The Washington Post

Civil War balloon saved by last minute infusion of helium

Finally, the helium needed to fly a replica of a manned Civil War balloon “Intrepid” on July 4 has been found. The donor is Macy’s, a New York department store famous for its helium-filled balloons that are synonymous with the annual Thanksgiving Day parade in that city.

The Genesse County Village & Museum near Rochester, N.Y. made a public plea recently for help in finding an adequate supply of helium to get its $350,000 project off the ground. During the planning stages, no one knew that the supply was tight because the 1996 Helium Privatization Act of 1996 had called for the government to sell off most of its reserve by 2015.

Now, the replica of a Civil War reconnaissance balloon will lift off on schedule thanks to a donation of 50,000 cubic feet of helium from Macy’s. It will be tethered to the ground as were the originals, and visitors to the museum will be able to take a 15-minute flight for a nominal cost in addition to the museum entry fee.

The museum took on the project as a way to participate in the war’s sesquicentennial and because it was in keeping with the time period of its authentic 19th century village, according to museum officials. For the 4th of July, an encampment is planned, with the launching of the balloon as the main event.

The “Intrepid” was part of the Union Army Balloon Corps established by President Abraham Lincoln. He was convinced of the importance of balloon surveillance after Thaddeus S. C. Lowe gave Lincoln a demonstration of its military use when he ascended in a balloon over Arlington, Va. in September 1861. From that vantage point, he was able to telegraph to the ground a report on Confederate military activities three miles away.

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