As balloons take flight in this weekend’s Great Falls Balloon Festival, it may be a fitting time to remember an aeronautical pioneer from Maine who vanished in 1885 when his balloon plummeted into the English Channel.

The doomed balloonist — Frederick Allan Gower, born in Sedgewick and married at the time to one of the world’s most prominent opera singers, also from Maine — was by all accounts an eccentric fellow.

Balloonist and inventor Frederick Gower. Contributed photo

Gower, credited with installing the first telephone lines in Lewiston while serving as the New England representative for Alexander Graham Bell, got to know the inventor when he arranged a lecture tour for him.

“I like him exceedingly both as a friend and as a businessman,” Bell wrote shortly after they got to know each other, when Gower served as editor of the Providence Press in Rhode Island.

Gower soon grew wealthy in Europe with a patented, but minor, improvement to Bell’s original version of the phone

Gower used some of the money he made to dabble seriously in ballooning.

One friend told the Lewiston Evening Journal that Gower was “an odd genius” and “a big egotist” consumed with the notion that by finding the right air currents, balloons could fly between Paris and London, dropping dynamite on the faraway cities and then returning home.

A French account focused on his notion that he could launch a “torpedo balloon” that would sail through the air to the appropriate target and explode automatically.

Once he figured it all out, the friend told the Lewiston paper, Gower intended to make a fortune selling the secret to either the French or English government.

He must have met with some success in his experiments since Gower was among the early balloonists who managed to cross the English Channel.

It wasn’t always easy.

In November 1884, he told a journalist about a flight he made above Paris with Gaston Tissandier, floating at 6,000 feet above a festival on the ground below, where they could hear the cries of children and barking dogs far below.

Gaston Tissandier, French balloonist, 1886. Library of Congress

Then, all of a sudden, Gower said, their breath came up short and they felt gushing air as if they were on “a steamer against the wind.”

“We were falling suddenly as though the great globe above our heads had given way,” he said in the account published in the Daily Colonist in Victoria, British Columbia.

Nothing visible had occurred, Gower said, but the envelope of the balloon had become wrinkled like the face of an old man.

“The clouds were gone, as by magic, and the earth was rushing at us with its thousand voices in full cry,” Gower said.

Fortunately, his partner remained “cool and firm” and ordered him to toss an anchor toward the fast-approaching ground. It proved enough to halt the balloon’s descent with 50 feet to spare.

“Our fall of a mile through the air was safely ended,” Gower said, and “the gambols of our playful monster” ultimately harmless.

By June 1885, Gower was going up alone, carrying heavy ballast as mock torpedos on the coast of France south of Boulogne. In July, he took a visiting Russian naval officer up near Cherbourg.

In an account published six years later in France, Tissandier said that on July 18, Gower left alone in his balloon, the Ville D’Hyeres, with a good breeze that would let him come down in Dieppe.

He never arrived.

Instead, a small ship saw a balloon with a gondola descending miles out at sea that evening in the English Channel. It saw the balloon rise and fall several times before disappearing in  the distance. A fishing boat, the Phoenix, found the balloon at 7 p.m. that same day out in the water some 13 miles from Dieppe.

The ball of Rolier, aeronaut of the siege of Paris in 1871, as drawn by French civil engineer Max de Nansouty for Aerostation – Aviation in 1911. Steve Collins/Sun Journal

The gondola was missing, however, its ropes cut, as if Gower had hoped to sail away from the wreckage. He was nowhere to be found, presumed dead at sea, another casualty of early aeronautics.

But it’s possible that Gower faked his death.

The anonymous friend’s account of Gower’s demise for the Lewiston paper expressed the idea that “the obvious inference” of his fate may not be correct.

“I can see how Gower’s big bump of self-esteem might be so affected by failure as to lead him to keep out of the way and inflict a little mystery on a curious public,” the friend wrote. “While I allow the chances are that Gower was drowned, I should be surprised to  hear of his turning up again in Paris.”

Gower’s brother, Fred, expressed that the inventor “was always an eccentric man and likely to do any queer thing, such as dropping out of sight for a number of years,” according to an old account in the Los Angeles Herald. He said he figured is brother was alive somewhere.

Indeed, in 1894, one of Gower’s old pals from Bangor insisted that he had run into the man.

A Dr. Bickford from Bangor said he had known Gower since they were both boys in Sedgwick and knew him well.

While in San Francisco, Bickford told a reporter, he saw Gower.

“At first he attempted to brush by me without recognition, but at my persistent advances, finally acknowledged his identity. There is no possible doubt of his actually being in the flesh,” the doctor said. Henry A. Wing, an editor in Lewiston, backed up Bickford’s tale.

Though Gower doesn’t appear to have surfaced in public after his balloon wound up in the ocean, his personal circumstances were complicated enough that perhaps he really did fake the whole thing and go on to live out his life in secret somewhere.

Lillian Nordica in a Coca-Cola advertisment Coca-Cola photo

At the time, Gower was married to Lillian Nordica of Farmington, one of the world’s finest sopranos.

According to an account by the New England Historical Society, Nordica married Gower in 1883 after she had become famous in Europe. He was a wealthy fellow Mainer and her second cousin.

Sadly, though, “the marriage proved a disaster” because Gower, who hated opera, called a halt to her singing career and once, in a fit of rage, “burned her music and gowns, insisting he had the right because he had paid for them.”

Nordica headed to Boston and began preparing a case for divorce six months before Gower vanished.

After his apparent death made the divorce pointless, she learned Gower had spent most of his fortune, leaving her with far less than she expected.

Nordica revived her career, singing on stages across the world until her death at the age of 57 in Java, after contracting pneumonia during a shipwreck.

Noridica’s home in Farmington has been transformed into a museum. Gower is largely forgotten.


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