J. H. McKernan. Photo courtesy of the Indiana State Library

Indianapolis businessman, J. H. McKernan, had it all arranged — a day of perfect weather and rare delights including pyrotechnics, music and…

*insert trumpet flourish here*

… the first-ever hot air balloon ascension in the city’s history!

The “Eclipse” was to rise on Thursday afternoon, from Statehouse Square where a seating pavillion had been erected for comfortable seating. Adult tickets cost 50 cents and children’s admission was 10 cents. Standing room was 25 cents.


Indiana State Sentinel advertisement, July 22, 1852 courtesy of the Indiana State Library

The event was well-advertised in the Indianapolis State Sentinel weekly newspaper, which read:

GRAND BALLOON ASCENSION! July 29, 1852. Mr. William Paullin WHOSE daring feats on AERIAL VOYAGING are well-known to the Scientific World, has the pleasure of informing the citizens of Indianapolis and vicinity that he will make his third Grand Ascension since his return from South America and West Indies, being his forty-third AERIAL EXCURSION.

Special trains were arranged to bring in the anticipated 15,000 spectators from Madison, Rushville, Knightstown, Muncie and Noblesville. Travel to the capitol city was 25 cents (or a penny per mile for those traveling from outside a 25-mile radius). Attendance was better than expected and an “immense concourse of persons assembled to witness the feat.”


There appears to be no photo of the ascension. This image depicts a balloon style likely for that time period. Image credit: Wikipedia, Union Army Balloon Corps

Mr. Paullin (1812-1871), a world-famous aeronaut who had built his first balloon at the age of 21 and then built his fame in a daring flight over an active Chilean volcano, did indeed accomplish a graceful ascension at 4:15 p.m. on the appointed day, rising rapidly towards the east and disappearing from sight in about an hour’s time to the awe and then cheers of all who witnessed the occasion.

It should have been an immensely profitable venture. All went according to plan, except for one small detail…

The crowd could easily see all of the festivities from outside the seating area — and therefore simply neglected to pay admission.

What of Paullin and his magical balloon? They landed near Greenfield, IN on the William H. Porter farm, in a hail of gunshots. According to Paullin, “When effecting a landing, a man named David McElville, with rifle in hand, supposing the balloon to be some enormous bird from foreign climes, sought to disturb its flight by discharging his piece at it. Beyond being gunshot at the time, I of course received no injury.” In later years, Paullin and his balloon would dodge more bullets while serving during the Civil War as an aeronaut in the Union Army Balloon Corps (predecessor of the US Air Force) .


Period balloon image courtesy of The Civil War Trust.

Our enterprising businessman, Mr. James H. McKernan (1815-1877) , went on to a long (if lackluster) career as a Real Estate agent, land developer, inventor and entrepreneur. It appears that for every modicum of success a McKernan project achieved, frustration followed close behind.

Speculation had led McKernan to disappointment in a smelting business when he leased a facility in Missouri hoping to power it with coal taken from Brazil, IN. It closed rather quickly, having enjoyed “indifferent success.” A line in the publication, “Sketches of Prominent Citizens of 1876” hints that the Balloon (misad)venture may have contributed to the demise.

“… embarrassments, arising from his Indianapolis enterprises, rendered it necessary for Mr. McKernan either to abandon his undertaking or obtain additional means to carry it on.”

Ambition bit him again, as evidenced in the pages of Indiana Supreme Court Rulings, Volume 1 (Kernan vs. Mayhew et al.). Apparently McKernan hadn’t been particularly thorough in managing records, receipts, and payouts from government war bonds (Jakina Indian War, Oregon and Washington State). Matters of ensuing litigation reached the State’s highest court for ruling in 1868.

A rather sentimental accounting of his business ventures in a pamphlet entitled, Representative Men: James H. McKernan, names him as the founder of an Indianapolis housing development called McKernansville. (Indeed, current real estate listings yield the McKernan name in Center Township subdivisions.) The once village was located to the south west, “within the corporate limits of the city being less than five square miles from its center, and four square miles from the Bates House.” Apparently his efforts to provide affordable housing on easy terms afforded home ownership to a great many Indianapolis families who would otherwise have been doomed as lifetime renters. However, history hints that his immense generosity toward the struggling and less-fortunate virtually guaranteed McKernan would never be considered a wealthy man, himself. Well, at least not in monetary terms.


A quaint home currently listed for sale in one of the “McKernan” subdivisions.

It was business that eventually killed McKernan; He died from injuries received while building a new iron furnace in St. Louis. He left a widow and five sons (one who would carry on his real estate business) with enough to make their way without him. His funeral was attended by the “poor of the city” as well as “most of the wealthy citizens — the best testimonial of estimation in which he was held by all classes.”

So… while McKernan might be best remembered for his gaffes and miscalculations…

At least he IS remembered!

Please share: Who are your favorite historic Hoosier n’er-do-wells?

