Experience area close-up: 1859 Balloon Voyage

Our 1859 Balloon Voyage opened in 2009, and it tells the story of the first airmail delivery in the U.S., which happened in Lafayette, Ind. 

By Hannah Kiefer
For the next two weeks, we’re taking our blog to new heights as we explore another experience area: 1859 Balloon Voyage.

The experience opened in 2009. It tells the story of John Wise, a balloonist who carried out the first airmail delivery in the U.S. back in 1859. The feat occurred in Lafayette, Ind.

Wise was an enthusiastic balloonist and he flew various balloons just about every season for decades. He was especially interested in the “rivers of wind,” or a rudimentary concept similar to the jet stream that we know today. Wise never flew high enough to access the jet stream, though; his balloons were not built for such heights. But his ideas weren’t entirely incorrect when it came to how to navigate the wind above the ground.

The 1859 Balloon Voyage features a tethered helium balloon that lifts guests about 370 feet up in the air. 

In 1859, publicists for the city of Lafayette brought Wise there as a bit of a publicity stunt. And it worked: Nearly 20,000 people flocked to the city’s downtown square to watch the balloon take flight. Lafayette also provided an ideal location for the balloon to take off because there was plenty of coal gas available there, the gas Wise used to lift his balloon.

Although he intended to fly from Lafayette to New York to deliver mail, Wise ended up only making it to Crawfordsville, Ind. The mail was then put on a train and taken to New York that way. However, the mail was stamped as airmail delivered and so it was considered the first-ever successful airmail delivery in the U.S.

Much like our indoor experience area Create.Connect, 1859 Balloon Voyage seeks to help visitors explore science, technology, engineering and math through the lens of a historical event. On the ground around the balloon, visitors can step back in time to 1859 Lafayette and explore different storefronts. Experiment stations let visitors investigate the weights of different gasses to see which might lift most effectively. Visitors can even send electronic postcards to themselves through an interactive kiosk.

Of course, after exploring on the ground, it’s time to fly up 370 feet in the air in the balloon itself. Contrary to what many believe, Conner Prairie’s balloon is not a hot-air balloon. It’s a helium balloon on a tether, a strong, steel band which is the same grade strength as the steel bands that slow and stop U.S. Navy fighter jets landing on U.S. Navy military warships. Trained pilots operate the balloon and they carefully monitor weather to ensure everything’s safe for the balloon to fly. No wind and overcast skies with temperatures under 80°F are ideal for flying. Thunderstorms, clouds below 1,000 feet, winds over 24 mph and temperatures 90°F or above keep the balloon grounded.

For the next two weeks, we’ll be taking a closer look at all there is to see and do in this experience area. Be sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat to learn more.