When seventy-eight-year-old William Rulison passed away in August of 1931, the only newspaper in Upstate New York that carried the news was Cooperstown’s Otsego Farmer. In this obituary, he was noted only as a “pioneer in balloon flying in this part of the country,” and a man who went by the title of Professor. This report of his passing left much untold, and in the material that follows I hope to give a complete account of his full and varied life.
William Warren Rulison was born in 1854, the son of John and Ellison Applegate Rulison of German Flatts, Herkimer County, NY. In 1864, his father, then age 36 and the father of three boys, enlisted for duty in the Civil War. John served from February of that year until July of 1865 when he was mustered out in Alexandria, Virginia. During his time in the 102nd Infantry he either used or was incorrectly given the last name of Rulifron, a surname that newspapers would also sometimes use when referring to his son William. When John returned from the war, he took employment as a lock tender on the Erie Canal.
What little we know of William Warren Rulison’s early life begins with his recollection of running away from home in 1867. Besides his own words, the only confirmation of this is his being listed with his family in the 1865 census at age 12 and then not listed with his family in the 1870 Herkimer County census. Everything else from his early years comes only from accounts that he offered to newspapers on several occasions, here is one example from the Ogdensburg Advance of September 14, 1882:
“One day when he was thirteen years of age, his father sent him out after an armful of wood. Instead of returning, he ran away, and before he came back again went to Europe, was in Paris at the time of the Franco-Prussian war, came out of the city in a balloon, and had numberless adventures. A few years later he got around to his old home and, seeing a fine pile of wood near the door, picked up an armful and took it into the house, and told his father that it had taken him six years to get the wood.”
The August 18, 1881, Pulaski Democrat printed what they described as “a brief biographical sketch and extracts from the press,” that gave further details of William’s early years. Here we are told that as a youth, Rulison practiced acrobatics and other activities that he described as “Olympic games.” After running away from home, he next is found tightrope walking “under Blondin.” During this time William told of how he walked a 1,400-foot-long tightrope over the falls at St. Anthony, Minnesota. Charles Blondin, the famous French acrobat, and tightrope walker had crossed Niagara Gorge on the Canadian-US border in 1859 but had returned to Europe by 1860 when William was still only six years old. If Saint Anthony Falls in Minnesota has ever been conquered by a tightrope walker it was never reported.
William is then said to have traveled down the Pacific coast giving exhibitions as a gymnast and flying trapeze artist. His next destination was Europe, where he learned the science of ballooning and performed what he called “some of the most astounding acts in the balloon ever attempted by man.” His skills as a balloonist were used by the French when he operated an observation balloon in Paris and assisted in the evacuation of that city during the Franco-Prussian War siege. Returning to America, he continued performing as a balloonist, stating that at that time he was “the only aeronaut performing gymnastic evolutions under a hydrogen balloon.”
There is one other piece of evidence that tells a far different story of where William was during these missing years. In Army records from 1870, a 21-year-old named William Rulison enlisted in the city of New York to serve in an engineer regiment. This William gave his occupation as a “sailor,” leading one to believe that he had been to sea during most, if not all those years. One interesting piece in this record was this William was assigned to a regiment that during the Civil War operated aerial observation balloons.
The military career of William Rulison only lasted a few months as in May of 1871 he was reported as having deserted. This may be why Rulison used at least two stage names during his early years of performing. According to the website balloonhistory.com, they were Walliky Rulison or Rulicky Walison, though neither of these names is found in newspaper articles reporting on his ascents during his years of ballooning in the Mohawk Valley. The only known title that he used once he was back in America was “Professor,” a common moniker taken by aerial and other performers.
We can be certain that William had returned to upstate New York by 1875, as he is found in that year’s Herkimer County census at age 22, living with his parents in German Flats. Oddly, he did not offer any occupation for the census taker, an uncommon occurrence in census records for someone of working age.
Rulison’s Balloon Career in the Mohawk Valley
It was in 1876 when William is first reported making a balloon ascent in America, as in March of that year he was scheduled to make several ascents at the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Centennial celebration, where he was to perform on the trapeze as the balloon rose.
