Silas Markham Brooks, Connecticut’s first documented hot air balloonist, was one of many native Connecticans who pursued a colorful — if unpredictable — career as a consummate showman in the 19th century. Born in Plymouth in 1824, Brooks worked in a local clock-making factory before being hired by P. T. Barnum to help manufacture props and mechanical devices for his many traveling shows and spectacles. After observing Barnum’s success as an entertainer, Brooks left his employ to (literally) take his own show on the road, moving to St. Louis, Missouri where he set up a Barnum-style museum of curiosities and attractions that he would occasionally take on tour around the Midwest.
Hot air balloonists — including John Wise, a minor celebrity at the time — were frequently among the traveling performers Brooks hired to entertain his visitors. When a balloonist scheduled to perform at Brooks’ traveling show in 1853 fell ill, Brooks impulsively decided to try piloting the balloon himself, in what became the first of over 180 catalogued balloon ascensions by the adventurous Connecticut Yankee. Soon, Brooks was advertising himself as “Professor Silas Brooks, the Great American Aeronaut,” and performed balloon-related events throughout the Untied States.
Brooks’ first Connecticut ascent was made in 1854, earning him the title of Connecticut’s first balloonist — but his ascent above the Connecticut River in Middletown on September 2, 1863 was a spectacle to remember. In front of large crowds gathered on the river shore — and a steamship full of tourists who had bought tickets specifically to get an optimal view of the event — Brooks climbed into his hot air balloon basket and proceeded to rise a mile above the Connecticut River, where he hovered for about 40 minutes. In an act that would be unthinkable today — much less, be thought entertaining — Brooks dropped a small dog attached to a parachute out of the basket. To the delight of the crowds of onlookers, the dog safely landed on the ground a few minutes later. Ever the showman, Brooks also showered the crowd below with leaflets promoting himself and various sponsors before beginning his slow descent back to the ground.
Today, visitors can see one of Silas Brooks’ balloon baskets from the 1870s at the New England Air Museum in Windsor Locks, where it is billed as “the oldest surviving American built aircraft.” What became of the parachuted pup is unknown.
Lawrence S. Carlton, “The Rise and Fall of Silas Brooks, Balloonist,” Connecticut Explored
“Who was Silas M. Brooks? Connecticut’s First Balloonist,” Connecticut Lighter Than Air Society