The 1909 Peoria, Illinois Balloon Race

The modern interstate system has made the trip from Peoria, Illinois to Dixon, Missouri possible in just a little more than four and a quarter hours. During 1909 that trip took H. Eugene Honeywell, and George E. Smith just over 17 hours- in a balloon.

By Laura (Abernathy) Huffman

August, 1909, 38 year old Honeywell, owner of French-American Balloon Company of Saint Louis was an especially busy man. Just a month prior he and his wife Brosia became the first husband and wife team to take a balloon flight in Missouri with the husband as the craft’s pilot. Shortly afterwards Honeywell began a furious pace to complete two brand new balloons, and to retrofit the Dauntless balloon into a long distance/endurance race worthy craft for the new Air Craft Club of Peoria’s inaugural balloon race. French-American Balloon Company, and Honeywell himself, had a reputation for meticulous attention to detail.

Image by Flckr user Cathy T.
Image by Flckr user Cathy T.

On the afternoon of August 19th, an estimated 50,000 spectators, including doubters and naysayers, gathered on Peoria’s levee to watch the balloons ascend to start the Aero Club of America sanctioned race. The three balloons, all manufactured by Honeywell’s company, had been inflated and tethered- awaiting to be cut away. The Missouri, 40,000 cubic-feet, was piloted by Albert Bond Lambert with assistance from James W. Bemis. Both of the men were members of the Aero Club of St. Louis. The Illinois (formerly the Dauntless) was piloted by newly licensed pilot S. Louis Von Phul and Harlow B. Spencer, also both members of the St. Louis club. The Peoria, a brand new 35,000 cubic-feet balloon belonged to the Air Craft Club of Peoria and was piloted by her builder, Honeywell, assisted by Peoria resident and balloon racing rookie George E. Smith. Smith also became the first Peorian to make an ascension as an aid during this race.

In addition to manufacturing the balloons, inflating the balloons before the start, and piloting a balloon, Honeywell superintended the cutting away of each balloon. The Missouri was first to take flight. The balloon itself was a deep yellow color and the basket was outfitted with expensive Richard instrumentation. Assistant Bemis took pictures from the basket as the balloon gained altitude. Near the Illinois River crossing he “flung out his arm and gave a good American yell.” The crowd broke their amazed silence and roared back to the men in the basket. In the Illinois, Van Phul’s start was somewhat spoiled by a, now, enthusiastic crowd, who wanted to touch the basket as it was cut away and beginning to gain elevation. The collaborative clamorous clutching of the crowd added weight to the basket of the balloon that had originally been designed by Honeywell to be outfitted with heavy fabric. Their basket bumped along close to the ground for several hundred feet before it made its break skyward. The race was already almost over for the rookie pilot Von Phul. The Illinois landed at Groveland, Illinois less than an hour later.

The Peoria, far left, at the start of the Peoria Balloon Race, August 19, 1909. The Peoria won the long distance race when it landed south of Dixon, Missouri.
The Peoria, far left, at the start of the Peoria Balloon Race, August 19, 1909. The Peoria won the long distance race when it landed south of Dixon, Missouri.

The Missouri was a speck in the southeast sky when the Peoria lifted. Honeywell, a skilled aeronaut overcame a last second technical issue with a fouled valve cord and piloted the balloon 1,800 feet straight into the air to escape the crowd before piloting his course. Both the Missouri and the Peoria traveled approximately 15 miles an hour in a southwest direction for a time. Lambert, in the Missouri was spotted at Coulterville, Illinois, and again, twenty minutes later at Tilden, Illinois. The Missouri landed near Marissa, Illinois at 10:15 a.m., 16 hours and 50 minutes after starting the race.

The Peoria was sighted at Delavan, Illinois and crossed the Mississippi River at Louisiana, Missouri. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that when the Peoria passed over Bellflower, in Montgomery County, Missouri that a farmer below invited the pair to land and join him for breakfast. The Peoria crew politely declined. The balloon crossed the Missouri River at Morrison, Missouri. The balloon was spotted again at Linn, Missouri in Osage County.

