Forest Park’s Ballooning History

Dave, a friend and coworker, shares a common interest of mine, Saint Louis history.  On Thursday he described a couple of historical objects that are in and around the Park.  The first object is a small stone marker and the second is a sign on an old building, both of them relatively insignificant objects.  Dave talked about one day creating a scavenger hunt, on Saturday afternoon, I wanted to get a head start on any such hunt.

Tucked away on the northern edge of the Park’s central ball fields is a short red granite marker that commemorates a nineteenth century meteorological station that was once in the Park.  This station was eventually supplanted by one at Lambert Field in the early twentieth century.  In between its establishment and its eventual replacement, this weather station played its part in aviation history.  While searching for this marker on Saturday afternoon, I queried the Park’s rangers about its location.  They were clueless.  They had never even heard of such a thing.  The marker is pictures above.  Below are the inscriptions on the marker’s four faces:

  • 80.073 feet Above City Directrix, Forest Park Meteorological Station, 1890
  • 492.783 feet Above mean Tide Gulf of Mexico
  • Latitude 38° 38’ 24”.03
  • Longitude 90° 16’ 28”.32

The Gordon Bennett Cup is the world’s oldest gas balloon race.  It was first run in 1906 in Paris.  The event was sponsored by James Gordon Bennett, a millionaire sportsman.  In 1907 the Gordon Bennett Cup came to the Park.  The above photo, supplied by the Missouri Historical Museum, shows the start of the 1907 Gordon Bennett International Balloon Race.  An American won the 1906 race, so the 1907 race moved to the US.  Saint Louis was chosen, because of its distance from the ocean.

Today’s it is called Laclede Gas Company, in 1907 it was called the Laclede Gas Lighting Company.  This company supplied the lifting gas for the Gordon Bennett Cup’s entrants.  Only on a Sunday, could the gas company create the required special light gas.  They first had to empty the large gasometers of their usual product.  Those would be the large gas tanks that use to stand on the southside of Highway 40, just east of Kingshighway.  Today’s Header shows a portion of the control building, all that is left of this gasworks.  It stands near the intersection of Chouteau and Taylor.

The Gordon Bennett Cup returned to Saint Louis twice more, first in 1910 and then again in 1929.  More recently Saint Louis has rediscovered ballooning in the form of hot air balloons.  For one weekend every Fall, balloons once again take over the Park.  More than any other air vehicle, balloons are dependent upon the weather, lighter than air, they float upon the air.  Just like every modern balloon race is dependent upon the weather so were the Gordon Bennett Cup races.  The placement of a meteorological station at their launch point must have been invaluable to those early airmen.