The Greatest Balloon Voyage Ever Made


Once again Wise suggested they swamp the balloon with the hope of rescue “at lake,” but his companions protested. “I’m sick now,” wailed LaMountain, “and I can’t stand the water.” “Yes,” agreed Hyde, “if we are to die, let us die on land—if we can reach it.” “By all means,” Gager joined in, “let’s try and rough it through.”

The eyes of the four men strained forward, hoping to see anything other than the black clouds and billows. But they continued to skim along, as they had for more than a hundred miles, just above the boisterous surface of the lake.

At 1:35 P.M. land loomed ahead. Wise ordered the crew to take firm hold of the rigging. Secretly he still planned—if there seemed no other way to get the balloon up into the air again—to swamp the airship some hundred yards before it reached shore.

But before he could manage to bring the airship down to actual water level, the wind plunged it with a violent crash upon the shore. LaMountain immediately threw out the grapnel. The balloon rebounded and shot up over the treetops. The grapnel broke, and in another moment, the Atlantic dashed through the treetops like a “maddened elephant through a jungle.” For more than a mile the balloon whirled over the forest while the unfortunate crew clung desperately, sometimes with heads down, to the basket, the rigging, or the concentrating hoop. Whenever the balloon caught for an instant in a tree, the folds of the half-empty bag swayed about furiously and shook the airmen as a puppy shakes a rag.


Then a sudden squall pushed the airship entirely out of the forest. Seconds later it was pitched into the side of a high tree where its fabric split open in several places and the bag collapsed completely. But the four balloonists were safe, their small basket perched miraculously in the fork of a giant tree. Below, some half dozen people from the neighborhood who had watched their coming were as much amazed as the aeronauts at this final result of their flight. An elderly lady with spectacles told Wise that she was really surprised and astonished to see so sensible-looking a party as theirs riding in such an outlandish-looking vehicle.

The intrepid quartet now stood up in their basket and gingerly checked their bodies for broken bones. Finding themselves intact, they looked at their chief who, with modest smile and understandable pride, proclaimed to all, “And thus ends the greatest balloon voyage that was ever made.”

Undoubtedly it was a great voyage by any standard—until 1910 the longest balloon trip ever made in America, and one of the longest ever made anywhere in the world. Using John Wise’s west-to-east current, the Atlantic had flown from St. Louis, Missouri, to Henderson, New York, nearly 1,200 miles in nineteen hours. (This was Wise’s calculation, and allowed for deviations from the straight course. The actual mileage is given as 809 miles.)

Although this successful voyage of the Atlantic received much favorable publicity, it was many years before John Wise secured financial backing for his trans-ocean flight. At last in 1873 he got it—from a new and somewhat boisterous newspaper, the New York Daily Graphic . Elaborate plans were laid—but the flight was never actually made.

John Wise, dauntless to the last, met what may seem to have been an appropriate end when, in 1879 at the age of 71, he was blown away in a balloon over Lake Michigan and never heard of again.

The Atlantic’s hardy navigator, John LaMountain, bought the wrecked balloon from Wise for $250 and skillfully repaired it. Less than three months later he went up from the fair grounds at Watertown, New York, for what was supposed to be a short aerial jaunt but unexpectedly whisked him 300 miles up into the Canadian wilderness. He barely escaped with his life.

Neither of the other two voyagers, Gager and Hyde, as far as we know, ever set foot in a balloon again.