Up, up and away

 Hot air balloon adventurers crashed in Henderson tree on way to NYC

Sept. 22, 1859: The hot air balloon Atlantic begins to inflate for its ascent. The event attracted an estimated 10,000 people to Watertown's Public Square that day. Photo courtesy of the Jefferson County Historical Society.

There is an unusual picture in the photographic archives of the Jefferson County Historical Society. Stored in a lone folder simply marked “Public Square: Hot Air Balloon” the photograph shows a semi-inflated hot air balloon set against the backdrop of the old Baptist church. This incongruous scene is crowded with horses, carriages and thousands of people. The only identifying information is a date of “1859” written across the back in sprawling handwriting. This is the history of that photograph.

On July 1, 1859, John Wise and John LaMountain left St. Louis, Mo., in a hot air balloon named the Atlantic. Their objective was to set a new distance record for hot air balloon travel: St. Louis to New York City, a distance of approximately 950 miles. Two days later, on July 3, the balloonists found themselves in a large oak tree in the town of Henderson, narrowly missing a water landing in Lake Ontario. Jefferson County was ablaze with excitement as word spread of the crash landing, with many of its citizens traveling to Henderson to see the hot air balloon first hand. The local weekly newspaper, the Watertown Reformer, sent its young junior editor John Haddock out to cover the story. Mr. Haddock interviewed Mr. LaMountain who gave him the details of the voyage from St. Louis ? a riveting story that left Mr. Haddock fascinated with the idea of ballooning.

Mr. Wise left immediately for New York City and Mr. LaMountain was left behind to rescue the hot air balloon from the oak tree and transport it to Watertown for necessary repairs. In the meantime, Mr. LaMountain and Mr. Haddock became friends. Mr. Haddock was able to persuade Mr. LaMountain in the coming weeks to delay his trip to Kingston, Ont., where he was scheduled to make another ascent, in favor of testing the balloon in Watertown, while incidentally giving Mr. Haddock a ride.

The Watertown Reformer advertised that the Atlantic would ascend from Public Square on the afternoon of Sept. 20, 1859. After a two-day delay because of rain, an estimated 10,000 people packed into Public Square on Sept. 22 to watch the 110 foot tall, pale yellow hot air balloon make its ascent. Wearing an overcoat that was loaned to him at the last minute by a friend and carrying a thermometer for weather recordings, a bag of apples, and a few pieces of cake, Mr. Haddock joined Mr. LaMountain in the basket of the Atlantic. At 7:40 p.m., Mr. LaMountain untethered the ropes of the balloon and it began to gracefully rise into the dusk. Mr. LaMountain and Mr. Haddock were scheduled to return to Watertown the next morning. By 8:30 p.m., the pair was floating over Antwerp. By sunset, they had passed Rossie, and then the balloon disappeared from sight.

The next morning, people crowded into Public Square to welcome Mr. Haddock home. He did not arrive. The next day passed without word. Anxiety was growing and speculation was running rampant. Newspaper editorials opined that Mr. Haddock and Mr. LaMountain were blown off course and were being swept over the Atlantic. Almost a week passed without word. The town had almost lost hope of Mr. Haddock returning alive when his family received a telegraph from Canada. Mr. Haddock and Mr. LaMountain were indeed alive.

After night had fallen on the two adventurers on the evening of Sept. 22, they lost their orientation in heavy cloud cover and rain. Temperatures dropped into the low 20s and the two spent an uncomfortable three days huddled together in overcoats and scarves. Finally, the sun appeared clearing away the cloud cover and they finally saw ground ? a vast expanse of heavy forest. They spent the night in their balloon which was now entangled in the forest canopy and in the morning set out to find civilization. After a day of bushwhacking, the pair stumbled upon a cabin of a Scotsman who informed them that they were in Quebec. After eating their first real meal in four days, Mr. LaMountain and Mr. Haddock began the two day journey to Ottawa where Mr. Haddock found a telegraph office and contacted his family. All of Jefferson County was relieved and overjoyed to find that the two were alive. They received a hero’s welcome when they returned to Watertown at 5 p.m. on Sept. 30, eight days after the beginning of their adventure. The whole village came out to greet them, complete with cannon fire and a reception.

While this was perhaps one of the more colorful chapters of his life, Mr. Haddock went on to become a valued citizen of the county and a well-known newspaperman. Before enlisting in the Army at the beginning of the Civil War, Mr. Haddock, who by then had become part owner of the Watertown Reformer, sold his share of the company to Beman Brockway. Mr. Brockway eventually changed the paper from a weekly to a daily paper: That newspaper became the Watertown Daily Times.