Homan Walsh - Bridging the Niagara River Gorge With a Kite:
Although not a "true" kite pioneer, Homan Walsh of Niagara Falls, NY deserves a place among the significant kite fliers of history. It was Walsh's flight across the Niagara River gorge in 1848 that prepared the way for the first suspension bridge across the immense gorge, linking the nations of Canada and the United States of America.
This use of a kite is an excellent exemple of how kites were used as a tool in support of technological goals. Many later advances in kite design came about as kite designers sought to achieve certain flight characteristics to help accomplish scientific or technical goals.
Homan Walsh was one of many participants in the kite flying contest sponsored by Theodore G. Hullett. Hullet was associated with the bridge construction project. The sole purpose of the contest was to get a light line across the river in a section where the gorge was very deep and could not be navigated due to the incredible rapids that prevented any type of navigation at the time. Once over the river, the kite line was to be used to pull across increasingly heavier and stronger lines until a steel cable could be drawn across. Once a single steel cable was in place, construction methods of the day would provide an opportunity to construct the bridge from this single cable which would be used as a transport line for other cables and materials.
Homan Walsh lived in Niagara Falls, NY with his family which included at least one brother. Born March 24, 1831, Homan lived until March 8, 1899. Most of his adult life was lived in Nebraska. Newspaper accounts of his obituary suggest that he made a few trips back home to Niagara Falls to visit relatives over the years. He is buried in Oakwood Cemetery, 763 Portage Road, Niagara Falls, NY in grave C5 of Lot 687 in the cemetery.
Homan Walsh was sixteen years of age when he took up the challenge to fly a kite across the Niagara Gorge. Many other adults and children attempted to fly a kite across the river gorge since the $10.00 prize ($5.00 in some accounts) offered up was a princely sum at that time.
Walsh's successful attempt came after many days of trying and long delays in the process due to difficult January weather. He worked at flying his kite from the Canadian side to the U.S. side to take advantage of prevailing winds.
Finally he was successful in flying over the gorge but there was no way to guide the single line kite to a landing once it crossed the divide. So, observers on the American side of the river waited until winds subsided and the kite fluttered to a landing. The line was secured and the process of hauling over increasingly stronger lines was undertaken according to the plan.
To the best of our knowledge, Walsh did not specifically design a type of kite for the contest flight. Rather it is likely that he used a kite design that was well known in that era. None of the accounts of Walsh's flight that I have been able to dig up from primary sources of the era details what kind of kite Homan used. Prominent kite designs of the era were the "barn door" [3 stick frame] and the "lozenge" kite [a type of diamond kite with 2 stick frame]. Both of these kites required a tail for stability. Some artist's conceptions of the event show Walsh's kite to be a three-stick barn door kite. It is not clear in any written accounts that this is, for certain, the type of kite used by Walsh, but it is probable.
The , the kite flying contest, and the construction of the first suspension bridge over the Niagara River has been carefully researched and written by Meg and Bill Albers of Buffalo NY. It is well worth reading all of the detail to understand the kite flying feat and the importance of the use of the kite in the building of the bridge.
On October 7, 2005 a re-enactment of the Homan Walsh flight across the Niagara River gorge was held as part of the Niagara International Kite Festival. Ten teams competed in the event. One team, from the Niagara Windriders Kitefliers Association in southern Ontario, was able to cross the gorge. I was privileged to be a member of that team and to experience the complexity of the task of flying over the Niagara River gorge.
To learn about the issues and challenges involved in such a flight it is well worth reading the detailed . Blog entry for the event