James Richmond's
California Story

The Great Balloon Event

September 10, 1860 Have been to Oakland today. It has been an exiting day because of a balloon ascension. I concluded to stay in town to witness the grand affair. The whole country was in a state of excitement. Miners came flocking in from all parts where the news reached. Men, women and children all with eager watchfulness.

The big balloon was tied down and the balloonist was there making last minute preparations. He was a large, heavy man. How the crowd cheered as ha got into the car and cut the ropes. It failed to soar, he fussed and fumed but it would not go. He was too heavy. He finally detached the car and put a basket in itís place. Still it refused to carry him. He was very excited.

The crowd was waiting, among them a ragged, little urchin who seemed as excited as the man. Finally he called out, "Say, Mister! It wonít carry you, but let me try it. Just a little way you know!"

The man looked him over. He was a little orange peddler, with his basket over his arm. As the man said "Come on lad" he threw the basket on the ground and with a bound was in his place. The man showed him how to pull the ropes to open the valves when he wished to come down. He told him to pull it when the people on the ground look small to him.

The crowd cheered as the man cut the ropes and the balloon swung around with a creak and began to rise. "Now lad, donít lose your head, and forget what to do," cautioned the man. "No, sir," came the reply. "Let her go" and away she did go. Up! up! up! until the balloon and boy were mere specks in the sky. The balloonist became alarmed. The crowd began to be excited again. Why didnít the boy do as he had been told and come down?

The anxious spectators began to blame the man for allowing the boy to go. Time was rolling on and night would soon be here. The crowd seemed chained to the spot but the balloonist disappeared. The whole city was in an uproar and began mourning the fate of that poor boy. No one seemed to know who he was. Had he no father or mother? No one knew. No one had any claim on him or interest outside common interest of humanity.

The balloon itself had long since disappeared. the evening papers had a great heading, "Boy lost in the clouds!" Many were the guesses of his probable fate. People could scarcely sleep that night for excitement. The crowd allowed their excitement to drown their better judgment, with the aid of whiskey to keep them going. No doubt it would have fared ill with the balloonist had he remained on sight. There were frequent calls for him in not a friendly manner. There were calls of "Lets have him!" "Send him up!" and "Tar and feather him!" The night passed. Those who slept, awakened to remember with sorrow the poor boy who was, no doubt somewhere dead, perhaps in midocean or on some mountain top. The poor child!

The whole city was astounded the next morning when the boat came in, to see the boy come walking and inquiring for his orange basket. How people cheered. It was taken up and echoed all over the city. "Hurry! for the balloon boy." Crowds gathered to get a look at him. The managers of the balloon flight finally got him away so they could listen to his story.

They announced the boy would relate his story that night in the theater. they could come with as much money as they wished to contribute to the boy. The people were anxious and expectant and before the hour appointed the theater was packed.

The hour arrived and the lad was loudly greeted. The balloonist had resurrected himself, and brought the lad on stage to introduce him. He stood for a moment abashed but at a word gave his age as twelve. He had no family, and said he had always wanted to go up in a balloon but never expected to have the chance. "I was so happy, I was little" he said "and the man big."

When I started I felt I was going to heaven, I was very happy. When he called and told me to pull the rope I thought I wouldnít pull it very soon. I wanted to go up, I didnít care how far. I could stand or sit so I didnít get tired. Later I did get cold. The air was very cold. I was afraid I would get over the Sierra Nevadaís and knew if I came down there I would be lost. I had been there and knew about them, so thought I better try to go down.

I pulled the string and it broke. I didnít know what was best to do then. I found I had a knife in my pocket but did I dare climb up those ropes? I had to in order to get a hole in the balloon. I knew I had to let the gas escape in order to get down. I concluded I better be at it before I got too cold. So up I went. I knew I could climb a rope but didnít care to think how far Iíd fall if I missed my hold, so didnít allow myself to think about it. I went up and cut a small hole, so I wouldnít go down too fast. I felt myself going down, down; so fast it nearly took my breath. I shut my eyes and held my breath and held on tightly wondering where I would be and hoping I would get there before dark.

It was dark before I landed and I couldnít tell where I was. I only knew I was standing on land once more. It was very dark, I couldnít see a thing, only a light that seemed a long way off. I figured it to be a light from a window.

After a long walk in the darkness I came to a house. I was both tired and hungry. I knocked and asked for admission. The man of the house let me in. I told him my story. They gave me supper and a bed. I think they doubted my story. I asked them to let me rest until morning and I was sure we could find the balloon. I found I was in Sacramento Valley about ten miles from the city.

After a nights rest the man took me to the city. I pointed out to him the direction I thought I had come from. He decided we might find the balloon on the way. I was anxious to get to Sacramento in time to catch the afternoon boat as I knew you folks here would be anxious and might think I had run away with the balloon. We found the collapsed balloon on our way. I do not care to take another ride in it. The man told a few people my story and they did not appear to believe it until he told them he had seen the balloon. They found I had no money to pay my fare so they paid it for me. Here I am no worse for my trip, which I do not care to repeat!

He gave his name as John DeWitt and he thought he was born in Ohio. He said he had lived there until he was three or four years old. Then his parents started for California, with a company of about eight persons, Overland Route. I remember my grandparents cried when we bade them goodbye. We had to go with the crowd. I remember a good many incidents on the journey.

One time they got on the wrong road. The men had a fierce dispute. The leaders insisted on a certain road which proved to be a longer way taking many more days than they had expected it to. We were a long time in reaching the mountains. The weather was getting very cold then. There was a big dispute whether they should go on or camp where they were and try and winter there. The majority ruled that they should go on, and try to cross the mountains.

It was getting colder every day. They reached the summit and then came a fierce snow storm. It snowed for days and they were there for months. Most of the company died of exposure. I suppose I should have died but my father and mother gave me part of their food. After they died, I fared but poorly. I was nearly dead when help came.

Some of the men became uneasy and talked of the strongest trying to get help. The prospect was not good that any of us would be alive when spring came. Provisions were getting low. The men started out making such preparations as they could for their perilous journey. All of them perished but one, he lived to reach a place down the mountain and told his story.

I always tried to believe it was my father, who got there only to die. He sent help but too late for many. My mother was dead, when the rescue party arrived there were only three of us alive. One man and two children. The man we were afraid of and we kept out of his way as much as we could. He took things that I knew were my motherís and put them in his pocket. He wouldnít let us have very much to eat and the last two days we hadnít had a mouthful.

The other boy died before we got down the mountain. The men of the rescue party carried us on their shoulders as we were not very heavy, yet it was hard for them. We thought we might all die before we got down. I was left with some people who were kind to me. They have since died and I have made my living by selling oranges.

There was a commotion in the crowd. A man was trying to get through. He finally reached the stage and approached the boy saying "My lad, do you remember the look of your father?" The boy looked at him and said, "Yes sir! He looked just like you only he didnít have gray hair!"

"I am your father," the man said drawing the boy to him in a fond embrace. "I was thought to be dead when the relief party left but it was only exhaustion. It was months before I recovered enough to make inquires about my wife and son. I was told they both had died but thank God one has been spared to me."

They bowed to the audience and left, hand in hand. The balloon man then had a word to say. He requested all to give to the boy. They all a made a dive into their pockets and got what loose change was there. Hats were held at the door and a goodly sum was collected. I was told over a thousand dollars. The boy and his father could return to their Eastern home and I heard later that they did as the fatherís health was not good. So ended the story of the Balloon Boy.

I have many times since wondered what ever happened to him.