Before the transcontinental railroad’s completion, travel from New York to California was a six-month journey by land or sea. In 1866, Frederick Marriott of San Francisco formed The Aerial Steam Navigation Company, intending to build and operate a large steam-powered airship between New York and California, bridging the gap between the population centers of the United States and the burgeoning gold fields of the Pacific.
By 1869, Marriott had constructed a 37′ long prototype named the Hermes Jr. Avitor, after the fleet-footed Roman messenger god who flew through the air on winged sandals. The prototype carried no pilot and was powered by a 1-horsepower steam engine. The buoyant lift was provided by a hydrogen-filled envelope, with stabilizers and elevator surfaces attached to allow for controlled flight. The vehicle was successfully tested at Tanforan, near modern-day San Francisco International Airport. The aircraft completed a circular flight of approximately 1 mile and was recovered successfully.
Marriott planned the construction of a larger version capable of carrying passengers and crew. Still, completion of the first rail link between the east and west coasts in 1869 reduced transcontinental travel times to a week or less, and the stock market crash of 1870 prevented him from securing the necessary financing. The original prototype was destroyed in a fire; the Hiller Aviation Museum displays a full-scale replica at the entrance to its main Gallery.