Charles A. A. Dellschau Dreams of Flying: The Amazing Story of an Airship Club That Might Never Have Existed

"But," she continued, "I do believe he was in California and I do believe he had some experience that was important to him, that had to do with this, whether it was exactly as he depicted it or not in his later years."

Dellschau was born in 1830 in Berlin. Baker-White believes he most likely came to the United States in 1849, though any record of his arrival is uncertain. The first definite documentation of Dellschau in America that exists is from 1860, when he applied for citizenship from his home in Fort Bend County, Texas. That form makes reference to an earlier "declaration of intent" from 1850, indicating that that's when he arrived in America. Where was he, in that missing decade? Is it possible he was in the hills of California, searching for gold, debating designs of airships that could bring humans into the skies?

Baker-White thinks it is. Although there's no record of Dellschau in California, in his diaries, he makes references to people and places that are historically documented in California, such as a sheriff by the name of James Steward, who definitely did exist, and an innkeeper named Freund, who Baker-White says was also well-documented. 

But as for the members of the club ... "This is the frustrating part," Baker-White told me. "I haven't found them in Sonora in the 1850s, but I've found them in Napa Valley in 1900, or in San Francisco in 1872, or in Stockton in 1872. There are possible links, but there's nothing that is in Sonora." There is, for example, she writes in the anthology, "a Peter Mennis who served in the Texas Mounted Volunteers during the Mexican War and died on November 1, 1901" who is buried in Napa.

So perhaps the members of the Sonora Aero Club later scattered to the four winds, but were very real -- and very much in Sonora -- at the time when Dellschau was there. Tens of thousands of men were streaming in and out of gold-rush towns during that time. Record-keeping wasn't exactly a priority.

But, at the end of the day, the club's historicity is thin at best. Peter Navarro, a graphic designer who purchased Dellschau's work after its landfill rescue (and later devoted decades of his life to studying and decodings the texts), wrote, "Many of the newsworthy events that Dellschau claimed to have happened while he was there have been verified. But those events dealing with the activities of the Aero Club have not." He concluded, "A personal search of records and cemeteries . . . have turned up nothing that would prove the members of the Aero Club ever existed." And though Baker-White can find some names in later California records, others crop up in turn-of-the-century Houston, where Dellschau lived out his later years and created his books.

All the signs seem to indicate that Dellschau's Sonora Aero Club is not exactly an accurate recounting of fact. But even as a fabrication, Dellschau's dreams represent a historical truth: This was a country seized with a dream of flight.

2012-01-24-102414.jpg

Charles Dellschau, courtesy of Stephen Romano

If Dellschau did go to California, which it seems that he did, it makes sense that he would have arrived there fantasizing about air travel: The journey westward was full of hardship -- whether over land across the American continent or by boat around Cape Horn -- many in America wanted to be in California without ever having to go through the trouble of getting there. Rufus Porter, the founder of Scientific American, published a pamphlet in 1849 entitled Aerial Navigation: The Practicability of Travelling Pleasantly and Safely from New York to California in Three Days.

indianorwhitemansstares.jpgCharles A.A. Dellschau (American, b. Prussia, 1830 - 1923), detail. Press Bloom, A Flying Machine that Folds its Wing, 1912. Mixed media. San Antonio Museum of Art, purchased with funds provided by the Annual Gift Appeal. Full image available here.

"Think about the fear that you would have going across this huge country, and encountering all kinds of hazards, and just being afraid," Baker-White remarked, "and how easy it would seem to just go across in a balloon." Dellschau himself expresses this desire, laden with the prejudices and racial tensions of the time, writing in the border of one plate that "the main Object [was] to be able to cross the plains -- and avoid Indian -- or White mans stares."

Drinking clubs, too, were common (one founded at that time -- E Clampus Vitus -- still exists). The whole idea that during the Gold Rush, a group of men would have gathered weekly to drink while concocting designs for balloons, dirigibles, and other flight craft is "totally plausible," according to Baker-White. It's more the specifics than the notion of the Sonora Aero Club that are historically suspect.

All of this was occurring during a time when people the world over -- not just westward-bound gold diggers -- could feel themselves on the cusp of an airborne age. Europeans of the 18th century were going absolutely nuts over air balloons, something Dellschau may have picked up during his formative years in Germany. But flight had obsessed humans for far longer. Crouch put it beautifully:

Flight was, after all, the great dream of the ages. It may have been the one technological dream that's innate in human beings -- because of the birds, because other creatures fly and we don't. It becomes -- the dream of flight becomes -- psychologically embedded in us, connected to those human desires to escape, to soar over obstacles -- whether geographic or obstacles in life.

That psychological landscape was in place and then, all of the sudden, in the late 18th century and into the 19th, with the advent of balloons, advances in mechanical engineering, and the harnessing of electricity, that long-held dream became a real possibility. "You have these waves of just raw enthusiasm sweeping through society," Crouch muses. He imagines a sort of collective realization, a moment when everyone took it all in, looked at one another, and exclaimed, "Gosh, you know, now we can actually do this!"

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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