Eyewitness 1860: 'Pittsburgh, we have a problem'


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As the United States lurched closer to civil war during the summer of 1860, Pittsburgh residents could look heavenward for some momentary distraction.

In the last days of July, a botched balloon ascension offered non-political drama to readers of the Pittsburgh Gazette.

An "aeronaut," who called himself Professor Wilson, had announced plans to launch his balloon from Allegheny City -- now Pittsburgh's North Side -- on Saturday, July 28.

"The event was advertised to take place at four o'clock in the afternoon, but an accident caused the ascension to be made at an unexpected moment," according to a Gazette story that appeared July 31.

The balloon, called the "Great Western," had been inflated, using methane gas ordinarily burned in street lights, at the Diamond Market, an area that is now part of Allegheny Center.

Young balloon handlers, directed by Professor Wilson, were moving the five-story-tall gas-filled bag east toward the Mechanics Street Bridge, which crossed the Allegheny River at modern 16th Street. At Ohio Street and what was then called East Lane, "one of the ropes which held down the balloon broke, and another quickly followed," according to the newspaper.

"The crowd (chiefly of boys) who were holding the balloon became frightened, and all of them let go their hold, except police officer Long," the story said. "He continued his hold until he had been dragged along for several yards and lifted a few feet into the air, and then he let go, and dropped to the ground without injury."

One person on the ground was not so lucky. "We are informed that while [the balloon was] passing along Ohio Street, a brick torn from one of the houses by the ropes fell on a ... woman and injured her severely," the paper reported.

"The balloon had in her nearly twenty thousand feet of gas and was without ballast, basket, or car, or anything save the netting ..."

Professor Wilson had been riding in the netting when the balloon broke free. "He remained in his place and coolly exerted his utmost to right her," but the balloon began "ascending with great rapidity and moving in a northwestern direction."

"Just before leaving the scope of the vision of our citizens, some of whom were anxiously watching him with powerful glasses, he settled down quietly in his seat ... He passed from sight between 1 and 2 o'clock."

Although word didn't reach Pittsburgh for several days, the balloon had landed about 75 miles northeast of the city. "Great fears are entertained for the safety of Prof. Wilson, as when the balloon lodged he was not found with it," according to the Gazette.

"By the politeness of a gentleman from Clarion County, Mr. Hunter Orr, we are informed that the air ship struck ... about two miles from Rimersburgh, between that place and the river, Saturday afternoon.

"She skipped along the ground for about a quarter mile at a fearful rate before she lodged. Nothing was seen or heard from the aeronaut. There was an overcoat, a life preserver and some rope in the netting and a good deal of gas in the balloon ..."

Despite the ominous initial report, the tale had a happy ending.

After taking off from Allegheny City, the balloon had traveled up the Allegheny Valley toward Sharpsburg, where winds carried it north toward Bakerstown.

"By this time the Professor had got [the balloon] under control, and he landed with it in a tree on the farm of Mr. Carnahan, near the Butler County line," the newspaper reported. "He succeeded in getting onto terra firma safely himself, but the balloon escaped from him, ascending rapidly."

During its un-piloted journey north it hovered for an hour over the town of Butler, "and was there an object of great attention; and, then, having ascended into an easterly current, it passed to the eastward, out of sight, descending ... in Clarion County."

"We did not hear whether Prof. Wilson was injured in any way ... but presume that he was not."

That proved to be the case. When Wilson arrived back in Pittsburgh on August 2, he made a stop at the offices of the Gazette. "He gave us a very interesting account of his sudden and unexpected trip from the Allegheny Diamond ... which he will deliver to the public in the shape of a lecture at Lafayette Hall Friday night," according to the next day's edition of the newspaper.

Wilson also announced plans for another ascent on Aug. 4, this time accompanied by a reporter named Thomas Plympton, who worked for a competing newspaper, the Pittsburgh Dispatch. Additional passengers could come along at a cost of $25 each.

The professor's second voyage appears to have gone off without incident. The Gazette had no further reports of runaway balloons.


Len Barcousky can be reached at lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184. Past stories in the "Eyewitness" series can be read at www.post-gazette.com/pgh250 .


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