Forgotten in Time

An epic flight launched from St. Louis in 1859.
Its passengers nearly died.
Its record stood for the rest of the century.

"The Greatest American Balloon Voyage,"

it was called in 19th-Century newspapers and magazines. The gas balloon Atlantic left downtown St. Louis and stayed aloft for nearly 20 hours before landing near Henderson, New York, after drifting an estimated 1,150 miles. The balloon carried two of the century's leading aeronauts, John Wise and John LaMountain, the project's financial backer, O.A. Gager, and a St. Louis newspaper reporter, William Hyde, who thus became one of journalism's first aerospace writers.


Wise later explained, "Although Mr. Hyde was not in the original programme, we unanimously agreed to let him accompany us, provided it would not interfere with our ultimate design; and as it was arranged that, under any circumstance, when the balloon should fail, the boat with its occupants should be disposed of, and myself or Mr. La Mountain should proceed with the voyage alone."

Anniversaries of other aviation milestones are routinely observed -- the Wright Brothers' first aeroplane flight in 1903, Charles Lindbergh's flight across the Atlantic Ocean to Paris in 1927 and Neil Armstrong's first step on the moon in 1969. History largely overlooks the Atlantic's journey on July 1-2, 1859.  

The flight was amply covered by Harper's Weekly, the leading magazine of its day. But the country's attentions were soon diverted to the Civil War. 

While the balloonists estimated their meandering course approached 1,200 miles, the direct distance from St. Louis to Henderson later was plotted at 809 miles. Either way, no one would fly farther during the 19th Century.  

Newspaper coverage  
Newspapers around the world shared a local story. 


From St. Louis to Henderson, Jefferson Co.



A Plunge into Lake Ontario


The St. Louis Republican of the 2d gives the following account of the inflating of the balloon, and the departure from that city of the aerial voyagers:

            A very large number of the citizens of St. Louis witnessed a novel scene yesterday -- that of the ascension of two balloons from Washington Square, corner of Clark avenue and Twelfth streets.

The men who have embarked their interests in this undertaking are all of them gentleman of excellent judgment and two of them (Profs. John Wise and Mr. John LaMountain) are experienced aeronauts. Mr. O.A. Gager, the third, furnished the means by which the experiment has been made.

It was proposed to pay the expenses of gas used for inflation by the sale of tickets at the gate, but the inside paying spectators were scarcely a unit when compared to the hundreds without.


commenced gathering within and without the inclosure at 1 o'clock p.m., but the usual heat of the day deterred the majority of spectators from reaching the ground until 4 or 5 o'clock p.m. The inclosure contained 600 to 800 people and the streets, open lots, board piles and house tops were filled for squares around, so soon as the monster balloon Atlantic began to lift its magnificent proportions into the air, by the process of


At 4 o'clock p.m. we entered the grounds, and found the inflation far advanced. It was the intention to fill the balloon to only one half of its capacity, or 60,000 cubic feet of gas, leaving plenty of room for expansion in the rare atmosphere of the upper regions. This was likely accomplished before 6 o'clock p.m. and the flow of gas was decreased. During this process the liveliest interest was manifested by the spectators in attendance, and the aeronauts, sanguine more than ever of success, were kept continually busy in discoursing with their friends on matters pertaining to the air-ship and the long voyage on which they were about to embark.

Matters went smoothly and delightfully on until

This ingredient of an excited crowd took place near the entrance gate and was occasioned by a visitor insisting on making free use of a lot of wine which had been provided for the special use of the aeronauts. Mr. Baker, general superintendent of the grounds, interfered, but the thirsty individual insisted on helping himself to wine, whereat a scuffle ensued, in which the pertinacious wine-bibber was vanquished, and . . . . into the hands of the police.

John Wise, then 51, was a ballooning pioneer born in Lancaster, Pa. He made his first flight in 1835 when he was a piano maker. By his death in 1879 he had flown more than 400 times. He carried the U.S. Postal Service's first air mail in 1859.
In 1955 American Heritage magazine described Wise as "the Father of American Ballooning." In other words, also the father of American aviation. That story was titled, "The Greatest Balloon Voyage Ever Made." Early in his flying career, Wise noted a steady flow of winds across the continent. "It is now beyond a doubt in my mind established that a current from west coast to east coast in the atmosphere is constantly in motion within the height of 12,000 feet above the ocean," he wrote in his diary.

The American Heritage article continued:

          Thereafter Wise spent his days 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 . . . 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.

Wise was one of the first handful of humans to see the earth from far above. He described the view:

         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. 

In 1873 a book written by Wise, Through the Air, was published and provided a detailed history of ballooning as well as his "FORTY YEARS' EXPERIENCE AS AN AERONAUT . . . With an account of "The Author's Most Important Air-Voyages." The book held many detailed drawings of historic flights, including several of the St. Louis-New York excursion.

The Aircraft

The Atlantic was sewn "of the best Chinese silk" and held about 60,000 cubic feet of gas. Below the bag was a wicker basket, typical of aeronautical balloons built before and since. About 16 feet below the basket was a wooden boat to carry passengers and ample supplies for the trip. Presumably the boat was intended for use in the event of water landing.

An illustration published in Harper's Weekly depicts the Atlantic without the basket hanging between the balloon and boat.

 Hyde later wrote:
           The cargo consisted of nine hundred pounds of sand, in bags; a large quantity of cold chickens, tongues, potted meats, sandwiches, etc.; numerous dark-colored, long-necked vessels containing champagne, sherry, sparkling Catawba, claret, Madeira, brandy and porter; a plentiful supply of overcoats, ; shawls, blankets, and fur gloves; a couple or three carpet bags, chuck full of what is expressed in that convertible phrase -- a change; a pail of iced lemonade, and a bucket of water; a compass, barometer, thermometer and chart; bundles of the principal St. Louis newspapers; an express package, directed to New York City . . . tumblers, cups, knives and perhaps other articles which have escaped me."

Around 6 p.m. on July 1, the ropes and men holding the Atlantic set it free and it drifted over Illinois,
Hyde recorded.

            The applauding shouts of the people reached our ears for some time after we left the earth, growing fainter and fainter as we receded. Objects became less clearly defined. Finally the city faded into a spot. The balloon afforded an extended view of the Mississippi, the Missouri and the Illinois rivers. I had an opportunity to realize, as much as possible to a practical person, the meaning of poetic dreams when attempting to portray the silver, glittering sheen of the waters produced by the rays of the declining sun. Nothing could be imagined more gorgeously beautiful.

I don't think I ever experienced such exhilaration of spirit, such real joy. At thirty-six minutes after 7 o'clock we were favored with a view of sunset such as no painter could depict nor any enthusiast describe.

As night fell the air became bitter cold.  

 "Our limbs were numb and our teeth chattered," Hyde wrote. Under the stars the Atlantic crossed Illinois and entered Indiana, where the crew identified the Wabash River passing below them.

            There were momentary flashes of lightning on all sides of the horizon. The milky way appeared like luminous phosphorescent clouds, and Heaven's jeweled tiara of stars glistened below us and above us. Night's queenly brow shimmered with the mellow light of the newborn crescent moon, Starlight and moonlight!

During much of the trip, the voyagers estimated the velocity of their carrying winds at 60 to 90 miles per hour and achieved a maximum altitude of two miles. As changing winds and temperatures caused the balloon to fall and rise, the balloonists released sand ballast or gas to adjust its altitude. At sunrise on the morning following the launch, the balloon passed near Fort Wayne, Indiana. At 5 a.m. the crew spotted Lake Erie. Within three hours the balloon traversed its 250-mile width.
They passed over the Niagara Falls at a height of 10,000 feet. "The falls were quite insignificant, seen from our altitude," Hyde noted.

The storm

As the Atlantic left Niagara Falls behind, ominous clouds appeared in the distance. Hyde recounted his story for a magazine:

          At 10.20 a m. we were skirting along the Canada shore . . . Finding ourselves in the State of New York, but too far north to make the City of New York . . . we descended gradually, but before we got within a thousand feet of the earth we found a most terrific gale sweeping along below. The woods roared like a host of Niagaras, the surface of the earth was rilled with clouds of dust, and I told my friends certain destruction awaited us, if we should touch the earth in that tornado.
          The huge ''Atlantic" was making a terrific sweep eastward; already were we near the tops of the trees of tall forest, and I cried out somewhat excitedly, "for God's sake heave overboard anything you can lay your hands on . . . "

         We were fast running on to Lake Ontario, and O! how terrible it was foaming, moaning, and howling . . . I will cut up the boat for ballast, and we can keep above water until we reach the opposite shore," which was near a hundred miles off in the direction we were then going.
Everything now indicated that we should perish in the water or on the land; and our only salvation was to keep afloat until we got out of the gale. We now discerned the shore, some forty miles ahead, peering between a sombre bank of clouds and the water-horizon, but we were sweeping at a fearful rate upon the turbulent water, and, in another moment, crash went the boat upon the water sideways, staving in two of the planks, and giving our whole craft two fearful jerks by two succeeding waves. In another moment we were up a few hundred feet again. . .

            I saw by the swaying to and fro of the lofty trees into which we must inevitably dash, that our worst perils were at hand, but I still had a blind hope that we should be saved . . . We struck within a hundred yards of the water, among some scattered trees . . . hurling through the tree tops at a fearful rate. After dashing along this way for nearly a mile, crashing and breaking down trees, we were dashed most fearfully into the boughs of a tall elm . . .

       It was a fearful plunge, but it left us dangling between heaven and earth, in the most sorrowful plight of machinery that can be imagined. None of us were seriously injured, the many cords the strong hoop made of wood and iron, and the close wicker-work basket saving us from harm, as long as the machinery hung together, and that could not have lasted two minutes longer.
We came to the land, or rather tree, of Mr. T. O. Whitney, Town of Henderson, Jefferson Co., N.Y.

The 1955 American Heritage story offered further details of the landing.
                "The four balloonists were safe, their small basket perched precariously 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. 
       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.
Neither of the other two voyagers, Gager and Hyde, as far as we know, ever set foot in a balloon again.
In Wise's book Through the Air, he described the Atlantic's final wrenching moments:
         In another moment a limb of the tree, seven or eight inches thick, was torn from its trunk and was swinging in the rigging of the balloon. Another squall, and the air-ship bounded out of the woods and lodged in the side of a high tree, with the limb still hanging to it, and then collapsed. It split open in a number of places, and some of the pieces were carried off high in the air.  

         Thus ended the greatest balloon voyage that was ever made.

Later flights

Wise continued flying until 1879. During a flight when he was 71 years old, his balloon was blown over Lake Michigan and he was never seen again.
LaMountain bought the remains of the Atlantic after the crash in New York and made repairs. In September 1859 he took another newspaperman, John Haddock of Watertown, N.Y., on a flight across Minnesota and Michigan. Winds unexpectedly carried Atlantic into Canadian wilderness. LaMountain was forced to land and the men spent four days lost in the forest until they were rescued by lumbermen.

Still flying the Atlantic early in the Civil War, LaMountain approached the U.S. Army offering his services for surveillance of enemy movements behind battle lines. He is credited with making the first wartime aerial reconnaissance.

The Atlantic's St. Louis-New York distance record was surpassed in 1900 when Count Henri de La Vaulx of France traveled 1,192 miles in his balloon, Centauri. He departed Vincennes, France, and landed nearly 36 hours later in Korostishev, Russia.

The amazing Mr. Hyde

William Hyde was a respected newspaperman when he volunteered to join the voyage of the Atlantic a few weeks before his 23rd birthday. He was born near Rochester, N.Y. His great-grandfather had served as an officer in the Revolutionary War. His grandfather fought in the War of 1812.
As a young man, Hyde intended to become a teacher and ventured to Lebanon, Ill., to attend McKendree College for two years. He then headed to Transylvania University in Kentucky to study law and became interested in politics. His first published newspaper story, in the Belleville Tribune, concerned U.S. Sen. Stephen Douglas, whose re-election was challenged by Abraham Lincoln and produced the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates.

Hyde served as editor of the Belleville Tribune and then the Sterling (Illinois) Times before he was plucked by the St. Louis Republican to serve as its correspondent in Springfield, Ill., in 1857. After the year's legislative session ended, Hyde was invited to become a reporter in St. Louis. Hyde became assistant editor of the paper in 1860. Upon the death of the paper's editor in 1866, Hyde became editor-in-chief and steered the paper until 1885.

"He managed the paper through the five presidential campaigns that followed, and it may fairly said, so directed its editorial policy and managed its entire course as to largely increase its influence and usefulness," recounted a St. Louis history book.

"In 1885 he made a visit to Europe, taking his family with him, and shortly after his return was appointed by President Cleveland postmaster of St. Louis -- a position whose duties he discharged with the conscientious diligence that marked all of his tasks of trust and responsibility, and in a spirit of fairness and liberality that gained him the respect of his political opponents.
"The fast mail, which has been of so great advantage to St. Louis and the West, is one of the achievements brought about by his personal efforts.
"After the expiration of his term of service he went to St. Joseph and started a daily morning paper called "The Ballot," but the enterprise was not financially successful. He was next called to Salt Lake City to assume the editorship of the Salt Lake "Herald . . . (after) he resigned the editorship of the 'Herald' and returning to St. Louis, accepted a position in the post office under Postmaster Carlisle, continuing literary work at the same time."

In 1897 he was asked to become editor of "The Encyclopedia of the History of St. Louis," which remains a valuable reference work for historians.

After his death, a later historical work said of Hyde:

                  "His friends were accustomed to say that he was absolutely fearless and never blanched before man or condition; and his daring balloon adventure with two companions, on the 1st of July, 1859 -- when he made a voyage from St. Louis to Jefferson County, New York, passing over Lake Erie and Lake Ontario in twenty hours -- was certainly an illustration of this admirable quality.
"Those were intimate with him knew that beneath his strong, robust appearance he was the gentlest of men, and while he was absolutely incorruptible, and savagely intolerant to anyone who approached him with a proposition involving, in the slightest degree, faithlessness to duty or honor, he was patient and considerate to all who fairly claimed his attention, sweet as summer to those he numbered as his friends, and warm-hearted and affectionate to the few who were enshrined in his heart.

       "For twenty years he was a leader of the Democracy of the Mississippi Valley, influencing men by both by his forcefulness and tact in personal contact,, and through the press by his masterly editorials. In those days there was hardly an editor in the United States whose utterances commanded to a great extent the attention of the public, and being widely copied, they made him known in journalistic and political circles from one end of the country to the other."

Hyde died on October 30, 1898, at the age of 62. He still held the record for man's longest flight.


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Updated June 26, 2020