The great balloon VOYAGE
Being the true account of how TWO INTREPID AERONAUTS brought the AIR AGE TO CANADA IN 1859 in the face ot ADVENTURES
JOHN GLENN is a good journeyman flier, all right, and so is Gherman Titov, but for the rough going in the upper altitudes give me a handy guy like Prof. Jno. LaMountain. For the last half hour I have been soaking up the intrepid Professor's aeronautical style from one of the great unknown documents of the Air Age, a pamphlet titled:
This very voyage. I learn from Mr. Had dock's narrative, brought the Air Age to Canada. It was 59 when the great balloon
Atlantic swept like an enormous, eerie owl northw'ard over the desolate Canadian Shield, covering the incredible distance of three hundred miles in four hours. And from the vivid prose of Mr. Haddock's account, written largely to debunk premature newspaper reports of his and the Professor's death. I conclude that Prof. Jno. LaMountain was born a hundred years too soon. He had everything the athletic young engineers who do our space work these days have got. and a touch of the poet besides. The race to the moon would be locked up for our side if the Professor was a starter.
It was the same Prof. Jno. LaMountain who. with three copilots, had ballooned in August of 1859 from St. Louis, Mo., to the upper branches of a tall pine in Jefferson county, N.Y. The flight set a speed-for-distance record (eleven hundred miles in twenty-three hours) that was the talk of two continents. Among the admirers the exploit won for the Professor was John A. Haddock, the young editor of Jefferson county’s leading newspaper, the Watertown Reformer. The Professor spent most of September repairing his balloon. Atlantic, and took off again from a field outside Watertown at 5.33 p.m. on Sept. 22. To the surprise of
everybody in the great crowd that was on hand for the gala event, Haddock took off with him.
"I had heard of other newspaper editors mak ing trips in balloons." Haddock writes, "had read their glowing accounts. and it seemed to me like a very cunning thing." This opinion didn't last: looking hack, his final word was, "I can hut re~ard m~ balloon voyage as almost impiously hazardous and foolish" Ballooning seemed ga~ enough to Haddock at first. " `Let go all. and awa\ we soared! he writes. Horses reared in the town square. men waved and shouted from the stre~t and roofs of buildings. The balloon climbed so fast that it went into a spin: Haddock estimated they ent up two miles within seventeen minutes. He stuffed some cotton hatting into his ears to stop the ringing and ease the pain. and they both turted pulling on mittens and scarves against the cold. less than an hour off the ground they were three and a half miles up. the temperature was twenty-two degrees, and the gas in the balloon was "discharging at the mouth with "an abominable smell." Had dock found it harder to he gay, and the Pro lessor was hus~' navigating. He calculated that they were sailing north of east. During the next few hours they threw out eighty of their two hundred pounds of ballast, heard a lot of dogs harking and locomotives whistling, and decided they ere just about cos JJNUEI) OVERLi~AF
CONTINUED ready to call it a day’s ballooning. At eight-thirty “we distinctly saw lights below us and heard the roaring of a mighty waterfall. We descended into a valley near a very high mountain, hut as the place appeared rather forbidding, we concluded to go up again. Over with thirty pounds of ballast, and skyward we sailed.” When they came back down, as Haddock writes in his distinctive prose, "no friendly lights nor ‘deep-mouthed watchdogs’ heavy bay’ greeted us.” They were, in fact, not far off the water of a small lake, and got back up by throwing out all but the last twenty pounds of their ballast.
Sizing things up, the Professor “declared it was folly” to stay aloft any longer, since it was pretty clear to him that they were “over a great wilderness.” As they “gently descended,” Haddock writes, “I grasped the extreme top of a high spruce, which stopped the balloon’s momentum, and we were soon lashed to the tree by our large drag rope. After peering around and making as much of an examination of our surroundings as the darkness would permit, LaMountain said he feared his balloon was played out; that we were evidently far into the woods, and if we got ourselves out we ought to be very thankful.” As usual, the Professor had hit the mark.
