The Greatest Balloon Voyage Ever Made
So John Wise characterized his cross-country flight in 1859. All in all, the label is fairly accurate even now
June 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 4
This 250-mile trip down over Lake Erie was, they J. thought, the most boring part of the whole voyage. To relieve the monotony Wise let out enough gas to bring the balloon down to a mere 500 feet above the water. From this height they hailed an astounded steamboat captain who was also heading for Buffalo. The captain got out his brass speaking trumpet, and Wise did the same.
The reported conversation went like this:
“How do you do, Captain?” called the aeronaut. “A fine morning for boating.”
“Good morning, my brave fellows, but where in the heavens did you come from?”
“From St. Louis, sir, last evening.”
“And, pray, where are you going?”
“Going eastward, Captain; first to Buffalo and then to Europe, if we can,” shouted Wise, his dream of ballooning the Atlantic never long out of his mind.
Since the boat was traveling twelve miles an hour and the balloon at least sixty, the colloquy ended here.
A short time later Niagara Falls came into view. Observed from a height of 10,000 feet, the great falls proved a tame sight to the balloonists. Gager, the temporary “scientist,” declared that it was “no great shakes, after all.” Hyde, the journalist, remarked that it looked “frozen up.” LaMountain, the seaman, thought “it would do for a clever little milldam—water power.” And Wise, the airman, watched cloud upon cloud rising from the water and grew uneasy.
He felt even more certain than he had at Fort Wayne that they were riding the advance wave of a coming great storm. All around him now he saw the sky assume definite characteristics of a storm’s approach. To add to his uneasiness, he saw that the Atlantic was nearly out of ballast, which meant that it would presently be impossible to gain a higher altitude to get above the storm. Moreover, the balloon was whizzing along, Wise estimated, at ninety miles an hour.
As they rushed eastward toward Rochester and Lake Ontario, Wise saw Gager lean out of his boat and scan the land beneath. This is the conversation he recorded:
“Do you see anything extraordinary below, Mr. Gager?” the aeronaut called from his basket.
“Yes,” was the answer. “I can see that the wind is very strong below, and I can hear the limbs of the trees crack as if they are splitting from the trunks.”
By this time Hyde and LaMountain were somewhat aware of the situation and were looking a little worried. Wise realized, however, that they had no idea of the true state of things below, for, as he wrote later, “with all the commotion beneath, in our position there reigned a dead silence, and the fiber of a cobweb would not have been ruffled if suspended in our car or boat at the height we were still sailing.”
Despite this smoothness, a short while later both veteran and amateur alike could perceive that things were not good. The balloon was sinking directly into the storm. Wise feared that in a few moments the three men in the boat would be dashed into the trees. LaMountain now shared his concern.
“Professor, what’s to be done?” he shouted up.
“Throw overboard everything you can lay your hands on. If we strike the ground, we shall be torn to pieces,” Wise yelled back.
LaMountain promptly grabbed up the propeller gearing which had been lying in the bottom of the boat, and tossed it overboard. This sent the Atlantic , by this time just clearing the tree tops, up into the air once more.
Not long afterwards the chief aeronaut called his scientific observer Gager up into the car for consultation. The balloon was now back over Lake Ontario, and the shore lay 100 miles ahead. Their best chance, Wise suggested, lay in swamping the balloon in the lake and trusting that they would be rescued by some passing boat.
To emphasize his point as they talked, the Atlantic dipped almost into the angry billows. Wise quickly tossed overboard a valise with all his clothing and his silver cigar case. Again the balloon rose but only for a short while. When it plunged downward again, he used his last bit of ballast—several bottles of champagne which had been given him by a friend in St. Louis to be drunk when the voyagers reached New York. Before throwing the bottles overboard he refreshed himself with their contents. Gager tried to take a sip but was too frightened to swallow.
Meanwhile Hyde and LaMountain remained in the boat below. Hyde continued to write, but whether to make notes of the voyage for his newspaper or to transcribe his will, Wise did not know. LaMountain busied himself in a more practical manner. He chopped up the double bottom of the boat and disposed of it piece by piece. When as a result the balloon rose to 800 feet, Hyde and LaMountain abandoned their craft and climbed into the basket too.