The Wright Brothers were stealing the show with their ‘heavier-than-air’ aeroplane, but, without a doubt, the competition was on. Across the county, young daredevils were building and – occasionally – flying these new airships, gathering a curious audience wherever and whenever they could. Which brings us now to –
Born June 30, 1854 to Jane and Samuel Yates Baldwin in Marion County, Missouri, Thomas S. Baldwin was only 12 years old when he witnessed the murder of his parents by marauding renegades during the Civil War.
As an orphan, Thomas lived with a foster family until he ran away at the age of 14. After becoming a railroad brakeman, a circus manager discovered him while Baldwin was practicing acrobatics atop railroad cars. After accepting a job with the circus, Baldwin began traveling as an apprentice acrobat, but soon he was performing on the high trapeze.
After acquiring his own hot-air balloon, Baldwin quit the circus and began a free-lance tour of the county fair circuit with his brother. Baldwin coined the name Captain Tom – not only to satisfy his ego, but also for name recognition, and continued to enhance his theatrics. When he made his first balloon ascent in 1875, Baldwin quickly became the star attraction at county fairs all over the country, Canada and the Far East. Baldwin made nearly 3,000 ascents in a balloon and had several close calls, but his seemingly proverbial luck and great skill always saved him from disaster – even in the most dangerous situations!
After ten years and thousands of shows, the novelty of balloon ascents began to fade and Baldwin found himself searching for a daring new exhibition specialty: the rigid parachute, invented a century before, redesigning it to be lighter, flexible and more compact. After testing his first parachutes with weighted sand bags from cliffs nearby, the daring Captain Tom decided he was ready to attempt his first live jump. In front of an audience at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park on January 30th, 1885, Baldwin offered the park manager a deal – he would jump from a hot-air balloon for $1.00 per foot of height, with 2,000 feet being the maximum. The crowd, unknowingly, witnessed the first public descent from a balloon with a parachute, and as a result, Captain Tom was now dubbed – The Father of the Modern Parachute.
At the turn of the century, the luster of Baldwin’s parachute act faded and he set out to create an even greater, more daring act. Intrigued by the work of Alberto Santos-Dumont, the first man to make a successful dirigible flight in 1898; Baldwin traveled to France to study motor-driven balloons. Bitten by the dirigible bug, Captain Tom built his own model, the California Arrow, completing it in July of 1904, and making its first public flight on August 3, 1904. Baldwin’s dirigible caught the public’s attention and along with engine-maker, Glenn Curtiss, they single-handedly ignited a new breed of man who valiantly – or perhaps foolishly – risked their lives for a show.
By 1909, Captain Tom needed yet another new challenge – and what would be better than the new flying machines that other daredevils were experimenting with?
That year (1909), Baldwin designed his own pusher biplane, one of the first to have a framework with interplane struts of mild steel tubing and wooded frame wings. He named his invention the Red Devil – and now – 1910 – it was time to take his show on the road.
On September 10, 1910, Thomas S. Baldwin made history with the first aeroplane flight over the Mississippi River. At 5:11 PM, Baldwin and his Red Devil took off from a field just north of St. Louis while 200,000 citizens lined the riverfront, anxiously looking northward. As the crowds cheered, Baldwin safely landed on the Illinois side of the river, across from Arsenal Street. On the return flight, Captain Tom astounded the crowds by flying under both the Eads and McKinley bridges at fifty miles per hour – landing the Red Devil at 6:05 PM back in St. Louis. Immediately, following his St. Louis success, the offers began coming in. Communities all over the Midwest were clamoring for young pilots like Captain Tom to come to their city to show off their new flying machines.
This penny postcard (above) advertised the Johnson County Fair in 1908…
In Iowa City, the good folks who put together the annual Johnson County Fair were fortunate enough to sign a contract with Baldwin to bring his Red Devil to town for the annual Farmer’s Fall Festival. The Iowa City Commercial Club raised the $2,000 fee – over $41,000 in today’s money – for the Baldwin Exhibition, and it was hoped that the attraction would encourage thousands from the surrounding area to attend.
Excited to schedule this big attraction, the Commercial Club asked Captain Tom to fly over the city, but knowing the scarcity of landing fields available in the event of engine failure, he declined, stating…
You would have to give me $20,000 instead of $2,000 to fly over the city, and I hardly think I would want to do it for that…you will find that aviators avoid as far as possible flights over territory thickly crowded with houses.
Despite his hesitancy to fly over our fair city, Baldwin did agree to make three flights at the Festival.
(P-0333) The Hall of Engineering – site of Captain Tom’s October 11th meetings with SUI Engineering students.
On Tuesday, Captain Tom arrived in town, spending a good portion of the day chatting with curious SUI engineering students about this new-fangled invention that would allow people to fly from place to place without using roads.
(P-0229) Written and posted on Thursday, October 13, 1910, our fair-goer, Frank, is writing his girlfriend back in Chicago, expressing his “hope to see an air ship” at the county fair. Could it be that Frank had come from Chicago to see Captain Tom? Maybe he is one of those engineering students at SUI who met with the pilot earlier that week – attending the fair on Wednesday – only to be given a “Wind-Check” for Thursday?
October 13, 1910 was a perfect day for flying. At 3:30 PM, the throngs had, once again, assembled at the fairgrounds and Baldwin was ready. Today, with a light breeze blowing from the north, Captain Tom took off to the west, lifting off the half-mile race track about two-thirds the way down. Flying over the trees, the Red Devil turned north and then west once more, making a counter-clockwise circle, eventually reaching an altitude of about 125 feet. Completing his big circle, he flew directly over the grandstand, circled the field once more, landing the Red Devil in the center of the fairgrounds. The crowd went wild!
In a day filled with firsts, not only did the Fall Festival crowd witness Iowa’s first successful “airship” flight, but it also witnessed Iowa City’s first plane crash! After his successful flight, Baldwin waved to the crowd, but since his contract called for three flights, he quickly prepared for his next take-off. This time, Captain Tom aimed the Red Devil to the east, but immediately ran into trouble. The biplane clipped through the tree tops on the eastern edge of the fairgrounds, struggling to gain altitude as it headed toward two barns just ahead. Thinking the danger passed, the crowd cheered. The Red Devil nearly cleared the buildings but snagged its propeller on one of the barns, catapulting Baldwin to the ground from 30 feet in the air! Bruised and bleeding, but essentially unhurt, Captain Baldwin emerged from the wreckage – later telling the press…
After crashing through the trees I’d have escaped OK, if the bad air pocket between the two barns had not caught the bi-plane.
Making lemonade from lemons, The Iowa City Citizen quickly dismissed the near-disaster, focusing instead on Captain Tom’s successful first flight of the day – proclaiming for Iowa City the honor of the “first city in the state to present a perfect flight in an aeroplane.”
As the Daily Citizen reported, the Red Devil was “taken apart and shipped back to the factory for repairs,” which cost Captain Tom “in the neighborhood of $300″… leaving $1700 leftover in his pocket! Considering the accident could have cost him his life, I’m guessing the experienced pilot left the Hawkeye State still a proud man.
After a few more years on the road with his Red Devil – Baldwin made six different versions – and many close calls like the one he had in Iowa City, Captain Tom turned his attention back to dirigibles, designing the Navy’s first successful model, the DN-I. Recognizing the need to train fliers, he managed the Curtiss School at Newport News, where one of his students was General “Billy” Mitchell. When the U.S. went to war in 1917, Baldwin, now 62 years old, volunteered his services becoming Chief of Army Balloon Inspection and Production, personally inspecting every balloon and airship used by the Army during the war.
After WWI, he joined the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company in Akron, Ohio, as a designer and manufacturer of their airships. Baldwin died at age 68 on May 17, 1923, in Buffalo, New York, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. His wife, Caroline “Cassie” Pool Baldwin, born in Illinois in 1857, died in 1926 – age 68 – and is buried in Woodland Cemetery in Quincy, Illinois. Carrie & Tom were married on December 7, 1887 and had one son, Thomas Alexander, who remained in Quincy, raising his family there.
Few men in the aeronautical community were better loved than Captain Tom. Inventor of the flexible parachute, builder of the first practical dirigible in America, pioneer designer, builder and flyer of airplanes, his life was unrivaled as a showman, innovator and inventor for his nearly 50 years in aeronautics.
Iowa City thanks you, Captain Tom, for your bravery and service to your country.
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.