Skip to main content

The Greatest Balloon Voyage Ever Made

June 2024
11min read

So John Wise characterized his cross-country flight in 1859. All in all, the label is fairly accurate even now

John Wise, known during his lifetime as the Father of American Ballooning, was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1808. He made many contributions to American airmanship and to the literature of aerostatics in a career which extended over forty years and included 446 free balloon ascensions. Unlike most of the American aeronauts of his day who used the great globes for entertainment at fairs and carnivals, Wise’s approach was scientific.

This scientific interest in aeronautics stemmed from boyhood when he was an avid student of all material relating to European ballooning which appeared in his father’s German newspapers. The names of the Frenchmen, the Montgolfier and Robert brothers, Charles, and Guarnerin; the Englishman, Green; and the Italian, Lunardi, all became familiar to him.

In 1822 when he was fourteen, he built and launched a small fire balloon (a Montgolfier). Unfortunately, it plunged to the roof of a house in the center of Lancaster and set fire to it. For some time after this episode, young Wise’s aeronautical activities were confined to experiments with kites and parachutes. By May, 1835, however, he had saved enough money from his trade as a pianoforte maker to build and inflate a full-sized hydrogen balloon. His first ascension and flight—the nine miles from Philadelphia to Haddonfield, New Jersey—was a success, and Wise promptly abandoned piano making to become a professional aeronaut.

Perhaps his most significant discovery was that a great current of air moves continually around the earth in a west-to-east direction. After Wise had struck this current a number of times in his flights, he began to search for it each time he went up. Finally in May, 1842, after an ascension from Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, he wrote in his diary: “It is now beyond a doubt in my mind established that a current from west to east in the atmosphere is constantly in motion within the height of 12,000 feet above the ocean.”

Thereafter Wise spent his his trying to convince people of its practical significance. By means of this powerful and constant river of air he hoped to establish air lines across the country and eventually to Europe. He petitioned Congress for $15,000 to implement this proposal but even with the eloquent Stephen A. Douglas pleading his cause, all he got from the legislative body was derisive laughter.

In 1859 Wise decided that a successful balloon trip halfway across the American continent might demonstrate what could be done and so perhaps stimulate financial backing for a similar voyage to Europe. Another balloonist, a 29-year-old former seaman named John LaMountain from Troy, New York, built the balloon for the journey under Wise’s direction, and a Vermont businessman, O. A. Gager, footed the bills. When it was finished, the three men observed the silken globe, fifty feet in diameter and sixty feet high, and agreed to christen her the Atlantic . It was a good name, they thought, and of prophetic significance.


The starting point was St. Louis, Missouri, and the date set for the journey was July 1, 1859. By 6 P.M. the Atlantic , bulging with gas from one of the street mains of the gaslight company, was ready for her historic flight. In addition to her provisions—1,000 pounds of sand ballast, water, ice, a bucket of lemonade, a basket of wine, and sundry well-cooked articles of meat and game—she also carried a boat suspended beneath the basket.

John Wise, as director in chief, climbed into the wicker car, and below him, in the dangling boat, were Messrs. Gager (listed as “scientific observer") and LaMountain, and a Mr. Hyde, an eager-beaver reporter for the Missouri Republican , who had never been near a balloon in his life.

At 6:45 the Atlantic was cut loose and after a graceful and easy ascent moved oft in an easterly direction. For a time the airmen returned the waves and shouts of the enthusiastic thousands on the ground. Then “as the clatter and clang of the multifarious workshops of St. Louis faded into the mellow twilight of evening,” aeronaut Wise settled contentedly back in his wicker basket to observe the “trim and bearing of his noble ship.”

His satisfaction ended at once. With alarm he saw that the great globe was improperly rigged. Instead of resting equally upon the 36 ropes as it should, the whole weight of the balloon’s burden was pulling on only six ropes which were shorter than they should have been. These six were cutting dangerously into the body of the balloon.


Wise leaned out of his basket and called to Gager to come up from his boat and help him adjust the ropes. The two men stood on the rim of the basket and pulled and shoved at the ropes until their fingers were torn and bleeding. Half an hour later they had succeeded in equalizing the rigging. Gager slid back down into his boat, and Wise once more leaned back in contentment. He wrote lyrically in his log book:

The feeble shimmer of the new moon was now mantling the earth beneath in a mellow light, and the western horizon was painted with gold and purple. Nothing could exceed the solemn grandeur of the scene. All was quiet and still as death; not a word was passing from the lips of the crew; every one seemed to be impressed with the profound silence that hung around us . . . In another moment the stillness was broken. Cattle began to low, and some loud-mouthed dogs greeted our ears with an occasional bark. This seemed to break the silence of the crew, and soon a lively conversation ensued.

As the darkness grew more intense, the great silken globe glowed in the darkness like a Chinese lantern. Its pale, orange-colored brilliance was bright enough for the crew to tell time by their watches, and in its glow every seam and every mesh in the network could be traced upon the balloon’s surface. Seeing this strange light, the travelers were at first frightened, expecting their air bubble to burst into flame. But as they floated on and nothing happened, they decided the illumination was some harmless phenomenon caused by the combination of heat, light, and coal gas.

Again Wise relaxed and wrote in his log book:

The heavens above were brilliantly studded with stars of every magnitude and color, the atmosphere having become perfectly clear; and when we crossed water we had the starry heavens as distinctly visible below as above . . . The forests appeared of a deep brown cast; and when a handful of sand was dropped overboard, at our greatest elevation, it could be distinctly heard raining upon the foliage of the trees. It answered as an index for our altitude, in accordance with the time that elapsed between the discharge of the sand and the noise of its contact with the trees.


Soon in the great stillness the chief aeronaut grew drowsy. He checked the position of the hose running into the balloon’s neck—the hose which served as a safety valve for the escape of the gas when the balloon became too distended from the lessening of atmospheric pressure. At the moment, the aeronaut observed, it was just where it should be—hanging over the edge of the car.

Leaning out of his basket, Wise called to the three men suspended in the boat beneath.

“I’m going to take a nap. Keep the ship well up, so we can get a more direct easterly course. Call me if you need me.”

Curling his considerable length in the cramped space of the car, the exhausted balloonist dozed off immediately. Below him in the bout, the three novices decided that the ballon was not sailing high enough and tossed out a liberal amount of ballast.

The huge bag responded instantly by soaring to a height where the atmospheric pressure was definitely diminished. Inevitably as the balloon filled out, its neck grew shorter. Before long the hose was drawn back into the car where it proceeded to discharge its poisonous coal gas into the mouth and nose of the sleeping aeronaut. He slept on, more heavily now.

At 12,000 feet, as measured by their barometer, the three wide-awake balloonists found the skies uncomfortably chilly and wished to come down to the lower air where it was warmer. Gager called up to Wise to yank the valve rope which hung in the car. No answer. Gager called again, then a third and fourth time. The only reply was a frightening silence.

His heart pounding, Gager pulled himself up the ropes to the basket. He found Wise unconscious with his breath coming in convulsive gasps. Jerking the poisonous hose away from the chief aeronaut’s lace, Gager set out to revive him. It was not long before the pure air restored Wise to consciousness.

The rest of the night passed quietly enough. For amusement they “hallooed” at the dogs on the ground. If they unleashed a great noisy canine commotion, they knew they were over a thick settlement. One lonely bark told them they were floating over some “lone log-cabin in the wild woods.” Occasionally, their shouts brought the frightening howl of wolves.

A little before dawn the Atlantic passed Fort Wayne, Indiana. The three in the boat were happy that their journey was going so well, but the veteran Wise observed the cloudless sky and the wind upon which they were riding and didn’t like the look of things.


He said nothing to his companions, however, and they sailed above the Maumee River until at 6:45 A.M. they passed out over Lake Erie with Toledo to the west and Sandusky to the southeast of their course. They were now whizzing along at about sixty miles an hour and calculated to reach Buffalo around 11 A.M.

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.

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.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.