His next reported launch was for the village of Canajoharie’s 1876 Fourth of July celebration. William’s ascension offered the villagers some excitement that day as the balloon was caught in stiff air currents as it rose, giving Rulison a challenge as he hung from a trapeze and performed acrobatics as it drifted out of sight. Some of the crowd even followed him on horseback and met him as he came down in a farmyard several miles north of Palatine Bridge. He got a ride back to Canajoharie, showing up at the height of that evening’s celebration, where he entered the ballroom to the loud cheers of the dancing throng. The newspaper report of his exhibition reported that he went up in a hot air balloon, the only time that this was noted, as all his other flights were using a balloon inflated with hydrogen.
The next month William had another ascension scheduled, this time in a gas balloon at Little Falls on August 11, 1876. For this trip he would have a passenger, Peter J. Casler of the Cottage Hotel. The ascension did not go off, as the balloon was found to be leaking so badly it would not hold sufficient gas. Just two weeks later he tried again, this time in the town of Mohawk. Due to the people who generated the hydrogen gas getting a late start, the balloon was not full when Rulison lifted off just before dark. When he attempted an ascent, the balloon was not able to rise much about the top of the nearby buildings. For months to follow newspapers would recall these problems with comments such as “Prof. Rulison’s balloon ascension at Little Falls was a fizzle,” and “Prof. Rulison and his balloon are the laughingstock of all Herkimer County.”
In 1877 William Rulison was hired as a balloonist by Carl Edward Myers, of Mohawk, the same village where Rulison was living at that time. Carl Myers was well-known across the region as a hydrogen balloon builder and engineer. Born in Herkimer County in 1842. Carl Myers’ given name was Charles, and to avoid confusion in this article, he is referred to as Carl, the name he always used when involved with ballooning. Carl was educated at a local boy’s school, and after graduation took a job as a cashier and teller in the Mohawk Valley Bank in his hometown of Mohawk.
After six years, he changed careers and bought a photography studio in Hornellsville, New York, eighty miles south of Rochester. There he met and married 22-year-old Mary Breed Hawley; some seven years younger than Carl. It was said that Mary showed a keen interest in her husband’s pursuits and together they took up an interest in ballooning and the manufacture of hydrogen gas.
In 1875 they sold off the photography business and returned to Mohawk intent on pursuing the balloon business. In the summer of 1878, William Rulison began making ascents across the region using Flying Cloud, a balloon that had been constructed by Carl Myers. That July, Myers announced that he had a second, backup balloon ready “in case of damage or destruction” of the one presently in use by Rulison.
He also told of plans to build the solo hydrogen gas balloon Aerial which was to weigh 40 lbs. and lift 350 pounds, being the lightest machine of its capacity in this or any other country. The hydrogen balloon Aerial would become the main balloon used by Carl’s wife during her career as a balloonist using the stage name Carlotta.
Professor William Warren Rulison, already highly regarded in 1878 as a balloon and aerobatic performer, was actively promoting himself in regional newspapers such as the Rome Sentinel on April 30th of 1878 where he announced himself as the “Mohawk aeronaut willing to make balloon ascents on only a trapeze bar, and would be willing to perform upon it if he is paid for it.” A year later he again advertised himself, this time as an aeronaut and aerial gymnast, using the much broader reach of the Clipper, a New York paper that sold advertising space to performers.
Later in 1879, he would make an ascension in Detroit, Michigan, where in association with Myers he used the balloon Flying Cloud, which was for the first time filled with city gas rather than hydrogen. The ascent and aerial gymnastic routine by Rulison were done with only a trapeze bar and no basket. Myers by this time had begun designing what he called his “aerial velocipede,” or flying machine. This machine was composed of a balloon, kite, and double-geared velocipede, with a screw propeller whose wings are fifteen feet across and weigh only three pounds. For its first public demonstration, Meyers hired Rulison to take the aerial velocipede up later that summer.
