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Thursday, 18 March 2021 16:47

Daring Balloon Ascension

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Montgomery County has a long history of ballooning. Both our readers might remember our blogs on Thaddeus Lowe, the father of American ballooning, and Connie Wolf, one time women’s ballooning record holder.

In 1909, Prof. Harry Jewell of Springfield, Illinois (balloonists were all “professors”) launched his balloon over Grand View Heights, part of Norristown and East Norriton that runs along DeKalb. The New England Land Company developed the area and was selling off lots at the time. The company provided a free trolley ride out to the area and several ascensions a day.

Grand View Heights 3

Professor Jewel didn’t just go up in a balloon, float for a while, and come back down. For one thing, Jewell, whose brothers Ed and Thomas were also balloonists, didn’t ride in a basket (or car). He held on to an iron bar. The southerly winds blew Jewell over to the Penn Square racetrack where Jewell let go and dropped by parachute to the ground. The Daily Herald reported that he encountered a large tree on the way down and suffered some scratches. The New England Land Company sold 32 lots.

balloon jump

In 1890, Prof. Harry’s brother Ed, performed a similar stunt in Pottstown. According to the Pottstown Ledger, he rose up to a height of 5000 feet (this might be exaggeration, most hot-air balloons don’t go higher than 3000 feet) before parachuting to the ground. The Ledger described him as “holding tightly to the hoop above,” which is how he appears in the advertisement. 

Ballooning was a common feature of fairs and circuses. In 1945, “Norris” (Edward Hocker) reported a 1908 quote from a Garrett N. Nichols of Oaks, “When I was a young lad, I was walking across a pasture field of the Indian Rock farm of Port Providence. I heard someone call. I halted, quickly looked around me, but could see no one. I began to think I was bewitched or had tramped on the hind leg of a ghost, when the voice sounded nearer. I looked up and there was a balloon. The man in the car asked many questions: the names of towns he could see and I could not – Royersford, Pottstown, Trappe, Skippack. He let go several bags of ballast sand, and up into the sky he went. Later I read he had landed near Boyerstown.”

According to Hocker, that aeronaut was Washington H. Donaldson, who would later disappear in a balloon over Lake Michigan.

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