It was a wet cold sleepless night; Haddock says frankly that they were both “right glad to see the first faint rays of coming light.” To see anything else they had to get back up in the air, but the balloon was just about played out of gas. "Overboard, then, everything went — good shawls and blankets, bottles of ale and a flask of cordial, ropes and traps of all kinds. The Atlantic rose majestically with us, and we were able to behold the country below. It was an unbroken wilderness of lakes and spruce.
“As the current was still driving us towards the north, we dare not stay up, as we were drifting still farther and farther into trouble. LaMountain seized the valve-cord and dis-
charged gas, and we descended in safety to the solid earth. Making the Atlantic fast by her anchor, we considered what was to be done.
“We had not a mouthful to eat, no protection at night from the damp ground, were distant we knew not how far from any habitation, were hungry to start with, had no possible expectation of raising a fire, and no definite or satisfactory idea as to where we were.”
The Professor wasted no time in idle speculation. He made a series of lightning calculations that fixed their position in one of two places. As the Professor saw it, they were either lost in John Brown's tract, a four thousand square mile scrub wilderness in the northcast corner of New York State, or they were somewhere between Prescott and Ottawa. By a happy coincidence the way to get out of either place would have been to strike south by east.
They struck, accordingly, south by east, but a mile into the woods they came to a small stream flowing from the west, “and were agreeably surprised to find that some human being had been there before us, for we found the stumps of several small trees and the head of a half-barrel which had contained pork. 1 eagerly examined the inspection stamp. It read: ‘Mess Pork. P. M. Montreal.’ This settled the question that we were in Canada, as I very well knew that no Montreal inspection of pork ever found its way into the State of New York.” (I can’t decide, here, whether Haddock is unable to resist slipping in a backhand knock against the quality of Canadian pork, or whether he is merely being scrupulously careful to report all the links in his line of logic.)
Adapting quickly to this discovery, the aeronauts abandoned their southeasterly course and turned to follow the creek upstream, almost due west. Haddock isn't saying why they chose to go the hard way, wpstream, but when they crossed the creek at noon on a floating log they found a blazed trail on the other side, and the choice began to look like a good one. The trail led them to a deserted logging road. By the end of the day they had followed the road to a clearing on the riverbank with a broken-down log shanty on the far side. It was the end of that particular road.
“We concluded to cross the creek to the shanty, and stay there all night,” Haddock says. “Collecting some small timbers for a raft, LaMountain crossed over safely, shoving the raft back to me. But my weight was greater than my companion's, and the frail structure sank under me. precipitating me into the water. I . . . swam out, although it took all my strength to do so. On reaching the bank I found myself so chilled as scarcely to be able to stand. I took off all my clothes and wrung them as dry as I could. We then proceeded to the shanty, where we found some refuse straw, but it was dry, and under a pile of it we crawled — pulling it over our heads and faces, in the hope that our breath might aid in warming our chilled bodies.”
Here Haddock cuts loose with one of those passages that make the newspaper writing of a century ago the vintage wine of journalism, rich and heady beside the pale thin blend of modern newspaper prose. “I think the most revengeful, stony heart would have pitied our condition then,” he writes. “I will not attempt to describe our thoughts as we lay there. (This phrase is the signal, in nineteenth-century journalism, that the description in question follows immediately.) Home, children, wife, parents, friends, with their sad and anxious faces, rose up reproachfully before us as we tried to sleep. But the weary hours of night at last wore away, and at daylight we decided to hold a new council.”
The aeronauts were ready, as always, to embrace new ideas. They reasoned that whoever had cut the logging road must have floated the timber out downstream. Therefore they couldn’t go far wrong by floating downstream themselves — although Haddock, who seems to have kept an open mind at all times, says he has “always believed that we would have been more certain to have reached a settlement, had we kept to the southward as we originally proposed.” With fortitude but no real unanimity, then, they tore four hollowed half-logs off the roof of the shanty, lashed them together to make a raft, and poled off downstream in the opposite direction to their march of the day before. The omens were inauspicious. “As we pushed off, a miserable crow set up a dismal
cawing, ominous, we
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feared, of continued trials in store for us.”