By this time Willian Rulison and his acrobatic performance were becoming well known and highly regarded, being called “a young man to run such risks, but he appears to be anxious to succeed in this business,” and as a “worth young man, of excellent habits.” One other example of the praise he was receiving was published in the September 9, 1880, Watertown Reunion, just before the opening of the town of Redwood’s 1880 Union Agricultural Society’s Fair:
“Among the many attractions affording amusement and instruction always to be found at the fairs given by this society, will this year be the fearless, beautiful, and artistic balloon ascension of Prof. Rulison, under the supervision of the practical aeronautic engineer, Prof. C. E. Myers. These ascensions differ from others usually made at fairs, in the fact that the ascension is made with no basket, car, or other vehicle attached, save a horizontal or trapeze bar, upon which, while in midair, the Professor performs some of the most daring and difficult acts known to athletic performers.”
The performance from start to finish was a well-rehearsed and choreographed performance by both Professors Rulison and Myers. The first step in the ascension was the filling of the balloon with gas. The deflated balloon was laid out on a large piece of canvas to prevent any holes or tears while it was on the ground. Once the envelope was laid out and the cords and netting were in proper order a silken tube was connected to the gas source, either a machine that produced hydrogen gas or a city gas main. As much as 10,000 feet of gas was needed to fully inflate a balloon.
Soon the acrobat would enter the arena, clad in his gymnastic tights, closely examine the balloon and trapeze, and then calmly step aside allowing Myers to complete any last-minute adjustments. Shaking hands with those nearby, Rulison would then seat himself on the trapeze, and wave his hand to have the balloon released as the local band would strike up a tune. Once aloft, he would go through his aerobatic routine while still low enough for the crowd to show their appreciation with spontaneous applause.
The July 18, 1878, Oneida County Clinton Courier gave this account of one of his performances:
“Rulison ascended head downwards, with feet and legs clasped about the trapeze, holding the guy-rope in his hand as it was paid out by those below. Then, losing his hold he caught the trapeze in his hands and performed gymnastic feats innumerable as he gently arose, being ballasted to make his ascension quite slow. So far from seeming dangerous, his evolutions seem a graceful accompaniment to the motions of the Flying Cloud and gave an appropriateness to the whole quite in keeping with a tenant of the air. It is faint praise to say that the lookers on were delighted as the Flying Cloud arose and floated south-eastward, visible for several miles. Everybody testified that this is the finest ascension ever witnessed.”
After a few miles of flight, the aeronaut would release gas from the balloon to hopefully descend in a convenient field. If able, he would return to the fairgrounds as soon as possible and publicly thank the fair organizers and spectators, expressing a desire to meet all of them again. By the summer of 1880, William Rulison had made over thirty-two ascensions with the Flying Cloud.
William Rulison Settles Down
Tragedy struck the lives of William and his family when his father John passed away in October of 1879 at the age of fifty-two. He was buried in his hometown of Mohawk. William was living with his parents at the time of his father’s death, as were his twenty-three-year-old brother Charles, fifteen-year-old Martha, and ten-year-old Daniel. William’s occupation in the 1880 census for German Flatts, Herkimer County was reported as a balloonist.
In September of 1881, William married twenty-five-year-old Melissa Baker Groom in Herkimer, New York. Melissa also brought her seven-year-old son George Warren into the marriage. The new family made their home in Mohawk, with Melissa’s mother Sophia Baker soon moving in with them. George Warren Groom was either adopted by William or took on the name of his new father as in the 1892 census for German Flatts, Herkimer County, he went by the name G. Warren Rulison.
What the business relationship between Carl Myer and Rulison exactly was during their years working together is at times unclear. While Myers did occasionally ascend as a passenger in his own balloons, he also acted as ground engineer, agent, and manager for William as they traveled in New York and across the country giving balloon exhibitions. It is most likely that Myer was the owner of the gas balloon Flying Cloud that Rulison piloted.
In the 1880 census it was noted that while William was a balloonist, he had been unemployed for the past six months. So, it is likely that William Rulison was not a full-time employee of Carl and Mary Myers but was employed only as needed for balloon ascensions at public exhibitions and testing new balloon designs that the couple was building.
