The history of Brockville has seldom known the activity and excitement of one day which was celebrated here in Brockvllle over a century ago. On that day, July 1, 1874, the town was filled to capacity with citizens and visitors who had come to celebrate the Confederation of our country. It was estimated by the local press that perhaps 10,000 people were on the streets of Brockvllle on that Dominion Day in 1874. The organizers of this event had done themselves proud.
Large numbers of persons had arrived from Clayton, Alexandria Bay, Gananoque, Cornwall, Morrisburg, Prescott, Watertown, Ogdensburg, Ottawa, and many of the principal villages and towns in between.
The day’s programme was full. The morning began on the river with a regatta of sailboat races. At 11 o’clock a thrilling parade of local tradesmen stated off along Buell, Pearl, Perth, and then back along King Street. Most of the local industries had mounted elaborate floats. Represented were James Smarts Novelty Works, Cossitt Bros. Implement Factory, Brockville Agricultural Works, Tilley & Briggs Sash Factory, T. Gilmour & Co., and Wood Bros. Cigar Factory, along with others. King St. by this time was so clogged with people the procession had difficulty moving.
Brockvllle was also hosting several companies of visiting volunteer firemen. Firemen from Ottawa, Prescott, and Almonte were here to add to the festivities. It was reported that the Mississippi Fire Company of Almonte arrived by excursion train from Ottawa along with 33 car loads of people. The firemen, along with local bands and dignitaries led off on a procession through town at one o’clock. In the afternoon, the Almonte firemen worked hard in competition to throw a stream of water 202 feet 7 inches, more than 28 feet farther than their closest competitors, the Chaudiere Company from Ottawa.
But it was later in the afternoon that the event which has made this day famous in Brockville history was scheduled to take place. An American by the name of Herman D. Squires, a practitioner of the art of balloon flight, had been invited by the Dominion Day organizers to attempt an ascension from the centre of Brockville in one of his balloons. A reporter from the Evening Recorder described the event with all the thrills of the moment:
from the Evening Recorder
July 2, 1874
The Balloon Ascension
At five o’clock p.m., Professor Squires [ Herman D. Squires] of New York, the daring aeronaut attempted to ascend with his famous balloon, the “Atlantic”. The starting point was Court House Square. The professor regarded the situation particularly dangerous in a high wind, as the square is flanked on each side by lofty buildings, including the Court House, Bank of Montreal and Wesleyan Methodist Church.
During the afternoon the balloon, which was being inflated with hydrogen gas, was the centre of attraction, and at the time of starting, fully ten thousand people had assembled to witness the voyage in mid-air.
Brockville’s Court House Square. The site of the balloon launch
The Atlantic is constructed of a peculiar quality of muslin, very thin and soft in texture, but when oiled, capable of holding the gas. The netting which envelops the balloon is double and twisted silk, and the ropes by which the netting is attached to the basket are about 3/8 of an inch in diameter. The basket is constructed of strong wicker work, being about three feet in diameter and two feet in depth. The ropes by which it is attached to the balloon are woven in so as to pass completely in under the same.
During the day several small balloons were sent up to show the direction of the wind. From experiments thus made, it was shown that the principal danger was the Bank of Montreal and the W.M. Church. Previous to starting, it was determined to remove the balloon from the place where it was inflated to a point nearer the Court House, with the expectation that the Atlantic would pass to the north of the spire.
The cargo in the basket consisted of three bags of sand, weighing each about fifty pounds, a grappling iron, to which was attached a strong rope, and Professor Squires, who was to start upon his 187th voyage amid the clouds. All being in readiness orders were given to cast off; there was a hush and the multitude grew silent as the unwieldy Atlantic, being freed, swayed backwards and forward, and slowly rose from its resting place to make another voyage in the ethereal blue.
We have no pictures of Herman D. Squires, but he may have resembled this “Gentleman Aeronaut”.
A steady gale had been blowing all day, but its strength was not apparent until the balloon struck the current of air above the house tops. This reached, it swayed with the breeze, and swept on at a rate of at least fifteen miles an hour. Its course was directly for the steeple of the Wesleyan Methodist Church. The Professor at once perceived the danger, and could have avoided it by throwing out a bag of ballast, which would have given him sufficient buoyancy to have passed over the steeple. But, unfortunately, the square below was crowded with thousands of spectators, and a bag of sand thrown out would have crushed some person below. The sand was thrown out in small quantities, and the balloon swept upward and onward, but, unfortunately, not swerving from its dangerous direction, it became apparent that the balloon would strike the spire.
