These balloon races were held at the Agricultural Park located on the lower Eastside between Garden and Olive streets, below Montecito Street. The complex included a racetrack and grandstand and was fronted by a large exhibition pavilion.
In September 1890, the largest crowd in the Agricultural Park’s history gathered to watch a young circus performer named Baldwin achieve aerial feats of derring-do. He inflated a red, white, and blue hot air balloon, 50 feet in diameter. Stakes holding down the balloon were then released, and the airship shot skyward, with the young “aeronaut” clinging to a rope attached to a trapeze hanging from the balloon.
As the craft ascended to 1,000 feet, Baldwin climbed the rope to the trapeze and performed a number of stunts. He then threw himself off the bar, opened a parachute, which reportedly his brother had invented, and floated to earth “as gently as a snowflake.” The balloon continued to ascend for a few moments before belching “a volume of black smoke” and plummeting to the ground.
In the true spirit of American entrepreneurship, the next year’s promoters decided to make the balloon performances bigger and better, this time with three stunts. A husband-and-wife team, Professor and Mrs. E.J. Hawkins, were each to ascend in their respective canvas balloons and then stage a race as the climactic event of the three-day exhibition.
Things got off to a rocky start on August 19. The professor’s balloon did not inflate properly, so when the drags were released, he managed a height of only 100 feet before crashing ignominiously to earth. As Hawkins alighted from his craft, the balloon, now without the extra weight and pilotless, took off again on a stiff onshore wind before coming to rest some distance east of the racetrack. Mrs. Hawkins reportedly burst into tears over what one local newspaper termed “a fizzle.”
Adjustments were made the next day. Mrs. Hawkins’s balloon, festooned with advertisements for “The New Guerney Refrigerator” available at Santa Barbara’s own California Market, was placed behind the pavilion to protect it from the vagaries of the wind. This time, the balloon inflated properly, and the crowd of some 2,500 (the town’s total population numbered around 5,900 at this time) marveled as the craft ascended to a dizzying 3,500 feet. Mrs. Hawkins dangled from her trapeze performing a number of death-defying tricks before she launched herself into space and gracefully parachuted back to the fairgrounds, accompanied by shouts of praise and applause.
The final day’s race was somewhat anticlimactic. The two balloons did not even get off the ground until quite late in the afternoon due to various delays. Neither balloon managed the height that Mrs. Hawkins had reached the previous day. Still, the crowd did not seem to mind, and the whole extravaganza was declared a rousing success. For all their efforts, the Hawkins earned $450.
It was the last balloon exhibition held in Santa Barbara. The city’s first exhibition of powered flight was 10 years in the future.
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Michael Redmon, director of research at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum, will answer your questions about Santa Barbara’s history. Write him c/o The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., Santa Barbara, CA 93101.