Markoe’s Flight

“Mr. Crawford was a sight to behold after the basket in which he sat struck a fence, and chicken pie struck him on the head, covering the Prince Albert suit he wore with its contents.”

William Markoe

September 23, 1857*

William Markoe was an unconventional dreamer for his time. In 1857 he had the vision of taking the first untethered balloon flight in the upper Midwest. At the time there were professional balloonists who traveled circuits around Europe and the East Coast making money by putting on exhibitions. Markoe had witnessed one of these exhibitions with great fascination as a young man growing up in a well-established family in Philadelphia. He was ordained a Protestant minister in 1849 and started in that profession on the western frontier in Wisconsin. He surprised his family by later converting to Catholicism and heading to Minnesota during the real estate boom to make a relatively good living in real estate.

In his spare time Markoe decided to construct a balloon for the first flight in Minnesota history. Most of his friends thought he was a little cracked and his mother, disappointed with his leaving the ministry, viewed it as a sign of his complete deterioration of character. Nonetheless, the amateur balloonist persisted by acquiring several subscribers to raise the necessary funds to construct a balloon. After employing the assistance of basket makers and seamstresses, the balloon was finally ready on September 23, 1857. It was filled with illuminating gas for lamps at the St. Paul Gasworks. William S. Crawford, a dry goods merchant, joined Markoe as his copilot. They originally planned on three in the basket, but the flying ship “Minnesota” would not budge with all three. After losing one of the copilots and a significant portion of their ballast, the ship glided into the sky.

The two men settled in for a long trip that sent them floating towards Hastings as they enjoyed some of the chicken potpie provided by Mrs. Markoe. As they approached Hastings the wind shifted, sending them towards Cannon Falls. About 5 miles east of Cannon Falls they realized they were heading towards the cavernous valley of the Cannon River and the deep forest beyond which would make it nearly impossible to land. As the “Minnesota” approached the ground, frightened farmers sent their families into hiding and grabbed their muskets to protect them from the descending leviathan. Fortunately cooler heads prevailed because one true shot from a musket could have exploded the gas-filled beast.

The wind, being of sufficient speed, did not allow the grappling hook they employed to work. It only slowed them down until they crashed into a fence post, covering Mr. Crawford with some left over chicken potpie. It was a successful fight with a challenging landing. The “Minnesota” would sail with Markoe one more time, ending up in an oak tree near Forest Lake after losing its copilot S. S. Eaton in an aborted landing effort near White Bear Lake. On the third attempted flight the “Minnesota” ripped open while being filled at the gas works, nearly suffocating all those near. There’s no indication that Markoe ever flew again.

The maiden flight of the Minnesota Republican-led Senate has been a little bit like the first balloon flight in Minnesota. This session was the first time since Minnesota returned to a partisan legislature four decades ago that the majority caucus was under the Republican banner. Like the balloon trip the planning and launching of their caucus initiatives went off smoothly, but the landing has signs of being a very challenging one.

The Republican caucus has succeeded in adopting some key constitutional amendments for their constituencies and kept a lid on budget growth. They passed a bill for the Chamber of Commerce streamlining environmental permitting. They unfortunately had to suffer through the longest government shutdown in our nation’s history for any state. They have been deeply embarrassed by a scandal between their majority leader and a staff member. As of late they have endured some open rebellion by young conservative freshmen senators challenging leadership on ballot initiatives and the size of the bonding bill. These more conservative members have clearly indicated a lack of support for passing a larger bonding bill proposed by the new majority leader Dave Senjem.

As the Legislature wraps up its Easter break and begins its final preparations towards a legislative landing, one of the things that Capitol observers will be watching closely is how the Senate will perform.  They are in uncharted territory and though their planning seemed to make sense when they took off at the beginning of the year, the unknown factors will likely create significant challenges for them as they try to wrap up the legislative session.  The flurry of activity often creates unanticipated problems. Given what appears to be significant discontent in their ranks, it is likely that the Senate could find this landing quite hard and they may end up with a little chicken potpie on their suits before it is all done.

*“101 Best Stories of Minnesota” by Merle Potter printed by Harrison and Smith Company in Minneapolis, Minnesota 1931 2nd edition, p.63

About John Tuma

John is a former state legislator and litigation attorney. He served in the Minnesota House of Representatives for eight years from the Northfield area, beginning in 1994. Elected as a Republican, John was known for his independent thinking and ability to work across party lines. He is well-known in Minnesota state government circles.
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