4 responses to “Friday Favorite: 1852 Balloon Scheme Goes Bust”

  1. d m shea says:

    As an enterprising police beat reporter in the mid-40’s and later columnist, investigative reporter for the Indpls. TIMES, I found covering the Municipal Courts was more than about dispensing justice for misdemeanors, and in-transit felonies (bound over to criminal courts.) It was a stage set right out of FRONT PAGE inhabited by a cast right out of the pages of Damon Runyon. And I found it a gold mine for finding front page bylines as I got to know the greats, the near greats and the ingrates who lined the halls of the 2nd floor courts in the upper floor of the old Cop Shop–in the early morning bustle at court opening you could not distinguish the crooks from the lawyers–often one and the same. Nor could you be sure if familiar faces like Tuffy Mitchell, King of Indiana Ave gaming and other mis-doings were there as observers or defendants–I was the creator of the line that stuck like chewing gum to the pint-size kingpin –“oft-arrested never convicted pint-sized gaming king pin” and other reporters picked it up each time the long arm of the law swept him into the courts. But I came to know him well and much as he loved the publicity in the early stages his later more serious actual conviction was heart-breaking because there was more good than bad in the man who loved the trappings of being a head-line neer-do-well. (By that time he had a child in high school and it was heart-breaking for him that the teen-ager suffered when the headlines turned ugly.)

    Brought to INdy by his Russian emigrant older brother Joe in his pre teens or teens, Tuffy ‘s schooling was minimal as was his early grasp of English–probable the cause of his short education. But he was a math genius–his favorite trick when he was rolling in ill-gotten cash was to go into a pricey men’s store and start buying multiple shirts, ties, you-name-it. Then (before computers) he would make a bet with the clerk totaling his purchases that he, Tuffy, could add it up in his head faster than the clerk ‘s cash register–and he DID. When the daily ‘dream ticket” winning number came up, he could tell you what year the same number had won for years back . And, in that era the 3 local newspapers each had a well-publicized Christmas fund-raiser when givers’ names were listed daily for donating to help the poor at the holiday. I had to run the most successful-the TIMES Clothe-A-Child, and it was my job to get the correct spelling of each name donating….and I still remember my phone conversation with 2 memorable givers, one a prominent VIP-the other the local king of the then-Indiana Ave.”underworld” as follows:

    The year I was rushed in to replace the ailing coordinator of Clothe-a-Child, I inherited a long list of yearly donors-firms, individuals….and one of the most generous and prominent names was that of the local Coca Cola “king pin:–James Yuncker. So when he called to give a very large gift, as he did yearly, he knew more than I did about the procedure. So, when I asked to double-check the spelling of his last name (for print) he curtly chewed me out–and informed me his gifts were ALWAYS anonymous and that I should have known that! (Believe me, in future years I did.) It was a heart-warming contrast to the majority of donors who DID want to their names used.

    But, equally etched in my memory is the day I answered the phone to the raspy growl of a familiar voice from my police court days–Tuffy Mitchell. His voice was as unmistakable as his appearance…and he knew my name from my frequent “outing” of him in police court…so he started “Donnar–I want to clothe 200 children…(a very large number indeed)–and I want to be sure that more than half are colored….(that was the polite racial term of the era) and ……he went on to describe his annual ANONYMOUS project in which he arranged transportation, picking up the tab for head-to-toe new outfits and a day of food and fun.

    “aND THIS TIME–DON’T USE MY NAME”—and I never did. To really understand why this is so memorable, it was more common for the callers to arrange to clothe one or perhaps several children., almost always stipulating a little blonde, bue-eyed boy or girl, and either bluntly or evasively indicating they did not want ‘any of those welfare children–and preferably not “colored.” (or sometimes an uglier word.)

    And, then, there were the memorable bondsmen of the era, the ubiquitous Farb brothers, Al, and brother whose name escapes me, and their deceased brother Bummy were a part of the police and court corridors for more than a quarter of a century, best known bondsmen along with somewhat “bent” Ralph Hitch. Always active in politics and part of an “in” crowd with both parties, Hitch particularly came to life on any election day. If you heard clinking of glass around , it was those brown paper sacked half-pints which were handed out in exchange for votes.

    To sum it up, there were as many “neer-do-wells” practicing law, presiding behind the bench, wearing badges or initiating (and then pleading down) offenses as there were doing the offending. (And in retrospect, I am not sure they didn’t do a better job in terms of justice than today’s squeaky clean crew.

  2. Lisa Lorentz says:

    Memorable miscreants indeed! During my research for this story, one thing (which you touch on above) that struck me about reading through a dozen or so of the 1851-52 Indiana Sentinel newspapers was how much total space was allotted for court proceedings and legal issues. As you say, “more than about dispensing justice for misdemeanors, and in-transit felonies.”

    And… not ONE WORD about Justin Bieber! 😉

    Thanks for reading and sharing!

  3. Tom says:

    Thanks, Lisa, for once again enlightening us. Well, me at least. I had read about the balloon races that came a few decades later, but didn’t know about McKernan. So much gets lost with time………..

    Keep up the good work!!!

  4. Lisa Lorentz says:

    Thanks, Tom! This article began as a “quick” story about a quirky event, but the more I learned about McKernan, the more interesting he became. I hope one day I unearth a photo of the event.

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