As an aeronaut — at the time working for iconic showman P.T. Barnum — it would be his hot-air balloon voyage on July 15, 1875, that created both a legend and a mystery.
On his 139th voyage, Donaldson departed from the Hippodrome grounds in Chicago — accompanied by a lone passenger, Newton S. Grimwood, a reporter with the Chicago Evening Journal. A storm soon kicked up over Lake Michigan and they were last seen traveling offshore by Grand Haven.
Chicago newspapers confirmed the balloon was “sighted near Grand Haven,” and weathermen confirmed the craft was last seen traveling “in the direction that would take them near Grand Haven.”
The crew on a vessel some distance away claimed they viewed the balloon as it approached Grand Haven traveling low to the lake, with its passenger basket dragging upon the water’s surface. Other witnesses stated the balloon was seen coming ashore and had gone down inland in a wooded area near Grand Haven. With both men missing, everything was speculation until a month later.
Confirmation of a disaster came on Aug. 16, 1875, when Grimwood’s badly decomposed body washed ashore near Montague. But, the whereabouts and plight of Professor Donaldson was still unknown.
A captain of a vessel reported seeing a life preserver in Lake Michigan — and near it, a “dead body” — just days after the balloon vanished. “The body was wearing a gray coat,” one newspaper reported — and near it appeared to be the remains of a hot-air balloon. A corresponding report noted a sighting of what appeared to be the wreckage of the balloon offshore at Port Sheldon.
Another captain corroborated the tale when he said he witnessed “seeing a floater wearing a gray coat, about 4 miles from Grand Haven.” The Three Rivers Times reported: “The captain thinks he saw the body of a man in the lake off Grand Haven.”
Another balloonist, Professor Samuel A. King, believed Donaldson did not perish in Lake Michigan but had survived. In a book published noting the disappearance of Donaldson, King said he had “the belief the balloonist was alive and lost in the wilderness.”
A theory surfaced that Donaldson might have killed his passenger during the storm by pushing him overboard as the basket dragged the surface of Lake Michigan. Theorists claimed by eliminating the 130-pound weight of Grimwood, the balloon regained enough lift to make it ashore. Once ashore, Donaldson buried the device, then went into seclusion to avoid being charged with the death of Grimwood. Some believed Donaldson blended into the Ottawa County population and stayed for the remainder of his life.
“More than one newspaper has asserted that Donaldson escaped disaster by throwing Grimwood into the lake, and that he is now hiding from justice,” The Cincinnati Enquirer reported two years after the event. The Enquirer dismissed the murder theory; but added: “Yet, Donaldson may still be alive today.”
One account stated the balloon had crashed by the mouth of the White River near Muskegon, and there was evidence to support it. In January 1876, some lumbermen discovered a skeleton tangled in the limbs of a tree near that location, and nearby lay what appeared to be the remnants of a passenger basket. A positive identification of the remains was impossible, and the scene offered no conclusive proof that it was Donaldson or his balloon.
Regardless of theories, the moment Donaldson vanished near the shore of Grand Haven, a legend began. Sightings were reported and several questionable bottled messages were recovered, but the mystery of what became of the 35-year-old professor has never been solved.