20 October 2009

The Original Balloon Boy

Yesterday I quoted an 1898 article in St. Nicholas magazine, describing an accidental balloon ascension that the author said had happened in Oakland, California, forty years before. An aeronaut asked a young boy to help weigh down his balloon, and suddenly it broke loose and floated away, carrying the boy with it.

I went looking on Google Books for more information, half expecting to find nothing at all. Instead, I discovered a rather different story. The event truly occurred in 1853—only a short time after the California Gold Rush began. It was reported in such local newspapers as the Alta Californian. The news was then picked up by national magazines like Bizarre, for Fireside and Wayside. [I couldn’t make that title up if I tried.] I’m relying on the account from the 12 Nov 1853 issue of The Friend, a Quaker magazine.

The St. Nick article gave no name or age for the boy, but described him as a small, barefoot newspaper carrier. In fact, he was named Joseph “Ready” Gates, he was sixteen years old, he sold oranges, and he was wearing shoes but no socks. And as for an accidental launch, The Friend says:

It appears the balloon was to go up from near San Francisco, but at the appointed time for starting, being but partially inflated, it was found, after several trials insufficient to bear up a man of ordinary weight. The car was then taken off, and a small board placed across the hoop, from which the car had been suspended, and tied fast. Several persons, supposing the balloon would go but a short distance, asked to be permitted to take a ride.
“Ready” Gates was among those asking to go up, handing his orange basket to a friend. The aeronaut told him “to pull the valve-rope when he wanted to come down.” But “Ready” was a sixteen-year-old with friends watching him—so what happened next isn’t a big surprise. The newspaper report:
He took hold of it [the valve-rope], and appeared to be either making it fast or pulling at it with a view to decend [sic], when some of the boys cried out to him to go on. He then let it go and gradually rose, moving rapidly along in a south-easterly direction. . . .

A few moments after the balloon had parted company with the earth, and when at the distance of half a mile, one of young Gates’s companions shunted to him to know if he “would not have an overcoat?” The crowd around enjoyed the joke heartily, little thinking that the brave boy would, in less than half an hour, be shivering with intense cold. We may remark, that he was very lightly clad.
The balloon flew southeasterly “across an arm of the Bay south of Oakland, and rising as it proceeded to a great height, until it was concealed from view by some light clouds.”

A later issue of the Californian apparently had to complete the story, reporting that Gates returned to Oakland “in the Sacramento boat, safe except a sprain in his ankle. He landed in Suisan Valley, fifteen miles from Benicia, and five miles from any house.”

“Ready” stated that the valve-rope had broken. At great effort, he had climbed up the ropes to the balloon with his penknife and cut at the fabric of the balloon, “careful not to make the hole too large.” The newspaper marveled:
To climb the cords was a labour of extreme difficulty, for they were only about a quarter of an inch in thickness, and the distance from the hoop to a point practicable for cutting was about twelve feet. But few persons could perform the feat of climbing such cord near the earth, and much less three miles above, for that was about the height to which he ascended.

He saw not a little danger, but his voyage will become famous, and his name will be spoken from Europe to Australia.
Though the name of Joseph “Ready” Gates’s name didn’t appear in the St. Nick article, there is a book about him now: Dorothy Kupcha Leland’s The Balloon Boy of San Francisco, from a small press. He was also part of the inspiration for Liza Ketchum’s Newsgirl. So I suppose that’s famous enough.

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