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The Balloon Bubble

The Balloon Bubble

The Klondike's brief flirtation with hot air balloons and airships
By Herb Mathisen
Apr 04
From the April 2017 Issue

Get desperate enough and you’ll try just about anything.

In the late 1890s, the rush to the Klondike left some broke, some broken. Blinded by desire, tens of thousands of stampeders, often under-equipped and ill-prepared, endured multiple trips to haul their year’s supply of goods through the few established mountain routes into the Yukon. And chilling alpine slogs like the Chilkoot Pass took a toll on these gold-lusting newcomer cheechakos. (Some estimates say only one-third of those who set out for Dawson City actually made it.)

A few dreamers proposed a less exhausting method of transportation that would eliminate the arduous climbs altogether. They would zip right over the mountains in a hot air balloon.

Promoters, amateurs and pedigreed balloonists from around the world concocted schemes to get to the Klondike, including direct 14-day trips from Michigan and a scheduled airship service from Western Canada. Balloonists were at the vanguard of controlled flight at the time, and some were able to raise millions (in today’s dollars) to develop their plans—like Leo Stevens Jr., who believed he could sail over the mountains from Juneau, Alaska, with up to 10 passengers and tonnes of supplies. Anyone with a big balloon, it seemed, considered plying their trade in the Yukon to get rich quick. From the July 29, 1897 Spokane Daily Chronicle, an ad describes a ballooning performance called “The Greatest Drawing Attraction that ever struck Spokane,” which was capped off with a parachute jump by the “Professor” Frank Miller. The daredevil reveals he is interested in the Klondike.

Alas, not one of these schemes got off the ground. But even though balloons and airships never took one single gold-rusher over the mountains, they did take centre stage as a short-lived entertainment phenomenon. 

Balloonatic John Leonard wowed crowds in Dawson City. He would rise up in his balloon and hang from his ankles on a trapeze draped below, swooping over town before finally letting go, 500 feet up, and parachuting into the Yukon River. The act drew as many as 10,000 residents, who would line the riverbanks to be taken away by Leonard, if only momentarily, from the everyday hardships they experienced trying to make ends meet in the frontier town.