Carl and Mary had hired Rulison as they did not yet have any experience taking their creations into the air. While he was employed at first just to pilot their balloons, it was not long before he taught Carl and Mary to fly. On July 4, 1880, Mary took her first solo flight before 15,000 people in Little Falls. By September of that year, Mary had made another ascension in Norwich, New York, at the same time Rulison was making ascensions at Redwood in Jefferson County, NY and then Trenton, outside of Utica.
By 1881 Mary had taken the stage name of “Carlotta” for her balloon ascensions, her husband Charles, was now Professor Carl Edward Myers. Even at this early stage in her career, Carlotta was already dubbed “Aerial Princess Carlotta,” by the newspapers in the region. One of her exhibitions was at the September 1881 Redwood Union Fair, where she took Rulison’s place of previous years. Also, in 1881, Myers took the balloon Flying Cloud, with Madam Carlotta, her balloon Aerial, and “the celebrated aerial gymnast Prof. Rulliffson” to St. Paul Minnesota. It is unknown if this was the only launch they made during the trip or if it was part of a larger series of exhibitions.
At the end of 1882, Rulison announced that his five-year contract with C. E. Myers had expired. From that time on William said he alone would be conducting his ballooning business. Rulison announced this change in his business relationship with Myers in the Herkimer Democrat, of August 22, 1883, with no uncertain terms, “As for management of my business, he has nothing whatsoever to do with it this year, henceforth and forever, as I shall make no ascensions hereafter for him under no circumstances whatsoever.”
What would be the last reported ascensions on balloon and trapeze by William Rulison in the Mohawk Valley was scheduled for the 1883 Herkimer County Fair. Due to the contentious disagreement between Myers and Rulison over who held the contract with the fair organizers, the ascension was replaced by a display of Japanese fireworks. Professor Rulison was planning on taking his new Flying Cloud on its first flight at this show, though it is unclear if this balloon is one made by Myers or one that Rulison constructed himself.
In the spring of 1884, the Montgomery County fair was reported as having extended an invitation for Professor Rulison to make a balloon ascension “while clinging to a horizontal bar upon which he performs gymnastics unto he is lost in the clouds,” but nothing was ever reported of his participation.
A Time of Career Changes
By 1885 William Rulison pursued a new career and opened a photography studio at the corner of Main and Railroad Streets in Ilion, a village only two miles away from his home at 44 Main Street in Mohawk. His work in photography did not last long, as in the August 12, 1885, Herkimer Democrat it was announced that he had discontinued the business.
William and Melissa Rulison soon moved to Little Falls, first to Porteus Street and then the next year a short distance away to Court Street. It was in the 1887 Little Falls directory that William first gave his occupation as a house painter, though he also gave a second occupation as a balloonist.
According to the September 21, 1887, Watertown Times, Mr. Rulison had recently been in the government employ as a professional aeronaut stationed at Washington. Though this news is not verified elsewhere, it is possible that Rulison could have been involved as the United States Army Signal Corp which was at that time overseeing the weather service. Also, during this time, Carl Myers, the man who had once been Rulison’s manager, was making hydrogen weather balloons for the government.
We know for sure that William was back in the area by that autumn, as in September of 1887 he built a hydrogen balloon in Potsdam for that community’s Agricultural Society fair. This balloon was to carry Professor Thomas Baldwin aloft where he was to parachute back to earth as that year’s main event. The construction went as planned, but insufficient hydrogen was produced to fill the balloon for its scheduled launch on the last day of the fair.
It would take two more days to finally get the balloon filled and even then, Baldwin only rose one thousand feet before making the jump. His parachute was attached in such a way that the balloon would be pulled open when he jumped, allowing it to deflate and drop to the ground. Unfortunately, the balloon was so severely damaged during the performance that it was deemed unusable for future launches.
By 1887, Myers had replaced William Rulison in his balloon exhibitions with another acrobat, Indianapolis native Edward Clarage. An experienced balloonist when he came to Myers, he would still be given second billing behind Carlotta in double ascensions at fairs. On his eighty-ninth ascension, Clarage’s life came to a tragic end during the 1887 Fourth of July celebration in Olean, New York.
