Of Balloons, Bugles and Apple Butter

Washington Harrison Donaldson performed his greatest feats of derring-do while borne aloft by a large gas balloon. Or so discovered a crowd of curious onlookers one August morning in 1871 when the gymnast and self-styled aeronaut dressed in tights decided to take his big-top routine to the heavens. From the small town of Reading, Pennsylvania he set off at a quarter to ten in the morning. As dozens watched, his balloon, heavy with ballast, rose uncertainly at first, climbing thirty or so feet before its basket lurched against a house roof. Rope, grappling iron, coat, boots, hat and provisions Donaldson jettisoned, and the balloon resumed its ascent. A quarter of a mile above ground, he “skinned the cat” upon the hoop just above the wicker basket to the entertainment of any eyes cast skyward. On that maiden flight he drifted “some eighteen miles,” as M.L. Amick recounts in his 1875 History of Donaldson’s Balloon Ascensions, passing through clouds and over farms before coming to rest in a plow field.

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