All eyes will be on the skies over L-A in a few days when the Great Falls Balloon Festival marks its 22nd year.

Thousands of people, young and old, delight in the spectacle of balloon ascensions here, and no doubt the thrills are every bit as spine-tingling in recent years as they were for Maine residents who marveled at this area’s first balloon ascensions nearly 150 years ago.

It was a remarkable sight when a gas-filled balloon rose from the city park beside Lewiston City Building in the summer of 1870. That event was described in this Riverviews column a few years ago.

In a centennial Fourth of July celebration story in 1876, the Lewiston Evening Journal again covered a breathtaking local balloon flight in great detail.

Four pages of the newspaper were devoted to descriptions of the crowds and the firsthand account given by the balloonist. The flight was only the third ever seen in Lewiston, and the holiday festivities drew tens of thousands of visitors who came “from all over this part of the state, trains running many coaches filled to the doors with spectators.”

There had been showers all afternoon, and a cancellation of the ascension looked likely.

Advertisement

“At four o’clock the sky brightened,” the report said. “The connection with the Lewiston Gas Co.’s main was effected at 4 p.m. and in an hour 10,000 cubic feet of gas had been sent into the balloon which began to tower above the heads of the crowd.”

Highly flammable natural gas provided the lift in those days, rather than the propane flame for today’s hot air balloons.

As the inflation proceeded for the next two hours, the crowd at the park grew, “and an old Yankee estimated that at least 35,000 people were in earshot at the latter hour.”

The story said, “The balconies of the DeWitt and the windows of the city building were full of human faces. It is doubtful if on eight acres of Pine Tree soil there ever were so many persons gathered before.”

The intrepid pilot of that balloon, on which was inscribed “City of Lewiston” was “Prof. John H. Hall, quondam balloonist in the army of the Potomac, who numbers his aerial flights by the hundred.” He first went up from Lewiston park in 1868 and in half an hour, landed in Durham. He launched again in 1870 and alighted near Oak Hill and Lake Auburn.

The story continued with many vivid descriptions of the “pear-shaped” balloon about 60 feet high and 36 feet across, the web of ropes around it to the attached basket and the sandbags used for ballast. The story continues with the balloonist’s descriptions of Lewiston and Auburn, from hundreds of feet in the air.

Advertisement

Balloon ascensions became a popular annual attraction at the Maine State Fair in the early part of the 1900s. Often the events included death-defying trapeze acts by acrobats who would parachute back to Earth. A report of such an event in 1901 said a balloon lifted off from Lewiston Park with “the male and female parachute jumpers on their trapezes. Off they sailed over the eastern side of the park, soon lost to view behind English Hill. The jumpers did some tricks and cut loose in the vicinity of the Fair Grounds.”

In 1928, a newspaper story said a stereoscopic photo of the 1870 event had been found. Taken from a rooftop, it showed the globe-shaped vehicle being inflated under the park’s trees. The caption said “tents, booths and crowds are visible.”

The Lewiston Evening Journal republished in full the 1870 story in December 1928, and it said at that time, “So curious is this, today, when Lindberghs are taking off daily somewhere in Maine, and common folk can sky-ride for a bargain dollar, that it is reprinted here in full, in the belief that it will be readable to Maine folk and the Lewiston-Auburn people in particular.”

Dave Sargent is a freelance writer and a native of Auburn. He can be reached by sending email to [email protected]


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: