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Treasures of the Valley » Mike Lawler

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Balloonists Crash in the San Gabriel Mountains

In March 1909, the grand Hotel Maryland, one of Pasadena’s string of fancy resort hotels, held a stunt show. Exhibitions of speed and daring by equestrian groups, motorcycle riders and early automobiles were on display. The star attractions were the hot air balloons and dirigibles, including a show by the famous airman Roy Knabenshue. Up-and-down rides in hot air balloons were offered as well.

Mike Lawler is the former  president of the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley and loves local history. Reach him at lawlerdad@yahoo.com.

Mike Lawler is the former
president of the Historical Society
of the Crescenta Valley and loves local history. Reach him at
lawlerdad@yahoo.com.

On Saturday afternoon, balloonist Captain Mueller loaded six riders into the balloon’s basket and ascended, not knowing that a cold storm was blowing in. When they reached altitude, a strong gust blew them north towards the San Gabriel Mountains. The captain tried to land in the foothills of Altadena, but the closer they got to the ground, the more violent the winds became. Their only chance was to ascend over the mountains. Captain Mueller dropped nearly all his ballast and shot upward to 13,000 feet. Completely enveloped in a cold cloud, they blew quickly over the front range, buffeted by hail and snow. Fearing the balloon would be split by the shearing wind, the captain pulled the valve rope and began to descend. A rift in the clouds showed the rocky face of a mountain just ahead and below. The captain ordered his passengers to jettison everything they could, and they miraculously stopped descending just above a flat outcrop on a ridge. As the treetops touched the basket, the captain opened the hot air valve all the way, and the basket dropped into the snow, just three yards from the cliff edge. Unbeknownst to the group, they had landed near the summit of Strawberry Peak, one of the prominent peaks visible when looking up the Arroyo from La Cañada.

Darkness was falling, and they needed to start a fire to survive the night. The men searched their pockets and came up with a single match, which they carefully lit, and were able to coax into a larger blaze for their night in the wind and snow. On Sunday morning they flexed their numbed limbs and began their climb down Strawberry Peak. They encountered a snow-covered trail and followed it down, recognizing that they were in the upper reaches of Tujunga Canyon. After rock hopping and scrambling through the rain engorged, icy stream, they came to a point where the shear sides of the canyon and the rushing water blocked their way. They retraced their steps back to the crash site, thinking they would have to use the balloon as shelter. They were beginning to lose hope. Seeking a better view they climbed to the summit of Strawberry and through a break in the clouds spotted a cabin far below on the north side of the mountain. Again they scrambled down the mountain to the cabin, which turned out to be the Colby Ranch. (Colby Ranch is now a religious retreat, accessible off Upper Big Tujunga Road.) The Colbys fed and warmed the frozen and exhausted survivors for a couple of days until the weather abated, and they were strong enough for Mr. Colby to guide them to Switzer’s Camp, at the top of the Arroyo Seco. At Switzer’s there was a phone, and the world finally learned of the balloonists’ ordeal. After food and a short rest, the six balloonists started down the Arroyo. The men later said this was perhaps the hardest section for them, as the stream was in full-flood and near freezing. The exhausted men had to cross the rushing, icy water 74 times on their way down.

Meanwhile, search parties had been combing the frozen mountains for days. When the call from Switzer’s came in, an army of reporters and curiosity seekers marched up the Arroyo from Pasadena to meet them. Reporters interviewed them on the final leg of their journey down, then rushed to teletypes to log their stories. A touring car was sent from the Hotel Maryland and they were driven the last few miles. There were tearful reunions with families, and a hero’s welcome for Captain Mueller, whose leadership was credited for the group’s survival.

Great story! I wonder if that balloon is still up there?

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