Published on July 15, 2013
The Reading Eagle carried word of the mystery in its Sunday edition, on November 12, 1899, fully twenty-four years after a balloon accident that took place on July 15, 1875 — today in aviation history. It repeated an outrageous, but nonetheless possibly true claim from the Chicago Tribune regarding the late Washington H. Donaldson, balloonist, who had disappeared on a flight over Lake Michigan earlier in the year. The headline read: “Is Donaldson Alive? Did he save himself?” The rest of the article was no less sensational, though it was short on detail about the alleged sighting — nonetheless, one thing was sure, the balloon had been seen dragging low over the water by a boater about 30 miles off shore, then, quite suddenly, as if a great weight had departed from its basket, it lifted rapidly off the waves and flew off to the northeast toward Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
No trace of Washington Donaldson or his balloon were ever found, yet while he disappeared, his passenger later washed up on the western shore of Lake Michigan, dead from having been drowned in the sea.
The Final Flight
Donaldson’s last flight took place in 1875 from Chicago where, in accordance with a contract, he was to launch himself with two others — both journalists — and float across Lake Michigan, intending to arrive somewhere in the interior of Michigan. Yet things had not gone well. A first day’s effort had ended in failure due to damage to the balloon’s envelope and thus, the flight was rescheduled for the following day. The newspapers picked up the story from there:
“…the balloon was re-prepared, fresh gas added, and everything made ready for a long voyage; but when the time for ascent arrived, it was found that the buoyancy of the balloon was seriously impaired, as Donaldson — probably correctly — alleged, by reason of penetration of atmospheric air to the interior of the balloon, and the consequent increased gravity of the gas therein.
The plan has been to have two reporters — James Maitland and Newton S. Grimwood — accompany him, but it was found that the buoyancy of the balloon would warrant the presence of but one. Accordingly lots were prepared….”
As it happened, one of Grimwood’s friends cheated the lots, marking both as winners, and thus, when Grimwood drew first, he won the ride. It was to be a bad deed that went sour, to be sure. After a 4:00 pm take off, the balloon proceeded with the two men, Donaldson and Grimwood, out over the water toward Michigan. Onlookers watched it fly into the distance and disappear. Approximately 30 miles out, a boater reported later sighting the balloon, as written, down low over the water, its basket dragging through the waves. Setting out to help, the would-be rescuers couldn’t cover the distance before the balloon shot back up into the sky and drifted away in the stiff wind. Nothing was seen in the water, though it is possible that a man was there, somehow missed. He would have been hard to spot while treading water with only his head above the waves as the sun set and night descended on the lake.
The Supposed Mystery
Twenty-four years later, the news from the Chicago Tribune headlined with the words that Donaldson had lived after all, “…by throwing his companion out of the balloon — an incredible story in Chicago.” The rest of the story was picked up variously by the Reading Eagle and Tribune, as follows:
Anything new about Wash. Donaldson, the aeronaut, is always read with interest in Reading, where he lived. The Chicago papers have just recalled his death in a startling, sensational, and absurd story, that Donaldson threw his partner out of the balloon and escaped with his own life; that he failed to return, fearing arrest for murder, and that Donaldson may be still alive and wandering around the world among strangers under another name.
The Chicago Tribune says: ‘The claim is made the Washington H. Donalson, aeronaut, has been seen alive within recent years…. Donaldson was the most noted and daring aeronaut of his day. He made numerous ascensions prior to his appearance in Chicago; and claimed a familiarity with the air and its currents to which no other balloonist had attained. He was also an accomplished gymnast, and as a tight-rope and trapeze performer had exhibited great nerve and skill. In personal appearnce he was not particularly prepossessing, except in the matter of muscular development, his countenance was dark and saturnine.’
When Grimwood’s body was recovered on the Michigan side of the lake, his head was found to be bashed and scarred, though examiners couldn’t be sure if the wounds had been inflicted when his body had been pressed against flotsam and jetsam or on rocks near the shore. It could have been a murder, though one out of desperation as Donaldson forced the man out of the balloon so as to lift off, lest they both die. Or it could have been that Grimwood had leaped from the balloon into the water on his own, hoping to be picked up by the boater that he may well have seen. If the latter, he must have been crushed to have not been seen, to watch the boater depart the area after the balloon’s ascent.
The Mystery is Evaluated
Accomplished or not, Donaldson’s disappearance was complete. No trace of the balloon or of Donaldson himself was ever found. Had he run, as claimed, fearing a charge of murder for throwing the journalist Grimwood out of the basket? The story rang true in many circles, though predictably not in Reading, where Donaldson lived. He was claimed there to be a fine, upstanding gentleman. Yet one also recognizes in his skills the talents of a circus man — was he one of those early American traveling circus performers who made a living out of duping the public, lying and cheating, stealing and traveling around to avoid prosecution by local law enforcement?
Nobody can know for sure the final fate of Washington Donaldson. As the Tribune summed up the mystery:
“But the great puzzle to me has always been how Donaldson and the balloon both so utterly vanished from mortal ken. Some time afterward it was claimed that a portion of the balloon wreckage had been discovered in the woods in the Northern Peninsula of Michigan, but investigation failed to verify the report. But, so far as Donaldson is concerned, there never has been the slightest trace found of him — at least not to my knowledge”
Most likely, Grimwood was not the only one who died that day, it seems probable that Donaldson died, his balloon floating away and disappearing into the forests of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Perhaps both leaped into the water, but only Grimwood’s body washed up. In any case, Donaldson certainly wouldn’t be the only aviator to disappear without a trace. Maybe one day, the few remnants that might remain of his balloon will be found, though that seems unlikely. Just what would be left of a cloth envelope, wicker basket, and the other accoutrements of a balloon from that day and age now, more than a century later. Probably not much.
Today’s Aviation Trivia Question
The other journalist who did not go that fateful day, James Maitland, would later call the conceit that tricked the drawing of the lots an act of Providence. Yet what would happen to him in later years?