His airships conducted German bombing raids during the first World War and then carried thousands of passengers for more than 30 years on 2,000 commercial flights.

Considered the father of so-called rigid dirigibles, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin had his surname become a generic term for the blimp-like steerable aircrafts inflated with gas that’s lighter than air. Zeppelin piloted most of his early dirigibles.

The airship era ended with a bang when a spark ignited leaking hydrogen — causing the Hindenburg to explode while landing in New Jersey in 1937, killing 36 people.

But 74 years before that fiery burst, a then-25-year-old Zeppelin made his first flight above downtown St. Paul — of all places. He ascended 700 feet in a tethered, 41,000-cubic-foot balloon over the corner of Jackson and Seventh streets.

Visiting America as a young military observer during the Civil War, Zeppelin wanted to check out the frontier after shadowing Union forces with President Abraham Lincoln’s blessings. He traveled by train from Niagara Falls through Cleveland and Detroit before a steamer sailed him to Superior, Wis. He spent much of his five-day Great Lakes voyage flirting with “some beautiful American girls, who were as anxious to get acquainted with me as I was with them. They finally broke the ice by flipping apple seeds into my face, and then we had a jolly talk.”

He checked into St. Paul’s International Hotel on Aug. 17, 1863, after a few weeks canoeing from Lake Superior through Ojibwe territory. In a letter sent on St. Paul hotel stationery to his aristocratic father in Germany, Zeppelin described being “alone in the midst of primitive, unspoiled nature ... alone with the Creator in his magnificent temple” — where he portaged canoes, saw bears and “the much, much worse mosquitoes.”

As fate would have it, a German-born traveling balloonist named John Steiner was offering $5 rides from the corner across the street from the International Hotel.

“Just now I ascended with Prof. Steiner, the famous aeronaut, to an altitude of six or seven hundred feet,” Zeppelin wrote to his father, explaining the balloon’s potential in military reconnaissance.

In interviews later in life, Zeppelin said: “While I was above St. Paul I had my first idea of aerial navigation strongly impressed upon me and it was there that the first idea of my Zeppelins came to me.”

Details of Zeppelin’s Minnesota trip varied wildly until two articles in Minnesota History magazine in the mid-1960s by renowned historian Rhoda Gilman — the magazine’s former editor who died last May at 91. In 1965, she debunked stories of Zeppelin soaring from the round tower at Fort Snelling. She scoured newspaper accounts and tracked down late-in-life interviews with the inventor (tinyurl.com/MNZeppelin).

Two years later in 1967, Gilman analyzed letters Minnesota Historical Society chief librarian James Taylor Dunn unearthed in a Zeppelin family castle in southern Germany. Zeppelin’s grandson granted permission to copy and publish five letters the airship creator penned from the Midwest in 1863. (tinyurl.com/ZeppelinLetters)

One of my favorite wrinkles in the story involved 10-year-old Marion Ramsey, whose father, Gov. Alexander Ramsey, was elected to the U.S. Senate the same year that Zeppelin visited in 1863. Confused by conflicting accounts, a reporter in 1915 tracked down Marion Furness, nee Ramsey, then in her 60s.

“I can remember making the balloon ascension,” she said, “but I didn’t realize that the pilot was so distinguished a person as Count von Zeppelin.”

She said she couldn’t remember the other passengers, but didn’t doubt one might have been the count. In 1928, as the Zeppelin Graf made a ballyhooed Atlantic crossing, a reporter went back to Furness, then 75.

This time, she had tracked down her father’s diary from Aug. 19, 1863, in which Ramsey wrote: “Professor Steiner, the balloonist, desired me to ‘go up.’ I attempted it, but had to come down as he had not gas enough. Marion, however, took a ride for which I paid $5.”

Unable to clear the rooftops with Ramsey’s “specific gravity,” the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported on Aug. 20, 1863, that the crowd was amused when the governor was forced to give his balloon perch up to his daughter.

“Her only regret was that she could not stay up long enough,” the newspaper said. “Miss Marion was particularly impressed with ‘how horrified my mother was on learning that my father had permitted me to go up in the balloon.’ ’’


Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday.


Correction: A previous version had the incorrect year of Zeppelin's birth.