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John Leonard, Klondike Balloonist

by Murray Lundberg

Arctic & Northern Biographies

Originally posted on April 10, 1997. Updated on February 9, 2020.

'Balloon Ascension and Parachute Leap' headline

      With the popularity of ballooning growing every year, a newspaper notice like the one above wouldn't cause much of a stir in most households today. However, when it appeared in the Dawson Daily News, it quickly became one of the main subjects of conversation in town - that was on August 25, 1899, though!

      Ballooning has come a long way since the Montgolfier brothers sent their livestock aloft in 1783, and at various times in history it has been considered a legitimate science, madness, a novelty event, and today, a serious sport. As the Klondike Gold Rush was at its peak, balloon exhibitions were common in North America, and several companies were formed to carry prospectors to the goldfields the easy way, by air:

A Kalamazoo man announced his intention of establishing a balloon route to the Klondike. When the air was full of harrowing stories of the awful perils of the passes and the 'sure death' which lurked in the maelstrom-like rapids and the bleak and ice-locked marches of the river trail, he came to the rescue with a rose-hued story of an air-ship he was building, which would sail over anything, carry a ton of supplies and make the trip to the goldfields and back in a fortnight. People wrote to him from all over the nation to secure passage, offering ridiculously large sums for even a 'berth in the steerage.' One Illinois man (perhaps forgetting for a moment he lived in the sucker State), sent a draft for $500 for a round trip ticket. To the credit of the air-ship navigator, be it said, he returned the draft to the sender. (A. C. Harris, Alaska and the Klondike Gold Fields)

      One of the most daring balloon adventures of all time occurred in September 1897 when Salomon August Andrée, an engineer at the Patent Office in Stockholm, left Spitzbergen in a hydrogen balloon with two companions, determined to become the first balloonists to reach the North Pole. On their fourth day, they were forced to land the balloon on the ice, and their bodies were finally discovered 33 years later. About 20 photos of the flight and escape attempt were recovered, and there is an Andrée museum in Sweden.

      When I first "discovered" John Leonard, listed in the 1901 Dawson City directory as "aeronaut," I expected that he would be fairly easy to track down. That has not been the case. Although his exploits in the Yukon are well documented, I have been unable to discover where he came from, or where he went to other than his death in 1905. John Leonard certainly made an impact in the Klondike though - the Dawson Daily News report of the first balloon flight in the Territory makes it clear that he would attract a large audience wherever he went:

An Air Ship’s Flight
First Balloon Ascension in Yukon Territory
Thousands of People Throng the Water Front and Watch the Performances of Aeronaut Leonard - Balloon Escapes But is Recaptured

      The first balloon ascension in the history of the Yukon took place last evening about six o’clock from West Dawson. The event attracted thousands of people to the water front, who watched the ascent of the airship and the drop of the daring aerial acrobat Leonard, to the river, hundreds of feet below, with exclamations of interest and excitement, especially when Leonard struck the cold waters of the Yukon and disappeared beneath them, only to bob up serenely a moment later. The balloon got under way from West Dawson about 5:45 and, rising slowly, came up the river, Leonard performing acrobatic feats the while on the trapeze. When the balloon had reached a height of probably 500 feet, at a point over the river near the west bank and opposite Third street, Leonard unhitched the parachute and dropped, striking the river with a splash, while the parachute collapsed and floated upon the surface of the water. A moment later he reappeared and a boat not being near, he struck out for the shore, which he reached in a few minutes.
      In the meantime his balloon slowly floated up the river, rising as it went and circled around over the city, when the gas began to escape rapidly and it finally disappeared over the hill opposite Mission street. An hour later the balloon was recovered and taken back to West Dawson.
Prof. Leonard, Aeronaut

      Among the characters wandering the streets of Dawson City during the Klondike rush was Captain Jack Crawford, the "poet scout." Whenever there was attention to be gained, Jack was in on the action, from writing poetry to leading the July 4th parade. "Professor" Leonard's amazing aerial feats inspired Captain Jack to honour him in verse the day following his ascension.

      Leonard made his living from ballooning by "passing the hat" following a performance. He seems to have had a large following in Dawson who were helping him with collecting donations from crowds of up to 10,000 people, and recovering the balloon, which occasionally required crews to hike miles into the bush.

