Balloons in York County Skies
Cut from James Mills’ Eye-catching Ad.
The answer for Final Jeopardy this evening concerned two American presidents who witnessed the first balloon ascension in Paris and then, about ten years later, in 1793, the first American balloon ascension in Philadelphia. (Do-dee-do-dee…. Who were Jefferson and Adams?)
Watching balloon ascensions soon became a hugely popular spectator across America, including York, as you can see in my York Sunday News column below on Mr. Mills, his balloon, his excursions and his fate.
Ballooning in 1835
For the past several years, the York County parks have brought together a delightful spectacle of lighter-than-air balloons gracefully dancing over the countryside. Local citizens were just as intrigued when the ballooning craze swept into York County in 1835. This, after all, probably was their first experience to witness man in flight.
The tale unfolds in the leading York newspapers of the day, the Gazette and the Republican: In early June, the papers reported that Mr. James Mills, aeronaut, had just performed his ninth ascension at Lancaster. Even with unfavorable conditions, he had traveled 19 miles to the Conowingo Iron Works in Maryland before coming down. Mills quickly proposed an ascension from York’s Penn Common. He met with York’s leading citizens, headed by Samuel Small, to obtain a guarantee of $800 for expenses. The money would be raised by charging 50 cents admission to an amphitheater from which the balloon would be launched. Sixteen committees set up throughout the area, from Abbottstown to Saginaw to Peach Bottom to York Haven and beyond, to sell the tickets.
The Gazette was quite enthusiastic about the project, while the Republican didn’t think such expeditions were necessary.
The July 14 Gazette carried a sizable ad, complete with a graphic of an ascending balloon. It announced that the enclosure erected on the common would seat 2,500 to 3,000 people. Only from there could the inflation be viewed. The process was described as “…one of the most scientific and interesting things ever offered to an enlightened public.” Instead of heated air, which is used today to inflate passenger balloons, in 1835 a different process was used: “In less than three hours, 11,000 cubic feet of hydrogen gas is procured from his [Mr. Mills] large and powerful apparatus, by the decomposition of water with iron and sulfuric acid.” The schedule states that the gates of the amphitheater would be “thrown open” at 11. Small pilot balloons would be sent up to amuse the crown and ascertain wind currents. Mills would take his seat in the car (basket) at 3:15, and after “floating a few minutes near the spectators, he would be cut loose for his “ascent to the regions above.” A band would play, and “officers will be in attendance to keep good order.” It seems that a sizable crowd might tend to get restless after spending three hours watching a balloon inflate.
To add appeal, the Gazette printed a letter datelined New York. It was from the famed pioneer balloonist Montgolfier, and it advised Yorkers that they would be disappointed if the didn’t spend the half-dollar to go inside the enclosure where they could see the inflation and take off. (Interestingly, the original balloon pioneers–the real Montgolfier brothers, seem to have died in 1799 and 1810.)
The July 28 Gazette reported that, after a rain delay, Mills took position at 4:30. After the rope was cut he rose like a “freed bird” to a “deafening shout” from the 5,000 to 7,000 spectators to a height of 1,200 feet straight up before traveling 13 miles to Jacob Strickler’s farm near Columbia. He landed there at 5:10.
The following week, in a letter to the editor, Mills claimed he had climbed to 2,262 feet and could see from York to Lancaster and points between. His description of the Susquehanna below and “yellow stubble fields contrasting with dark green woods” must have stirred the imagination of many an earth-bound man, woman, and child of nineteenth-century York County.
Mills quickly planned another flight for August 22. This time he would be accompanied by a Miss Phillips, making her second ascension. Again, 50 cent tickets were sold.
Alas, on August 16, the 29-year-old Mills was found dead in the large room in the York County Academy in which he had been repairing his balloon. He had been taken quite ill a day or two before with a ruptured blood vessel. A coroner’s inquest found the cause of death to be “hemorrhage from the lungs.” He was buried the next day in the Methodist Episcopal cemetery in York. The same issue of the Gazette announced that aeronaut Hugh Parker from Baltimore would make his sixth ascension in York September 12 in York, using Mills’ balloon, for the benefit of Mills” widow and orphans. Miss Phillips would go to, “…if weather permits.”
The September ascension didn’t go quite as planned. The Republican headline read: A BALLOON ASCENSION–NOT QUITE.” The balloon had caught on the fence, was pushed over it by spectators, and then crashed after traveling 150 yards. Parker wasn’t hurt. The papers didn’t mention Miss Phillips, who evidently had the good sense not to make the attempt.
In his “Card” in the same issue, Parker offers his excuse. Upon arriving in York, he found the balloon, which he had thought to be in good shape, “a mass of varnished silk stuck together in so compact a body that it required three persons two and a half days to pull it asunder.” He had the tears repaired, but had no time to revarnish. Consequently, gas escaped rapidly during inflation, and as he tried to fill it faster, the quality of the gas deteriorated. Parker apologized and assured the citizens that he would do it better next time. Both papers were soon running ads for a Parker ascension October 3, but tickets were only twenty-five cents this time.
By this time the good citizens of York County were more interested in the fall elections than in Parker’s attempted ascensions. The Wolf-Ritner-Muhlenberg three-way race for Governor and the senatorial contest between McConkey and Alexander Small were hotly contested. Only a small item in the October 13 Gazette indicates the October 3 launch went off, more or less. It cites a Chester County newspaper report that an unmanned balloon landed October 4 at the Issac Pyle farm at London Grove in that county. The Gazette added the comment that it is “no doubt Mr. Parker’s.” No indication of his fate is given, so it is hoped that the balloon left York without him.
Thus ended the ups and downs of the summer of 1835. Other ascensions would follow, including those fifty years later of York’s Dr. James Dale, whose basket and netting are in the collections of York County Heritage Trust. But that is another story….
York County Parks and Recreation will hold it’s spectacular hot air balloon festival again this June at John Rudy Park. Don’t miss it. Click here for the Parks website and then go to Calendar for more information.
Click links below for other ways Yorkers were entertained.
And more little people.
And more movies.
More than just movies.