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?