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#22: Meadville, Pennsylvania
June 16, 2006


Meadville, Pennsylvania is a town of some 14,000 people, located in the rolling hills of western Pennsylvania, about 90 miles north of Pittsburgh. It is nicknamed "Tool City" because of its extensive tool and die industry. Meadville is also home to Allegheny College, a small liberal arts college.



Ballooning has a very long history in Meadville. The Thurstons were a Meadville family who were involved in ballooning in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Samuel Sylvester Thurston was born in 1834, and operated a hotel in Meadville. In 1860, Samuel learned how to fly from noted balloonist Professor Steiner, and purchased a balloon. Townspeople were skeptical, but over the next 25 years, Samuel made 215 ascensions in his balloon. He enjoyed sharing his unusual sport with others, flying wihtout charge at fairs, exhibitions and 4th of July celebrations.

Following in the footsteps of his father, Alic Thurston began ballooning in around 1889. His first public ascension in 1891 abruptly ended when his balloon got caught on the wiring of the newly-installed street lights of Meadville and never took off.

Alic later built a number of balloons, including one that he christened the "Meadville". The Meadville was constructed of 576 yards of muslin, and stood 64 feet high. It had a volume of 35,000 ft3, only half the size of a modern sport hot-air balloon, but comparable to the gas balloons still flown today in competition.


Alic had a variety of adventures during his career as a balloonist. His grappling hook, a crude landing device employed by early balloonists, ripped a chicken coop from its foundation, as his father Samuel's had earlier torn the roof off a farmer's kitchen. On one occasion he flew his balloon 180 miles to a landing in the forest near Emporium, Pennsylvania, and had to return home by train. Another time he was becalmed at night over a lake. On at least one occasion he launched his balloon from the roof of the Market House in downtown Meadville.

Both Samuel and Alic Thurston used the title of "Professor", a title conferred by early aeronauts on themselves to convince the public that ballooning was a scientific and learned pursuit. Their ascensions attracted thousands of spectators and were followed closely in the newspapers of the time, the notion of people flying through the air being still very newsworthy in those days.

Alic Thurston


Today, Meadville still remembers these early local aeronauts. Each June the city hosts the Thurston Classic Hot Air Balloon Event. In 2006, I was invited by Ted Watts and the Thurston Classic committee to do a cluster balloon flight at their event.


The balloon launch took place on the soccer fields at Allegheny College. I was ably assisted by my fellow balloonist Roland Escher, who drove out from Washington D.C. to be my crew chief.

I was scheduled to fly the cluster balloon on Friday afternoon, at the first ascension of the weekend. The day was sunny and warm. The festival volunteers inflated my red and white balloons. A few small gusts of wind came through, but the trees surrounding the field provided excellent shelter.



John and Ted Watts

Spectators began to arrive at the field, filling the stands set up for their use. I got into my harness and got ready to fly.