WHO WAS SILAS M. BROOKS? CONNECTICUT'S FIRST BALLOONIST
P.T. BARNUM'S PROTEGE
Born in Plymouth, Connecticut in 1824, Silas Brooks as a youth had a
flair for inventions. Working as a young man in a clock shop put him in
the right place at the right time when one of P.T. Barnum's associates
came looking for someone to fashion some "Druid band"
instruments. Brooks fashioned musical instruments out of cowhorns. The
instruments, worn on the chest, looked a bit like a cross between bagpipes
and an accordion. Brooks would become part of a "Druid" act that
would go on the road for years and lead him to balloon flying. Taking over
the "Druid" act after Barnum tired of it, Brooks started a
circus that travelled Ohio and much of the central mid-1800s U.S.
The circus engaged John Wise, then the most famous American balloonist,
to make balloon ascensions. The balloons flown by Wise, and later by
Brooks, were made of silk coated with boiled linseed oil and varnish to
make them hold hydrogen. The hydrogen was generated by mixing sulfuric
acid and iron or zinc filings in a water bath. The balloons were
essentially similar to gas balloons in use to the present day, with a
valve at the top of wood and leather held shut by a coil spring and
activated with a rope that hung down into the basket for descents and
deflations. Unfortunately, the hydrogen process was expensive, driving
Brooks' first circus into bankruptcy in 1852.
FLYING EARLY GAS BALLOONS
After finding what was left of the touring "Druid band" in
Toledo and signing on as their agent and making good money, Brooks started
another circus in 1853. The circus hired Mr. Paulin, a balloonist from
Philadelphia, to work for them. In the fall of 1853 in Memphis, Paulin was
sick and could not make a scheduled performance, and Brooks decided to try
making the balloon ascension. It was a successful flight, and for the rest
of the touring season, Brooks made all of the rest of the flights.
During the winter Brooks went to Philadelphia to build balloons with
Paulin. In the early summer of 1854, they scheduled the first balloon tour
of New England, with scheduled ascensions in Burlington and Hartford,
Connecticut and Worcester, Massachusetts. They talked Colonel Colt, the
pistol manufacturer, into underwriting a two balloon ascension from
Hartford on the 4th of July. The double ascension was very successful,
with glowing reports appearing in the Hartford newspapers.
Brooks headed west the next season, and in 1855 made the first balloon
ascension from St. Louis, the first of a total of 15 ascensions from Hyde
Park in that city. He also made the first ascensions from Michigan and
from Chicago. In Chicago, he proved that he was more than a showman,
studying weather using techniques still used by balloonists today. To
avoid being blown out into Lake Michigan, Brooks studied the air currents
by putting up pilot balloons (today known simply as "pibals").
He observed air currents at different altitudes and different times of the
day, discovering late summer afternoon lake effects winds (known on the
east coast as "sea breezes"). Brooks' studies allowed him to
successfully fly out over Lake Michigan, change altitudes, and fly back
in. John Wise and other less observant balloonists would later lose their
lives after being blown out over Lake Michigan.
Brooks ran a museum in St. Louis while continuing to make balloon
ascensions. On one flight, he flew all night (not unusual today for gas
balloons) and landed 300 miles away in Wisconsin. A depression in 1858
bankrupted the museum and left him broke, with nothing left but "his
shotgun, his dog, and his balloon". In 1859, the irrepressible Brooks
was back in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New England building
and flying balloons. With money from successful flights and additional
financial backing, he built two gas balloons and one hot air
In 1859, Brooks took part in building a Transatlantic balloon.
Unfortunately (or possibly fortunately for the balloon pilot who may have
been lost at sea), the giant "Atlantic" balloon was damaged and
much of it's gear lost on a test flight from St. Louis. The balloon, flown
by John Wise, had proven to be surprisingly capable, going 900 miles all
the way from St. Louis to upstate New York. But the backers refused to pay
for repairs and new equipment, and the attempt had to be called off.
Wise and Brooks and others offered their services to the U.S.
Government during the Civil War. But another aeronaut, Thaddeus Lowe, was
more politically connected and effectively shut out his fellow aeronauts
from war contracts. (Some things never change!)
Following the Civil War, Brooks returned to Connecticut and continued
making balloon flights. Like many of the balloonists of his day, he would
call himself "Professor Brooks". He would bill himself as the
"Great American Aeronaut and Aeronautic Engineer", despite not
even having completed the equivalent of high school. He was ever
inventive. On one of his flights in the late 1860s, in response to a $50
bet, Brooks built a parachute and successfully dropped a dog from his
balloon. The dog survived unhurt.
One newspaper report from the late gives a detailed account in Brooks'
own words of a flight over Connecticut when his balloon was overtaken by a
thunderstorm. In words modern day balloonists can easily understand and
dread, Brooks described the flight. "It seemed as if the balloon were
drawn into the cloud to the very center. The edges of the cloud being like
black curtains around the balloon. It was dark. The balloon would whirl
and sometimes almost turn bottom upwards. I adjusted my valve and tried to
go upwards, but there was so much water we could not rise. We were in the
cloud and borne along with it, tossed by the currents in the cloud - up,
down, cross-wise, everyway. Lightning went from one cloud to another with
a snapping and a crackling." Brooks finally succeeded in descending
into slightly more stable air and made an exciting but successful
"rip landing". Again, in Brooks words: "I tore the balloon
open to let gas out but the wind caught the balloon and made a big sail.
We tore through brush and rocks at a fearful rate. Finally we came up
against a stone wall fence. The balloon collapsed and the basket caught on
a fence, a mangled, ragged, confused mess." Brooks and his passenger,
fortunately, emerged unhurt.
GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN
Brooks' final flight would come in 1894 from Bushnell Park in
Connecticut. This meant that Brooks succeeded in flying until he was
nearly 70 years old, and that his flying career spanned over 40 years.
Unfortunately, old age was not kind to Brooks. He died in a poorhouse in
Burlington, Connecticut in 1906 at the age of 82. His obituary in the
Hartford Courant would sadly state "The funeral was a pathetic scene,
made pathetic by the thought that this man whose going out was of so
little consequence except to a very few had once been really great in the
eyes of many. It takes no prophet to predict that briars will soon
overgrow Brooks' grave and that even the memory of his fame will be a
forgotten story of the past."
Fortunately, the efforts of Dr. Carlton and the modern-day Connecticut
balloonists of the Connecticut Lighter-Than-Air Society (CLAS) have proven
the newspaper's final prediction false. The story of Silas M. Brooks lives
on. Brooks' grave is no longer overgrown with briars. In an appropriate
act of tribute by today's balloonists to a man who preceded them in the
skies, the Connecticut Lighter Than Air Society in December 1997 dedicated
a brass plaque in the Burlington cemetery at the grave of Silas Brooks.
The plaque reads "Silas M. Brooks, Connecticut's First