Did You Know That Aeronaut Professor John Byrd Piloted His Balloon from Davenport in 1883?
Local historian Craig Klein has gathered the following information from newspaper articles in Davenport. We have decided to post them here in their original format because their colorful language and descriptions are an integral part of this rich history.
It should be noted that, as in all of our Blog posts on local cultural and ethnic history for the MLK Interpretive Center fund drive, PACG did its own quick search for Professor Byrd. Not surprisingly, there was no information available, including in the History of Ballooning. This online listing includes hundreds of aeronauts, dating back to the 1700s.
[Craing Klein note: This intriguing articles below were graciously contributed by Jack Martens of Winnetka, Illinois, who found them while doing research on Davenport’s German immigrant community.]
August 30, 1883 (Thursday)--Davenport Democrat--News article entitled “The Aeronaut's Flight”:
Between 4 and 5 o’clock yesterday afternoon the first balloon ascent that has been made from Davenport in a long time was accomplished by Prof. John Byrd, the colored aeronaut. His balloon was filled at the gas works, and required 12,000 feet of gas to round it out to its full proportions of 25 in diameter and height of 30 feet. It was then conveyed to the fair grounds and made ready for the ascent. The professor seated himself in the basket, gave the word, the ropes were loosened, and up the ship of air arose, gracefully, steadily, beautifully. After reaching a height of a thousand feet it veered to the northwest a little, but as it mounted into a higher atmosphere, it was carried eastward, continually ascending until the professor says he was nearly two miles above the earth—so high, at any rate, that he became very cold. When over east Davenport, some of the ropes on the globe of the balloon became entangled and some broken and he clambered out of his basket and up to the cords, repaired the damage, and regained his basket for safety. People in East Davenport who were watching the balloon with glasses witnessed this hazardous feat. Having sailed in the high atmosphere until he was nearly benumbed, the professor began to descend, and between 6 and 7 o’clock he landed on the farm of Mr. E. R. Wright, about six miles north-east of the city, in safety, though the top of the balloon was rent some by bushes. His balloon stopped within about twenty feet of a hundred stand of bees; had it gone among them there would have been a sight worthy of the view of gods and men.
The professor makes another flight this afternoon, and to-morrow afternoon. Had his exhibition been known abroad, it would have been a great attraction to hundreds of people, and increased the attendance at the fair.
August 30, 1883--Davenport Daily Gazette--Excerpt from a long news article entitled “The Fair”:
A very popular feature of yesterday’s programme was the BALLOON ASCENSION
which occurred at 4:30 from the space just north of the Floral Hall. The balloon had been filled at the Gas works, and was brought to the grounds through the streets inflated, avoiding the telegraph wires by an ingenious way of handling the ropes. The ascension was entirely successful in every respect, the balloon with its captain, Prof. Byrd, rising gently from the ground, and starting first in a northwesterly direction. After reaching a considerable height it struck a current of air going in an opposite direction, and was carried slowly to the southwest, finally disappearing from sight about 6 o’clock. A team was sent in the direction, and brought the aeronaut safely back to the city.
August 31, 1883 (Friday)--Davenport Democrat--News article entitled “Up In The Balloon”:
Why didn’t you make another ascension yesterday? was the question addressed to Prof. John Byrd, the colored aeronaut, this forenoon, by one of the directors of the county agricultural association. "We had an immense crowd on the ground, and you would have made money.”
“Well, sir,” replied the professor, “in the first place, all we got for the ascension on Wednesday was four dollars, and that was discouraging enough for it didn’t pay for the gas; besides, nobody encouraged us to make an ascension yesterday; and besides, too, when we were filling the balloon yesterday at the gas works, the bag tore open at the top and let the gas out, and every foot of gas had to escape before we could mend it. There was another loss. The next time we go up in that balloon it will be because money is held out to us before we go.”
Professor Byrd is a slightly built colored boy of mulatto-tinge, and looks as if his weight would not balance more than a hundred pounds.
As he was talking a group twenty to thirty persons had gathered about him, all expressing a wish that he would make an ascension in the afternoon. “Well, gentlemen,” replied the professor after listening patiently to their urgings, “business is business. How much will this crowd give to see us go up in the balloon?” And that crowd dwindled to a very small group in less than ten minutes.
“Why on earth did you leave your basket and climb up on the outside of your balloon to fool with those ropes for, as I saw in last evening’s 'Democrat,'” asked one of the gents who remained.
“It wasn’t 'on earth' at all,” replied the professor with a laugh in which the group joined; “if it had been we would have been safe enough without it; but we were a mile and a half above the earth, and we saw the ropes flying loose, and then saw a rip in the canvas which bid fair to let the gas all out pretty soon. Now you know it wouldn’t do to let that balloon collapse and fall with us clear down to the ground from more than a mile high; you know that yourself; just fall eight or ten feet once, and you’ll be mighty careful how you fall that little distance again. Suppose we had come down on a fall for mile and a half. We is a small man anyhow, but by the time we got to the ground we’d be so little nobody could find us. We had to get up and mend that rip, had to do it, and tie the flying ropes, too. And we climbed up, and first took some sticking plaster and covered the holes, and then tied the ropes. Had to shift the ballast though to even up the other side of the balloon, and then when we came down had to even up the ballast before we could settle down again. It was skaery getting out there, but we had to do it or die, and any man will take mighty big risks rather than die, and you know that yourself!”
The professor has the habit of speaking of himself in the plural. It is “we” all the time with him. In answer to other questions he said the balloon was made of cambric, and that it cost him $160 . The ascension on Wednesday was the sixteenth that he had made, and about the “prettiest,” he believed. When he was at the highest, the earth looked all alike, save the Mississippi river was like a narrow ribbon. He went on up until he couldn’t see the river for the great clouds that were moving beneath him like “great rolling hills of snow”; and, what was strange, people on the ground could see the balloon all the time, notwithstanding the clouds, while he could see nothing but clouds beneath him. He couldn’t understand it. One can have a very interesting talk with the professor about his ascension.
August 31, 1883--Davenport Daily Gazette--News note in “Davenport Briefs”:
Prof. Byrd, the colored aeronaut, goes from here in a few days to Macomb, Ill., where he will make two ascensions, and from there he will go to Iowa City. His ascension here was a success in every particular.
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Did You Know About African American Women's Clubs in Davenport During the Progressive Era?
Did You Know That Frederick Douglass Visited Davenport in April of 1866?
 aeronaut: one who operates or travels in an airship or balloon
 If purchased today, the balloon would cost about $4000.