Reading the history of Indiana County, you might get the impression that we’re a down-to-earth people not much given to flights of fancy. Truth is, we’ve had our head in the clouds for nearly 200 years . . . .
Pennsylvanians have been eager participants in “balloon mania” from the very start. Ben Franklin was present when the Montgolfier brothers launched their Aerostat in 1783; America’s first balloon launch, manned ascent and parachute drop were all made by Pennsylvanians, and only New Yorkers have held more airship patents.
Indiana County’s involvement probably began in 1837 when Richard Clayton’s Star of the West, on its 13th flight from Pittsburgh, was forced down on the bank of the Conemaugh River near Boltz. Its sudden appearance from a storm cloud delighted passengers on a canal boat, while some on shore thought it was a demon and prayed for deliverance. By mid-century we’d grown more accustomed to them. At the Indiana County Fair of 1858, Luther Martin of Blairsville “sent off a balloon which ascended to a great height and sailed out of sight.” Fifteen years later, the Fair began a tradition of manned ascensions that continued unbroken into the 1920s.
With the transition from free balloons to powered and maneuverable “dirigibles” in the late 1800s, many ships of unique and innovative design passed this way . . . or tried to. One that never made it was the state-of-the-art Campbell Airship America: football shaped, buoyed by coal gas and maneuvered by hand-cranked propellers, it was to have made five loops out from Punxsutawney in 1889 but was lost off Atlantic City earlier that year. Fate was kinder to the famous Stroebel Airship. The 54’ dirigible’s rudder broke during a test flight at the 1909 Indiana County Fair, but pilot Frank Goodale cut the engine and brought his ship down safely. It was repaired, and made daily figure-eights around the Fairgrounds and Courthouse as scheduled.
Balloon pilots were the celebrities of their day. These “aeronauts” had to be a cross between scientist, stuntman and vaudevillian, and most were called Professor (remember Professor Marvel in The Wizard of Oz?). Typical of those who performed here were John Wise and Joe Steiner, veterans of the Union Army Balloon Corps. Thirteen year old John Wise Junior became the world’s youngest aeronaut when he ascended solo from Indiana in 1874. And not all aeronauts were men! Blairsville’s own Madame Zeno (Alice Huonker, 1869-1964) performed acrobatic stunts on a parachuting trapeze dropped from her balloon for audiences across America.
Even the balloons were stars. Ads for McConn’s Restaurant on Philadelphia Street offered “Hoffman’s Ice Cream and a Candy Blimp for 5¢.” A banner headline in the Indiana Democrat proclaimed, “The Airship Age Is Here!,” and a tongue-in-cheek blurb run by the Weekly Messenger in 1901 predicted, “The dirigible will not displace the trollycar for a year or two.” Ironically, just five months separated Indiana County’s last trollycar run and its last dirigible visit.
Some of those visitors were quite famous.
The giant zeppelin ZR-1, soon to be renamed USS Shenandoah upon its delivery by the Imperial German Army, flew directly over Indiana on October 1, 1923. Four year old Clarence Stephenson, future author of Indiana County 175th Anniversary History, witnessed its passage:
“The author…recalls vividly seeing the ZR-1 pass almost directly over his home. While playing…he became aware of the noise of engines. (L)ooking up, he was astonished to see a big, cigar-shaped objectPoking above the hill. Running as fast as his legs would carry him, he told his mother…to come see the monster passing over!”
Seven years later, a smaller craft made an even bigger impression on us. The Goodyear blimp Vigilant visited Indiana in September of 1930 to promote Rising Brothers, its aptly-named local tire dealer. Sixty-five citizens got to see Indiana County from 400 feet, four at a time, before the Vigilant left for Uniontown the next day. Declared by the Gazette to be our county’s all-time greatest aeronautical event, it was eclipsed just five weeks later when none other than Charles Lindbergh landed here to wait out an ice storm. And Vigilant’s sister ship Resolute passed over while searching for Thomas Settle and his missing stratosphere balloon Century of Progress in 1933.
Yet for all the warmth of its citizens’ welcome, Indiana County’s terrain could be downright hostile to airships on occasion. Winds that funnel through our valleys have contributed to at least six crashes. In 1910, a racing balloon flying from Indianapolis was brought down by “eccentric air currents” onto the farm of Hugh Peddicord near Homer City, and in 2015, IHGS’s own Chuck Spence extricated stranded balloonists from a tree near Plumville. But the most celebrated crash happened in 1918 when a military observation balloon loaded with scientific equipment lost its pilot near Akron and drifted 150 miles, ending up in Blacklick Creek near Heshbon. The balloon was deflated and brought to Indiana’s National Guard Armory (present site of the Historical Society!) to await transport home; meanwhile, an enterprising officer of the 110th Infantry stationed here mounted the gondola and used it as a “powerful boost for recruiting.”
By the 1920s, America’s aeronautic fascination was shifting to heavier-than-air craft and their pilots. No longer the cutting-edge technology they’d been for 130 years, balloons now had to share the stage with barnstorming biplanes at public events. Though surrounding counties’ Fairs continued to feature them through the mid-1930s, Indiana County’s continuous string of ascensions was broken in 1925. The Airship Age had ended. You can still catch the occasional hot air balloon floating over our county – there was one at this summer’s Airshow – but look no more for the likes of John Wise or the shadow of a zeppelin.