The Wellman Airship ‘America’, 1907 – polar exploration – Wills’s Aviation #11

History Behind The Card: The Wellman Airship ‘America’, 1907 – polar exploration.
Card #11 of 50, W.D. & H.O. Wills, Aviation series 1910

Name: Walter Wellman, (November 3, 1858 – January 31, 1934), Mentor, Ohio, United States of America

If you check out the Wills’s cigarette card above, you can see that the dirigible is covered in icicles, and that the title of the blog shows that it is indeed about polar exploration – the Arctic, to be exact. But there’s always more, because I have no idea when to stop writing.

But first, let’s start with the aviator, a presumed gentleman by the name of Walter Wellman, who was a newspaperman, explorer and aviator, or if we use the correct vernacular, an aeronaut.

Having been a reporter for the Toronto Star newspaper myself, let’s begin with Wellman’s journalistic achievements, which I mention because it is pertinent.

At age 14 Wellman established a weekly newspaper in Sutton, Nebraska, in the U.S. At age 21, he returned to his home State of Ohio and created the Cincinnati Evening Post. He married Laura McCann and had five daughters. By 1884, he turned to politics in the news and became the Washington D.C. news correspondent for the Chicago Herald and Record-Herald.

Ho-hum, not much going on, especially regarding aviation history—but you know it’s going to get better, right? Uh… it is.

Not content with journalism or politics (and your somewhat humble writer has degrees in both, so he can relate), Wellman turned to exploration.

I am unsure why he thought it prudent, but in 1892 he traveled to San Salvador Island in the Bahamas (wonderful country! I picked up a $3 bill there – legal tender!) to mark the supposed landing spot of Christopher Columbus back in 1492. Oh yeah – the 400th anniversary.

While hardly the discoverer of America (Vikings beat him by some 500 years landing up on the east coast of Canada – evidence was first discovered over 50 years ago, but click HERE to see new evidence from the National Geographic), Columbus didn’t quite make it to the continent-proper. Oh well. Better luck next time, Chris. Love your movies, though. 🙂

Perhaps seeing the folly of placing a statue in The Bahamas where it was hardly a tourist attraction in the 19th century, Wellman got more daring in his ways to create the news. He actually led a led a polar expedition east of Svalbard to latitude 81° N in 1894. Then, in 1898 and 1899, he led another expedition to latitude 82° N through Franz Josef Land. That is pretty impressive. Click on the links to see where those cold places are.

Anyhow, you can tell that Wellman wasn’t your typical journalist (like me), and preferred to make the news rather than merely report it.


So, it probably wouldn’t come as a surprise that Wellman proclaimed on December 31, 1905 (a New Year’s resolution, perhaps?) that he wanted to try and make it to the North Pole – but in an airship.

You know things were different in those days, because his newspaper gave him US$250,000.

Let’s see… I used an inflation calculator ( to see what $250,000 in 1905 would be in 2012 monies (it didn’t offer 2013): $6,578,947.37.

I work in the print media, and it’s a bitch to get a fresh notepad as you have to either go through layers of bureaucracy, or be nice to the secretary, which seems to work for me. So… getting that much money… color me impressed (because I’m out of ink).

Anyhow, if the newspaper was giving that much money, they figured Wellman had a good chance, they also wanted to make sure they got their advertising dollars worth.

So, after having a dirigible built in Paris, France, the Wellman Chicago Record-Herald Polar Expedition was off.

Organized by Walter Wellman, who would pilot the America, the goal was to make an exploratory trek from Spitzbergen, a large Norweigian island in the Arctic Circle, to the North Pole— a 1,062-kilometer (660-mile) trip—and return.

Wellman Hangar

The skeleton remains of the Wellman Hangar located on Danes Island, where Camp Wellman was established in 1906.

The dirigible America was built as a semi-rigid craft of 50.3-meters (165-feet) long and 15.8-meters (51-feet, 10-inches) at it greatest diameter with a hydrogen volume of 7,300-cubic meters (258,000-cubic feet).

Built specifically for north polar exploration by Mutin Louis Godard (1858-1933) of France, the dirigible’s balloon envelope consisted of three layers of fabric and three of rubber, and contained no internal framework.

Powering the vessel were three internal combustion motors offering a total of 80 horsepower to the two propellers located in the front and back. The gondola could hold a crew of five.

Now, I am unsure how many of you have tried to fly a dirigible in cold weather (anyone… anyone… Bueller?… Bueller?…), but in August of 1906 at Spitzbergen during the initial attempt to inflate the balloon and test the motors, the engines destroyed itself.

The America dirigible at Spitzbergen, with its hangar circa 1906 or 1907.

The America dirigible at Spitzbergen, with its hangar circa 1906 or 1907.

So, seeing an opportunity to make the America even better, the whole dirigible was shipped back to France and modified, with the addition of a center-section sewn-in that made the aircraft longer: 56.4-meters (185-feet) and thus increased its volume to 7,700-cubic meters (272,000-cubic feet).

The new America dirigible was modified by Chester Melvin Vaniman (1866-1912), and was completed and shipped back to Spitzbergen by July 1907.

The American Vaniman was originally a photographer, adventurer and businessman who specialized in panorama photography taken from heights, but he gave that up in 1904 in favor of exploring – mostly done with Wellman.

Melvin Vaniman

Melvin Vaniman holding onto Kiddo, a grey tabby and the official mascot of the America – though not until 1910.

Does anyone else think he looks like Paul Newman and the cat sort of like Robert Redford?

Vaniman scrapped the original Louis Godard gondola car and created a new one built with steel tubing and steel-reinforced wood that was now 4.57-meters (15-feet) long, and 3.66-meters (12-feet) wide at the top. The car tapered inwards from the top to a catwalk and had a 4,542.5-liter (1,200-U.S. gallon) fuel tank under that formed the keel.

The car was wrapped in oilskin to protect the crew from the Arctic winds and had a new 75 horsepower Lorraine-Dietrich motor that drove two side by side mounted propellers that were mounted on booms out from the car’s sides.

As noted on the Wills’s card above, the crew’s living quarters were placed near the motors so as to provide some additional warmth. As well, the card notes that the America would be equipped with sleds and dogs, but I am unsure if they were a part of the initial testing.

Because of ongoing winds, a short 15-mile test run was done on September 2, 1907 with pilot Walter Wellman, mechanic/chief engineer Vaniman and navigator Felix Reisenberg, making it the first time a motorized airship had flown in the Arctic—but bad weather (a snowstorm in the Arctic??!!, he says sarcastically) forced them to halt the attempt after only a few kilometers and to land on a nearby glacier.

A second America flight occurred one year later on August 15, 1908 with Wellman, Vaniman, Vaniman’s nephew Louis Loud, and Russian balloonist Nicolas Popov aboard.

While this was better, it was still unsuccessful, as after two hours and 64-kilometers (40-miles) later, the craft’s equilibrator—a long, leather tube filled with ballast that dangled from the dirigible that was used to gauge and maintain a fixed altitude over the ice—was lost, causing the America to return to land.

According to the Will’s card, the equilibrator also carried food supplies—as other media sources state that the loss of food supplies was a chief factor in the attempt being abandoned.

However, before the return to land, the America began to rise quickly before it was finally brought under control at 1,500-metres (5,000-feet) altitude, with the crew able to descend by venting the hydrogen gas and then getting a towline from the Norwegian steamer Farm.

Wellman began plans to extend the hangar so that he could return the following year with a larger airship, but on learning in 1909 that Dr. Frederick Cook had claimed to reach the North Pole in 1908, he abandoned his efforts.

As an aside, Cook’s claims of visiting the North Pole were vehemently denied by Robert Peary, who himself claimed to have made the trek to the geographic North Pole on April 6, 1909, though the debate between Cook and Peary advocates continues to this day, but history still favors Peary.

Unable to claim the North Pole, Wellman set his sights on becoming the first to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. The America dirigible was again enlarged, this time to 9,760-cubic meters (345,000-cubic feet), with Wellman and crew—including Kiddo, the America‘s mascot cat (see photo above), lifting off from Atlantic City, New Jersey, USA  on October 15, 1910.

Thanks to water condensing on the skin of the America, it was difficult for it to gain height. Navigation was also made more difficult when it passed through a storm.

The America flew down past Cape Cod, Massachusetts, U.S.A. and then southeast for over 1,600-kilometers (1,000-miles) and 38-hours in, before engine trouble—apparently caused by beach sand—caused the craft to drift. To compensate and gain control, the crew ejected as much excess weight as possible, including a non-functioning motor.

The flight continued along for another 33 hours and 2,200-kilometers (1,370 miles), when the crew spotted a British Royal Mail steamship called the Trent close to Bermuda.

After signaling to the Trent in Morse code via lamp, they made preparations to abandon ship, bringing the America down close to the ship.

After opening up the gas valves on the America, the abandoned dirigible drifted out of sight and was never seen again. And, while unsuccessful in achieving its goal, the America still managed to set a record for the longest airship flight.

I am personally unsure why Wellman was flying to Bermuda if the goal was to cross the Atlantic Ocean, but I admire his choice of failed location.

After the failure and sinking of the America, Wellman never again set foot onto another airship.

In 1911, Wellman’s book was published: The Aerial Age; A Thousand Miles by Airship over the Atlantic Ocean.

He spent his final years in New York City, where he died of liver cancer in 1934. A U.S. Liberty Ship (a cargo boat) named the Walter Wellman was launched in 1944.

About mreman47

Andrew was born in London, UK, raised in Toronto, Canada, and cavorted in Ohtawara, Japan for three years. He is married, has a son and a cat. He has over 35,000 comic books and a plethora of pioneer aviation-related tobacco and sports cards and likes to build LEGO dioramas. He has written and been an editor for various industrial magazines, has scripted comic books, ghost-written blogs for business sectors galore, and hates writing in the 3rd person. He also hates having to write this crap that no one will ever read. He works on his Pioneers Of Aviation - a cool blog on early fliers - even though it takes him so much time to do. He also wants to do more writing - for money, though. Help him out so he can stop talking in the 3rd person.
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5 Responses to The Wellman Airship ‘America’, 1907 – polar exploration – Wills’s Aviation #11

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