Joseph and the Giant Balloon: The First Aeronaut of the American West

The exciting tale of California's inaugural flight


Crowds at a turn-of-the-century balloon race in St. Louis. (Library of Congress)

On a summer's day in August of 1853, a crowd assembled at a lot on Third Street near Oakland's wharf, ready to see what they had twice been promised: a manned balloon flight, the first in California, the first in the American west.

The first two dates -- the Fourth of July, and then two weeks later on the 18th -- had come and gone without a launch. But now, on Sunday, August 28, the yellow balloon, 18 feet in diameter, was starting to inflate. Its owner, a man known only by the name of Mr. S. Kelly, had ordered it from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. "No expense would be spared to have the whole affair of California magnificence," read Kelly's announcement in a local paper, historian Tom D. Crouch writes.

But things were not off to a good start. At the appointed hour, the balloon was not yet halfway full. Two hours passed. Accounts conflict as to what precisely happened next but it is said that Kelly was no light-weight, and with him on board the craft either remained firmly on the ground or just bounced about a few feet off the ground.

"Several bags of ballast were then thrown out, and he rose again and swept over the surface of the ground," a report from San Fracisco's Daily Bulletin told it years later. "The basket first struck against a fence, but clearing that the balloon came in collision with a tree, the basket swinging under the branches, and, on the rebound, precipitating Mr. Kelly headforemost to the earth."

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It was decided that Kelly would need to be replaced. "One after another, a series of lighter-weight men took his place in the basket, but the balloon did nothing more than bump across the ground," Crouch recounts.

Kelly finally turned his attention to a group of young boys who had come to watch the spectacle. "At this moment, a lad named Gates, well known in San Franciso as a match and orange vender, ran up, and, dropping his basket, said he would mount," the Daily Bulletin describes. A journal called The Friend has a report from later that fall, which adds a sweet detail: "Turning to his companion, he handed his basket of oranges to him, and asked him to hold them."

Joseph "Ready" Gates then by all accounts eagerly climbed on board.

As the balloon began to rise, Kelly shouted some instructions to Gates, who is said to have been just 16, and whatever Gates caught of that was all he knew of balloon navigation. Gates caught a breeze, The Friend reported, and he drifted out and over the Bay, quickly reaching a cruising altitude of 1,000 feet, by some estimates. Gates reportedly looked "composed" as he rose into the sky, but "two or three ropes, against which he leaned his back, and a frail board, which he straddles as a child does a hobby horse, were all that separated him from destruction," according to the letter in The Friend. The balloon soon flew into some clouds and disappeared from sight before reappearing about 10 to 15 minutes later as just a speck in the bright sky, "until it had passed beyond the range of unaided human vision."

For some time, the crowd was all fondness for the accomplishment. But soon the mood began to turn. There was little hope for Gates's survival.

Miraculously, the next morning Gates arrived back at the Oakland docks by boat (some accounts seem to indicate he got off the boat in San Francisco, not Oakland, and it is not clear which was the case). He had flown for an hour-and-a-half and landed in Suisan Valley, some fifty miles from where his journey began. He walked on a sprained ankle five miles until he found a house where he spent the night. The next day he walked a further 15 miles to Benicia, where he boarded a boat and returned home, the first person to have seen California from above.


Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg