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Area’s woman balloonist was adventurous

July 28, 2014
By PETER BETZ , Leader Herald

In May 1972, Rome's Fort Stanwix Historic Site director sponsored a modern balloon ascension event. Utica's Daily Press quoted him explaining, "The whole thing started when we read about Carlotta Myers of Frankfort."

A central New Yorker, "Madam Carlotta" Myers (Mary in real life) was an internationally famous female "aeronaut" or hot air balloonist. Appearing at fairs and other crowd-drawing venues across both the Northeast and Europe, Carlotta made hundreds of solo balloon excursions assisted by her husband and manager, veteran aeronaut and inventor "Professor" Carl Myers. Retiring in the early 1890s, Carlotta held the world's 19th-century balloon ascendency record for ascending higher than four miles, the world's fastest single balloon trip record for traveling 90 miles in 90 minutes, and the record for the highest number of female solo ascents, more than all other 19th-century women aeronauts combined.

Whether working at home with Carl at their Frankfort "balloon farm" in Herkimer County, manufacturing and selling their patented hot air balloons and related equipment, or alone high in the atmosphere, Carlotta Myers - much like her famous contemporaries, "little sure shot" Annie Oakley, Mrs. Frank Leslie, publisher and social arbiter, or Nellie Bly, the world-traveling reporter - epitomized the late-Victorian era of adventurous, assertive, can-do American females. These were women who, to paraphrase our State University of New York motto, strove to become all they were capable of being. The synergistic Myers couple also toured France, Spain, Germany and Russia from October 1888 through July 1889, exhibiting their aeronautic skills, taking balloon orders and, to paraphrase the Wizard of Oz, hobnobbing with their fellow (aeronautic) wizards.

Article Photos

Shown is a picture postcard of the Balloon Farm.
Photo courtesy of Herkimer County Historical Society

Carlotta's adventures are not completely relegated to the past. Two inspiring children's books relate her exploits, "The Big Balloon Race" (I Can Read Book #3) by Harper-Collins, and the Canadian publication, "The Lady Aeronaut" by Joanne Stanbridge. A permanent NASA Science Museum exhibit acknowledges the couple's contributions to promoting safer, more scientific aeronautics; Arcadia's Images of America Series, "Frankfort, N.Y.," features their beautiful, still-standing Victorian mansion on the cover. An article reproduced from the book, "Herkimer County at 200" is available on the Internet.

What were the Myers contributions? Self-taught Professor Carl is credited with inventing the first balloon fabric "impervious to hydrogen gas leaks, of exceedingly light weight, flexible enough to be easily folded and transported, and a machine to manufacture it." Early airplane designers also adopted it. Carl patented the first portable, quick-firing hydrogen gas generator, developed lighter, stronger balloon baskets and reliable guidance controls.

Like many self-taught 19th- century scientists, Myers also dabbled in the popular but fruitless art of rainmaking and invented dynamite-filled "balloon bombs" that exploded at high altitudes, supposedly producing rain.

They usually didn't, but people believed in Myers due to his other achievements. During one prolonged drought, the June 6, 1903, Buffalo Express observed, "The citizens of Ilion subscribed $600.00 to provide explosives for Professor Myers' experiments. The attempt will be made Tuesday unless the drought is relieved first."

Even multimillionaire Seward Webb hired him to make rain over his vast Adirondack land holdings to prevent forest fires.

More practically, Carl and Carlotta designed and built the first weather observation balloons purchased by the U.S. Geological Service. They also trained government balloonists, and during the Spanish-American War, sold the Army Signal Corps camera-equipped spying balloons for use over Cuba. They were the first aeronauts employing natural gas in balloons instead of hydrogen, and Carlotta was the first aeronaut to carry passenger pigeons, used for sending weather bulletins during flights. Her own book, "Ariel Adventures of Carlotta, or Sky-Larking in the Clouds," sold well throughout the 1890s.

Their "balloon farm" consisted of the 30-room Victorian mansion, a chemical laboratory, carpentry and machine shops, and a fabric assembly building employing 30 sewers. Many distinguished visitors came, such as the chief of the U.S. Weather Bureau. When Carlotta died on Sept. 9, 1932, the Otsego Farmer observed, "Mrs. Myers' death recalls the famous balloon farm where aeronautical history was made. Curtis, the Wright Brothers, Santo-Dumont, Baldwin, all names to conjure by in the realm of aviation, were guests."

The couple's daughter, Elizabeth Aerial, born in 1881, made her first ascent with her mother at age 7.

My original reason to research Carlotta and Carl Myers and their high-flying activities was to determine if and where they gave performances in our immediate vicinity. They definitely performed at Montgomery County's fairgrounds in the early 1880s, but while I also hoped to verify their presence at Sacandaga Park and Fulton County's fairgrounds, no substantiating information appeared. They did, however, perform often at Saratoga, where the real money was.

On one occasion, however, Carlotta did experience an unintended visit to Wells. The Sept. 6, 1892, Gloversville Daily Leader reported, "Madam Carlotta who made an ascension from Utica Park at 1 o'clock yesterday afternoon, landed safe and sound at Wells last night and was afterwards conveyed to Northville, where she spent the night, a long air voyage for a simple holiday ascension."

Carlotta usually landed her balloon where she wanted to. Returning home from an ascension at Utica, the New York Sun quoted her, "The looked-for wind was waiting for me and we went together across the valley, river and canal, and in the green fields of the upland plateau, I brought my car down within a few rods of my house in the western end of Frankfort Village." She didn't have a GPS either.

Peter Betz, a former Fulton County historian, lives in Fort Johnson.



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