Editor's note: Many thanks to volunteer researcher George A. Thompson for finding and transcribing this pair of fantastic stories of ballooning in 19th century New York. The first article was originally published as "A Night in the Air" in the New York Herald on July 26, 1874. The New York Tribune followed with "A Successful Balloon Voyage" on July 27, 1874. The articles follow the exploits of balloonist or "aeronaut" Washington Harrison Donaldson.
A NIGHT IN THE AIR.
Twelve Hours Between Heaven and Earth. Balloon Experience Extraordinary
CAMP LIFE IN CLOUD-LAND
A Lady Passenger Among the Stars.
As the representative of the Herald clambered over the edge of the basket attached to Donaldson’s balloon that rose from the Hippodrome on last Friday evening he was conscious of that peculiar tingling sensation of the nerves which comes but thrice in this life - when you are up for your first class examination, when are are being married, and when you make a balloon ascension. It was not fear, but that fluttering feeling about the heart which is rather delightful than otherwise. To add to the excitement of the scene there was a more than usually good audience present watching the equestrian performances upon the track. The spectators seemed the ordinary joyous holiday makers, but when they turned their gaze to where the five journalists who accompanied Donaldson sat, in the wicker basket beneath the bellying, struggling, gassy monster, anchored to earth with bags of sand, there came that saddened expression in their eyes which is always noticed to be a proper part of the make-up of a deputy sheriff at an execution. The ladies were particularly sympathetic in their glances, and seemed to have made up their minds, individually and collectively, that five innocent journalists and one daring aeronaut were going straight to a cloudy grave. This added to the thrilling nature of the occasion, and gave a man an opportunity to imagine himself a martyr to the cause of science, and to entertain a much higher opinion of himself than if he were doomed to tread the dull earth all his life.
Time, which does not wait for any man or any balloon accession, stole around to four o’clock. By that hour the balloon had been gorged with its gaseous lunch, and acted as if it were pretty full, plunging, rearing and cavorting in so enthusiastic a manner that it was evident to the practiced eye of Donaldson that it could not be held in leash much longer. There was the rush of a race around the track, and the blare of the band gave a brassy éclat to our departure. Donaldson sprang into the ropes, and in an instant all eyes were centered on the swaying wicker car. The moment had come. There was just time to see the air grow white with the premonitory kerchiefs, and clear and distinct rang out Donaldson's voice, "Let her go!" In an instant we flashed seven hundred feet, straight as an arrow's course, into the air, and hung over the opening in the canvas roof of the Hippodrome, through which we had ascended. But only of a moment. There was just time to respond to the waving adieux by friends and spectators, and to listen to the cheers of the populace who densely packed the neighboring streets -- cheers which came up to us with a faint and far-away suggestion, when we began to drift toward the Hudson in a southwesterly direction. Then we fully realized the fact that our aerial ship was launched for its uncertain cruise.
No one wanted to make notes then, no one cared a cent for the barometer or the direction of the current. The whole being was wrapped up in an indescribable feeling of delight.
Beneath lay New York like a city of toy blocks, filled with a tremulous noise that came up clearly and yet softly to us. We could trace every street its entire length, could see the people moving to and fro like black specks, could hear alike the hoarse murmur of the populace, the twinkle of the street car bells, and the bark of a dog. Central Park lay spread out like a piece of delicate velvet embroidery, slashed within the silver of its lake and serpentine stream. Far away was the ocean, a sheet of glass, on which moved a multitude of white winged craft. with here and there a black plumed steamer. We could see the many-steepled city of Brooklyn and the glistening Sound beyond, smoky Jersey City and the picturesque villages of the Hackensack valley, all of fair Westchester, and far up the Hudson to where the mountains raised a purple barrier against the sight. Under such circumstances it is not surprising that one's nature expanded, and thoughts woven of the sunlight in which the balloon floated stole into the brain.
Then the mystic chain was broken; then they looked around, asked each other how he felt, and producing note book and pencil fell steadily to work measuring enchantment and surveying the airy dream.
At nineteen minutes past four o'clock we were on a line with the colosseum and rising rapidly. Forty-second street and Seventh avenue was reached at twenty minutes past four, the barometer showing an elevation of 1,800 feet. At twenty-four minutes past four the balloon was 2,200 feet above the level of the sea.
Twenty-seven minutes past four o'clock the balloon's shadow fell on the waters of the Hudson, our elevation being 2,450 feet. From this point handfuls of colored circulars, taken along as part of our ballast, were thrown out, which slowly fluttered downward like
A FLOCK OF GORGEOUSLY TINTED BUTTERFLIES.
At half-past four o'clock we were 2,500 feet high. Then we began to descend until an elevation of 1,800 feet was taken at thirty-three minutes past four. By this time we had reached the Jersey shore and began to drift over Weehawken. Busy as the party were, there was plenty of time to note the charming effect produced by the green fields, dotted with villages, that lay unrolled beneath us like a gigantic panorama. Through the broad expanse of the country, rivers and streams of small size crawled like serpents, their silver scales
GLISTENING IN THE SUN.
Union Hill was passed at twenty minutes to five o'clock; elevation 2,250 feet. A moment later the Midland Railroad was crossed, and the balloon was greeted by a cheering whistle from the engine of a train of cars that scurried along beneath it, the passengers, leaning out of the windows of the carriages, enthusiastically waving their handkerchiefs.
When the watch marked fifty-three minutes past four o'clock Donaldson came down from the ring of the balloon, where he had been perched with his sun umbrella, and notified the five journalists who accompanied him to draw lots to determine in what order they should be dropped, as it was necessary, to insure the success of his trip, that the airship should be lightened, gradually. Five pieces of paper were numbered one, two, three, four and five respectively, thrown into a high white hat, and the drawing began, the understanding being that the men should get out in the order determined by their ballots. The result was as follows: Herald, 1; World, 2; Sun, 3; Graphic, 4; Tribune, 5. We were then at an elevation of 1,600 feet.
AT THREE MINUTES OF FIVE WE PASSED OVER THE HACKENSACK RIVER,
with Hackensack lying to the west. At eleven minutes past five the balloons had fallen so low that the barometer only measured 250 feet, and the drag rope, 350 feet in length, could be heard clashing around among the tree tops. Half of a bag of sand was emptied over the edge of the basket, and we shot up 300 feet, passing over a clearing in the forest where some school children were having a picnic. They saluted the voyagers right royally, and entreated them enthusiastically to descend. But Donaldson was forced to decline the invitation. At twenty minutes past five Paterson hove into view, the elevation being 625 feet. We fell again, being only 150 feet high at thirty-five minutes past five, with our drag rope raising havoc among the forest foliage. Our course was then north by west. At forty minutes past five, and when at an elevation of 250 feet, one of the party who had brought a life preserver along, calculating upon an ocean trip, offered to sell it at half price. No takers.
SKIMMING OVER A HILLTOP,
so near the surface that the trees nearly touched the basket, we were enabled to ask a rustic, at forty-three minutes past five, how far we were from New York city, and were told twenty-six miles. More ballast was thrown out here, and the balloon ascended rapidly. At fifty-five minutes past six our course was north-northwest.
The first landing made was at half-past six o'clock, in Muncy township, Bergen county, on Garrett Harper's farm. The ladies of the house, who at first took the party for surveyors of the new State line, and had retreated within their domicile with a rapidity of movement not excessively complementary to the surveyors, were prevailed upon to furnish us a drink of milk, and even got over their timidity so far as to clamber over a couple of fences and visit the field where the
BALLOON WAS ANCHORED.
They told us we were twenty-five miles from New York city. At eight minutes of seven o'clock we rose again and set steadily toward a mountain range, behind which the sun was declining with a true Italian pomp. At twenty-five minutes past seven, when a mile from the mountains, there came a dead calm -- that evening hush so apt to surround the mystery of the day's death. At thirty-five minutes past seven a landing was made in Ramapo township, upon the farm of
MISS CHARLOTTE THOMPSON,
the charming actress, whose "Fanchon" is as familiar as a household word. Calling upon the lady, we were received most cordially, and when Donaldson invited her to take a short ride in the balloon she clapped her hands in girlish delight, excused herself for a moment, and soon reappeared, shawled and bonneted for the trip. We carried her about two miles, her carriage following the balloon, and left her at last waving her dainty cambric at us as we sped away in the gathering gloom. It was then eighteen minutes past eight o'clock.
