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Up, up but not away over Arcadia

During World War I, the Army built a balloon school where soldiers in tethered dirigibles trained to study enemy movements.

January 30, 2011|By Steve Harvey

Millionaire E.J. "Lucky" Baldwin was known for making savvy mining investments and surviving two attempts on his life by gun-wielding ex-lovers.

He had less luck with his Arcadia racetrack, which closed five years after its opening and burned down in 1912, three years after his death.

But the site proved ideal during World War I, when the U.S. Army was looking for a place to build a balloon school that would train soldiers to study enemy movements while suspended several thousand feet off the ground.

Baldwin's family turned the property over to the government in 1918, and construction began on what came to be known as Ross Field.

The Army "liked this site because of the mild weather and open spaces," said Dana Dunn, curator of the Ruth and Charles Gilb Arcadia Historical Museum.

The Army had learned its lesson after building an earlier balloon school in Omaha, right before a bitterly cold winter.

Dunn has mounted a colorful exhibition, "Dirigible!! Airships Over Arcadia," which offers a striking assemblage of photos, excerpts from the base magazine, World War I memorabilia and official papers (such as an order that gave a soldier two days off to get married in Los Angeles).

The show, set to period songs such as "Keep the Home Fires Burning," sung by John McCormack, runs through Feb. 19.

The balloon school's sausage-shaped crafts, known as Caquot dirigibles in honor of designer Albert Caquot, were not propelled vehicles. Tethered to the ground by cables, they were raised and lowered by winches. Two observers would ride in a basket hanging from the balloon.

Dirigibles were dangerous business for the Army, because they contained highly explosive hydrogen gas and were a favorite target of German pilots.

"When they saw a German plane coming towards them, they would jump over the side and parachute to the ground," says local historian Stan Jones.

One balloon observer who didn't make it out in time was Lt. Cleo J. Ross, who burned to death when he was shot down over France in 1917.

The site of the Arcadia balloon school, located across the street from the present-day Santa Anita Race Track, was named Ross Field in his honor.

Housing more than 2,000 soldiers, Ross Field contained 10 mess halls and eight barracks as well as several balloon hangars, a photo lab, a sewage system, a swimming pool, a guard house, a hospital, a fabric and rigging school and a gas works.

"I was really surprised — it was like a small city," said Dunn, the museum curator.

Some of the sleeping quarters were formerly stables at Lucky Baldwin's old racetrack.

One cartoon on display from the base publication, the Arcadia Observer, carries this lament from a balloonist passed over for promotion:

"I wonder if the racehorse that used to stay in this room ever won a race."

Accidents were few. In one case a balloon tore loose from its tethers and flew off, but the crewman jumped out and survived. The only fatalities were two men killed in an artillery explosion.

The soldiers were impatient to see action, but their chance never came.

The armistice ended the war Nov. 11, 1918, before any Ross Field graduates went overseas.

The Arcadia Observer quipped:

Now that the war is over,

And the Arcadian siege is won,

We are going home to mother,

As fast as we can run.

By 1923, the balloonists at Ross Field had been replaced by fliers of another type: carrier pigeons who had served in World War I. They were taken there for breeding.

The birds included such legendary combat veterans as "The Mocker," who, The Times said, "carried a message in the Meuse-Argonne offensive which enabled American artillery to locate and silence a murderous German machine gun fire. The bird lost one eye and many feathers but is still flying."

The force also included one captured German pigeon "and his mate."

In 1925, the pigeon unit was transferred to a New Jersey army camp.

What to do with Ross Field?

The L.A. Chamber of Commerce proposed a passenger balloon route between Arcadia and St. Louis, "with only two stops." But that idea didn't fly.

Columbia Pictures used some abandoned buildings at Ross for filming.

But, gradually, the field fell into disrepair and was even declared a fire hazard. The last of its buildings was torn down in the early 1930s.

Then, in 1935, the property was deeded to the county and transformed into the Arcadia County Park and Golf Course. It's located next door to the museum.

Dunn, incidentally, is still searching for balloon school items for a permanent exhibit. But she admits she has a slim chance of ever finding a World War I balloon.

In a 1966 interview, one balloon corps veteran told The Times that most of the gasbags had been purchased after the war by a Miami man who "took them around to county fairs, shooting them down and charging people to see them explode in the air."

The balloonist added sadly: "People liked to see them blow up."

steveharvey9@gmail.com

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