      By September, Leonard's exhibitions were drawing a very large percentage of the population of Dawson and area, and he had scheduled a show at Grand Forks. But, in a business such as that, gravity is a definite occupational hazard:

Attractions Up To Date
Of All Kinds and Nature, Even to Ballooning

      Dawson is strictly up to date on attractions of all kinds, even to ballooning, as was evidenced by two ascensions made by Professor Leonard recently - the last on Labor day. The river front was lined with 10,000 to see the daring young man who was the first to ride the chute.
      Where the Northern Lights come down o’ nights, To dance on the homeless snows.
      To say that he gave a glittering exhibition of aeronautical engineering is no exageration. 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. Up, up, and away soared the great balloon until its ascensive 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.
      After a drop of perhaps 150 feet the parachute opened its graceful canopy and lowered the aeronaut safely to the roof of the N.A.T. & T. Co.’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.
      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.
(Dawson Daily News
, September 9, 1899)

      Although no bones were broken during his fall from the warehouse roof, Leonard was "severely injured about the hip and body, besides receiving painful cuts and contusions about the arms." He was forced to cancel his Grand Forks show, and decided to go Outside for the winter - he left his balloon equipment in Dawson, however, and returned in May 1900 to continue his shows. By late June, he had left the Yukon - it is very likely that the rapidly-declining population of Dawson could no longer support entertainment of this type. However, Nome was booming, and he performed there several times in 1900, although it was a particularly dangerous venue for him - the wind twice blew him out to sea. One of the interesting sidelights to his Nome ascensions is that on at least one occasion, he took a photographer up with him; so when you see one of the spectacular photos of Nome from an impossibly high angle, thank Professor Leonard.

      Leonard then drops out of sight for more than two years, but in May, 1903, he returned to the Yukon with grand stories of traveling the world. On the 25th he did a show for a very enthusiastic crowd in Whitehorse, and The Weekly Star covered the event (see the complete text). He only planned on a quick tour of the Yukon in 1903, with three exhibitions planned before returning south to join about 40 other aviators who were to perform at the St. Louis Fair. Dawson City greeted Leonard warmly, in person and in print (see the complete text). His second to last exhibition in the Yukon, on June 25, 1903, resulted in yet another dip in the Yukon River for the Professor:

Aeronaut Falls Into the River
Leonard Sends Thrills of Excitement Through Crowd on First Avenue

      In the practice of what he is pleased to term his ‘high art,’ Aeronaut Leonard last evening took a refreshing bath in the chilly waters of the Yukon. He was compelled to cut loose from the balloon at a point just over the worst part of the river current on account of his balloon beginning to fall. A canoe that had wisely been sent across the stream was near by when Leonard shot into the water, however, and he was dragged out little the worse for the experience.
      The ascension was quite a successful one, the icy plunge making it even better than expected, for really the biggest thing about a balloon ascension is the close shaves of the skipper of the craft. A crowd of nearly 1,000 gathered on First avenue to watch Leonard go up, and he did quite well when he passed the hat after the show.

(The Yukon Sun, June 26, 1903)

      The dramatic drop in the number of people watching the show was indicative of the Yukon's declining fortunes in the post-Klondike years. One final ascension was made to close Dawson's July 4th celebrations, and then one of the Klondike's most colourful characters left us forever.

      The sport of hot-air ballooning as we know it began on October 10, 1960, when a propane-powered balloon was taken aloft at Bruning, Nebraska. Thirty-eight years later, millions of people around the world enjoy watching or riding in hot-air balloons each year. For those interested in the development of the technology, there are several museums located in Europe and North America. During the week of February 17-22 in Whitehorse, during the Sourdough Rendezvous celebrations, two German balloons will be making demonstration flights, and there is often talk about holding a major balloon festival here. Hot-air balloon rides are offered in Fairbanks (but only in the summer!), and some very odd ballooning adventures have been known to occur in the North. For all the activity though, surely none of these can match the sight of John Leonard's aerial acrobatics at the far end of the frontier in 1899.

      John Leonard's spirit of adventure brought him North, as it did many thousands of others. But like so many of our pioneers, things didn't go well after leaving here - on April 20, 1905, at the age of 35, he shot himself in the head in Tacoma. He was buried at the Pauper County Public Cemetery in a plot whose location has been lost.

John Leonard, Klondike Balloonist
Dawson City Museum, 1975.2.1.24

©1997-2020 Murray Lundberg: Use for other than research purposes must be approved by the author.