The Peoria made its landing in John Riddle’s field on the Gasconade River south of Dixon, Pulaski County, Missouri at 11:55 a.m., August 20th, 1909. Honeywell and Smith had been in the air for just over seventeen hours and traveled 230 miles. While in flight the pair each slept for only an hour apiece. Rookie Smith piloted the craft for the hour Honeywell rested. They crossed a crest of the Ozark Mountains range at an altitude of 6,000 feet just before landing. Once on the ground Honeywell did not hint at whether he knew that they had traveled far enough to win the Peoria race before plotting their descent. He did state that his balloon had more to give but that he chose to land near a railroad rather then forging further into “rough and inaccessible” territory south of Dixon.

Harry Eugene Honeywell, pilot of the Peoria balloon that landed at Dixon, Missouri August, 1909.
Harry Eugene Honeywell, pilot of the Peoria balloon that landed at Dixon, Missouri August, 1909.

The dark yellow Peoria was deflated on the banks of the Gasconade. Twenty minutes after she touched down the farmers who had followed the balloon through the hills as best they could reached Riddle’s field. Honeywell, Smith, the balloon and basket were loaded into a farm wagon and Mr. Jones hauled the crew up to Dixon. They arrived that evening at 6:00 o’clock. The aeronauts purchased tickets to Saint Louis and rode the Frisco east.

Honeywell and Smith had indeed won the Brown, Page, and Hillman trophy for the distance competition of the Peoria race. The trophy was reported to be made of silver, on an ebony pedestal, was 33 inches in height and was decorated with symbols of the new mode of flight- wings and wheels.

After winning the BP&H trophy during the Peoria race Honeywell, a Spanish-American War veteran, continued his successful ballooning career. During World War I he organized and commanded the first aeronautic section in the Missouri National Guard, training more than 400 balloon observers. His company, French-American Balloon, headquartered at 3958 Cottage Avenue in St. Louis produced balloons to fulfill government military contracts. Honeywell continued to race, sometimes aided by his daughter Edna. During the 1912 international race from Stuttgart, Germany he landed near Moscow, Russia where he was promptly arrested, and held for a short time, under suspicion of being a spy. In 1922 he won the international Gordon-Bennett Trophy Balloon Race at Geneva, Switzerland. Honeywell made more than 600 flights in balloons and was considered the “Dean of American Ballooning.” He passed away February 10, 1940 at San Antonio, Texas. He is laid to rest at Oak Grove Cemetery in St. Louis, County, Missouri.

Want to retrace the Peoria’s route for a road trip? Start your adventure in Peoria, Illinois before heading thirty miles south to Delavan in Tazewell County, Illinois. Cross the Mighty Mississippi River at Louisiana- Missouri’s picturesque river town. Be sure to admire the Italianate and Greek Revival architecture dating to the 19th and 20th centuries in the downtown district. Fifty-four buildings on Georgia Street are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. (Tip- plan your trip to coincide with the Great Mansions & Estates Tour in October.) An hour southwest of Louisiana, Missouri is Bellflower, population 393. Leaving Bellflower drive into Missouri’s wine country. Cross the Missouri River at Herman, (a town rich in German influence) and travel east towards Morrison– just around the corner, and off the beaten path. The 2010 Federal Census reports Morrison’s population as 139. Be sure to see their Missouri River levee and the bank building. Thirty minutes or so southwest of Morrison is Linn, in Osage County. On your way to Dixon explore the beautiful churches in Rich Fountain, Freeburg, and Vienna. While in Dixon grab a hand-pattied hamburger and fried pickles at the Homeplate Bar & Grill. Cap off your trip with a lakeside retreat in a rustic cabin at Blue Jay Farm. The varied, gorgeous landscape, along with the ample opportunities to explore charming small towns will make your “balloon chase” road trip a favorite for years to come!


Leave a Reply