Thursday, November 3, 2011

Walter Wellman - Sutton's Explorer

Have you ever associated Sutton, Nebraska with North Pole explorations? No? Come along with us as we peek through the haze of Sutton Past.

Among the more obscure heroes of Sutton Past is the near-forgotten Walter Wellman. Never heard of him? Well, you are in for a treat.

Walter Wellman (November 3, 1858 - January 31, 1934) was born in Ohio. His pappy brought the family west to York County, Nebraska after the Civil War to settle down on a farm on the frontier. Walter must have been dis-inclined toward farming as he slipped off to Sutton where he started his own weekly newspaper, very likely the town's first. Sutton was the age of a toddler that year, and Walter was only 14. Wellman published his first issue of the Sutton Times on Friday, June 20, 1873 - a "five column quarto" with nine columns of advertising and eleven of local reading matter according to a contemporary account by Dr. M. V. B. Clark.

But Walter soon outgrew our town, for seven years later he'd moved on to the Cincinnati Evening Post and later to the Chicago Herald. Then he decided that he should make the news rather than just report it.

Screen capture of the video at
In the 19-zero's, Walter and his Wellman Chicago Record-Herald Polar Expedition made a couple of attempts to fly airships to the North Pole. These efforts did not work out so well but were relative successes when compared to his next project to fly airships across the Atlantic. His airship America only suffered engine failure requiring rescue near Bermuda but the Akron exploded on a test flight and killed the crew of five, including one poor fellow who'd survived the America debacle.

The screen shot at the right is of a video at which shows our local hero visiting the memorial to S. A. Andree, a Swedish balloonist with similar ideas who failed, badly in 1897 in his attempt to reach the North Pole.

Wellman's Biography which has been summarized here is also at that "World News" link, though a challenge to locate your first time. You'll see it under "Biography" among other selections The video itself will be the top selection of videos at that link.
Walter Wellman wrote a few books on his adventures, three of which seem to available in used condition at from individual peddlers. Let me know what you learned if you succumb to that temptation.

Other references to our man Walter show up deep in the recesses of the Internet. New York's Sunday Magazine of February 5, 1911 had an article written by the man himself. No, no. Don't try to read the picture at the left. Better to follow the link, better, but not by much, actually.

But here is our pièce de résistance: a photograph - if only a picture of a picture of a picture in a newspaper - of our hero's Exploration Machine. Is this cool, or what? Kind of looks like a prop out of a 1960's comedic movie with Jack Lemmon.

Walter Wellman's airship America taken from aboard a ship somewhere out in the Atlantic.
Bringing you back to earth here, we're talking Sutton History. It's a tenuous connection, but it is a well documented connection.  

This last illustration is of the flight deck of the machine named America. It had two engines, a primary and a backup. Good plan there.

Flight deck of the America. Note the brave aeronaut at his command position and the crew out climbing around there in the distance. Do we still have opportunities for such adventures in today's world? I think not.

There is sometimes merit to the saying that, "History is only dry gossip" but that need not be so. There is often real, measurable entertainment value.

by Jerry Johnson
Sutton Historical Society
Comments welcome.

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