The 1922 National Balloon Race: When the Milwaukee Journal Turned the Cream City into a Bunch of Balloonatics

Apr. 17, 2017
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John Berry (l) and Bernard von Hoffman (r), with the Milwaukee Journal hot-air balloon.

There was a popular fascination in the U.S. in the 1920s with aviation and competitive flying was, for a time, a sport that rivaled baseball, boxing and horseracing for prominence in the collective American consciousness. While most of this was centered on airplanes, there was also a revival of the century-and-a-half old art of hot air ballooning. In May and June 1922, one of the premier events of the ballooning season came to Milwaukee – the 12th Annual National Balloon Race.

The race was less of a “race” than an endurance test. The goal was to make it as far away from the starting point as possible without touching down. Unintentional set-downs (such as being forced down by the weather), needed to be limited to 15 minutes or less. Any unintentional landing in water that needed outside assistance ended the run. And any balloon purposely setting down, for any reason, did the same. With ballooning being something of a gentleman’s pursuit, these rules were all enforced via the honor system. The team reporting the furthest landing from Milwaukee took first prize - $1,000 cash. Many ballooning veterans felt that the winner of the Milwaukee race, which was expected to last 3-4 days, could break the national record of 1,172 miles.  

To drive up interest in the event, the Milwaukee Journal sponsored two of the 13 balloons in the race and promised their readers unprecedented coverage of the track of their “bags.” Journal writers would fly along with each balloon (creatively dubbed “The Milwaukee Journal” and “The Milwaukee Journal”), working as assistants to the captains. Their daily dispatches would be written in the balloon’s basket and rushed back to downtown Milwaukee via methods that were almost as thrilling as the race itself. For the first few hundred miles a pair of airplanes run by Journal pilots would trails the balloons. When a story was ready, the bag would signal the plane with a light, at which point the pilot would swoop beneath the balloon and retrieve the pages, which would be dropped in a weighted envelope attached to a small parachute. The pilot would then race back to Bradford Beach, where he would drop the bundle to a waiting car, ready to speed back to the Journal Building on Fourth Street. Once the balloons got out of range of the planes, they would drop their bundles over populated areas with notes attached kindly asking whoever recovered the package to deliver it to the nearest telegraph office, where it could be wired back home. Each balloon also had its own carrier pigeon, to be used if they drifted too far off course.

Piloting the first Journal balloon was 21-year-old Bernard von Hoffman. Von Hoffman was the son of Albert von Hoffman, former president of the Falk Company, and had been ballooning since the age of ten. He won a national competition in 1917, and was lost for three days on a race in 1919. Captaining the other Journal balloon was 73-year-old John Berry. He had taken his first balloon ride as a drummer boy with the Union Army and had survived a terrible balloon crash in 1914 when his bag was struck by lightning at an elevation of over 3,000 feet.

The starting point for the race was Athletic Field, later known at Borchert Field, at 8th and Chambers. The bags were slowly filled with coal gas in the days before the race – over one million cubic feet worth in total. The Journal noted that if the bags were filled all at once, the pressure of the city’s natural gas system would drop so quickly that Milwaukee’s stoves would be inoperable for several hours.

On May 31, the day of the launch, crowds flocked to the ballpark and filled the porches and balconies of the neighborhood’s homes. A number of fire companies were also on hand, just in case anything exploded during the launch. The lift-off was one of the grandest sights the northside had ever seen and many people kept looking up until each of the bags had drifted out of sight.

A map of the balloon locations after one day of the race.

Unfortunately for the Journal, their elaborate plans for relaying information back to the city were hardly needed. Berry’s balloon landed outside of Montecello, Ill. just after 11 a.m. the day after the launch, only 280 miles from Milwaukee. Von Hoffman landed his less than an hour later, after winds began to push him back along his route. He nearly made it as far as Fort Wayne, Ind., about 700 miles away. They certainly fared much better than Roy Donaldson, who discovered that his balloon was leaking just after take-off. He nearly clipped the roof of the ballpark as he departed and ended up touching down near Bay View, all of four miles away, 20 minutes later. The race was won by Major Oscar Westover, who piloted a US Army balloon past Quebec, about 865 miles away. 

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