That day “each of us ate a raw frog fall we could find) and we began to realize that we were HUNGRY. Yet there was no complaining — our talk was of the hopeful future.” By nightfall they had passed the place where they first came across the creek, which was progress of a kind. In the darkness “we did not stop, but kept the raft going down through the shades of awful forests, whose solemn stillness seemed to hide from us the unrevealed mystery of our darkening future.”
Sure enough, when day broke at last all they could see in the first light was more trouble. They were at the head of a fierce and craggy rapid a third of a mile long. They made a sortie into the bush, abandoning the raft, but the undergrowth was so thick and tangled that within a mile they gave up and turned back to the rapids. "If we could get the raft down, even one piece at a time, we would go on with her.“ Haddock writes. “If not, we would build as good a place as possible to shield us from the cold and wet. and there await with fortitude that death from starvation which was beginning to look too probable.”
Well, they made it through the rapids, but it was touch and go. “The pieces would not float over a rod at a time, before they would stick on some stone which the low' water left above the surface; and then you must pry the stick over in some way. and pass it along to the next obstruction. We were obliged to get into the stream, often up to the middle, with slippery boulders beneath our feet.
Several times I fell headlong — completely using up our compass, which now frantically pointed in any direction its addled head took a fancy to. After long hours of such labor we got the raft down, and the Professor (whom Haddock has earlier admitted to be a better seaman than he) again tied it together.” An hour later they came into a lake about ten miles long, and used up the day poling around the shoreline trying to find the outlet.
The Professor slept part of the day, and Haddock was "boss and all hands.” That night they dragged the raft ashore and lay down on the cold wet ground, trembling “by the hour, like men suffering from a severe attack of the ague.
“By this time our clothes were nearly torn off. My pantaloons were slit up both legs, and the waistbands nearly gone. My boots were mere wrecks, and our mighty wrestlings in the rapids had torn the skin from ankles and hands. LaMountain’s hat had disappeared; the first day out he had thrown away his woolen drawers and stockings, as they dragged him down by the weight of the water they absorbed. And so we could sleep but little; it really seemed as though, during the night, w'c passed through the horrors of death. But at daylight we got up by degrees, first on one knee and then on the other, so stiff and weak that we could hardly stand.
"Again upon the silent, monotonous lake we w'ent — following its shore for an outlet.” Every opening turned out to be a dead end, and late in the day. Haddock says, "I felt like shedding one tear of genuine regret. Yet we felt that our duty, as C hristian men, was to press forward as long as we could stand, and leave the issue with a higher Power.
. “It had now been four full days since we ate a meal. All we had in the meantime w'as a frog apiece, four clams and a few wild berries. Our
strength was beginning to fail very fast, and our systems were evidently undergoing an extraordinary change. I did not permit myself to think of food — the thought of a well-filled table would have been too much . . .
“We were as much lost as though in the mountains of the moon. Yet we could not give it up so, and tried to summon up fresh courage as troubles appeared to thicken around us.” They were poling in silent and utter exhaustion back up the shore of the lake when they heard the sound of a gun: “no sound so sweet.” Haddock writes. They hallooed without answer. A little later Haddock thought he saw smoke. “My own eyesight had begun to fail very much, and I felt afraid to trust my dulled senses in a matter so vitally important. LaMountain scrutinized the shore very closely, and said he thought it was smoke, and that he believed there was also a birch canoe on the shore below. In a few moments the blue smoke rolled unmistakably above the tree tops, and we felt that WE WERE SAVED!”
