Alaska Life

Decades before Anchorage’s hot air balloon heyday, the ‘Prince of the Air’ took to Alaska’s skies

Part of a continuing weekly series on Alaska history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage or Alaska history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.

Once upon a time, hot air balloons positively littered the Anchorage sky. From the late 1970s into the 1980s, they were an inescapable part of the landscape, a defining fad in the heady days when oil industry revenue overflowed with wild abandon. There were races and stunts, with appearances, launches, and landings at everything from retail grand openings to a Pope John Paul II-performed Mass on the park strip. For about $100, anyone could enjoy a champagne-fueled flight over the city.

In and of itself, the story of the Anchorage hot air balloon craze is simple. Too much money — and sometimes cocaine — fostered a trend that died quickly amid a severe late-1980s economic downturn, rising costs, increasingly stringent insurance requirements and airspace restrictions. Yet there were precedents. More than a century ago, the first wave of balloonists thrilled Alaskans with the dream of flight made real.

Like most technologies in their infancy, the early years of ballooning were littered with failures small and large. There were dreams that went unfulfilled and nascent attempts that crashed, burned and scarred everyone in the vicinity, usually but not always metaphorically speaking. Perhaps the most direct historical antecedent of ballooning in Alaska is Salomon August Andrée (1854-1897).

Andrée, a Swedish politician and businessman, had his heart set on flying a hydrogen balloon over the North Pole. Through aggressive public relations, merchandising and fundraising, he was able to equip a three-man expedition. Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor of dynamite and Nobel Prize founder, provided for most of the balloon’s cost. Andrée planned to launch from islands north of Sweden, pass over the pole, and land in Alaska.

On July 11, 1897, he and two crew members lifted off in the Örnen, or Eagle, trailing steering ropes that dragged along the ground, water and ice. For all his ambition, Andrée had only five years of experience with balloons, no special knowledge about the Arctic and minimal survival skills. The balloon itself had not been tested, and Andrée proceeded with the launch despite substantial leaks. Most damning, he had not included appropriate gear and rations in case he and his crew were forced to ground, which became crucial when the balloon drifted far off course and crashed onto the ice a little more than two days after taking off.

The three men died on a remote island about three months later. For more than 30 years, the nature of their demise was a national mystery in Sweden, marked by a parade of wild theories, hoaxes and ghost stories. Andrée was to Sweden as Amelia Earhart was to America, except that his end was finally documented. A Norwegian expedition discovered the three bodies and their remaining equipment in 1930. Among the dwindled supplies was a camera and film with several photographs of their desperate last weeks, from the wreck of the Örnen to their journey across the ice.


In many ways, Andrée’s doomed journey has less in common with ballooning than the myriad other misguided explorers who lost their lives trying to reach the North Pole. Ballooning was popular worldwide, perhaps peaking around 1900 when hot air balloons were an event in the Summer Olympics in France. This was the only year ballooning was a part of the Olympics, and Comte Henri de la Vaulx set a distance record with a flight from Paris to Russia. He was arrested upon landing — he had failed to file a passport request — but was treated well. As he said, “The Russian officers persecuted me by the opening of so many bottles of French champagne that I was in great distress.”

In North America, a wave of balloon operators traveled from town to town. These balloonists were less like scientific adventurers and more like independent stunt performers. With aerial acrobatics and parachute drops, balloon ascents were once centerpieces of every festival, fair, or holiday celebration worth attending. As an Ohio newspaper declared, “A county fair without a balloon ascension is like a circus without an elephant.”

[Curious Alaska: What happened to hot air ballooning in Anchorage?]

Known as the Prince of the Air, John Leonard was the first balloonist to exploit the Alaska market. He had been performing since 1892, and like many fortune hunters, he headed north as part of the Klondike gold rush, albeit not as a prospector. As historian Chris Allan noted in a 2020 journal article about Leonard, “He was a practical man and probably wanted to outdistance his competition and try territory where the public was not yet weary of balloon ascents.”

On his way north, Leonard accepted Juneau Mayor Louis Blumenthal’s invitation to perform during the city’s Fourth of July festivities. And on July 4, 1899, an assistant lit a fire underneath a massive balloon. On Leonard’s order, the ropes were cut, and the balloon leaped into the air, pulling the balloonist along while the crowd gasped and cheered. He rose to around 3,000 feet and performed several tricks upon a trapeze, little acrobatic spins.

Per the Alaska Mining Record newspaper, “Having attained a height at which he appeared a mere speck in the sky, the parachute was disconnected and he started swiftly for the earth. But in the twinkling of an eye the parachute had opened like an immense umbrella and was dropping him slowly through the air. He landed easily on the beach back of the Auk village.” As new balloons cost a few hundred dollars, he recovered the deflated balloon immediately.

This was the first balloon ascent and first parachute descent in Alaska history, indeed the first manned flight as well. Leonard made another ascent on July 16, this time landing in a rough clearing behind town. He was paid $350 for those two flights, which is very roughly $13,000 in 2024 money after accounting for inflation.

The Alaska Mining Record praised Leonard for showcasing his skill in a terrain less hospitable to his art. “It takes nerve to ride in a hot air balloon, even in Kansas, where the prairie is flat ... but ballooning in Juneau, where the level spot is less than 160 acres — the rest of the country craggy mountain and deep sea — requires a daredevil spirit that surpasses nerve.”

From there, he followed the well-trod path into northwestern Canada. That August, he made an ascent in Dawson, including what he bragged was “the first parachute jump this far north.” According to the Dawson Daily News, “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 1900, he made several ascents in Nome, including one with a photographer, thus producing the first aerial photographs in Alaska history. The next three years were more of the same, with itinerant performances in Alaska, Hawaii and western Canada. He survived several near disasters, including when his balloon was incinerated during preparation for a 1901 performance in Nome. But his luck ran out on April 25, 1904 in Seattle. Early in the ascent, the balloon was blown sideways and slammed into a fence, concussing him and shattering several bones. Still conscious, he had to wait until he had risen enough to safely parachute down. A year later, still pained by his injuries, he committed suicide.

By the time Anchorage was established in 1915, the heyday of the stunt balloonist was long gone. The fascination with balloons faded in favor of airplanes, what with their steering capabilities. While Alaskans would flirt with the possibility of airship travel, the relatively simple hot air balloons became just another obscure novelty.

Perhaps the first notable hot air balloon event in Anchorage was in 1967. As part of the Alaska centennial festivities at the Fairbanks A-67 site — later renamed Alaskaland and now Pioneer Park — a hot air balloon made twice-a-day ascents. That July, the balloon was shipped down to Anchorage for a demonstration, a flight piloted by University of Alaska Fairbanks instructor Stan Zielinski. As the balloon sailed around Anchorage, it nearly collided with the Anchorage Westward Hotel, disrupted flights as it crossed Merrill Field, and landed in a marsh. As somewhat illustrated here, the most impressive aspect of the later balloon craze in Alaska is that it was allowed in the first place.

[To defend America from faulty scientific speculation, Thomas Jefferson turned to the moose]

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Key sources:

“Alaska Ballooning.” Alaska Mining Record, July 19, 1899, 7.

Allan, Chris. “The Wonderful Dangerous Life of John Leonard, Gold Rush Balloonist.” Alaska History 35, no 1 (2020): 40-61.

“Athens Fair Great Success.” [Ohio] Athens Messenger, August 31, 1905, 1.


Boots, Michelle Theriault. “Curious Alaska: What Happened to Hot Air Ballooning in Anchorage?” Anchorage Daily News, May 4, 2021,

Borja, Elizabeth, and Melissa A. N. Keiser. “The Year Ballooning Was an Olympic Event.” National Air and Space Museum, July 28, 2021,

“It Was a Big Success.” Alaska Mining Record, July 5, 1899, 1.

Leonard, John. Letter to John Newman, December 2, 1899,

Leonard, Lewis. “Around the City in About 80 Minutes.” Anchorage Daily Times, July 21, 1967, 15.

“Suicide of Leonard the Balloonist.” [Rampart] Yukon Valley News, May 31, 1905, 3.

Wilkinson, Alec. The Ice Balloon: S. A. Andrée and the Heroic Age of Arctic Exploration. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.

David Reamer | Histories of Alaska

David Reamer is a historian who writes about Anchorage. His peer-reviewed articles include topics as diverse as baseball, housing discrimination, Alaska Jewish history and the English gin craze. He’s a UAA graduate and nerd for research who loves helping people with history questions. He also posts daily Alaska history on Twitter @ANC_Historian.