Elmer Van Vranken, Fulton County’s ‘Sky Sailor’


Whereas Mr. Charles Knox enjoyed financing airship construction, his ‘Gelatine’ ships were always flown by others, such as inventor-flyer George Tomlinson, mentioned previously, but Fulton County had its own ‘aeronaut’ in Gloversville’s Elmer Van Vranken, christened by the Aug. 6, 1906 Fulton County Republican as “A Sky Sailor.”

“One of the most daring men in the business, Elmer Van Vranken, well-known local aeronaut, in the future will ride one of the Knox Gelatine airships. He has been in the employ of Mr. Knox since the departure of inventor Tomlinson.

His reputation as a daring aeronaut is well-known. He made his first ascension at Mountain Lake in 1903 while employed as an engineer in the Mountain Lake railroad’s power house. Aeronaut ‘Professor’ Lockhart was making ascensions there one day, and Van Vranken asked to take a trip in the clouds.” Lockhart probably expected Van Vranken would quickly change his mind if allowed to ascend alone, but he didn’t.

Van Vranken only asked, “Lockhart, how do you come down?”

Lockhart replied, “Never mind coming down: you’ll come down all right. It’s going up that bothers us in the balloon business.”

Lockhart was so pleased with his work that he engaged Van Vranken for the season, and his service has remained in demand.

Everyone was up in the air about Van Vranken’s flights except his wife.

Following his first ascent, the July 24, 1903 Plattsburgh Evening News claimed, “He threw up his railroad job as soon as he landed and will become a professional aeronaut. His wife doesn’t like it though.”

Perhaps Elmer calmed his wife’s fears by taking out a life insurance policy, because he didn’t stop flying: in fact, he’d only started.

In 1906, the Aug. 28 Morning Herald hyped Van Vranken’s first flight in Knox’s new, larger Gelatine.

Ascending from behind Knox’s home, Rose Hill, “Every resident saw it fly east until reaching a point near Hale’s Mills, then turn back toward Rose Hill. The way Van Vranken managed the propeller and rudder and directed the craft, turning it at will, was evidence of his skill as a daring sky pilot, as well as the perfection of Mr. Knox’s improved ship.”

Van Vranken, however, wasn’t satisfied with Knox’s ship and apparently wanted an airship of his own design, so he invested his money to build it and free himself of commitments to Knox. The Fulton County Republican, announcing the new ship’s construction on May 30, explained that Elmer, “who successfully piloted the Knox airship at the Oneonta Fair last season, will own a skycraft of his own. This year, the Oneonta Fair Society has concluded a contract with Van Vranken and his new airship, which embodies many changes and improvements he has worked out.”

Van Vranken certainly had become a high flyer. Even while still piloting Knox’s first ‘Gelatine” airship the summer of 1904, the Sept. 11 Morning Herald bragged, “Elmer Van Vranken, local balloonist, is gaining considerable prominence in his profession. Yesterday he gave exhibitions at the Schoharie Fair.”

The Wyoming County Herald advertised his presence at the 1904 New York Erie County Fair at Hamburg, stating his airship “will be the chief attraction” and “too few airships are successfully sailed by their aeronauts instead of drifting with the wind, and now you will have the opportunity of seeing one.”

Elmer’s own airship was built locally: the Aug. 9, 1907 Amsterdam Recorder noted, “An airship constructed by Elmer Van Vranken at the shop of the Steele Manufacturing Company of Gloversville attracted a large crowd yesterday afternoon when it made its maiden trip. It was in space for about five miles without a mishap. The whole ship was constructed in about two months and Steele Brothers have reason to be proud of the success. The new ship was air born nearly an hour and attracted many Gloversville spectators. The flight was made from the Steele lot at the corner of Broad and West Pine streets. After the flight, it was boxed up to be taken to the Fredonia fair.”

There was no conflict with Mr. Knox either, the paper noted. Possibly due to deteriorating health, “Mr. Knox has decided to retire from the field and has offered his machines for sale.”

By then, however, Knox’s airships were old technology and their fate is unknown. Elmer incorporated the Van Vranken Airship Company in 1908 to market his airships, hoping for business from other aspiring sky sailors, but soon misfortune struck, ending the enterprise.

The Nov. 20, 1908 Columbia County Republican reported a lawsuit between Van Vranken and Hudson’s Elks Lodge over failed 4th of July ascensions.

“For some reason, it didn’t budge. Because of the failure to fly, the Elks wouldn’t pay the owner, hence the suit. Next morning, the inflated thing was caught in a furious storm and practically destroyed. The gas bag was torn to shreds.” No further newspaper articles about either Van Vranken or his airship appear, suggesting his airship company was permanently grounded.

When he died, widowed and childless late in 1951, the obituary didn’t recall Elmer’s glory days, when awe-struck Fulton County citizens craned their necks to watch him sail high above them, nor would hardly anyone living in 1951 have recalled the once-popular 1904 song, “Come Take a Trip in My Airship.” Decades earlier, the notion that airships would ever rival airplanes had run out of gas.

By Kerry Minor

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