Is The Balloon, American?
Written by: Land ~ Sea
Discovery Group Staff
The lines were cut at exactly 3:00 in the afternoon and the balloon
American rose to the skies. Its flight seemed destined for trouble
at the outset for just outside the fence of Tournament Park the drag
rope wrapped around three electrical wires and held the balloon captive.
As the crowd looked on a ground crew came to the assistance of the
American and freed the balloon for its afternoon ride. With all the
commotion going on the pilot, Captain Augustus E. Mueller failed to
notice that the windsock was no longer tailing towards the east as
their trip plan required but to the north towards the San Gabriel
It was March 20, 1909 and thousands of people crowded
the streets of Pasadena that day to celebrate
the 20th anniversary of the Tournament of Roses. Afterwards folks
would gather at Tournament Park to witness horse races, chariot
races, football games, view the horse drawn floats, and on this
particular day there was to be a balloon race between the American
and the United States. The owner of both balloons, Dick Ferris,
was to pilot the United States in the race. Ferris however was dismayed
by the weather conditions on Friday and canceled the race.
Photo of Tournament Park 1909 by Harold
courtesy of Donald A. Parker
Captain Mueller was not one to be put off by a
few dark clouds off in the mountains to the north. It was sunny
in the morning, the skies were clear to the east, and after all
it was the last day of the carnival. Mueller optimistically set
out to inflate the balloon. Surely there will be some that will
ride the winds with me today.
The Captain and his passengers ready
for take off in the balloon American.
Photograph from the Harold Parker collection.
Courtesy of Donald A. Parker
Richard C. Halsted rode in the balloon earlier that
week and gathered together four other men to pay the $25.00 fee
for today’s ride. The other passengers were Lane C. Gilliam,
Sydney Cray, Edwin Dobschultz, and photographer Harold A. Parker.
At 2:30 the six men climbed in the balloon and after dealing with
the ropes being caught up the wires they were finally up, up, and
away. As they drifted along in free flight the drag rope of the
American touched the tops of the trees in the orange groves north
of the park. Mueller had a sandbag dropped overboard and the American
Thirty-year-old Parker brought with him his new
Kodak bellows camera. This modern wonder used roll film and was
promoted as being a "vest pocket model." As the balloon
rose Parker snapped the first aerial pictures of Pasadena.
The passengers were quite occupied with pointing
out familiar sites to each other while Mueller remained silent.
He was aware that the balloon was traveling north instead of east.
Instead of turning back at this point he chooses to toss out more
sandbags and gain altitude, rather than be the laughing stock of
his peers by landing shortly after take off.
soon appeared to be being sucked into Eaton Canyon and then skirted
the edge of the mountains. Sydney Cray, a local sportsman and pigeon
rancher, spotted Echo Mountain and the Incline Railroad below. Dark
clouds were hanging ominously in the upper reaches of the canyons.
Next the balloon passed Camp Sierra further to the west. The passengers
suggested landing there but as the ropes actually touched the tops
of the tents and cabins, captain Mueller saw dangerous campfires and
threw out more ballast shooting them into the clouds.
The American ascends. Photo Harold Parker
courtesy Donald A. Parker
That was the last folk’ back home saw of the
American. Speculations ran from the balloonists landing on one of
the crags on the valley side of the range, to Mueller gaining more
altitude and crossing the range into he desert on the other side.
The Pasadena office of the Southern Pacific Railroad sent out telegraphic
inquires to Palmdale, Lancaster and other stations along the SPRR
Professor Thaddeus Lowe of the Mt. Lowe Railroad,
and a balloonist in his own right, dashed these theories, saying
that the air moves in waves and the danger of being tossed against
the mountains was extreme. Also at the elevations necessary to make
a crossing the air is very cold and it causes the balloon to lose
his lifting power.
Page 10 of the Los Angles Times Sunday morning the
21st gave an accounting of the balloon last being sited below Alpine
Tavern. Anxiety was increasing and the tension mounting as rain
began to fall in Pasadena and reports of snow at Mt. Wilson were
By Sunday afternoon search parties were being organized.
Reports of sightings had came in from Camp Sierra, the train dispatcher
at Echo Mountain Station, and a ranger in Sierra Madre. These were
tabulated and entered into the search plans
By now though
the temperatures were below freezing and reports came in of four feet
of snow at Mt. Wilson. Alpine Tavern reported two feet of the powder
and said the visibility was less than one hundred feet. One party
headed out from the tavern Sunday afternoon but had to turn back when
the snow on the trails became waist deep. Other search groups also
held off due to the blizzard like conditions in the mountains.
Reports came in of four feet of snow
at Mt. Wilson
On Monday morning the Pasadena Daily News proclaimed;
PASADENANS MAY HAVE PERISHED IN BALLOON. When the weather cleared
the search parties headed for the mountains. One group went in the
mouth of the Arroyo Seco and headed towards Switzer’s Camp,
another group was to enter from Mt. Wilson. Roy Knabenshue, another
balloonist, took off Monday morning on a train into Rubio Canyon
and then rode to the top of the Great Incline where he waited while
the crews cleared the tracks of snow on the Alpine division.
mountaineers joined him on a specially dispatched train to the tavern.
Once at the tavern the men warmed themselves by the grand fireplace.
Then they headed out in waist deep snow along side Mt. Lowe and Mt.
Markham. They shouted at every ravine and hollow hoping to hear a
response back. They headed into Bear Canyon and were stopped finally
by water and snow five feet deep. The next morning they set out again
into the headwaters of Millard Canyon and followed it all the way
down to Dawn Mine. Finally the men took the trail back up to the tracks
and rode the train back into the city exhausted.
Crews cleared the tracks of snow on the Alpine division
The electric plant agreed to blow its whistle when
word was received of the balloon crew. Two long blasts meant the
group had been found alive. Four short blasts indicated they were
found but that some had perished. Monday came and went with no blast
from the power plant, as did Tuesday morning. That morning the story
was headlined in New York, Chicago, Baltimore, and the Los Angeles
papers, the Tribune and the Times.
WHERE IS THE AMERICAN?
ballast was thrown from the balloon on Saturday the 20th the basket
and its passengers shot up into the darkness at thirteen thousand
feet. Bolts of lightning lit up the sky above the clouds. There was
hail and it was freezing cold. The group decided it would be best
to try to land. Mueller agreed and released gas from the bag. Rapidly
the balloon descended and most of the men gasped for breath. As they
popped through he clouds at seven thousand feet a jagged peak was
seen with a small plateau to the left. They aimed for the clearing
and the balloon alighted softly. The men grabbed onto brush to hold
the basket steady as the giant bag settled across the bushes and rocks
off the side. No one was hurt and the ride was over at 4:15 PM, just
one hour and fifteen minutes after take off!
Photo of the landing site taken by Harold Parker with his
Kodak Vest Pocket Camera,
courtesy of Donald A. Parker
The photographer, Parker, takes a shot of the group by the fallen
balloon and then the group ties it off so it can be retrieved later.
An accounting of their gear shows only a rope and a smashed basket
of food provided earlier by the Maryland Hotel. No compass and very
low visibility sets the intrepid travelers off in different directions
to search for a way out of their predicament. Parker headed to the
north quickly returning saying a sheer cliff was not more than twenty
feet away. Cray found a canyon that they all decided to follow into
single file. Later it was determined to be Grotto Canyon. It was raining
and the group made use of the rope working their way down into the
canyon. The vegetation got thicker as they went on and soon they had
to settle in for the night.
At a small flat area in the canyon called the group
found that by moving the wet pine needles aside, dry ones were underneath.
One match was found amongst them and it was cautiously used to light
the needles, some shavings and a crumpled piece of cigarette paper.
They rationed the food into thirds and ate one third of it.
Sunday morning they continued down the canyon though
the water in the widened stream was now waist deep. Soon a crashing
of water was heard and it was realized none to soon a waterfall
was ahead. Closer investigation led them to discover a 30-50 foot
fall. It begins to hail again and rain was coming down in sheets.
The men had to head back up the canyon the way they had come. Halsted
at one point falls completely into the water and the others with
no regard for themselves go in after him. Cold and drenched the
six men continue on soon finding a snow-covered trail and a stump
of a tree that had been recently cut. Another thirty minutes up
the trail and they smelled smoke and came upon a pen for cattle
or pigs. All was not lost. At last they saw a house with smoke pouring
from the chimney.
Ma and Delos Colby heard the noise and on investigation they were
surprised to see a group of frozen men in business suits. Realizing
quickly their predicament, the Colby’s took in the strangers
and gave them sanctuary from the elements. Their clothes were removed
and hung to dry across the room. Ma Colby pulled out all the stops
when it came to feeding the men whom hadn’t eaten for 24 hours.
They told of their flight and though Delos Colby disagreed at first,
it was determined they had landed near Strawberry Peak one of the
most jagged peaks in the San Gabriel’s.
courtesy of Donald A. Parker
On Monday the men rested most of the day, as the
weather was so bad Delos would not guide them out to Switzer’s
the location of the nearest phone.
Tuesday morning the weather broke and Delos Colby
guided the men to the trail that would take them over to Switzer’s
Camp. Colby would not go all the way himself. The men broke the
trail Indian style and at 2:30 Tuesday afternoon the search party
resting at Switzer’s heard another "HALLOO!" The
balloon party had reached Switzer’s. They were quickly rushed
inside to warm by the fire and promptly had to field a barrage of
questions from the press.
call was made to the paper and another to the power plant and before
long across the valley two long blasts of the steam whistle blew.
The entire balloon party was safe!
Captain Mueller on the snowy trail Tuesday March 23, 1909.
Photo by Harold Parker, courtesy of Donald
is a book that needs to be read by all. It contains wonderful clips
of history in the Pasadena area and a factual accounting of a real
life event in our history that captivates the reader from beginning
to end. My thanks to Donald L. Parker for allowing me to use photos
and excerpts of his book, PERILOUS VOYAGE OF THE BALLOON AMERICAN,
in order to bring this story to you. Also thanks to Harold A. Parker
for his insight to photograph the event and to his wife and descendants
for maintaining a scrapbook to be the source of inspiration for
Donald Parker to write this wonderful book.