The Lost Balloonist

Rewrite of original Facebook post

John Wise (1808–1879)

John Wiss (Wise) was born in 1808 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. According to Wikipedia, a plaque erected in his honor mentioned Wise "lived most of his life near this spot." He had an interest in ballooning, which developed in his teenage years. Over time, he mastered his hobby and became known as a premier balloonist. In addition, Prof. Wise was the first to try airmail, which happened in Lafayette, Indiana, in 1859.

Wise airmail delivery on August 17, 1859, Lafayette, Indiana. Lina Hall Library.

He was the first to observe what's known today as the jet stream. The discovery of this weather phenomenon inspired him to plan transatlantic flights. In 1861, Wise was involved with the implementation of the balloon for war purposes during the American Civil War. However, during the First Battle of Bull Run, a series of mishaps ended his involvement with the war.


By August 1879, Wise began to plan an intercontinental balloon excursion for scientific purposes. The jet stream constantly called to him, and this opportunity was one he could not pass up. In a letter written to his sponsors, he said, "…testing my eastward [wind current] theory, now unequivocally established". Until then, night explorations were not something that was a thing. Wise wanted to end that. He stated in that same letter, "Night explorations have thus far been neglected; hence I propose a night voyage, more to inaugurate investigation in the absence of the sun as acting upon the air, with reference to exhalations of malarial matter in its play of propagation and as regards its effect upon the animal organism."

He chose St. Louis, Missouri, as his starting point. His selected vehicle, a gigantic balloon named "Pathfinder," was constructed in Louisiana, Missouri, under the supervision of his niece. His niece, Lizzie Ihling Wise, was also a balloonist, inspired by her uncle. She designed the New York "Graphic" Trans-Atlantic balloon in 1865. She described the Pathfinder as the best balloon they've ever built.

The magnificent Lindell Park, St. Louis, MO.

Wise's trip, his 463rd, was deemed the "Transcontinental Night Balloon Voyage." He would make his assent at Lindell Park, St. Louis, on September 29. Traveling with him was J. F. Downey, his nephew, Chas G. Gunter, and George Burr, the brother of the president of St. Louis National Bank. Yet, only Burr would make the trip. The plan was to float overnight, so Wise could take atmospheric measurements and conduct scientific experiments with ozone.


As advertised, inflation began at noon on September 29. The gates to the park were thrown open. Those wishing to watch had to pay 25 cents. The St. Louis Board of Trade greeted Wise at the event. They gave him an ovation, which caused him to tear up. He gave a short speech, thanking the Board and drawing a line between exploration and commerce.

The afternoon was cloudy and violently windy. However, despite this, the balloon inflated faster than expected, being fully engorged by 3 pm. Every hour until takeoff, a massive amount of gas needed to be released to prevent the craft from being damaged.

Example of hot air balloon inflation.

Gas capacity was 35,000 square feet. However, by launch time, the balloon lost 10,000 square feet. Mounting cables broke, and worry spread through the crowd about the condition of the Pathfinder. A portion of its netting broke, which got repaired with beaver string. Onlookers commented that conditions were not safe. Because of concerns, Wise only allowed George Burr to accompany him.


At 5 pm on the dot, 71-year old Wise and his passengers boarded Pathfinder. The gas capacity was just enough to get it off the ground. Crews cut the central fastenings at Wise's signal, and the ship ascended into the sky. The balloon's ascent was very fast, described as akin to "…a wild bird". Trouble started immediately. The wind blew the airship toward a nearby grove of trees. With much maneuvering, the Pathfinder barely cleared the treetops.

Meanwhile, a group of teenagers played a baseball game at nearby Grand Avenue Park. The balloon's shadow blotted out the sun. Both teams stood agape for a moment. Finally, a few mischievous teammates grabbed Pathfinder's draping drag rope. The extra weight violently shifted its ascent, making the craft lean to a dangerous angle.

Unfortunately, the balloon partially lifted them off the ground as the boys held on. This action caused unknown damage to the Pathfinder, probably ripping more netting. After a few tense moments, the boys were cut free from the drag rope by Wise, and the balloon immediately shot up. The crew now had no drag or grappling ropes. They were also short on the ballast.

Lifting 2,000 feet into the sky, the Pathfinder flew north, disappearing from view behind fast-moving clouds. Finally, the Pathfinder came into view of the County Fairgrounds, where hundreds of people gathered. Wise threw out pamphlets or circulars. The flyers rained down onto the crowd. Witnesses saw the balloon accelerate as it hit a fast-moving column of air, which sent the craft flying wildly to the east, and out of view completely.

At this point, Wise predicted that he would hit the jet stream, which would cart the balloon east-northeast at a break-neck speed. Later that night, he would dispel more gas, place a rope on the ground, and hover in the jet stream to take measurements.

Near sundown, the people of East St. Louis witnessed the Pathfinder crossing the Mississippi River into Illinois. The Pathfinder was near Upper Alton, Illinois, east of that place, around 6 pm, 3/4ths of a mile in the sky and rapidly slinging northeast. At 6:30 pm, people viewed the balloon near Bunker Hill, Macoupin County, Illinois. Sometime later, witnesses reported another sighting near Carlinville, Macoupin County.


Both Wise and Burr expected to land at a telegraph station somewhere in Northwestern Indiana around 11 pm that night, where they were to check in and give reports. Instead, a rumor surfaced that the Pathfinder landed in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and all was well. However, the source of this rumor was not verified and thus ignored. By 2 am on August 30, St. Louis did not receive verification from the Pathfinder. Their sponsors, families, and friends began to grow uneasy.

By 3:30 pm, there was still no word from the Pathfinder. Authorities contacted the U.S. Secret Service to attempt to track its path. They reported that the weather northeast of Davenport, Iowa to Chicago was threatening and cloudy all night long. Winds were gusting between 18 and 25 mph at the ground. There was light rain in some places. However, there were no storms. People speculated that Wise might not have been able to find a suitable landing spot in the darkness. While attempting to land, speculation assumed that the Pathfinder crashed, for it did not have enough gas to stay afloat until morning.


Forty-eight hours later, the worst thoughts began to settle in. Locals in Illinois found pamphlets scattered about along a northeasterly path through the state, most notably at Illiopolis, Girard, and Springfield.

New reports claimed the Pathfinder was seen 26 miles east of Chicago, near LaPorte, Indiana, gliding over Lake Michigan. Several people had seen the Pathfinder in Northwest Indiana before being sighted near the lakeshore. However, the most famous sighting was at Miller's Junction, which would be Gary's Miller neighborhood today. Miller’s Junction contained a former diamond that LS&MS and Baltimore & Ohio railroads crossed.

Henry Wilson, Miller's Station night watchman for Lake Shore & Michigan Southern railroad, was on duty, sitting in his tower. With him was an LS&MS locomotive engineer, Louis Faber, who had just arrived in the village with a freight train to take on water. It was 11:30 pm on the 29th. Wilson and Faber engaged in a conversation as they stood on an outside platform. As they spoke, Faber noticed something out the corner of his eye.

Miller’s Junction, 1889. The LS&MS water tower can be seen in the background.

"There goes a balloon!" Wilson suddenly shouted. Faber turned to see what Wilson saw. Sure enough, a hot-air balloon sailed low through the clear night sky, backlit by bright moonlight. It hovered right over the depot's water tank, which stood a half-mile up the track. It drove along in a northeasterly direction, at a steady, rapid pace. The balloon was just a half-mile from Lake Michigan.

The balloon got spotted by Faber's fireman, John Bulla as well. All three men watched in awe as the balloon sailed by, which stayed in view for five minutes before disappearing over the lake. The watchman reported the sighting to the operator at Forty-third Street station in Chicago.

The balloon got spotted off the Lake Michigan shore in Laporte. Farmers found more circulars at Miller's Station, Lake Station, and LaPorte. It was also reportedly sighted near Pontiac, Spring Lake, Michigan, around 3 am.


3D rendering of Miller’s Junction today. LS&MS is gone. Note the proximity to Lake Michigan above. The Pathfinder would have floated towards the lake near this location.

An entire month passed with no other confirmed sightings of the Pathfinder or its occupants, John Wise and George Burr.

On October 26, two men boated into Lake Michigan. They made it about two miles offshore when one of the men noticed something floating in the water. They quickly learned it was a body. Terrified, the men left the body where it was and went back to shore.

Yet, after making noise about it, drawing local attention, the men went back out to find the corpse again. They were successful and brought it back to shore with them. The clothes identified the body as George Burr of St. Louis. His family sent an undertaker to verify the body immediately.

The undertaker, C. H. Jordan, arrived a few days later. The battered corpse got left on the beach with a crude shack built around it for protection. After verification, the body got shipped to the coroner in Valparaiso, Indiana.

The body's condition was horrific. Decomposition indicated it had been in the water for quite a while. Burr's facial and scalp hair had washed off, as well as the underlying layer of skin. The face became blackened from blood coagulation. Two shirts, a pair of pants, and socks were all that he wore. Locals never recovered his coat and boots. After embalming, George Burr's corpse was sent back to St. Louis.

It's believed that the Pathfinder lost buoyancy on September 30, 1879. The loss is due to the cold air around Lake Michigan. Loss of vertical control caused the craft to descend rapidly, killing all inside. Based on reports, the final descent occurred between midnight and 4 am. Unfortunately, no one ever found the Pathfinder or John Wise's body.

Elderly John Wise.

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Amateur local historian, Gary, IN native.

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Korry Shepard

Korry Shepard

Amateur local historian, Gary, IN native.

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