From this out until half-past nine o'clock we sailed over a scene of savage beauty, lit up by the magic illumination of the moon, whose silver fringes had woven a veil of luminous haze, with which all nature was draped. Deep and darksome ravines, frowning bluffs, 1,500 feet high; shadowy valleys, in which twinkled the farm-house light, and from whose depth came up the lowing of cattle, were all passed, and suddenly the Hudson, surpassingly lovely as it toiled in
THE GLEAMING ARMS OF THE MOON
burst upon our sight, a dream of spectral light, backed by a haunting nightmare of gloomy hills. We were low enough to speak the steamers, which acknowledged our presence with the shrillest of whistles. Our rope trailed in the water and left a wake of diamond sparks.
West Point was passed at ten minutes to ten. Crossing the river above the town Cold Spring was reached, sixty miles from New York. At twenty minutes past ten Cornwall was left behind, and then we took the middle of the stream, arriving at Newburgh at twenty-five minutes to eleven. Following the Hudson in all its graceful bending we came at twenty minutes to eleven o’clock to Fishkill, where some favoring breezes harnessed themselves to our chariot and galloped inland with us. The balloon was still
TRAILING ITS DRAG ROPE
over the surface of the earth, and the effect produced by our passage over a town must have been startling to the slumbering citizens. The long-drawn hiss of the rope as it struck a roof, followed by the rat-a-plan chorus it played upon the shingles, and the fantastic farewell salutes it gave to crazy chimney tops were all the eerie stuff of which weird legends are made, and we felt positively assured that many a ghost story was left on our trail. Particularly attentive was the party to Wappinger’s Falls, over whose rooftrees the rope
SHRIEKED AND DANCED WITH SATANIC GLEE.
This place was passed at twenty minutes past eleven o’clock, and then began the serious business of the night, the watching for the dawn, as the moon had left us.
To sleep was a matter of impossibility. Leaving two on watch, with no more serious business than to report such and such a star on the port bow, the balance of the air travellers curled up in the bottom of the basket, with sand bags for pillows, and silently composed themselves to a contemplation of their situation. There was absolutely no sound save the croaking of the frogs and the hiss of the drag rope. It was a strange scene,
THAT BIVOUAC BENEATH THE STARS,
that camp in mid-air. So we drifted, drifted on until the east began to show the carmine upon its pallid cheek, until rosy flashes shot up the sky and the miracle of the sunrise was enacted once again. This was at half-past four o’clock, and from a sleepy ploughboy, whom we froze in an attitude of open-mouthed astonishment, we learned that we were in Columbia county.
We landed on the farm of Mr. J. W. Coon, in Germantown, four miles from the city of Hudson, and about
ONE HUNDRED AND THIRTY MILES FROM NEW YORK
at twenty-four minutes past five o’clock, but not without some difficulty, having to resort at last to the valve rope and the anchor. Here the aeronauts were treated with courtesy, and after a hearty breakfast the party, minus the Herald and World representatives, who had drawn numbers one and two in the “get-out lottery,” and the Graphic man continued their jaunt, rising again at fifteen minutes past seven o’clock. After nearly describing a circle around the city of Hudson, the
BALLOON STRUCK A SOUTHWESTERLY CURRENT
at a high altitude and floated rapidly toward the Catskill Mountains. At half-past eleven it was within half a mile of the Mountain House, and the rope being within reaching distance it was taken hold of by a man and a conversation held with the aeronauts. They then threw out more ballast and arose to an immense elevation, still keeping a southwesterly course, which they were holding when last seen.
Professor Donaldson has informed the Herald representative that this was the most brilliant voyage he had ever made, and if he continues it as successfully as it was conducted up to the time the balloon landed in Columbia county yesterday morning the trip will cover the daring aeronaut with that glory which his skill and coolness deserve.
A SUCCESSFUL BALLOON VOYAGE.
Twenty-Six Hours in the Air – Events of a Trip from New-York to Saratoga.
