Omaha Bee Balloon

The spectacular balloon ascension sponsored by the Omaha Bee in July of 1875 as part of Omaha’s Independence Day festivities was noted by historian A. T. Andreas several years later in his 1882 history of Nebraska as evidence of the spirit and enterprise of the young newspaper. However, Victor Rosewater, in his unpublished biography of his father, Edward, longtime editor of the Bee, later recalled the “not so happy circumstances [that] attended the magnificent scheme . . . for a Bee balloon expedition to the Black Hills, then teeming with gold seekers.

“The idea, doubtless emanated from [John H.] Pierce [an attaché of the Bee], who had a penchant for spectacular exhibitions. . . and was to be the top-liner of the Independence Day program. The holiday, falling on Sunday, was observed the preceding Saturday with the customary oration, horse races and amusement games at the State Fair grounds to the north of the city. [The Nebraska State Fair was not located permanently at Lincoln until 1901.] The balloon ascension was The Bee‘s contribution to the festivities, widely broadcast, so that people for hundreds of miles en route [to the Black Hills] were on the qui vive for a glimpse of the messenger of the air.

“A large crowd assembled for the big event at the announced hour of four o’clock, but the bag was not yet half inflated. The silk container had been brought from St. Louis and was to be filled with hydrogen gas to insure the necessary buoyancy for the long trip. Gas-making machinery had been set up at the fair grounds but was working badly. Pierce and the two Rosewaters labored unceasingly till dusk, when the affair had to be abandoned for the day. The lingering spectators dispersed, manifesting their disappointment, despite the word that the balloon would be sent up from Jefferson Square the following morning. The bag and apparatus were hauled into town, but continuous rain forced postponement again and again. In the meantime, new arrangements promised a supply of coal gas from the city plant.

“It was not till Thursday [July 8] when, with the bag about two-thirds full and with all the supplies and provisions left behind and the basket also cut off, the thing finally would rise. Pierce, hanging to the ropes, started alone for a flight of six miles that landed him in the shallows of Florence Lake, from which he was rescued by a couple of Winnebago Indians who waded out to fetch him. At any rate, the balloon went up, but the sample copies of The Bee and other advertising matter, which Pierce was to have dropped from the skies on the awe-stricken inhabitants of the intervening country were of no further use and silence seemed preferable to explanations.”

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