meteorological readings every few minutes. The purpose of writing the story was to document the fact that it was built here in "Buffalo", a fact that was lost in history. Most likely the first aircraft ever built in this city! Today's significance is that it was built in the Canal-Side development on the waterfront. That area of the city has so much history to discover, they have barely scratched the surface at this point.  Our history is our future as it is in many other cities, but in most other cities they actually put it the forefront of their planning because they are proud of their past, here we only accept it, or not, after a long wasteful fight. Buffalo has a beautiful, colorful and proud history that many other cities only wish they had. Other cities do more with less,   We do less with more



Jerry D Lumpkins said...

Here in Gallatin, Tennessee we are SO honored to be associated with this part of History. Your information adds to our knowledge. Wondering where the Balloon pilot stayed/slept the night he was here in Gallatin, Tennessee ( for that one night )?

Jerry M Malloy said...

Jerry, would love to hear the story of the airmail flight at Gallatin. Never heard it before.