1886 Cincinnati as seen from a balloon, including Music Hall, OTR, Church spires and hillsides
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Up In A Balloon Above Music Hall -1886 Bird’s Eye View of Cincinnati

by Thea Tjepkema
poster for 1886 Industrial Exposition
1886 Industrial Exposition Poster
Image courtesy OMI

On June 28, 1886, in Washington Park, the Thirteenth Industrial Exposition Commission arranged for a hot air balloon to give six rides above Music Hall! The intent was to take several aerial photos to create the largest ever Bird’s-eye view engraving of the city to be sold in the August 21, “Exposition Number” of The Illustrated News.

Come One, Come All!

An advertisement a week before the balloon ride announced The Illustrated’s photographer Dr. Arthur LeBoutillier would take 12 views from 200 to 600 feet above Music Hall.

Although the ad in the July 3 Illustrated stated the “captive” balloon was tied to a 600-foot-long rope, it was not permitted to soar higher than 300 feet. Final accounts put it just above Music Hall’s highest peak, which is 150 feet.

Cover of Exposition edition of The Illustrated News, August 21, 1886
The Illustrated News, August 21, 1886

The ad also stated the balloon would be inflated at 6:00 a.m. with the first flight at 12:30 p.m. However, the day after the balloon ascension, the Enquirer reported the aeronaut in charge began inflating the balloon at 10 a.m., and by supper time it was still not full of gas.

The police had their hands full managing the immense throng that increased all day, especially the ‘urchins’ and young girls who persisted in rushing in and interfering with progress.

Up, Up and Away

Newspaper photographers and reporters seemed to be the only lucky passengers; however, the aeronaut’s plucky niece got to go first and waved her hands at the shouting Lilliputians below.

Dr. Boutillier with his amateur camera went next and succeeded in getting some good views for The Illustrated News.

Exciting… and Scary

Balloon over the south hall of Music Hall
Balloon over the south hall of Music Hall

An Enquirer reporter also went up, ‘jumping into the basket in the style of a washerwoman.’

He must have written the startling description of the bumpy flight. At 100 feet the basket caught in the wind and jerked in an unpleasant way. The ‘pesky thing’ was jerked about in a ‘reckless style like a floundering boat without a rudder’ and appeared to make a dangerous dive toward the roof of Music Hall.

Of course, Music Hall’s roof ornamentation must have appeared daunting with 12-foot spikey lyres, decorative spear-like cresting, pointy pinnacles, and 16-foot poles on each tower! While it may have seemed longer, the article stated it was just a moment of fear before it again went skyward.

As Far As The Eye Could See

While the balloon was stationary for an instant over Music Hall, all onboard had a bird’s eye view of the great city ‘snugly sheltered between the surrounding hills.’ ‘Clouds of smoke rose from the busy factories and the Ohio River, which from the perspective appeared as a babbling brook.’

To the right, the new Custom House and Post Office building loomed. The hilltops were dotted with beer halls and the newly-opened Art Museum.

A Bird's Eye View of 1886 Cincinnati, looking north from Fountain Square (bottom right)
A Bird’s Eye View of 1886 Cincinnati, looking north from Fountain Square (bottom right)

The basket tried to strike a forty-five-degree angle before men on the ground yanked the rope and the balloon came to the ground at a rapid pace. The next experience seeker boarded.

The Flights Yielded a Documentary Treasure

Over 150 photos were also taken from the rooftops of the tallest buildings and referenced by illustrator Charles A. Fries. These photos created a scene of the Queen City looking north from the Tyler-Davidson Fountain in the foreground, instead of the usual Ohio River wharf views.

Fries and a team of engravers detailed every home, business, protruding church steeple and the enormous seven-year-old Music Hall standing out prominently in the distance. The 8-page fold-out section measured about 2-1/2 x 3-1/2 feet, with the image being about 2×3 feet including an index to 67 key buildings in the landscape.

Detail Key Map: Bird's Eye View, The Illustrated News, August 21, 1886
Detail Key Map: Bird’s Eye View, The Illustrated News, August 21, 1886
Index to Key Block - Letters and Numbers for Map
Letters and Numbers for C. A. Fries’ Bird’s Eye View Map of 1886 Cincinnati

The print was finished just in time for the opening of the Thirteenth Industrial Exposition held in Music Hall, Sept. 1-Oct. 9, 1886. In fact, on display, in operation, at the Exposition, was an immense Illustrated News printing press cranking out copies of the 200,000 supplements issued with 16 tons of paper used just for the Bird’s Eye View alone.


Feature image Detail of Music Hall and OTR Church Spires, 1886 Bird’s-Eye View of Cincinnati by C.A. Fries, from the Collection of The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

Images courtesy of the Walter Havighurst Special Collections and University Archives, Miami University Libraries, Oxford OH, except where noted.

“Up in a Balloon,” The Cincinnati Enquirer, June 29, 1886
The Illustrated News: Cincinnati, June 26, July 3, Aug. 21, 1886