Working with a balloon that Myers later said had been too heavily weighted for the conditions, Clarage was dragged across a rooftop and lost grip on the trapeze, and fell twenty feet, death coming the following day. While Myers was not present that day, he graciously covered the cost of the funeral and internment in an Olean cemetery.
Clarage had been living with his wife and four children in a fourth-floor tenement in Harlem, New York. Mrs. Clarage and his children made their way by train to Olean a few days later, passing through on their way to live with her husband’s family in Indiana. By August Myers had replaced Clarage with gymnast and aeronaut, Prof. Leon Dare. Leon continued to fly balloons using only a trapeze, one example being the 1893 Cortland, New York Agricultural Fair.
Leon Dare was the stage name taken by Binghamton, New York native Tracey A. Tisdell while he was performing as an aerial acrobat for Myers. Previously a photographer in Brooklyn, New York, he had made his start in the balloon business in 1887, and by 1889 was living with Carl and Mary in Frankfort. He took his training into the military, serving in the Balloon Corps from 1892 and later during the Spanish American War.
In what would be the Rulison’s last performances under a balloon, the Little Falls Evening News reported in October of 1887 that “Prof. Wm. Rulison has returned from an extended trip through the west.” The article noted that he had made thirty-two balloon ascensions during the summer months, with the last one taking place in Leadville, Colorado. None of these ascents have been verified in newspaper archives.
From Aerobatics to Deep Sea Diving
William and Melissa moved from Court Street in Little Falls in 1889 and purchased a home on a half-acre lot at 39 Centre St. in Mohawk from George and Margaret Foster for $260. William by that time was no longer a full-time balloonist and gave his occupation again as a house painter and for the first time also as a deep-sea diver.
In October of 1889 William Rulison and a Mr. Adams, both of Mohawk, were employed by friends of Edward M. Walrath to find and recover his body from Otsego Lake where he had drowned after a failed parachute jump from his balloon. The two divers were unsuccessful, and Walrath was not found until professional divers were called in and located his body in early November. There is a tragic irony to this as it was only four months before Walrath had made his first ascension in a balloon of his own construction at that Ilion Fourth of July celebration. At the time of this ascent, Walrath was said to have been working with William Rulison learning the trade of ballooning.
Rulison was again employed in the spring of 1890 to locate the body of 17-year-old Miss Anna Leon of Little Falls, who was suspected of committing suicide by jumping into the Mohawk River. A note had been found in her cloak near the riverbank giving final a farewell to her mother. Though some did not believe she had taken her own life, Fred Goo of Ilion and William Rulison of Mohawk were called to search the river in July. After closely examining the river bottom near the bridge, they were unsuccessful in locating her remains.
Sadly, Miss Leon’s body was found the following April on the shore of Wemple Island near Tribes Hill, some thirty miles downstream. In the summer of 1895, using the business name of “William Rulison & Son,” Rulison was hired by the village of Canandaigua to repair the intake pipes on their new waterworks system. The news of this work was carried in newspapers as far away as the Buffalo New York Evening News, August 21, 1895:
“Mr. Rulison made a careful inspection of the pipes; he will have several days’ work on them and may be here all week. He wears the regulation deep sea diver’s suit and his appearance is a matter of great curiosity to the inland people who have never before seen a diver at work. He wears shoes with soles weighing twenty-five pounds each, and besides these and his heavy helmet he carries a belt of iron weighing sixty pounds. He finds the water at the bottom of Canandaigua Lake very cold and shivers and shakes like a man with ague when he first emerges from the lake.”
Surprisingly, William again partnered with Carl Myers during his years of diving. In 1896 they searched for a lost vessel in the St. Lawrence River. The wreck that they were seeking was the steamer Oconto, which had sunk in November of 1896 between Rock Island Light House and Thousand Island Park. Using the wrecking steamer Gilbert, operated by Capt. S. Hemen of Sackets Harbor, they pioneered a unique method of salvage.
