1899 Yukon Nuggets
John Leonard, Klondike Balloonist
The Klondike gold rush attracted a strange mix of personalities. Dawson City was the land for adventure seekers as much as it was for gold diggers. The Klondike had it all - from major prize fights to big-league gambling nights. So it is no surprize that the fine art of ballooning would also grace the yellowed pages of Dawson's colourful chronicle.
In 1899, aeronaut John Leonard stamped his mark on the Klondike history books when he became the first man to pilot a lighter-than-air balloon in the skies over the gold rush city.
Ever on the job, the Dawson Daily News reported on the first balloon flight in the Yukon with a banner headline reading:
An Air Ship's Flight
First Balloon Ascension in Yukon Territory
The spunky newspaper went on to delight readers with bold headlines such as:
"Thousands of People Throng the Water Front and Watch the Performances of Aeronaut Leonard"
"It all happened at 6pm on a warm summer evening as Leonard and his balloon lifted over the river. The aeronaut, wearing a parachute, performed acrobatics from a trapeze slung below the balloon. Then, to everone's shock, Leonard let go and plummeted toward the river". Why? Turns out it was all part of his show. The newspaper reported that:
"When the balloon had reached a height of probably 500 feet, at a point over the river near the west bank, Leonard unhitched the parachute and dropped, striking the river with a splash, while the parachute collapsed and floated upon the surface of the water. A moment later he reappeared and, a boat not being near, he struck out for the shore, which he reached in a few minutes."
"The pilotless balloon slowly floated up the river and circled around the city. When the gas began to escape, it finally disappeared over the hill opposite Mission street. An hour later the balloon was recovered and taken back to West Dawson".
Leonard, meanwhile, passed the hat and the donations more than made up the cost of paying for the recovery of his balloon a few miles away in the bushes.
By September, Leonard was drawing bigger crowds and even scheduled a show at Grand Forks on Bonanza creek.
In September, 1899, the Dawson Daily newspaper, described his ballooning exploits as proof positive that:
"Dawson is strictly up to date on attractions of all kinds, even to ballooning, as was evidenced by two ascensions made by Professore Leonard, most recently - the last on Labour day. The river front was lined with 10,000 to see the daring young man."
"To say that he gave a glittering exhibition of aeronautical engineering is no exaggeration. The great crowd stood in wide-eyed wonder as it watched him leave the earth with the miniature planet of his own, bidding his friends a hearty adios. Up, up, and away soared the great balloon until its ascentive power began to wane and then, while hanging suspended by the ankles alone - a performance that for skill and reckless daring outrivals the most awe-inspiring feats of ancient Rome - Leonard made the pulse beat with a thrilling plunge with the parachute".
"After a drop of perhaps 150 feet, the parachute opened its graceful canopy and lowered the aeronaut safely to the roof of the North American Transportation & Trading Company's warehouse. As soon as his feet hit the roof, the parachute lost its sustaining power and the aeronaut in falling from the roof received a severe strain, from the effects of which he will be laid up for some time".
After the stunt, a tough miner was heard to remark that he'd rather go through Whitehorse Rapids on a cook stove than tackle ballooning.
Although he shattered no bones in his fall from the roof, Leonard was "severely injured about the hip and body, besides receiving painful cuts and contusions about the arms".
He was forced to cancel his Grand Forks show. Leonard decided to go Outside for the winter, but he left his balloon equipment in Dawson and returned in May 1900 to continue his shows. Again, the elusive Leonard left the Yukon and didn't reappear until the spring of 1903. This time, the tiny town of Whitehorse was on his performing agenda.
Then, one final balloon flight was made to mark the 4th of July celebrations in Dawson and one of the Klondike's most unusual characters headed south to perform at the 1903 St. Louis World's Fair.
Balloonist John Leonard's home town remains a mystery as does his strange attachment to performing his innovative balloon exhibitions in the Yukon.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin.