Washington Harrison Donaldson, America’s greatest daredevil balloonist, took to the sky when ballooning fever was at its zenith, performing daily ascensions and attempting a transAtlantic balloon trip to Europe. Donaldson, naturally fond of romantic adventures, was introduced early on to pantomime and the stage, and was destined to become an exhibitionist. He was the first to use the velocipede on a tightrope the bicycle with pedals attached to the front wheel. He even offered, for money, to drive a mule over a wire rope stretched across Niagara Falls. In 1862, Donaldson thrilled Philadelphians by walking a rope spanning the Schuylkill River below Fairmount Bridge. The rope, 100 feet above the water, stretched over 1,000 feet. Forever the showman, Donaldson added to the excitement by leaping from the rope into the river!
But Donaldson became bored with the monotony of rope-walking, and in 1871 began his balloon ascensions, which he continued until July 15th, 1875, when he made his 139th and last flight from P.T. Barnum’s Hippodrome in Chicago. His final, controversial flight was in the huge P.T. Barnum, with a capacity of 83,000 cubic feet of gas the balloon he had also used the year before to carry a wedding party aloft, the first marriage in the clouds.
On Thursday, July 15th, Donaldson and his passenger, reporter Newton S. Grimwood, lifted off from Chicago, in their attempt to cross tempestuous Lake Michigan. The adventurers were last sighted 30 miles out over the huge inland waterway, known for its sudden weather changes and turbulence. By Friday, it was evident that Donaldson and Grimwood seemed to have vanished. Sightings of a life preserver in the water . . . dispatches from Canada noting a “large balloon passing”. . . even sightings of Donaldson abroad perpetuated “The Donaldson Mystery.”
Author: James Raab; Paperback, 175 pgs . Age appropriate: 12 – adult