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First Balloon Ascensions in America

Aeronaut James Mills—first to fly in York County


This Library of Congress illustration is from the “Journal of my Forty-Fifth Ascension, being the First Performed in America, on the Ninth of January, 1793;” printed by Charles Cist in Philadelphia, 1793. The journal describes the first American balloon ascension by the veteran French aeronaut Jean Pierre Blanchard.

Balloon ascensions had begun in France ten years earlier and there were a few attempts to duplicate the feat in America, however none made it with the aeronaut and free flying balloon landing safely; before Blanchard succeeded in 1793. Taking off in Philadelphia, Jean Pierre Blanchard’s free flight lasted forty-six minutes, before landing safely in New Jersey.

President George Washington witnessed the ascension; in fact, he was one of the sponsors of the spectacle. The massive yellow balloon was made of specially treated silk and was filled with hydrogen; generated by the decomposition of water with iron and sulfuric acid.

Americans soon perfected the technique of balloon flight, however it was expensive to put on these flight exhibitions. In the coming years, when a rash of flights were canceled at the last minute, due to faulty equipment or excessive winds, the crowds waned.

During the 1830s, the popularity of balloon ascensions surfaced once more in America. A notable aeronaut from Baltimore quickly made a name for him self and would be the first to pilot a balloon in York, Pa. Continue reading for an early flight adventure of Aeronaut James Mills.


Aeronaut James Mills burst onto the balloon ascension scene in 1834. Mills knew how to entertain his crowds and delighted his followers with long flights.

Samuel Breck was a prominent politician of that time. His volumes of diaries are now in the collections of The Historical Society of Pennsylvania. On occasions, Breck’s diary entries use information from newspaper clippings to augment his personal observations; such is likely the case for his entry of July 1, 1834, describing Aeronaut James Mills balloon ascension from Philadelphia:

On Thursday last 26 of June, I stood on a height near the Schuylkill and saw J. Mills of Baltimore ascend in a balloon of superb construction. He started from Broad Street near Spruce at half past four, having filled the balloon in 2-1/2 hours with 12,000 feet of hydrogen gas procured from decomposition of water with iron and sulfuric acid. Mr. Mills is a native American, and has made two ascensions with the balloon . . . . He rose superbly and having attained an elevation of about ten thousand feet drifted with the wind in an easterly direction at the rate of forty miles an hour.

This rapid movement carried him within five or six miles of the sea in sixty-five minutes and made it necessary to look out for a landing place. But he found himself suspended over a vast forest of Jersey pines belonging to the owner of Hanover Furnace, Burlington County. Here he brought his balloon pretty close to earth and threw out his anchor, but the wind, which did not seem strong while he sailed before it, whistled and pressed against the gaseous globe the moment it felt itself detained by the grapple, which it dragged among the trees, breaking the car [basket suspended under the balloon] and compelling the aeronaut to leap on the ground or take his chance on the broad ocean. He chose the first, springing 7 or 8 feet into a swamp and abandoning his fine balloon, which immediately vaulted into the air and sailed away for the coast of Spain or Portugal.

The YorksPast post James Mills soars over York County in 1835 explores later flights of James Mills. Mills was the first aeronaut to pilot a balloon in York County. He did so on July 25, 1835, taking off in the Borough of York and landing in Lancaster County.

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