A sparse crowd gathered on January 9, 1793, in the courtyard of Philadelphia’s now defunct Walnut Street Prison. President George Washington was among the onlookers, as were the four Founding Fathers who would succeed him: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe. They came to observe the first hot-air balloon flight in North America. To avoid paying French aeronaut Jean-Pierre Blanchard’s admission fee of $5 (roughly $115 today), 40,000 curiosity seekers watched from outside the prison walls.
Blanchard had been the first balloonist to fly across the English Channel, and first to ascend in four European countries. When he lifted off from Philly at 10:09 that morning, he secured his place in New World history as well. Blanchard piloted a ship-shaped wicker basket attached to a varnished, yellow-silk balloon filled with hydrogen.
Since Blanchard spoke no English, President Washington provided him with a signed letter—America’s first air mail—beseeching property owners to “oppose no hindrance or molestation to the said Mr. Blanchard” upon landing.
Blanchard drifted across the Delaware River at 5,812 feet. Foreshadowing future test pilots, the science-minded flyer took his pulse at different altitudes, collected six bottles of air samples and evaluated the flight’s effect on a lodestone’s magnetic properties.
Forty-six minutes after liftoff, Blanchard landed in Deptford Township near Big Timber Creek and the massive Clement Oak Tree—said to have been a Lenape landmark even before Europeans arrived in America. A frightened farmer brandishing a pitchfork witnessed the descent. A second farmer, armed with a musket, reportedly dropped his gun and lifted his hands skyward in prayer upon seeing the huge flying ship.
Greeting the growing crowd of locals, Blanchard presented his credentials from President Washington. The letter had the intended effect. The locals helped Blanchard pack up and find transport back to Philadelphia. They also signed a document stating when and where they saw him land.
Today, Deptford displays its history with pride. Colorful hot-air balloons adorn the water tower, an original 1793 newspaper hangs in Town Hall and markers under the Clement Oak and at the nearby Deptford Landing shopping center commemorate Blanchard’s feat. Every year, the town sponsors a balloon-coloring and essay contest, awarding plaques to local students on January 9.
“This was America’s first flight,” says Mayor Paul Medany, whose annual retelling of Blanchard’s story will have special significance on the 225th anniversary. “It’s amazing more people don’t know about it.”
Soon, more will. On March 23, Blanchard’s flight will be reenacted by First Air Voyage in America during the 2018 Balloon Federation of America convention in Philadelphia. Balloonist Bert Padelt will pilot a replica basket. If the winds cooperate, he too will land in Deptford. “Blanchard probably never thought ballooning would become a sport,” says Padelt. “I think he’d have been blown away.”
Do today’s balloonists know about Blanchard?
“That’s like asking a ballplayer who has the record for the most home runs,” says Howard Freeman, executive producer of the annual QuickChek New Jersey Festival of Ballooning, scheduled this year for July 27-29. “Most balloonists are historians and appreciate the significance of Blanchard’s flight.”
Pat Fiaschetti is a freelance writer. Hot-air balloons frequently fly over her home in Hunterdon County.Click here to leave a comment