Balloonist in 1841 startled ladies in White Deer Valley
Signs for Balloonfest soon will begin appearing all over Lycoming County. The event, sponsored by the Lycoming County Rotary, is set for 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sept. 15 and gives attendees the chance to watch a hot air balloon ascend from the Lycoming County Fairgrounds or take a ride in one.
But, this area of northcentral Pennsylvania has a history of ballooning — one that goes all the way back to the early 1840s.
Hot air ballooning began in 1783 in Paris, France, when two men, Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier and Francois Laurent d’Arlandes successfully ascended in one. The hobby came to the United States in 1793, when another Frenchman named Jean Pierre Blanchard launched a balloon in Philadelphia.
But it was on July 24, 1841, that “John Wise, the famous balloonist, made an ascension from Williamsport, which attracted the attention of the people miles around,” said historian John Meginness in his book, “History of Lycoming County, Pennsylvania.”
Professor Wise, as he would be known later in life, had made almost 28 balloon ascensions in the Sunbury and Danville areas in June 1841.
According to the June 12, 1841, edition of the Sunbury American, “Early in the morning (of Saturday, June 5) crowds of people flocked into town.”
An eyewitness said that “at about 2 o’clock in the afternoon, (Mr. Wise) took his seat in the car attached to the balloon and gently ascended from the courthouse yard, and a more splendid and truly magnificent, and sublime sight we have never witnessed.”
The reporter on scene would describe how “the multitude was standing in astonishment, scarcely believing their own eyes, until a loud ‘hurrah!’ gave vent to their feelings.” Wise reciprocated their affection by “swinging his hat and handkerchief, bidding farewell to his fellow beings below.”
History writer Nick Moehlmann said Wise was born in 1808 in Lancaster. He was 14 years old when he “became interested in ballooning as the result of reading an article in a German language newspaper.” In 1835, at the age of 27 and “while living in Philadelphia, he decided to build his own balloon.”
After several successful flights in Danville and Sunbury, he decided to launch from Williamsport. According to Wise, in his own words that were printed in the Tioga Eagle on July 28, 1841, “the day was pleasant and the atmosphere was uncommonly bright.”
“My vehicle (called the Great Eastern) detached from earth at 10 minutes before 1 o’clock, moving off in a (northwesterly) direction,” he said. Wise said he dropped some ballast and the balloon rose about a mile and a quarter in a “spiral direction.”
As the Great Eastern continued in a northwestern direction, he said, “the people were as small as pygmies (but) the town looked beautiful.”
“The (Susquehanna River’s) limpid waters appeared no wider than a street,” said Wise. For the next hour, he commented on how he could “see the minutest objects on the bottom of the river … the pebbles, the grass, the rocks and even the sawdust that had sunk to the bottom by getting saturated, was discernible by the naked eye.”
He further stated that all “the innumerable little towns, interspersed with the splendid farms (stretching) out to the north branch in the direction of Danville, together with the stream, all brought to view, made one of the most splendid and gorgeous scenes that human eye ever beheld.”
But as he flew closer to Bald Eagle Mountain, “the atmosphere grew colder” and he realized he would have to land.
“After passing nearly over White Deer Valley, I commenced my gentle descent,” said Wise. However, he had to land quickly and drop more weight from his craft “to avoid being blown upon the mountain.”
“(Between 2 and 2:15 p.m.) I affected my landing … on the meadow of Mr. Deeter, in front of his house,” said Wise.
According to Meginness, Wise “badly (frightened) two women, who were the only inmates” at the home.
“The inhabitants of the valley soon collected in force to gaze upon what was regarded as a great curiosity,” said Meginness.
Wise said the two ladies thought he was something from another realm.
“(They) looked very suspiciously towards me until I told them I was not an evil spirit,” he said.
Several residents helped Wise carry his balloon to the home of a Mr. Shaffer, whose wife provided “a healthy supper, for which she received my hearty thanks.”
Wise and the Great Eastern returned to the city that evening, and he was pleased by the event.
“I returned safely that same evening to Williamsport, where my friends received me with the warmest manifestation of good feeling for my safe return, which are duly cherished by their most obedient servant,” said Wise, ending his account.
While it appears, this pioneering “aeronaut,” as he was called, may not be remembered here in Lycoming County, he is remembered in his hometown of Lancaster.
“John Wise is one of Lancaster’s most notable figures,” said Marianne Heckles, coordinator of photograph collections and research assistant for the Lancaster Historical Society. She said the town remembered him with a marker.
Heckles also said Wise offered his services during the Mexican-American War in the 1840s and the American Civil War in the 1860s. He further attempted to establish the first airmail route in the 1850s.
She described Wise as “a little eccentric and very smart” and said people still call for information about him.