by William D. Kalt III
Prescott’s Knights of Pythias Hall whirred with action and anticipation in late June 1901. Local women kept three new sewing machines running each day and part of the night, helping to stitch a massive new cloth apparatus for parachute artist Miss Hazel Keyes. The daring aeronaut’s new balloon stood 80 feet in circumference, contained more than 800 yards of muslin and required “more than a few miles of sewing to complete.” Hazel, 40 years old, brought two enormous lizards to Prescott to parachute with her, but both disappeared. Instead, she planned to fasten Palace Saloon owner Bob Brow’s pet raccoon in a basket and release it attached to a small parachute. An Arizona Weekly Journal-Miner scribe declared, “The famous toyer of death” stood “highly spoken of as a lady and certainly one of the prettiest mid-air performers ever seen hanging to a balloon.” The Arizona Republic dubbed her “the most daring and plucky little woman seen by man or woman in a lifetime.”
America’s “Parachute Queen” electrified audiences and gained national renown during the 1890s. Soaring into the heavens aboard her hot-air balloon, the tough, attractive, determined woman provided a fascinating diversion for entertainment-starved crowds. She survived for more than a decade in a career filled with death and danger at every turn. Slammed into the rigging of a ship at Sausalito, California; smashed to earth to lay unconscious for three hours in the desert near Phoenix; and rescued from drowning in the Salt River were but a few of her near-death escapes. Battered and bruised, she returned after each perilous parachute jump to take to the sky and earn her living and fame. Now she planned her last parachuting performance for Arizona’s Mile High City.
Around 7:40 p.m. on July 4, 1901, Hazel hustled about the southeast corner of the courthouse plaza, directing workers as hot air from a makeshift furnace filled her balloon. Soon 20 strong men fought to secure it. Strapping herself to a trapeze bar, she shouted, “Goodbye all; let her go,” and the bag shot skyward to around 3,500 feet as earth-bound admirers gawked in amazement. Hazel had sold advertising to the B.B. Company, and its giant red letters adorned her balloon as strong winds pushed it eastward. Releasing her parachute, America’s skydiving sensation descended slowly to earth, where her chute pulled her through a thicket of bushes, scratching her face. Three men raced on horseback to assist her, retrieve her balloon and return her to town.
The next night she again floated eastward on the wind. Gusts propelled her over the gulch east of the city’s Citizen’s Cemetery before slamming her to earth, causing severe sprains to both ankles. A Weekly Journal-Miner article declared, “She certainly is a very daring and nervy little woman” and “in view of her accident, the committee would not be censured for canceling the engagement for this evening and paying her the full sum agreed upon for the three evenings.” Nevertheless, she flew again the following day, and calmer winds allowed her to rise vertically before cutting free from the balloon at about 4,000 feet. She landed safely in a flat, open area without rocks or shrubs southwest of Whipple Reservoir as a “regular stream of carriages and horseback riders” chased after her. Following her final performance, Hazel held “a sort of open-air reception” at the Hotel Burke and then took up residence in Prescott. More than a decade would pass before her skydiving days again found the spotlight.
Enjoy more tales of Miss Hazel Keyes’s remarkable life in William Kalt’s book, America’s 1890s Parachute Queen: Skydiving Sensation Miss Hazel Keyes.
“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). This and other Days Past articles are also available at www.archives.sharlothallmuseum.org/articles/days-past-articles/1 The public is encouraged to submit proposed articles and inquiries to email@example.com Please contact SHM Research Center reference desk at 928-277-2003, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org for information or assistance with photo requests.