On July 3, 1893, thousands of people gathered at Courtland beach to watch 19-year-old Roy Elser make a parachute jump. Instead, they witnessed a tragedy.
Aerial stunts and parachute jumps, which predated the invention of the airplane by a number of years, were attended by frequent mishaps. An Omaha-area balloon ascension and failed parachute jump on the evening of July 3, 1893, ended in the tragic loss of both balloon and balloonist. The Nebraska State Journal (Lincoln) of July 4, 1893, reported:
Several thousand people witnessed a balloon ascension at Courtland beach, a local pleasure resort, this evening [July 3] which resulted in the death of the aeronaut, Roy Elser. The scene of the ascension is about two miles from the [Missouri] river. Elser was in the habit of jumping from his air ship at the height of a mile and reaching the ground by the aid of a parachute. When he had reached that distance tonight he was observed to be trying to detach his parachute from the ropes of the balloon. It appeared to be entangled in the balloon. The air ship was rapidly drifting over the Missouri river, which is about two miles from the place where the ascension was made.
The Journal reported that onlookers were helpless to assist:
The aeronaut was suddenly observed trying to cut the ropes that fastened his parachute to the balloon. The next moment the air ship began to descend rapidly. It was then directly over the middle of the Missouri. The river at this point is nearly a mile wide and very swift.
As the balloon approached the water Elser swung clear of the ropes on his trapeze bar and prepared to avoid the air ship as it settled on the river. When his feet touched the river he released his hold on the air ship and disappeared in the torrent. Contrary to expectation the balloon did not rise when released from the man’s weight, but settled down directly over the spot where Elser was last seen. If he ever came to the surface it was beneath the folds of the big balloon and he was thus imprisoned. The air ship floated down the river and lodged against the false work of the new bridge where it lies at present. Owing to the increasing darkness and the isolated point in which the aeronaut sank no aid could be rendered him, as no boats could be secured.
The Omaha World-Herald, in its account of the incident on July 4, 1893, included the background of the unfortunate young aeronaut. Elser (called “Reddy Estes” by the World-Herald) was “well known among the restaurant and theatrical waiters of Omaha.”
He was engaged in the capacity of waiter in a lunch room at Ninth street and Capitol avenue when he engaged with Gribble & Gould less than two weeks ago to make aerial ascensions. He was about 19 years of age and had resided in this city for about three years. One week ago last Thursday he made his first ascension at Manawa, and after his second the following evening his employers moved to Courtland beach, where he had made three ascensions within the last four days.
Mr. Gould did not desire to have him make last evening’s ascension. He had selected Jack Crosby [another employee of the Gribble and Gould aerial company] to make it and Estes became angry over what he thought was a ‘slight.’ He then insisted upon going up and could not be deterred by reasonable persuasion. He refused even to take with him a life-saver.