The watching, anxious, breathless multitude awaited the shock with compressed lips and blanched cheeks. With a tremendous rush the Atlantic struck the apex of the spire, and in another instant parted in twain. At the same moment, the basket containing the daring aeronaut crashed against the spire some twenty feet below. Seeing as it were instant death before him, Prof. Squires threw one hand forward to avert as far as possible the shock, at the same time allowing his body to sway in the opposite direction.
The crash of the collision resounded over the square, now silent as the grave. As the balloon collapsed and the gas escaped it was seen that the netting had caught on the point of the spire. A moment of breathless suspense. Squires was not seen to move a muscle; a whisper ran round; the collision has killed him. Then a slight movement, and the basket began to slip; it was evident that the netting was giving away. Women grew white with terror, brave men trembled. There, at a height of eighty feet above the earth, was a fellow being hanging by a few slender threads, above and around him, the glittering steeple sheeted with tin, below the cold stone battlements of the tower, on which to fall was instant death.
A pause, and the basket had evidently been arrested in its downward course. Squires was seen to grasp the netting. Hope rose, he might be saved.
The moment he struck the spire there was a rush for ladders and ropes. Without number were the plans suggested to save him from death. But at this moment, brave men were clambering up the inside of the grim church tower, determined to save a human life.
The Wesleyan Methodist Church, where the balloon was caught on the spire.
This is now the greatly-enlarged Wall St. United Church.
A small window directly below the eaves of the tower opens directly beneath where the basket was suspended, but, unfortunately, it was very contracted, and it did not seem possible for a man by any means to squeeze through the aperture. But in a few seconds a man thrust his head through the window, and a board was pushed out of the lower portion of the opening, the end on the inside being held by men within. Then began a struggle. It was apparent that a man was endeavouring to crawl through the narrow hole out upon the board. The clothes were torn from his person in the attempt, but inch by inch he gained, and at last was seated on the board directly below the basket.
The situation was one of great danger. Should the netting give way, the basket in its descent would catch the daring man and hurl him, together with Squires, into eternity.
At his appearance there was a cheer that made the firmament ring again. The heroic man who thus risked his life to save a fellow-being in distress was Arthur Osment. It was seen when Osment stood up that he could not assist Squires from his perilous position.
The main body of the net work had caught on the northern side of the spire, only two or three small cords having passed around the other side, and these when the basket slipped became slack. The least motion on the part of Squires would have precipitated him upon the stone steps below.
Osment spoke to Squires, who requested him to place his shoulder under the basket. This being done, Squires caught hold of a slight oval projection on the spire, which offered a slight hold, and thus helped to support the basket. At this instant, Mr. Andrew Stevenson appeared at an opening in the spire above Squires. The opening consists of a small trap door and was not discovered for some time.
Another cheer went up, as Stevenson came out upon the spire, reached down a hand and firmly grasped the aeronaut, and slowly drew him up to a place of safety. The suspense was over and Squires was saved.
Stevenson displayed great presence of mind and courage, and deserves well the praise that was showered upon him. On Squires perceiving a person above him, he enquired, “Can you hold me?” Stevenson replied, “I can lift you if you weigh a ton.” Evidently the right man was in the right place.
We learn from Professor Squires that when thrown against the spire he was rendered insensible for a moment or two, but recovered his senses on hearing some person shout to him from the inside of the steeple. His injuries consist of concussion of his side and a bruised knee. The professor is without doubt a brave man and displayed coolness, firmness and judgment while in his perilous position. The accident was caused solely by the current of air which could not be ascertained from the ground, and no discredit reflects on Mr. Squires.
Through the exertions of Messrs. Osment, Stevenson, McDougall and Pyke, assisted by several others, the remains of the balloon were removed from the spire. A collection was taken up to defray in part the expense caused by the loss of the Atlantic. We understand about $75 was raised.
The professor departed for Troy this morning, where he is to ascend with another balloon on the 4th of July.
The day’s activities still went on in spite of this near tragedy. The regatta continued after supper time with numerous rowing events till almost darkness. Then a foot race through the downtown streets was witnessed by crowds of onlookers A man named Loverin from Ottawa sprinted far ahead, and left his four competitors, far behind at the finish.
The day ended finally with a torch light procession, There were many who would be able to remember the events or that day for years afterward.