Seattle Now & Then: An A-Y-P Aerial, 1909

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN1: From his lofty perch in the A-Y-P’s “captive balloon” (at least as high as the Space Needle’s 605 feet), photographer Vern Grinnold captured the central hub of the fair. Geyser Basin dominates at lower center. The UW’s Parrington Hall, built in 1902, can be seen at top, partly cropped above the U.S. Government building’s imposing dome. (courtesy MOHAI)
THEN2: The “captive balloon” was tethered southeast of the main A-Y-P grounds. (courtesy Dan Kerlee)
THEN3: The balloon’s basket provided tight quarters and certainly was not for the faint of heart. (courtesy Dan Kerlee)
NOW: Squared off by dignified structures of academia, Drumheller Fountain today is a central feature of Rainier Vista, a long walkway of wide lawns and cherry trees. At top, just left of center, Parrington Hall still can be seen through greenery. (Jean Sherrard)

(Published in the Seattle Times online on May 27, 2021
and in PacificNW Magazine of the print Times on May 30, 2021 )

Up, up and away in our AYP Balloon
By Jean Sherrard

To mark this week’s return to the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, held on the University of Washington campus, we must give credit where credit is due — to French ingenuity. From coq au vin to kitesurfing, movie cameras to motorcycles, France has perennially delighted the world with marriages of innovation.

The Montgolfier brothers, Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne, had launched the first piloted aeronautical ascent in 1783 (to this day, hot air balloons in France are called montgolfières). Meanwhile, Louis Daguerre, creator of the daguerreotype photographic process, had captured the earliest cityscape portraits in 1838.

In 1858, an inspired Paris photographer, Gaspard-Félix Tournachon (known by the sobriquet “Nadar”), wedded the two technologies. Leveraging unwieldy equipment into a hot-air balloon basket, he singlehandedly invented aerial photography. Fifty-one years later, this came in handy at Seattle’s first world’s fair.

Our A-Y-P aerial, though not high-tech for its time, offered breathtaking spectacle, showing off the exposition’s Beaux Arts structures (merci again, France) that partially encircle Geyser Basin. Looking northwest, this view features the imposing, domed U.S. Government Building, while the ornate, curved structures on both sides of the basin focused on mining and agriculture.

The UW’s Drumheller Fountain (aka Frosh Pond, where first-year students once were dunked in ritual initiation) later was constructed on the watery footprint of the 1909 basin. But few other A-Y-P artifacts endured. Meant to be as ephemeral as a stage set or a wedding cake, the A-Y-P’s gleaming “white city” soon gave way to the more permanent and austere structures of Collegiate Gothic architecture.

A wider version of this panorama appeared Sept. 19, 1909, in The Seattle Times, filling the front page below a banner headline, “Remarkable View of Exposition Taken from Captive Balloon.” A subhead explained, “After Many Futile Attempts Camera Artists Succeed in Getting Fine Bird’s-Eye View of Exposition Grounds.”

At first, the weather had refused to cooperate, ruining hundreds of negatives. But finally, the Times reported, “the haze which has been hanging over the grounds for the last month lifted, and atmospheric conditions for aeronautical photographs were ideal.”

The balloon’s cramped basket accommodated no more than two photographers outfitted with bulky cameras (sans tripod) and must have supplied equal parts claustro- and acrophobia. Augmenting that anxious mix, “the great gas bag,” the Times said, “pulled heavily on the retaining wire and shifted about in the wind.”

A single exposure turned out “particularly fine.” Snapped just 30 minutes before rains resumed, the photo was “as distinct as if it had been taken from the ground.” Despite the difficulties, proclaimed one photographer, “we are more than satisfied with the result.”


To see our 360 degree video featuring Geyser Basin/Drumheller Fountain — and hear Jean narrate the column, click right here.



3 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: An A-Y-P Aerial, 1909”

  1. I love the details when you zoom in. That little girl!
    She would be around 119 now.— Tom V

  2. Good Grief…what an incredible pic, Mr Jean Sherrard! Have seen other pics of the A.Y.P.E-many amazing, but nothing like this amazing aerial view. Miss those early days of photography, when everything had to be perfect to get the right shot-esp from an early air balloon.

    Mr Sherrard-If you happen to see this remark, are any of the buildings(excluding the fountain) in the “then” pic still standing? There does not seem to be any examples in the “Now” pic-but would be interesting to know. -John
    Auburn, WA

    1. Hi John – I agree, this one’s a real beaut. The only building extant from then to now is UW’s Parrington Hall, barely visible at the top of the photo. Denny Hall existed but does not appear in either shot. Out of all of the AYP-built structures, only a couple remain. Clay mentioned them a couple years ago (the wide shot photo taken from the AYP ferris wheel provides another spectacular view:

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