James Allen (1824-1897) a native of Barrington, became the pioneer American balloonist when he made the first of over 150 ascensions in 1856. The “Zephyrus,” the first of his fifteen balloons, rose three-and-a-quarter miles over Providence from a vacant lot at the present site of City Hall.
When the Civil War began, Allen and his brother Ezra enlisted with the Union army as observers, becoming the first American military balloonists. They provided intelligence to ground forces at such encounters as Yorktown, Chancellorsville, Malvern Hill (for which James named his youngest son) and Fair Oaks. Adolphus Greeley, chief signal officer of the Union army, later noted that “the Union Army was saved from destruction at the Battle of Fair Oaks . . . by the frequent and accurate reports” from Thaddeus Low and Allen.
While engaged in their duties with a balloon detachment in Virginia, James and Ezra met Count Zeppelin, then on duty in the Prussian Embassy in Washington. With the Allens of Providence, the famed inventor of the lighter-than-air dirigible had his first ride in an aircraft.
James Allen’s well known reconnaissance services in the Civil War attracted the attention of the government of Brazil which recruited him in 1867 to assist in subduing the Paraguayan Rebellion. He and his younger brother Ezra Allen (1840-1917) served with distinction and were handsomely rewarded by victorious Brazil for their aerial efforts.
During the late 19th century Allen was joined by his son James Kinnicutt Allen, and both became nationally recognized as experts in both the science and practice of ballooning. Both thrilled local audiences with their annual Fourth of July ascensions over Providence and Narragansett Bay. The elder Allen, patriarch of America’s first family of aeronauts, died peacefully in 1897. He was survived by such distinguished flyers as his brother, Ezra Allen, his cousin, Samuel F. Allen, sons James K. Allen, Ezra Stiles Allen, and Malvern Hill Allen, and a daughter, Lizzie Allen. Eventually James K. Allen’s wife and their four daughters also flew, as did Ezra’s wife, Mary Francis Penno.