IIn August of 1834, Baroness Micaela Pontalba was living in France and wrote to a New Orleans relative, mostly discussing her legal problems. In the letter, she wished she could come home to Louisiana in a balloon. Recently, there had been a planned Paris to London balloon flight, cancelled due to contrary winds. Since in two months’ time her father-in-law would shoot and badly injure her (and fatally wound himself), her instincts for a speedy departure were sound.
Ballooning began in France with the Montgolfier brothers in the 1780s. It soon spread to America. The first possible balloon ride on record in New Orleans might have come in the 1820s. The New London Gazette in Connecticut published a report May 16, 1827 that “Eugene Robertson, accompanied by a young lady, was to make an ascension in a balloon in New Orleans on the 22d of April.”
Balloons were usually made of silk, and were attached to a basket to hold passengers. Long cords, or tethers, dangled from the basket aloft. And, there were bags of ballast on board. As true today, there were two types of fuel: either hot air, then produced by a fire below the balloon, or gas, with which the balloon was inflated.
Cincinnati silversmith and acclaimed balloonist Richard Clayton would ascend above New Orleans in 1839. Gas was Clayton’s fuel of choice. Beginning at the Gas Works (burning coal to create gas for street lighting and located on Gravier Street at the river), Clayton ascended. On March 8, 1839 in The Picayune, he described his flight.
“The populous city of New Orleans was now wholly exposed to my view, with its magnificent buildings, its long line of ships, steamboats and other water craft. Then my attention was drawn to the surrounding woods, the lakes, the Mississippi which I could trace a number of miles in each direction… Fifteen minutes after starting I gained my greatest altitude, which was about a mile.”
Clayton began to descend before he reached Lake Pontchartrain and safely landed on the plantation of Louis Allard, near Bayou St. John, today’s City Park.
Besides providing props for photo booths, balloons in New Orleans have given culinary inspiration. Jules Alciatore at Antoine’s Restaurant was anxious to create a dish to honor Brazilian balloonist Alberto Santos-Dumont in the early 1900s. His mother recalled her late husband’s recipe from France honoring pioneer balloonist Montgolfier. So, Jules cut a heart shape out of parchment paper, wrapped a fillet of pompano and sauce, and voila! Pompano en Papillote ballooned up.
As in Pontalba’s day, not all balloon flights go as planned. Orleanians Cyril Laan and Tommy Coleman, balloon hobbyists, launched a gas balloon from City Park on May 30, 1986. The balloon ride aimed for the Atlantic Coast, and was a fundraiser for Storyland in the park. Sponsors would pledge per mile of the completed voyage. All did not go well. As reported by columnist Betty Guillaud in The Times Picayune June 13, when “the air currents had them on a course for Cuba, they decided to deflate and landed in a nearby swamp.”
“Not to worry,” Guillaud noted, “all the sponsors who had pledged big bucks paid off.”