Pawnee Bill Ranch
Pawnee Bill's Hot Air Balloon Ride
This podcast is produced by the Pawnee Bill Ranch and Museum. All rights are reserved. Please credit the Pawnee Bill Ranch and Museum podcast if you use information from the podcast in any research or publication.
Anna: Thank you for downloading the Pawnee Bill Ranch Podcast brought to you by the staff of the Pawnee Bill Ranch.
Erin: Welcome to the Pawnee Bill Ranch Podcast! I’m Erin Brown, Pawnee Bill Ranch Curator.
Anna: And I’m Anna Davis, Pawnee Bill Ranch Historical Interpreter.
Erin: So, Anna, today we will be finishing out our three part series on some of the strange stories that took place on the road for Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show. Now we’ve taken a little bit of a break this summer. We didn’t record in June and July but now we’re back at it and we’re excited to continue on with our podcast. Last time in May we talked about The Princeton Riot and the crazy insanity that fell upon cast members and students from that university. Today, we will be discussing one of the most disastrous promotions that Pawnee Bill ever undertook. And it all started with a seemingly innocent ride in a hot air balloon.
Anna: That’s correct and I love this story. Before this podcast we were discussing our experiences with hot air balloons. Now I know that you have never been in one nor do you ever want to be in one.
Erin: Nope. Nope, I like the ground.
Anna: And I almost went on a balloon ride when I was in Australia, but mine was cancelled about 15 minutes before takeoff because of high winds. After hearing about Pawnee Bill’s experience, I bet he wished someone had cancelled his hot air balloon ride too!
Erin: This journey that he took in his balloon left such an impression on Pawnee Bill that he would talk about it to many newspapers years later when he was giving interviews. It really stuck with him as one of the major funny/disastrous events in his life. The incident took place at the 1894 World’s Fair in Antwerp, Belgium. It was officially known as the Exposition Internationale d’Anvers. The fair opened on May 5th, 1894 and would attract 3 million visitors, which is roughly the size of the population of Oklahoma, until it closed its gates on November 5 of that same year.
Anna: Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show would begin performing at the World’s Fair in Fall of 1894. A daily parade would occur before each performance, just as it did here in America to attract the crowds to where they were performing, and it was during one of these parades that Pawnee Bill first noticed something strange. The posters for his show lined the streets of Antwerp, all of which had been converted to French for his international audience. In the middle of all these familiar images from his show, there was one poster that caught his eye that he couldn’t quite understand. It had his name on it, but it certainly wasn’t a show poster. When the parade was finished, Pawnee Bill sent his French interpreter back to the mysterious poster to figure out just what it said.
Erin: It was then that he got the surprise of his life. The poster was advertising an event in which Pawnee Bill, himself, would enter a hot air balloon and ride in the aircraft above the streets of Antwerp with a noted French balloonist. Surprise! Pawnee Bill was quoted as saying, “I had never been up in a balloon, nor did I have any particular desire to do so, but in that I was supposed to be the brave Pawnee Bill, an Indian scout who had been in service and who had fought outlaws. I could not possibly refuse to go.” It seems that Pawnee Bill had unintentionally agreed to go on the flight when the balloonist had approached him at the fair and explained what he had wanted to do with the stunt. Because the guy was speaking only in French, Pawnee Bill didn’t realize what he was agreeing to.
Anna: Now, ballooning in Europe was nothing new. Balloons sent into flight using hot air first appeared in China during the Three Kingdoms era which was 220-280 AD. They were known as Kongming lanterns and were mostly used for sending military commands across great distances. The French were the ones that would really perfect hot air balloons as we know them today. The first manned flight of a tethered balloon would be in October 1783 at Versailles and the first untethered free flight would be in November of that year also at Versailles. Ballooning tourism would pick up in 1878 when Henri Giffard developed a tethered system that allowed passengers to view the Tuileries Garden in Paris from the air.
Erin: So, despite his nerves, Pawnee Bill decided that he would go through with the agreement. He really had to save face here. He climbed aboard the balloon on an autumn Sunday morning in 1894. The plan was for the balloon to rise, untether, and the two would float towards Holland before descending that afternoon and make their way back to Antwerp by night fall.
Anna: Now because it was Pawnee Bill and this noted French balloonist, who unfortunately his name has been lost to history, a very large crowd had shown up to watch the stunt unfold. Pawnee Bill remembered, “It was a great advertising stunt for the balloonist, just as great a one for me, and it would have ruined me and my show had I refused. My greatest difficulty was in getting Mrs. Lillie reconciled to my making the trip through the air.”
