By Sarah Hopkins
Panic struck the crew of the steamer Mary Stewart on July 20, 1857, as they gazed into the stormy sky, believing they saw a comet careening towards them on Lake Erie. Some of the crew began to pray; the reckless went below deck to the ship’s bar for a drink. The more prudent among them collected their wages to prepare for the coming disaster. When the captain grabbed his telescope and braved to take a look at the rock plummeting toward him, he instead observed a hydrogen balloon approaching the lake at a hazardous pace. Inside the balloon, aeronaut John H. Steiner was surrounded by what he described as “masses of clouds [that] were illuminated by flashes of lightning, succeeded by terrible crashes of thunder,” and he felt “my frail car quiver at every shock.” The balloon plunged into the lake and bounced several times on the water before it came to rest near the Mary Stewart. Steiner leapt from his car into the water, and swam towards the ship’s crew, who rescued him.
Had the men of the Mary Stewart not saved Steiner that day on Lake Erie, about 25 miles from his destination at Long Point, Ontario, the world of aeronautics may have lost a vital person to its development.
A native of Bavaria, Steiner came to New York at age 17 in 1853, and quickly built a reputation as a daredevil. Following the lead of many aeronauts of the time, he adopted the title “professor,” though no evidence exists that he ever achieved this academic rank. Steiner travelled throughout the nation with his balloon, and made ascensions in various cities from Georgia to Canada. He was the first person to fly across Lake Ontario—a 9-hour flight—and aspired to a trans-Atlantic journey. He shocked a breathless crowd of spectators during an event in New York when he jumped from his balloon at a height of two miles, and used a parachute to float safely to the ground.
Steiner earned most of his income through balloon exhibitions. One of his most impressive displays occurred in Cincinnati. The celebrated French aeronaut, Eugène Godard, challenged Steiner to a contest to travel the greatest distance, with a $2,000 purse for the winner.
On Oct. 18, 1858, Godard’s Leviathan and Steiner’s Pride of the West took off. In “a contest unparalleled in the history of aeronautics,” reported the Cincinnati Gazette, Steiner proved himself to be the champion aeronaut of America, having travelled a distance of more than 200 miles.
During the Civil War, Steiner served in the Union Balloon Corps, operated by Thaddeus S.C. Lowe, to help gather information on Confederate forces, make maps, and direct artillery fire from above. Steiner volunteered in December 1861 and was assigned to Brig. Gen. Charles P. Stone’s Corps of Observation on the Upper Potomac River. Steiner remained there until February 1862, when assigned to take charge of a balloon, the Eagle, in Cairo, Ill. Senior Union army generals Henry W. Halleck and John Pope were less than enthusiastic about the use of balloons however, and Steiner appealed to the ranking navy commander in the region, Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote. The veteran sailor provided Steiner with a barge to transport the balloon and its equipment up the Mississippi. On March 25, 1862, Steiner ascended with the Eagle, and, though his vision was obstructed by haze, he observed enemy positions at the far end of Confederate-occupied Island No. 10. The next day he took Col. Napoleon B. Buford of the Flotilla Brigade of the Army of the Mississippi and Capt. Henry E. Maynadier, who commanded the mortar flotilla, aboard the Eagle. The trio ascended 500 feet and observed that the Union mortars were overshooting their targets. The artillery redirected its guns and drove the Confederates away.
Steiner’s ascensions confirmed other reports of Confederate activities, and contributed to the eventual fall of Island No. 10 to Union forces on April 8, 1862. The action also marked the apex of his military service—and the only reported use of a balloon in the war’s western theater. He resigned his commission in December 1862, apparently out of frustration with delays in receiving his pay.
At some point during the war, Steiner took the time to have his picture taken in uniform. He donned an infantry field officer’s coat with shoulder knots common to the Marine Corps and light artillery officers. He likely purchased this custom uniform for himself, as aeronauts were civilian employees of the army. They typically dressed in nonmilitary attire, though some wore army headgear with the letters “B.C.” for Balloon Corps or “A.D.” for Aeronaut Department.
It is unknown whether Steiner purchased this uniform during his service, or if he simply borrowed it for the occasion so that he could have a more striking portrait. Either option would be in keeping with his style. He was known as “one of the more colorful characters among the several aeronauts,” according to the historian F. Stansbury Haydon, “whose letters and dispatches, penned in curious, phonetic broken English, provide a source of amusement and difficulty for the investigator.”
Steiner thrilled crowds after he left the military. During an ascent in Minnesota in 1863, one of his passengers was a young Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin. The Count, who formed an airship company that bore his name in the early 1900s, claimed that this flight inspired his interest in aeronautics. Steiner also patented several improvements to gas generators and other related appliances. His ideas continued to influence how flight evolved in the modern era. One of Steiner’s patents, issued in 1869 for a hydrogen gas generator, was referenced by the Boeing Company in a 1989 patent for an improved method of generating hydrogen.
Despite his early popularity as a pioneer aeronaut, details of Steiner’s later life are less known. His last recorded appearance in an American newspaper, in 1875, credited the veteran balloonist with 315 exhibitions.
Sources: F. Stansbury Haydon, Military Ballooning during the Early Civil War; Rhoda R. Gilman, “Zeppelin in Minnesota: A Study in Fact and Fable,” Minnesota History (1965); “An Aeronaut Picked Up on Lake Erie,” Wisconsin Patriot, July 18, 1857; Chris Bateman, “That Time a Giant Gas Balloon Dazzled Toronto,” BlogTo.com (2013); Kotar and Gessler, Ballooning: A History, 1782-1900; Spencer C. Tucker, Civil War Naval Encyclopedia; Francis A. Lord, Uniforms of the Civil War; “The Balloon Race,” Milwaukee Sentinel, October 1, 1858; “Results of the Balloon Race,” Cincinnati Gazette, October 22, 1858; “A Man Falls Two Miles In a Parachute,” Macon Weekly Telegraph, August 16, 1860; 1880 U.S. Census; “From Island No. 10,” Philadelphia Press, April 5, 1862; “From Island No. Ten,” New York Times, March 29, 1862; Larry J. Daniel and Lynn N. Bock, Island No. 10: Struggle for the Mississippi Valley; U.S Patents 98442 and 4842844A; Daily Inter Ocean (Chicago), May 27, 1875.
Sarah Hopkins is a senior at Christopher Newport University and is majoring in American Studies and Political Science. She aspires to attend law school following college.
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