Bellingham, MA – July 4, 1902

Bellingham, Massachusetts – July 4, 1902 


Early postcard view of Hoag Lake, Bellingham, Massachusetts

Early postcard view of Hoag Lake, Bellingham, Massachusetts

     About a week before the Fourth of July in 1902, a friend of 17-year-old Mabelle Ward dared her to make a parachute jump from a balloon at the July 4th activities scheduled at Hoag Lake in Bellingham.   Ward’s friend said she wouldn’t have the nerve, but Mabelle accepted the challenge, and they wagered a box of candy. 

     On July 4th, both were at Hoag Lake where Mabelle received instructions on the use of the parachute.  The device consisted of a seat suspended beneath the balloon’s gondola on which a person would sit holding wrist straps.  At the proper altitude, the parachutist would pull a rope releasing the seat and the parachute, which was described as being “a network of ropes on an iron hoop.”

    The balloon rose just after 6 p.m. in view of 6,000 spectators, in command of  23-year-old Professor Andrew Charles Hillman. 

    At the altitude of only 300 feet, Mabelle released the parachute, and fell 200 feet before the device opened.  The jerk of the chute popping open shoved Mabelle from her seat leaving her hanging by the wrist straps.  When the chute was about 60 feet from the ground she lost her grip and fell, striking her chin on a 12 foot light pole, and thudding to the ground on her right foot.  She was taken unconscious to a nearby cottage before being sent by trolley car to a hospital in Woonsocket.  Here injuries were severe, and doctors were forced to amputate her right leg.  

     But this is not the end of the story.  On July 6, Professor Hilman made his first balloon ascension since Mabelle’s accident, with the intent of using the same parachute to jump with.  As the balloon was rising with Hilman sitting in the “parachute seat”, he suddenly struck a 30 foot tall pole used for anchoring his balloon.  (The pole had not been retracted by an assistant as Hilman had instructed before the flight.)  The impact sent the seat spinning, twisting the ropes, and making it impossible for Hilman to use the device.  He was forced to remain where he was as the balloon drifted off and came down on the roof of a barn about a mile away.  Hilman was uninjured, and managed to extricated himself from his position.  Relieved of its human cargo, the balloon floated off and was later found in some woods with damage to the fabric. 

     In the meantime, the same day as his accident, it was announced that Mabelle Ward would recover from her injuries, and when she did, she would marry Professor Hilman!  It was further revealed that Mabelle was of French Canadian extraction, and that her real name was Marie Girouard.  The family assumed the name of Ward, it was explained, because the last name was difficult for many to pronounce.

     Hilman was the owner of the Providence based Monarch Balloon & Amusement Company, and had come to Hoag Lake a few weeks earlier when he met Mabelle through her brother Louis, whom he had hired as an assistant. 

     Mabelle had been working at a mill in Milford, Massachusetts, but only days before had given up her position to be with Hilman and become a professional aeronaut.  Her first flight had been the one which ended with disaster.  Despite loss of her leg, she vowed to still pursue a career in ballooning.  

     Ironically, Miss Ward’s brother Louis had his own accident involving a balloon at the same park just five days earlier on June 29th.  He accidentally got his foot caught n a rope attached to a rising balloon and was carried a mile before the balloon came down.  (See Bellingham, MA – June 29, 1902, under Massachusetts Civil Aviation Accidents on this website for more details.)

     Silver Lake is a body of water that lies in the approximate geographical center of the town of Bellingham, Massachusetts.  At the dawn of the 20th century it was known as Hoag Lake, and was a popular tourist destination due to an amusement park located along its shores. The park was owned and operated by the Milford, Attleboro, & Woonsocket Street Railway Company, and it cost a nickel to ride the street car to get there.   Besides a large carousel and other rides, the park boasted a restaurant, a dance hall, a theatre, a beach, outdoor concerts, boat rentals, live animal acts, and the occasional balloon exhibition.

    Hoag Park remained in operation until 1922, when the property was sold to new owners.  The decline in trolley car use seems to have been a factor.   Unfortunately, the new owners were unable to bring the place back to its former glory, and over time the park, as an amusement destination, simply faded into history.  


Pawtucket Times, “Girl Aeronaut Falls 60 Feet”, July 4, 1902

Pawtucket Times, “Professor Hilman Almost Killed” July 7, 1902

Pawtucket Times, “Mabel Ward’s Mishaps Due To Disobedience”, July 8, 1902

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