Bob Wessel: Lenawee County aeronaut dies in freak balloon accident

2021-12-24 01:26:46 By : Ms. Winnie Ye

Ira Jerome Thurston, a nurseryman from the Adrian area, was well known as an aeronaut in the 1840s and ’50s. He made many successful and daring ascensions in his gas balloon to the amazement and joy of audiences in and around Michigan and Ohio. He partnered with William Bannister, another Lenawee aeronaut, and together they entertained audiences throughout the Midwest.

On Sept. 16, 1858, Bannister and Thurston performed an ascent from Adrian. They launched skyward at about 8:30 a.m. and drifted to the southeast with the wind. As planned and expected, the balloon and its occupants were carried out of sight of the assembled crowd. Bannister and Thurston stayed aloft for what they considered to be a sufficient length of time before beginning their descent by slowly releasing gas from the balloon. They landed about 10 o’clock on the farm of Mr. J. Dinge, a few miles away at Knight’s Station, now known as Riga. So far, so good. 

Bannister and Thurston climbed out of the gondola (aka the basket) and went to the task of packing up the balloon until their next ascension. The process involved releasing the gas from the “sack” and removing the netting that connected the balloon to the gondola. As they proceeded, the balloon gradually turned over to rest on its side. 

The balloon sack measured about 65 feet high and 50 feet wide and contained about 35,000 cubic feet of gas (one source says 25,000). The main gas valve was positioned on top of the balloon in a circular wooden box; it opened inward against the pressure of the gas. 

Thurston climbed up the balloon and straddled the main gas valve. He began working to open the valve to release the gas but the pressure inside the balloon made the task difficult. He called to Bannister, who was working to disconnect the netting, and asked him to untie the neck of the bag. Apparently, Bannister did not hear the request and proceeded with the process of disconnecting the netting. 

As soon as the netting was off, the inflated balloon began to rise with Thurston still on board, clinging to the valve. Bannister reached to grab the ascending balloon but was unable to grasp it as it rose. Thurston apparently thought that Bannister had been able to untie the neck and that the gas would soon vent from the sack. Thurston was heard to say, “Hold on, Bannister, she will soon come down again.” Unfortunately, the balloon continued its ascent, carrying Thurston into the sky. When last seen by the horrified Bannister it was at an estimated altitude of two miles high and traveling northward. 

As it rose, it rotated under Thurston’s weight, ending up with Thurston clinging to the valve box under the upturned balloon. The balloon was seen by many witnesses as it traveled over the Detroit River and along Lake St. Clair. Several witnesses said there appeared to be a person or a child clinging to the balloon. 

The theory was that the balloon went from Adrian, crossed the Detroit River near Malden, followed along the shore of Lake St. Clair, passed over the marsh at the mouth of the River Thames, then floated inland several miles before coming to rest on the ground. The sack was found about 125 miles from Adrian at West Tilbury, Canada, on Sept. 22. The valve box was torn about three-quarters of the way around. Thurston was nowhere to be found. 

The Detroit Tribune reported, "All hope of ever finding poor Thurston alive blotted out, and we can only bemoan him as lost. Mr. Bannister, his companion, returned this afternoon, and rambling only the wont tidings. The balloon he identified and sent the silk of which it was composed to this city last night. He himself remained to search for his friend….” It was apparent that the silk was unable to support Thurston’s weight and assumed that he had dropped off sometime during the flight. The silk sack was returned to Detroit where it was put on public display outside the newspaper office. 

The following spring, on March 6, 1859, dismembered human remains were found by a son of Mr. Hoag near Sylvania, Ohio. The body was badly decomposed, but the clothing was identifiable. A pocket contained a watch, a jackknife and a buckskin purse containing $1.36; a pair of gloves was found in a pocket of the coat. The items were similar to items owned by Thurston. The identity was made certain when a letter, found in another coat pocket, was dried out and read. The letter was from a Philadelphia business and addressed to Mr. Thurston. 

Thurston’s remains were sent to Adrian and buried at Oakwood Cemetery. Incidentally, the letter used to positively identify Thurston’s remains was in response to Thurston’s inquiry about some silk for a balloon. 

Bob Wessel is vice president of the Lenawee Historical Society and can be contacted at