They had stumbled across the camp of Angus Cameron, a timber cruiser for an Ottawa lumber company, and his crew of three men. Haddock's first conversation confirmed his deduction that they were in Canada; he found himself talking to a bilingual redskin. “A noble looking Indian came to the door” of Cameron’s cabin. “I asked him if he could speak French, as I grasped his outstretched hand. 'Yes,' he replied, ‘And English, too!’ ”
From Cameron they learned for the first time where they were: “Imagine my surprise when he said we were ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY MILES DUE NORTH OF OTTAWA ... in a wilderness as large as three states like Pennsylvania, extending from Lake Superior on the west to the St. Lawrence on the east, and from Ottawa on the south, to the Arctic Circle.” Cameron, a woodswise old Scotsman, shook his head every time he looked at the aeronauts. “He regarded our deliverance as purely providential, and many times remarked that we would surely have perished but for seeing the smoke from his fire.”
Cameron took them on the first leg of their journey back to civilization in his big canoe: to get out they had to go back up the same stream (its name, they learned, was Filliman’s Creek) they had just come down, and went into the bush for a last look at the Atlantic before pressing on.
At the settlement where Cameron lived there was a little difficulty in recruiting Indian canoemen for the next leg of their journey to Ottawa. One of Cameron’s crew had told his Indian wife about the men who dropped into the wilderness from the sky, and the squaws had word all over the district "about the flying devil. “As we had traveled in this flying devil, it did not require much of a stretch of the imagination to believe that if we were not the devil’s children, we must at leastHre closely related,” Haddock observes. An American trader put in a good word for them. On the eleventh day after the Atlantic went up, they were an easy day’s frontier-stage ride from Ottawa.
"While the stage was stopping to-
day to change horses,” Haddock says, “I picked up a newspaper at Her Britannic Majesty’s colonial frontier post office, and in it read an account of our ascension and positive loss, with a rather flattering obituary notice of myself.”
In Ottawa, the front page of Vol. 1, No. 1 of the Ottawa Citizen, dated October 4, 1859, was already locked up. It carried, along with several columns of color writing about a testimonial dinner recently tendered D’Arcy McGee, MPP, two wire stories from New York State, both explaining in different ways why the Professor and Haddock could be presumed dead. But by press time for page two of the same issue the aeronauts were in town, and there the Citizen scooped the world under the headline: MESSRS. LaMOUNTAIN AND HADDOCK SAFE!
“I do not know how the people of Ottawa found out so soon who we were,” says Haddock, “but in less than half an hour after we arrived there was a tearing, excited, happy, inquisitive mass of people in front of the grand hotel there — the clerk of which, when he looked at our ragged clothes and bearded faces, at first thought he ‘hadn't a single room left,’ but who, when he found out that we were the lost balloon men, wanted us to have the whole hotel, free and aboveboard.” The next evening they reached Watertown, N.Y., by train. The whole town was waiting for them, and the old cannon belched a welcome in the public square.
Twelve years later, after sober reflection, Haddock added a footnote to his epic account of the great balloon flight. “When we first descended to near the earth, and saw lights and heard dogs barking, we should have landed. But we were unwilling to land at night in a deep wood, even though we knew that inhabitants were near by, and we thought it best to pick out a better place. This was our error . . . in trying to find our ‘better
place’ we were up longer than we
supposed, and as we were traveling in a current that bore us off to the
northward at the rate of a hundred miles an hour, we soon reached a
point beyond the confines of civilization.”
Since discovering the true metal of aeronauts like the hawk-visaged Professor and his intrepid Boswell, Haddock, I have lost none of my respect for the efficient men who put satellites through their orbits. But they will never recapture the dash and spirit of the real heroes of the overhead frontier; I doubt if they’d have what it took, up there, in the days when the Air Age came to Canada.
Maclean’s first learned of John Haddock’s Narrative of his Hazardous and Exciting Voyage from K. M. Moison, the curator of the National Aviation Museum in Ottawa. The copy of the Narrative from which this article is written was loaned us by the Aviation Museum; we acknowledge this kindness with thanks, particularly since Mr. Moison informs us that no mention of this intriguing episode in aeronautic history has been published in Canada since the newspaper accounts of the time. ★