The technique they used had Myers towed in a balloon one hundred feet above the surface of the river with the aeronaut looking down and searching for the hull. Once located, Rulison descended to determine if the wreck was worth salvaging. While some of the cargo was salvaged, Myers and Rulison were unsuccessful in bringing all of it to the surface.
The wreck soon slid further down into the channel and split in two and today rests on the floor of the St. Lawrence River in 175 feet of water. Throughout the 1890s William Rulison continued his work as a diver, often traveling both in New York State and even as far as Nicaragua where he worked on the canal that was being constructed.
One of the most challenging and dangerous experiences that Rulison encountered during his years of diving occurred when he was hired to help recover the Adirondack and St. Lawrence Railroad passenger engine No. 473 and its tender car that had gone into the West Canada Creek outside of the city of Herkimer when a train trestle they were crossing collapsed.
On the engine were two firemen, John Brennan, and Andy Moore, as well as trainman William F. Brown. Both Brennan and Brown escaped from the submerged cab and by clinging to floating ice were quickly rescued. Sadly, Andy Moore never surfaced. In the cold January water Rulison first searched for sign of Moore, then explored the wreck to assess how best to raise the engine. A 100-ton railroad crane was brought in, and a chain was attached.
“Sunday immense crowds were on the scene all day long. Diver Rulison went down again in the afternoon to place chains around the engine. It was a strange sight for many to see a diver at work. When dressed he was almost helpless on land because of the great weight of the outfit. His shoes weighed 50 pounds each and he wore a belt of lead weighing 30 pounds. A pump on the roadway supplied air through a long rubber hose attached to the brass helmet. As he prowled around the wreck rolling and crawling over the engine he looked like some huge monster of the deep.”
The wreck was finally raised, and repairs were made to reopen the track. The body of Andy Moore was located that next April, just a few hundred yards from the scene of the accident. It was later determined that he had not drowned but had succumbed from a blow to the head before he had entered the water.
In 1902, the steamboat Marjorie sunk near Cedar Island, Fourth Lake in Inlet, New York while making a trip from Old Forge carrying lumber and canned goods. All those onboard survived except for the pilot Burt Murdock. A thirty-five-year-old guide from Inlet, Murdock never surfaced when the boat went down.
Two years later William Rulison took on the job of recovery and salvage, locating the wreckage near Cedar Island in seventy-three feet of water. The boat was successfully raised on August 8, 1904, though the body of Murdock was not found in the wreck. When brought to the surface, the boat and cargo were said to have been in good condition. As the person doing the salvage, Rulison took ownership and had several offers for the boat. The Marjorie was later acquired by Henry Bowman and used on the lake for pleasure excursions.
His Later Years
The Rulisons would live on Centre Street in Mohawk into the early 1900s, with William listed in the 1904 Herkimer directory, still giving his occupation as a diver. In the next year’s census for Mohawk, he again listed, this time with his occupation only as a house painter.
By 1909 William, Melissa, and Melissa’s mother had moved into a home that William had purchased in the village of Brutus, Cayuga County, New York. Here William continued his occupation as a diver until 1915. William, then sixty-two years old, ended his diving career and took raising poultry and working as a lock tender on the Erie Canal in nearby Weedsport.
In 1916, 61-year-old Melissa Rulison, who had been struggling with ill health for several years, passed away. The following year tragedy again came to William when his stepson passed away in Manhattan, New York. William Warren Rulison spent his final years as a widower, passing away in Maryland in 1931. He was laid to rest in the Chesterfield Cemetery, Centerville, Queen Anne County, Maryland.
You can read more about Carlotta Meyers here.
Illustrations, from above: St. Lawrence Republican August 16, 1882, Ogdensburg Fair Advertisement; Daily Globe, St. Paul, Minnesota Sept. 9, 1881, Carlotta and Rulison together; “A Diver at Work on a Steamboat’s Propeller,” Illustration from Cleveland Moffett, Careers of Danger and Daring (New York: The Century co. 1923) p 75; “I Stayed Down until that Chain was under the Shaft,” Careers of Danger and Daring, p 60 Ilion Citizen, January 13, 1899, Train Wreck in Herkimer.