Professor Donaldson’s Unexpected Voyage To Connecticut – 1873
Professor Washington Harrison Donaldson, (1840-1875) was a Balloonist from reading, Pennsylvania, known for making numerous ascensions during his career. What was perhaps his most infamous ascension occurred on October 7, 1873, when he left New York on what was to be a transatlantic flight to England, but was forced down in New England instead. What makes this flight by Donaldson historic is that it was the first known attempt by an aeronaut to cross the Atlantic Ocean by air.
Since the first balloon flight in France in 1793, it had been every aeronaut’s ambition to be the first to cross the Atlantic Ocean by air, yet each knew that such a trip in a balloon was impossible, for once aloft a balloon was at the mercy of prevailing winds. Then in 1843, an aeronaut named Professor John Wise came to the conclusion that such a trip was feasible if the balloon could reach a certain altitude where he believed there was a constant flow of air blowing from west to east. If a balloon could reach that current of air, he speculated, it could easily cross the ocean. Professor Wise petitioned Congress for money to develop his idea and to build a balloon, but he was turned down.
Professor Donaldson made his first balloon ascension from Reading, Pennsylvania, on August 30, 1871. Within a year he’d established his reputation as an aeronaut and began to develop plans to build a balloon with which to attempt a trans-Atlantic trip to England utilizing the air currents Professor Wise believed existed.
Initially Donaldson approached Boston municipal authorities asking for funds with which to build his balloon, and offered to begin his historic trip from that city, but was turned down. Undaunted, he went to New York, and received funding from the Daily Graphic newspaper. Thus, Donaldson’s balloon was christened, “The Daily Graphic”.
Donaldson’s balloon was massive, holding 300,000 square feed of gas, beneath which hung a life boat for use in the event of a water landing that was stocked with enough provisions to last forty days.
The balloon took off from the Capitolino Grounds in Brooklyn, New York, at 9:19 a.m. on the morning of October 7th. Accompanying Professor Donaldson on his trans-Atlantic journey were Alfred Ford, and George Ashton Lunt.
A description of the ascent was reported in a local newspaper as follows: “The balloon arose with immense velocity. The drag rope depending from the concentrating ring had been stretched out along the ground, and as the great air ship soared skyward it ripped the drag rope through the grass with a motion that can only be compared to an infuriated whale dragging a harpoon rope. The crowd cheered lustily, the aeronauts responding by waving their hats and blowing a fog horn.”
When the balloon reached about 5,000 feet prevailing winds began pushing it eastward, and then to the northeast carrying them over Westchester County, New York, and then over Connecticut. At about 1:15 p.m. they passed over a mountain in Litchfield County Connecticut and found themselves above a valley surrounded by thick clouds, heavy rain, and gusty winds. The storm was a violent one with strong winds spinning and buffeting the craft. Then the balloon was caught in an updraft taking it high into the sky before it suddenly began falling back towards earth at great speed. It descended to tree- top level, and was pulled across the tree tops about 30 feet off the ground. At this point the men decided to abandon the balloon and jump. Donaldson and Ford leapt at the same moment, but Lunt was delayed. The sudden loss of weight caused the balloon to suddenly shoot skyward again taking Lunt with it. Before long it disappeared back into the storm clouds.
Donaldson and Ford alighted on the farm of Charles Lewis in North Canaan, Connecticut, relatively unhurt. At this point there was nothing they cold do for Lunt.
In his statement to the press Lunt later recalled his experience: “We were attacked by a tremendous squall of wind and rain at fifteen minutes past one o’clock, and were driven near the earth with frightful velocity. Everything was thrown overboard without avail, and as we were dashed to the earth Donaldson and Ford sprang out, and the balloon shot into the air, bearing me with it, and was speedily in the storm-cloud again, and being whirled about in the most alarming manner. I shouted to Donaldson for directions but could hear no reply, and was left to my own resources, The bag was shaking above me with awful force, and I could see nothing, so thick was the cloud. I seized the valve cord and attempted to open it. Could not open it. The cord became entangled with the neck. Suddenly tree tops shot up through the fog, and in an instant the balloon was whirling through branches. I climbed out of the boat to a place above the ring, and as the balloon rushed into a thicket of trees I swung myself out and dropped among the branches.
The boat scraped over me and detached my hands. I dropped to earth, surprised to find myself unhurt. I started to walk back in the supposed right direction, and met four men running after me. I offered them a large reward to capture the balloon, then out of sight. They have gone in pursuit in the locality of Canaan, Connecticut. I was driven to the station by Dr. William Adams, where Ford and Donaldson arrived soon after.”
The balloon was later recovered in a severely battered condition about a mile from the Lewis farm .
Professor Donaldson was later lost in a balloon ascension from Chicago over Lake Michigan in 1875. Neither he nor his balloon were recovered.
To learn more about Professor Donaldson’s balloon flights, see the 1875 book “History of Donaldson’s Balloon Ascensions”, (With illustrations.)
New York Daily Tribune, “Voyaging In The Sky”, July 6, 1859
The Rutland Daily Globe, “The Ocean Balloon”, October 9, 1873
Yorkville Enquirer, (George A. Lunt’s statement), October 16, 1873
Wikipedia – Washington Harrison Donaldson
Book, “History of Donaldson’s Balloon Ascensions”, Complied by M. L. Amick M.D., Cincinnati News Co., 1875