Today in Transportation History – 1861: An Aeronaut’s Big Adventure After His Balloon Flies Off Course

Talk about an unexpected detour . . .  Thaddeus S.C. Lowe, a scientist and inventor who also possessed a strong passion for travel via air balloons, found himself inadvertently flying smack into potential wartime intrigue and danger.

Lowe, who was born in New Hampshire, in 1832, possessed a tremendous curiosity about the world around him and its possibilities. This curiosity included a lifelong interest in aviation. By the late 1850s, he was building large balloons and giving rides in those balloons to individuals at various fairgrounds and in other venues.

Lowe very much wanted to fly across the Atlantic Ocean in one of his balloons. This was easier said than done, however. Lowe had already failed in that task a couple of times when he tried again in 1861. As part of the preparations for his hoped-for transatlantic journey, Lowe made arrangements to pilot a balloon called Enterprise from Cincinnati to Washington, D.C., to see how that aircraft would perform during a long-distance flight. (An image of Enterprise from an October 1861 edition of Harper’s Weekly magazine has been included with this post.)

Lowe took off from Cincinnati in Enterprise at around four o’clock on the morning of April 20, 1861. He was dressed in his finest evening wear and carried on board several freshly printed newspapers containing articles on his planned flight.

Lowe’s airborne expedition started out promisingly enough, and he later recounted that “the light of day was spread over the surface of the earth, the stars had disappeared, and the beautiful farms of the Ohio Valley were spread in loveliness.” Ultimately, however, air currents altered the course of the flight and Lowe ended up heading further south rather than towards Washington, D.C.

Lowe drifted at approximately 22,000 feet (6705.6 meters) above the ground, floated over the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, and finally landed – after about 12 hours in the sky – at a farm just outside the South Carolina town of Unionville (the present-day city of Union). This was not the best time for a Yankee like Lowe to show up there uninvited, since the Civil War had erupted just a couple of weeks earlier when South Carolina’s troops fired shots at Fort Sumter. Consequently, a number of the newly minted Confederates in that area regarded Lowe with suspicion as everything from an airborne devil to a Northern spy. They met Lowe armed with muskets, and he was taken into custody.

Thanks to the newspapers he brought along and at least one local resident familiar with his exploits, Lowe was not harmed but instead transported without incident to Columbia. In Columbia, professors from the University of South Carolina examined the scientific instruments that Lowe had on board the balloon and verified that he was telling the truth about why he landed in their part of the world. Lowe, despite continuing jeers from several local residents, was allowed to return to the North on a train with all of his instruments. He also had a passport from Columbia’s mayor granting him safe passage through the Confederate States.

Lowe never did have the chance to make his planned transatlantic flight, but he distinguished himself in other ways. Not long after his adventure in South Carolina, he became Chief Aeronaut of the Union Army Balloon Corps and in this capacity performed aerial reconnaissance on Confederate troops during the Civil War.

Lowe’s key accomplishments after the war included at least one that involved transportation on the ground rather than in the skies above, namely the creation of the innovative and scenic Mount Lowe Railway in California (now on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places). Lowe died in 1913 at the age of 80 and nearly 52 years after the memorable non-stop flight of about 1,200 miles (1,931.2 kilometers) that took him from the North to the South.

For more information on Thaddeus S.C. Lowe and his April 1861 flight between Ohio and South Carolina, please check out the 9 May 2017 Popular Mechanics magazine article “The Man in the Balloon” at

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