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Balloonist with Hannibal ties painted pictures of his experience, with words, for all to read

The German newspaper, “Westliche Post,” St. Louis, published this photo of the war balloon “Pommern,” just prior to launch in the Gordon Bennett Cup distance race, originating at Forrest Park in St. Louis, on Oct. 21, 1907.

Mary Lou Montgomery

Few could have imagined back in mid October 1907, what it would feel like to float in the basket of a hot-air balloon three quarters of a mile over the Midwest at dawn, and the associated sounds that could be heard of little towns waking up below.

Henry Helm Clayton, who lived in Hannibal for two years during his youth, was among the early aviators to experience such splendor. A respected meteorologist, he served as an assistant aboard the war balloon “Pommern,” during the Gordon Bennett Cup distance race, originating at St. Louis, on Oct. 21, 1907.

The distance contest consisted of balloonists from around the world, who gathered at Forrest Park in St. Louis for the much-publicized and eagerly anticipated launch. Three balloons were from Germany, two from France, one from England and three from the United States. The winner would be the balloon crew that flew the farthest distance from the launch site.

The balloons were spread out in a line that afternoon, and were to launch in rapid succession. Clayton and the German craft’s pilot, Oskar Erbslöh, completed all the preparations for the scheduled launch. Soldiers were on hand at each balloon, holding the crafts to prevent early ascension. At the pre-determined start time of 4 p.m., the soldiers released their hold and the Pommern began rising into the clouds.

The estimated crowd size as Forrest Park was 30,000.

Breaking tradition

A tried-and-true practice among balloonists at the time was to begin the race at lower altitudes, but Clayton and Erbslöh deviated from the custom – a plan they had discussed at dinner the night prior - rising high in order to capture the best available eastward upper air current.

Contained within an article that Clayton wrote for the March 1908 edition of The Atlantic magazine, were detailed descriptions and observations from his vantage point inside the 2 1/2 by 3 foot basket.

“At the height of about a mile and a quarter, we found a current moving toward the northeast with a speed of about twenty-two miles an hour. Here the ascent of the balloon was checked, and at this level we prepared to spend the night.”

The men crossed the Mississippi River at Alton, Ill., about 6 p.m. “When we passed the twin cities of Alton and Upper Alton, their brilliant electric lights sparkling in the gathering dusk, like swarms of fireflies on a summer evening,” Clayton wrote. “We watched these glowing lights amid a silence more profound than any I have ever known.

Aviation infancy

At the time of the balloon race, air exploration was still in its infancy. In December 1903, the Wright Brothers had completed the first “controlled powered flight” on the beach at Kitty Hawk, N.C., by keeping their airplane airborne for one minute.

While efforts were underway to improve “powered flight,” the fascination of balloon flight captured the world’s attention.


At 3 a.m. Oct. 22, the bright chromo yellow war balloon Pommern flew over the northern suburbs of Lafayette, Ind., where the sound of steam locomotives lifted into the clouds. “Here we crossed the Wabash,” Clayton wrote, “moving softly toward the southwest, and soon afterward we had an adventure often enjoyed by balloonists, that of a race with a locomotive, in which, I regret to say, the locomotive won. It was evidently a swift midnight express for the east, and when our courses finally diverged, the train was already several miles ahead of us.”

As dawn approached, the balloon had sunk to a level of three-quarters of a mile above the surface of the earth.

“ … we first became aware of approaching dawn, not by the appearance of the sky, but by the awakening life below. There came to our ears out of the depths, first the faint, shrill bugle-calls of chanticleers (roosters), then the barking of dogs, and finally the soft, muffled rumble of a wagon on its early trip to the city.”


Clayton compared the gas-filled balloon to a “little earth; it absorbs and radiates heat very powerfully. At night, the balloon is continuously cooling, and we had to throw out ballast at intervals to keep from sinking to the earth on account of the cooling and shrinking of the gas, as well as on account of a slow loss of gas through the envelope of the balloon. … On the other hand, when the sun rose that first morning, a dazzling, brilliant orb, the balloon was heated in a surprisingly few minutes. Its gas, expanding and growing lighter, caused us to ascent rapidly, and we were soon again at a height of about eight thousand feet.”

Day two

During the second day, the team crossed Ohio. “How strange it was!” Clayton wrote. “The whole visible world below was like a garden divided into innumerable plots of green and brown.”

At the end of the day, the sky travelers were uncertain as to their exact location. “Shortly after sunset, we allowed our balloon to settle within about 200 feet of the ground near a lonely farmhouse. … A woman appeared at the door of her house, and gazing motionless from wonder, fear, or other emotion, could not reply to our oft-repeated inquiry as to the name of the nearest town.”

The adventure continued on over Pittsburg, the Appalachian Mountains, Harrisburg and Carlisle, Pa., and the Susquehanna River, before the next daybreak.

Finally, “… we were hailed with a cheerful ‘Good morning’ by some early riser, and in response to our inquiries he informed us that we were then thirty-seven miles from Philadelphia.”

With the early sun’s warmth, the balloon rose to a height of two miles above the earth, allowing the adventurers a map-like view of New Jersey. Hope for a favorable current was dashed, however, and the need to land in order to prevent a touch down in the ocean became apparent. After some trials, the balloon set down in Asbury Park, N.J., 872 miles from the original launch site in St. Louis. The crew averaged 23.3 miles per hour, ultimately winning the distance race.

About Henry Clayton

Henry Helm Clayton was born March 12, 1861, at Murfreesboro, Tenn., to Dr. Henry Holmes and Maria Louisa Helm Clayton (1828-1873). His mother died when he was about 12 years old. Some time during his youth, he came to Hannibal, Mo., where he made his home for two years with his mother’s sister, Matilda J. Helm Johnson (1837-1901) and her husband, Joseph J. Johnson. Both women were daughters of Judge John Brown Helm (1797-1872) and Jane Pope Helm (1806-1840). Judge Helm came from Tennessee to Hannibal pre-Civil War, and at one time served as judge in Hannibal.

In Hannibal, Henry Helm Clayton became acquainted with his cousins, who were the children of his mother’s brother, Cyrus Helm: J.C. Helm, Miss Mae Helm, and Mrs. John (Alice Helm) Logan.

Mrs. Johnson and her husband lived on a five-acre stock cattle ranch just to the west of the Stockyards Hotel in Stringtown – or Oakwood - in Ralls County, Mo.

Note: At the time of the balloon race, Henry Helm Clayton was assistant professor of meteorology at Harvard University and associate director of the Blue Hill observatory at Hyde Park, Mass.

Mary Lou Montgomery retired as editor of the Hannibal (Mo.) Courier-Post in 2014. She researches and writes narrative-style stories about the people who served as building blocks for this region’s foundation. She can be reached at Her collective works can be found on her website:

Pictured is the stock ranch of Joseph J. and Matilda Helm Johnson, located on the “New London Turnpike” in 1878, as illustrated in the Ralls County atlas. Henry Helm Clayton lived with the Johnsons for two years during his youth.

Henry Helm Clayton is pictured at the age of 62, on his 1923 passport.

In 1878, J.J. Johnson and his wife, Matilda Helm Johnson, lived in the northwest corner of Ralls County Township 47, Range 4 West, Section 6. Note that this property is near the intersection of the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad tracks, and the north-south St. Louis, Hannibal and Keokuk Railroad tracks. Henry Helm Clayton stayed with the Johnsons for two years during his youth.

The St. Louis Post Dispatch published this map illustration on Oct. 23, 1907, showing the territory traversed by the balloons and the towns, which reported sightings.

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