Erin: From what we can tell from newspaper reports, the get-away was perfect and the balloon sailed into the wind and towards Holland just as planned. During the flight, Pawnee Bill estimated that they traveled 5 miles into the air. Now, I don’t know if that’s possible because a normal airplane today travels at 26,000 feet which is just shy of that mark.
Anna: You know, maybe Pawnee Bill was just a really bad judge of distance because I think we saw that the highest a balloon could travel was 3000 feet, which is just over a half a mile.
Erin: The balloon continued on its set course until early afternoon before they tried to make their descent. That’s when the real trouble beganů
Anna: The first descent of the balloon was aborted by the French balloonist. Pawnee Bill said that this first attempt almost ended with them landing in water, which he says would have been disastrous. The second attempt that was made would have landed them in the middle of an apple orchard that was thick with trees.
Anna: The balloon continued to dip lower towards the ground until Pawnee Bill was sure that they were going to crash land. The Frenchman eventually got enough ballast that they were able to float skyward again and save themselves from crash landing. The whole trip was a comedy of errors because it was discovered during the flight that the Frenchman did not speak any English and, of course we already know that, Pawnee Bill didn’t speak any French. So they were completely unable to communicate during this entire ordeal.
Erin: You think he would have known better because that’s what got him into this mess in the first place.
Anna: Please take your French interpreter with you, Pawnee Bill.
Erin: Everywhere you go take that French interpreter! When the balloon did finally land later that night, it was in the middle of a peat bog. The soft, spongy ground made it an easy landing and saved the men from injury, but trying to walk out of the bog proved really difficult. There were times when their legs sank completely into the soft soil and they had trouble getting out and in the darkness the two men had no idea what direction they were heading. It was at 2 o’clock in the morning that the two finally found a small town in Holland and were able to rest. It was estimated that they hiked over 14 miles from the peat bog to this final destination.
Anna: Somehow the next day, Pawnee Bill and the Frenchman finally made their way back to Antwerp by about noon on Monday. They were about 15 hours overdue and they found a very frantic crowd waiting for them. It turns out when they did not return that evening, search parties had been sent out to look for the downed balloon all around Antwerp. May Lillie was, understandably, in hysterics and it was said that the entire city of Antwerp was extremely concerned over what had happened to the two famous air travelers.
Erin: Pawnee Bill took two things away from his ill-fated balloon trip: a fear of hot air balloons and the memory of a dog barking, which is really kinds of strange to me. He said that he distinctly remembered that the only sound to reach the two while they were up in the balloon was the sound a dog barking. The memory was one that he always thought that he had imagined in his kind of hysterical state until he was reading a newspaper report about another balloonist who reported the same thing. That balloonist was on a different flight in roughly the same area, and he reported that the only sound that he could hear was the sound of a dog barking far below them on the ground.
Anna: Maybe it’s like stress induced trauma. Like that’s what he thought he heard was a dog barking when he was five miles in the air.
Erin: He was hallucinating and the only thing he could hear was a dog.
Anna: You would think that this experience would make Pawnee Bill shy away from anything to do with aircrafts. He became a very seasoned flier on airplanes during the later years of his life, often traveling all around the country using airplanes. He claimed though that his travels had made him hardened towards the idea of air travel, but it was always when he was thinking about his balloon trip would always “shivers would go up and down his spinal column.”
Erin: Well, Anna, we do have some news that we are excited to share with our listeners. The Pawnee Bill Ranch Podcast was recently named the outstanding educational program in our budget category by the Oklahoma Museums Association. Yay! So we will be presented an award at the OMA annual conference on September 27th at the awards banquet.
Anna: And we are also extremely excited to announce that our calliope was chosen as one of the top ten endangered artifacts in Oklahoma. You might remember back in May we had asked people to go and vote. We were originally in the top 25 but since then a panel of curators, preservation experts and archivists deliberated for about 6 weeks before the final list was chosen and we were just informed that our calliope was on that list. And we will also be recognized for our work in preservation at that same September 27th banquet.
Erin: We really appreciate your support and we thank you for listening. That will wrap up our podcast for this time. I am Erin Brown, Pawnee Bill Ranch curator.
Anna: And I am Anna Davis, Pawnee Bill Ranch Historical Interpreter. Thank you for listening and we will see you next time.
Anna: The Pawnee Bill Ranch is owned and operated by the Oklahoma Historical Society. For more information, go to www.pawneebillranch.com or find us on Facebook under Pawnee Bill Ranch and Museum.