Air Mail Route from San
Francisco Opens by Jeff Provine
says: we're very pleased to present a new story from Jeff Provine's
excellent blog This
Day in Alternate History Please note that the opinions expressed in this
post do not necessarily reflect the views of the author(s).
By September 15th 1861,
California posed a new problem to the United States. While territories
connected it with the East, California gained statehood almost
spontaneously in 1850 thanks to the gold rush, becoming the first state
separate from the Capital. Communication was difficult, to say the least.
The new technology of telegraphs and railroads offered possibilities, but
the lines would have to be constructed at immense cost. Wells, Fargo, &
Company held a virtual monopoly on the task of express mail with a
sea-and-land route across the Isthmus of Panama, cutting months off the
journey around South America. An overland route would be even faster, and
Congress sought a solution with a pledge of $600,000 in yearly subsidies.
In 1858, the solution was found with the Overland Mail Company, a start-up
with William Fargo on the board of directors. Over one million dollars
would be spent improving its route across the West, which included way
stations, horse corrals, and defenses against highwaymen and rogue
"The only thing that I don't like about this story
is the real-time fact that while balloons are great fun and a useful
on-site tool for reconnaissance and map-making, they would be about
useless in this context. To make the trips profitable, you'd need a
dirigable. Now if Wise could attach three identical balloons, or two
smaller ones on either side of a larger middle one (which was what the
fist blimps were in OTL), and figure out some kind of motive power, then
maybe. If he could start this by, say 1845-50, maybe by 1870, he'd have a
reasonable Zeppelin to make transcontinental flights with - and THAT would
be serious competition to the railroads for express flights. Although, for
the thousands of immigrants heading west, it still wouldn't be a option as
it would be pricey " - reader's commentWhile mail could now be
delivered, however expensively, by brave and hardy men, the passenger
service was troubling. People were crammed into tiny carriages that
bounced and rocked with every step the racing horses took. While some way
stations offered places to sleep, coaches were hot-seated by their drivers
and horses, and no one knew exactly when the next coach would come
through, leaving passengers stuck in the middle of the West for days at a
time. Food was expensive and notoriously bad. The option of crossing the
Isthmus of Panama took much longer, but the comfort made it seem more
Aeronauts John Wise and John La Mountain approached Fargo with a solution.
As a pioneering American balloonist, he had made his first flight in 1835.
Over the next years, he continued a serious study of aeronautics as well
as making grand performances at county fairs. When the Civil War began, he
was in competition with Thaddeus Lowe for the Army Balloon Corps to aid
the Union with reconnaissance from the air. Lowe had beaten him to the
Battle of Bull Run, but Wise had papers giving him the right of way. As
Wise launched his balloon, it became entangled in brush and destroyed,
ending his career for the Civil War. Lowe would go on to be Chief Aeronaut
for the Union.
Wise planned to return to a normal life for some time, using balloons as
perhaps a map-making tool, but the showman La Mountain met with him,
inspired about the West. Years earlier, the two had worked on a
transatlantic project, but the balloon had crashed and nearly ended their
partnership. On his own in 1859, Wise had made the first air mail delivery
in the United States, delivering 123 letters from Lafayette to Crawford,
Indiana. Why could they not do the same for overland delivery over the
"Very true, and a good double-what-if: Had Wise
developed the Zeppelin, putting America in the lead for lighter-than-air
craft late 1800s." - author's responseThey posed the question to
Fargo. A smooth, peaceful sail over the mountains with no threat of
robbery or attack sounded like a much more reasonable trip to Fargo,
though the idea of balloon passenger service was uncanny. La Mountain
suggested it could be at the very least a public relations demonstration,
which caused Fargo to agree. The two set off on a ship through Panama,
arriving in San Francisco and immediately launching their balloon on the
third anniversary of the Overland Mail to the shock of newspapers around
California. Newspapers in the East did not know the story until the
balloon arrived in Kansas City, Missouri, on September 20. They had
touched down twice at way stations to replenish fuel and food for their
passenger, newspaperman and adventurer Bret Harte. The press latched onto
the story from Harte's accounts, and Fargo was impressed enough to send
Wise and La Mountain back with supplies for a larger balloon.
"You'd need dirigibles for this to make any sense.
" - reader's commentBy spring of 1862, Wise and La Mountain had
created a two-story balloon with privies and a lounge for their
passengers. The balloon, dubbed the California, carried as many as fifteen
passengers in comfort as well as whatever mail could be used as ballast.
For years, the eastbound California would fly, landing in Kansas or
sometimes Missouri, depending upon the wind. Wise and La Mountain improved
their steering capabilities, but the possibility of floating west was made
impossible by the "high winds" (what we now know as the jet stream).
On May 10, 1869, the transcontinental railroad was completed. Fargo pulled
funding from the expensive, though pleasurable, balloon project despite
Wise and La Mountain's pleadings. Progress had changed the world, Fargo
explained, even the Overland Mail Company was being shut down. Armed with
their savings, they built the Odyssey and began their transatlantic
attempt in 1873 from New York. Neither was heard from again. The Atlantic
would not be crossed until British aeronauts made a west-heading route to
Barbados in 1958-9.
says in reality in the crash crossing Lake Ontario did indeed end Wise
and La Mountain's partnership. Wise and La Mountain performed additional
ascensions, with La Mountain working under Lowe during the Civil War in the
Balloon Corps. Wise would make his final ascent in 1879 at age 71,
disappearing over Lake Michigan.
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Today in Alternate History web site.
Jeff Provine, Guest Historian of
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