Klondike aeronautic’s high art

It was a crisp autumn day in 1899, and thousands of men, women and children lined the riverbank in Dawson City to witness a spectacle new to the northern town.

It was a crisp autumn day in 1899, and thousands of men, women and children lined the riverbank in Dawson City to witness a spectacle new to the northern town.

At the time ballooning was being sold as an increasingly popular form of travel, but on this particular day aeronaut John Leonard was taking to the air strictly to entertain.

“To say that he gave a glittering exhibition of aeronautical engineering is no exageration (sic). 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,” reported the Dawson Daily News.

“Up, up, and away soared the great balloon until its ascensive (sic) 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 thrilling plunge with the parachute.”

Pulled by gravity, Leonard dropped 50 metres like a stone.

His parachute opened to brace his fall, but it wasn’t enough to save him from harm.

Leonard hit the corrugated metal roof of the North American Transportation and 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, according to the Dawson Daily News.

“After the ascension a rugged miner was heard to remark that he’d rather go through White Horse on a cook stove than tackle ballooning, and he wasn’t alone in his way of thinking.”

Nothing was broken, but Leonard was badly bruised. After the spill, he was laid up in bed for two weeks and on crutches for another three.

Despite the injuries, Leonard was thrilled with the publicity that his jumps had merited.

“That day in Dawson The Papers did me up good,” Leonard wrote in a letter to a friend on December 2, 1899.

“One said, ‘Thousands lined the river front to see the intrepid young man who was the 1st to ride the chute ‘where the northern lights come down o’ nights To dance on the homeless snows.’ all good stuff. Good photos of ascent & jump.”

Like any street performer today, Leonard collected money for his jumps by passing his hat around after the performance.

Years before Leonard made his daring jumps in the Klondike capital, many men attempted to make a buck offering “easy” passage to the Klondike gold fields via balloon. Many tried and many failed.

In August 1897, M. Ayer, a real estate man based in Oakland, California, planned to set up balloon service to move stampeders between Juneau, Alaska, and Dawson City.

It was a trip he said could be made in just 24 hours.

One year later, a Frenchman, Anthony Variele, planned to offer a similar service.

“He has invented a balloon of peculiar design, cigarshaped, and of a fine quality of silk.”

In the balloon, Variele planned to bring carrier pigeons, which would send word of the voyage back to Juneau, and a camera “to photograph any particularly attractive parts of the scenery and the landscape along the route.”

Meanwhile, a man from Michigan planned to create a regular balloon route to the gold fields causing people from all over the United States to clamour for a spot on the craft.

Though one man from Illinois went so far as to send him a $500 bank draft, the venture never got off the ground, literally.

This column is provided by the MacBride Museum of Yukon History. Each week it will explore a different morsel of Yukon’s modern history. For more information, or to comment on anything in this column e-mail lchalykoff@macbridemuseum.com.

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