He stoked the fire that generated the heat that was slowly inflating the enormous balloon. Then he moved on to stowing his ballast and grappling hook in the basket.
At last the moment came to launch himself into the heavens. As he prepared to step into the basket that hung below the balloon, John McClellan, a young man in his early thirties stepped forward.
McClellan wanted to know whether two men could go up at once in the balloon.
“On receiving a negative reply, Mr. McClellan seeming much disappointed-said he was determined to have a ride: and inquired the price at which Mr. Wise would permit him to make the voyage alone,” reported The York Gazette in October 1842.
“One hundred dollars,” Wise told him, thinking that such an expensive price would discourage McClellan’s enthusiasm.
“I will give you fifty dollars!” McClellan countered.
It was still a good sum so Wise said, “Agreed—fork over!”
McClellan did so and then climbed into the basket. Wise gave him some rudimentary instruction on how a balloon operated. McClellan soaked it all in and then gave the order to “cut loose!”
Wise thought that the joke had gone far enough and told McClellan it was time to get out. “But he refused to do so, and insisted that he had regularly hired and paid for a passage ‘in this boat,’ and go he would,” The York Gazette reported.
Wise relented, particularly since he didn’t want to relent his fifty dollars. He also apparently believed that the gusting winds would cause McClellan airsickness. Wise let the balloon begin a short climb, still connected to the earth by a rope.
“But this was no go; and thinking he has as good a start as he would ever have, Mr. McClellan cut the rope and was off!” reported The York Gazette.
According to the newspaper, McClellan quickly reached a height of two miles. This is doubtful because two miles is close to the height where a hot air balloon operator would have needed oxygen and a very warm coat. Most comfortable balloon rides take place around 2,000 feet.
Sitting in the basket, McClellan had a sense of sitting still while the world moved beneath him as can be seen in his description of the journey. “…Gettysburg passed off towards Hagerstown, Abbottstown, Oxford, and Berlin, strolling about; and soon after, just ahead of him, he saw old York coming full tilt up the turnpike toward him, apparently taking an afternoon’s walk to Gettysburg,” reported The York Gazette.
Now, McClellan began to get worried. He was moving along so quickly that he wasn’t sure where he would wind up.
“Having determined to stop at York, and fearing, from the remarkable speed at which our usually staid and sober town was travelling, that she would pass under his balloon, and give him the slip, he pulled the string attached to the safety valve, in order to let off a portion of the gas,” the newspaper reported.
However, he pulled too hard on the valve and it tore loose completely. The hot gas inside the balloon began escaping and the balloon plummeted toward the earth.
“The escape of the gas was distinctly seen from York; and as the balloon neared the earth it had lost its rotundity and appeared to the gazers here to come down heavily like a wet sheet,” the newspaper reported.
The deflatin balloon began acting like a parachute, slowing the descent. McClellan gathered his senses and was beginning to consider throwing out the rest of the ballast and the grappling iron when the basket hit the ground five miles outside of York.
McClellan was shaken but unharmed. Though he would live another 47 years and become a successful Gettysburg businessman, Brian A. Kennell wrote in Beyond the Gatehouse: Gettysburg’s Evergreen Cemetery that “…the eccentric McClellan is best remembered for his infamous balloon ride from Gettysburg to York in 1842.”
The story was even published in other newspapers in 1842 including the October 12, 1842 edition of The Massachusetts Spy. Scott Smelser, who sells original antique newspapers at 17 on the Square showed me copy of The Massachusetts Spy that contained this story.