Through the Viewfinder: A Panoramic Photo of Los Angeles from a Captive Balloon, 17 May 1925

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

A “captive balloon” involves tethering the craft with ropes or cables and these were used, for example, extensively during World War I for observation and as “barrage balloons” to shield ground forces from air attacks.  Such balloons also were used for advertising, weather observation, panoramic photography and recreation.

An example of the combination of the last two uses is reflected in today’s highlighted historic artifact from the museum’s collection: an aerial panoramic photograph of a large swath of downtown Los Angeles taken on 17 May 1925 by the Aerograph Company and purchased by an unidentified patron of a captive balloon flight.  While bird-eye views that were drawn and lithographed in the 19th century simulated panoramic imagery, the use of quality photography was a fairly recent innovation.

Huddleston 3 photographers 1880 census Centerville IA
The enumeration of the Huddleston family at Centerville, Iowa (which just happens to be my mom’s birthplace) in the 1880 census.  Cephas and two of his sons, Foster and Sherman, are shown as photographers, while Freeman and Ralph later joined the profession.  In 1885, the family was in nearby Allerton (my mom’s family settled in that area in the 1850s and she lived in that town as a child) and continued their work in photography.

The balloon rides were offered from a site at Figueroa and Fifth streets, apparently from the site that was formerly the Normal School for teacher education (which evolved into U.C.L.A.) and which was in preparation for the construction of the Central Public Library.  The anchored craft then rose to a height of 1,000 feet, providing obviously incredible views of the landscape around the rapidly expanding metropolis.

The Los Angeles Times in its New Year’s edition earlier in 1925 published a pair of aerial panoramas, one taken by noted photographer C.C. Pierce in the late summer of 1910 as he dangled from a captive balloon and which is believed to be first “good” example of its kind in the region and the other snapped several weeks earlier by Robert E. Spence, whose Spence Air Photos was a pioneer in taking images from airplanes.

Freeman Huddleston 1900 census Pomona
Freeman Huddleston (sixth from the top) listed in the 1900 census as a photographer in Pomona, shortly after moving from Indiana.

The paper marveled that “graphically indeed is the strongest chapter of the thrilling story of Los Angeles told by these two pictures.”  It asked readers to “imagine yourself comfortably seated in an arm chair 1000 feet above the city, looking toward the southwest, and behold the miracle of fourteen years.”

It was added that “close scrutiny indicates that fully 90 per cent, possibly even 95 per cent, of the large structures of today were built in the comparatively short period of time separating these romance-revealing photographs—fourteen years!”  The Times observed that in 1910 the city had about 325,000 residents but estimates were that Los Angeles contained some 1.075,000 persons at the time of publication of the photos.  It concluded by noting that Pierce, in his relatively stationary position, used a camera with a shutter time of 1/25 of a second, while Spence, flying at 65 mph, had a speed of 1/1000 of a second.

Huddleston West Coast Art Co 1909 directory
Foster and /Freeman Huddleston listed as the secretary and president, respectively, of their West Coast Art Company in the 1909 Los Angeles city directory.

In its edition of 13 May, four days before the highlighted photo here was taken, the Times published three aerial photos from the balloon at Fifth and Figueroa, providing different degrees of detail of section of Los Angeles.  Moreover, it published a shot of the balloon just above the ground in a dirt area with what appears to be the library in construction in the background.  The caption noted that there was a bit of drift to the northwest and that the photos were taken from Fourth and Flower.

The enterprise did not, though, escape scrutiny and concern, as on the 9th, the general manager of the powerful Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce filed a formal complaint with the city attorney, Jacob Friedlander, “declaring that the operation of a captive balloon near the new library site on Flower street imperils lives and property in that vicinity.”  Manager Arthur G. Arnoll wrote that the balloon, being filled apparently with hydrogen gas, “is likely to be ignited by smokers.”

Aerial photography from 1910, via a captive balloon, and 1924, by airplane, Los Angeles Times, 1 January 1925.

Less than two weeks later, Friedlander notified Arnoll that an ordinance that prohibited balloons containing “dangerous, explosive or inflammable substances” were banner within city limits, but that this was with the qualifier that such objects were toys.  Despite this, the chamber’s aeronautical expert, Dr. Ford A. Carpenter, opined that that balloon likely had a capacity of 35,000 cubic feet of hydrogen and that Friedlander should have been able to take legal action.  Moreover, the chamber claimed that there was no pilot in the basket and the winch was too small so that the craft could be dislodged in a high wind.

In reply, the city attorney told Arnoll that there might be another way to pursue action against the balloon’s operator by “a provision of another ordinance specifying that a balloon with a metal cable could not be flown near a high-voltage wire” and he suggested the chamber proceed with a complaint on that basis.  Nothing, however, was located about any further proceedings and, presumably, the balloon service was ended or moved when the library was completed the following year.

The captive balloon used in the featured photograph below and at its Fifth and Figueroa location next to the construction site of the Central Public Library, as well as three views taken by a Times photographer from the craft, 13 May 1925.

As for the view embodied in the photo, it shows a broad area looking south.  The four main thoroughfares extending from the lower right to the lower left are, from right to left, Figueroa Street, Flower Street, Hope Street, and Grand Avenue.  Further to the left, or east, are Olive Street, Hill Street, and Broadway.

Most of the area in the foreground appears to consist of one and two story commercial buildings with a smattering of larger structures, while more of the taller buildings are at the left toward the commercial districts along Broadway, Spring and Main.  Further in the distance the business section phases out and the area is more residential and there appears to be a layer of haze hanging over the city.


This photo is from the Homestead’s holdings and was taken by Aerograph Company from the balloon noted above, 13 May 1925

It is important to note that the 17th was a Sunday, which explains why there is light traffic on the several main thoroughfares in view and the sidewalks are largely free of pedestrians.  Some streetcars are visible on Grand Avenue, as well.  If there were balloon flights on weekdays, the volume of travelers would, of course, be much higher.

On the reverse are several inscriptions, including one in ink that reads “View From Captive Balloon / Took Trip in same May 17, 1925 / Round Trip $1.00 Perc came back with me “The Little Angel.”  Below that in pencil is “Percy Burnham went up with me”—there was a 25-year old Percy Burnham from San Diego, so that could have been the owner’s companion.  At the upper right and left center are red pencil markings of “6th & Figueroa St. / L.A. Calif.” and “Captive.”  Below that latter word is “South / Looking East” and in the lower right corner “Over / University Club.”  This latter was located at 6th and Hope streets.

Times, 9 May 1925.

With respect to the Aerograph Company, this brings in the two generations and four members of the Huddleston families who were professional photographers for at least 70 years.  Cephas Huddleston was, assisted by his wife Caroline, working in the business from at least the 1860s (the 1860 census listed him as a farmer, but a decade later, he worked in photography) in Indiana, though, as was often the case with photographers trying to make a decent living in a competitive business, they moved around frequently, including stints in territorial Kansas, Iowa and Ohio, though most of the time the couple was in the Hoosier State.

By the enumeration of the 1880 census, Cephas was joined in the business by his sons Foster and Sherman and two others later were associated with it, including Freeman and Ralph.  In the 1890s, members of the Huddleston family made their way west, with Foster settling Pomona and then in Los Angeles, where he was heavily involved in mining, and Freeman in Oakland.

Times, 21 May 1925.

Foster spent time in his youth as a teacher and then later was a civil engineer for a railroad company and was in the employ of the latter when he suffered a severe injury and went to Colorado to recuperate.  He stayed for eight years and got into the mining business there and followed that occupation as a founder and general manager of the Continental Exploration Mining and Milling Company, based in Los Angeles.

In the early years of the 20th century, he achieved a strange notoriety as a doppelganger for Theodore Roosevelt, the famed “Rough Rider” in Cuba during the Mexican-American War and who was vice-president when President William McKinley was assassinated in 1901.  With Roosevelt’s ascendancy to the office, Foster suddenly was accosted on the street with excited claims that he was the new president.

Times, 9 March 1902.

A photograph in the Los Angeles Times from 9 March 1902 shows that Foster, indeed, bore a striking resemblance to Roosevelt, though it grated on the mining man and photographer, who lamented:

Why, I can’t walk down the street, ride in a car or go into a store without being stared at as though I was some escaped criminal.  I guess I’ll have to appoint a body guard if this keeps up much longer.  Of course, it is an honor and a distinction to resemble to great a man as the President of the United States.  Still, it is annoying and embarrassing to a great degree.  Yet, I do not see how I am going to get out of it.

In another account, he talked of how he was in Phoenix for his mining business and a cowboy burst out of a saloon and rushed excitedly towards “Colonel Roosevelt.”  It does seem, though, that a reasonable way “to get out of it” would have been to simply shave off his mustache!

The_Los_Angeles_Times_Sun__Mar_9__1902_ (1)
Times, 9 March 1902.

Freeman, meanwhile, moved from Oakland to Los Angeles later that decade and specialized in panoramas, some up to several feet in length, with views of Death Valley, Los Angeles-area orange groves, mining regions, and the aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 mentioned as being exhibited.  He was able to take novel views using a new  camera that “takes a panorama view up to a complete circle practically instantaneously, operating like a snapshot Kodak.  The entire picture is taken on one film, there being no piecing.”

The Huddleston brothers soon joined forces in mining, land and photography and created the West Coast Art Company and the Huddleston Photo Company, both of which specialized in panoramic photos and which included their brother Ralph.  Freeman, for example, provided a lengthy testimonial for a land project in the Juab Valley, about 110 miles south of Salt Lake City, suggesting that his experience as a panoramic photographer, including in that area, have him “a pretty fair knowledge of soils and what they will produce.”

Times, 26 February 1911.

One of their more interesting projects in the latter, through the West Coast Art Company, was one done for an eccentric miner, photographer and forty-year resident of Death Valley named J.W. Bledsoe, who claimed, in 1911, that there was a supply of “carbonic acid gas”, or carbon dioxide, in the vast region that would kill the bacterium that causes tuberculosis.

He conceived of a plan to build a sanitarium at various elevations for a gradation of treatment and employed the brothers to take what was purported to be “the first full-length panoramic view of Death Valley that has ever been made.”  Taken from an elevation of 300 feet in the Funeral Range of mountains at the California and Nevada border, the image “includes a sweep of about 150 miles.”

Times, 20 February 1921.

Later in 1911, Bledsoe and the Huddlestons were sued by a man who hired them for “an expedition along the aqueduct,” meaning the famed Los Angeles Aqueduct which was two years from completion.  The plan was that “large views [panoramas] were to be taken and sold and the result promised well.  It panned out the other way.”   Nothing, however, was located as to disposition of the case.

A decade later, the Huddlestons established the Aerograph Company of America with three other partners and established a temporary Long Beach headquarters before finding a location in a small commercial building in the Vermont Square neighborhood of southwest Los Angeles.  Foster, however, died in June 1921, several months after the firm was founded.

The_Los_Angeles_Times_Sun__Feb_26__1922_ (1)
Times, 26 February 1922.

In February 1922, the Times published a feature on an unmanned “aerograph” balloon invented and patented by Freeman, with the device said to provide for “the elimination of the flying photographer [like Spence], and a reduction of the present costs of producing aeronautical photographs.”  It was reported that he invested several years of work and secured over forty patents for the complex mechanical operation of the craft.  The paper provided some detail:

The balloon used is thirty feet in length, without only sufficient lifting power to carry a camera and its governing mechanisms.  The camera is held steady in the air by being hauled in gimbals [a pivoted support rotating on a single axis] from the balloon, and balanced by a triple motor gyroscope.  The gyroscopes are also used to tilt the camera in any desired direction, and hold it in an absolutely stationary position while the photographic exposures are being made.  The operation of the shutter, and the turning up of the film after each exposure is made is also accomplished by the operator on the ground by means of electro-magnetic devices and a system of wires ascending to the balloon on the steel cable which holds the gas bag captive.

Freeman was developing a special truck to haul and launch the balloon and which would have a hydrogen tank to fill the bag, while a control board on the vehicle would enable control of the system. Whether he was able to bring the concept, which is really a precursor to drone photography, to bear and use it, for example, in conjunction with the captive balloon flight, or whether he or another Aerograph member simply went up in the basket and took the photos is not known.

Times, 26 February 1922.

By the following year, “the supreme authority” in lexicons, Webster’s New International Directory added “aerograph” along with such new words as Bahaism [referring to the Persian religion,] credit union, static and pussyfoot in its latest edition.

Freeman continued to work in photography for more than fifteen years and retired in 1942, just before his death the following year.  The Homestead has a few Huddleston Photo Company images, including one highlighted in this blog previously, a half-dozen Aerograph views, with this being the first to be featured here, and a West Coast Art Company panorama that may be of a portion of the Los Angeles Aqueduct and that should be posted here in the future.


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