Monday, June 27, 2011

Professor Lowe Flies High in Falls Church, Virginia

Two weeks ago I wrote about Professor Thaddeus Lowe and the advent of aerial reconnaissance in the U.S.  On Saturday, the City of Falls Church sponsored a program commemorating Lowe's June 24-25, 1861 flights near Falls Church.   After his National Mall demonstration  had secured President Lincoln's support for employing balloons with the army, Lowe finally got a positive response from previously reluctant army officers. In late June 1861, he was ordered to bring his balloon across the Potomac, so that it could be used to determine Confederate force dispositions in Northern Virginia.

A sketch of Lowe's June 1861 balloon operations near Falls Church.

As Lowe did not yet have field equipment for inflating his balloon, he first had to have it filled at the Washington Gas Company.  A 15-man army detachment then walked the gas-filled Enterprise across the Long Bridge (today's 14th Street crossing) to Arlington, eventually making their way to Taylor's Tavern, located on a hill south of Falls Church.  This location was close to the edge of Union lines and Confederate detachments were regularly seen in the area.

Lowe made several tethered ascents from this hill on June 24 and 25, 1861 to demonstrate his ability to locate Confederate positions from aloft.  Although no immediate actionable intelligence was obtained, Lowe was able to spot Confederate camps scattered around Fairfax Courthouse.  During one of his ascents, Lowe was accompanied by Major Leyard Colburn who made a detailed map based on airborne observations.  The resulting map was considered at the time to be very accurate and helped reverse some skeptics' opinions on the military value of balloons.  Brigadier General Daniel Tyler, in a message to General McDowell admitted, "I have not been much of a convert to ballooning in military operations, but the last ascent made by Major Colburn ... and map of the country, rough as it is... convince me that a balloon may at times greatly assist military movements..."

1862 U.S. Army Bureau of Topographical Engineers map.  A downward arrow shows the location near Taylors' Tavern where Professor Lowe made several balloon ascents on 24 and 25 June 1861.  The Loudon & Hampshire Railroad is today's W&OD recreational trail.

Th actual  location of Lowe's June-24-25 1861 tethered accents is marked by a small park-- Taylor's Fort Park-- tucked between Koons Ford and Oakwood Cemetery near the bustling Seven Corners.  There is a Civil War Trails Marker near the corner of Roosevelt Street and E. Broad Street (Rt. 7).

Professor Thaddeus Lowe (Kevin Knapp) poses with a replica of his balloon in Falls Church.

Throughout the summer of 1861, Lowe made additional ascents from locations throughout Fairfax County, observing and reporting on Confederate dispositions.  Near what is now Ballston, Lowe's balloon drew the first anti-aircraft artillery artillery fire ever recorded in American military history.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Any idea what sort of gas they used for the balloons? I'm curious if there were any "Hindenburg" incidents prior to the "Hindenburg."

    Were any balloons successfully shot down?

    1. Ken,

      Until Lowe invented the portable hydrogen generator (Aug 1861), he filled his balloon with "city" or more spcifically known as "coal gas", at the City Gas Works where the Smithsonians American Indian Museum is today and physically walked the balloon to the tether site - in this case, Taylor's Tavern.

      No, there were not any "Hindenburg" incidents during the Balloon Corps three year history.

      While they were shot at frequently, no balloons were ever shot down. Note: You could put 200+ bullet holes in the balloon and it would still stay in the air - the holes would have to be repaired before the next inflation, but it could stay aloft with 200+ bullet holes in it.

      Kevin Knapp / Thaddeus Lowe, Aeronaut
      Civil War Balloon Corps Living History