Saratoga, N. Y., July 26. -- It is safe to say that the balloon-trip in W. H. Donaldson's new air-ship The Barnum, which terminated nine miles from this city last evening, was the finest that ever began in New-York, and one of the most prosperous and enjoyable ever made in the country. A little after 4 p. m. on Friday the five journalists who were to accompany Mr. Donaldson stepped into the willow basket, and with the latter's signal, "Let go all," were shot rapidly upward. Almost in an instant they were 700 feet high. Union and Madison-squares, and the streets around the Hippodrome, were thronged with people, balconies and housetops, nearly as far as could be distinguished, were crowded, and sending up shouts of applause or farewell. Blocks of houses looked no larger than single buildings ordinarily appear, and the street cars, which could be dimly seen, appeared about the size of bricks. At 4:30 the balloon was hovering over the Hudson at an altitude of 2,500 feet. Long Island looked like a large straggling village, a little thickest along the East River, and the Sound was filled with fairy-looking craft. Staten Island seemed a part of New-Jersey. Northward was the Hudson. The Palisades were plainly visible, and so were the towns along the river. Where the Hackensack and Passaic Rivers empty into Newark Bay a pair of dentist's nippers was plainly see marked out by the curving courses of the streams, and a few miles to the east was a gigantic foot, formed by cuttings on a forest, with every curve as true as if it had been made by one of the "anatomical" foot makes.
Mr. Donaldson, about 4:30, suggested that it would be necessary to leave one of the party now and then, in order to make the trip as long as possible, the journalists should draw lots to decide who should get out first. Numbers were written on separate slips of paper, tossed into a hat, and shaken, and the following is the order in which they were drawn: Herald, 1; World, 2; Sun, 3; Graphic, 4; Tribune, 5. At 5:11 the balloon had sunk to an altitude of 250 feet. Prof. Donaldson explained that the sinking was caused by the setting of the sun. The drag-rope, 350 feet long, the letting out and pulling in of which was like throwing out and putting in ballast, trailed along the ground. It cracked branches of trees like pipe stems, tore boards from fences, left a narrow path through fields of grain which it crossed, and seemed to be resistless. When it drags over a house, a fence, or along the ground, a sound like the roar of an enormous buzz-saw is produced.
At 6.30 the rope caught and the balloon was made to descend, and the party landed near a farm house and got some milk. The balloon ascended again at 6:52, crossed the Piermont branch of the Erie Railroad, in the township of Ramapo, and landed on a farm in the township near the Summer residence of Charlotte Thompson, the actress, who was visited. She accepted readily an invitation to ascend, and in half an hour the party were off again with Miss Thompson in company. After going about two of three miles she was landed, and returned home in her carriage which had followed.
At 10 p. m. the air-ship was over the Hudson, opposite West Point, and only 40 feet above the ground. During the night only eight pounds of ballast were thrown out.
At 5:24 on Saturday the grappling hook was thrown out and in a few seconds the party were landed on the farm of William Cooms, in Greenport. The Graphic, Herald and World representatives then got out and left for Hudson. The anchor was then loosened, and in three minutes the balloon was 2,200 feet in the air. At 9 o'clock it was 8,300 feet, nearly a mile and three quarters. The sun was very hot, and the thermometer registering 70. The balloon drifted slowly southward towards New-York. The City of Hudson was almost directly below, and a little off to the east, across the river, was Catskill, and beyond the Catskill Mountains. Four stratas [sic] of clouds were distinctly to be seen. The first or lower strata was of a dirty gray color; the second, a pure, gleaming, silvery white; the third, a beautiful deep azure, darker than the clear blue vault overhead; and the fourth or upper, a dark brown, almost the color of amber. Albany and Greenbush came in sight, with Troy beyond. Ballast was thrown out and the balloon rose rapidly to 9,000 feet -- so fast that the party had to shout to make one another hear. Then they descended.
For three hours and a half the balloon was nearly a mile and three-quarters high. All this time it was in sight of Hudson City. At 11 it arose over the first span of the Catskills. After several hours of travel the balloon sailed over a deep valley which Donaldson said would be good for a landing, and the anchor was dropped. It grappled readily, gas was let out, and the party descended among some small trees at 6:07 p. m. The place of landing was E. R. Young's farm, in Greenfield, Saratoga County, nine miles north of the place. The journey of 400 miles had been accomplished in 26 hours.
W. H. Donaldson had preceded his balloon flight up the Hudson with a botched attempt to balloon across the Atlantic. Later in 1874, he helped a Cincinnati couple marry in mid-air, and in 1875 attempted to balloon from Chicago across Lake Michigan when a storm came up, with fatal results.
To learn more about Donaldson and his exploits, check out the additional resources below!
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