fall marks the 100th anniversary of an event that came close to
establishing East Texas
as the birthplace of American aviation.
In the fall of 1902, a year before Orville and Wilbur Wright flew
into the sky at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, a Baptist preacher named
Burrell Cannon flew an airship above the ground at Pittsburg
in Camp County. Cannon, a sawmiller and inventor, was intrigued
by the Bible's account of Ezekiel's vision of God and strange flying
entities propelled by wheels. Ezekiel had this to say: "The appearance
of the wheels and their work was like unto the color of beryl; and
the four had one likeness; and their appearance was as it were a
wheel within a wheel...and when the living creatures went, the wheels
went with them; and when the living creatures were lifted up from
earth, the wheels were lifted up."
Cannon developed an airship patterned after Ezekiel's example with
large, fabric-covered wings powered by an engine which turned four
sets of paddles mounted on wheels. By means of a lever, a pilot
could take off vertically and maneuver the plane by controlling
the angle of the paddles. In August of 1901, after developing several
prototypes, Cannon convinced his friends in Camp County to invest
in his Ezekiel Airship Manufacturing Company. Some $20,000 in stock
was sold at $25 a share.
Built on the upper floor of P.W. Thorsell's Machine Shop in Pittsburg,
the plane was ready for its initial flight in the autumn of 1902.
It was soon flown from a pasture owned by Thorsell. The pilot was
a man who had worked on the airship with Cannon.
Those present at the flight said the airship lurched forward for
a short distance before rising vertically into the air. It traveled
down the pasture and began to drift. Because it was vibrating considerably,
the engine was turned off and floated down to earth.
After several other trial runs, Cannon shipped his airship to the
St. Louis World's Fair, where it was to be exhibited, but a storm
blew the craft from a railroad flatcar near Texarkana.
It was demolished and preacher Cannon left his plane where it crashed,
saying: "God never meant for man to fly."
But he changed his mind and sold stock in a second company established
in the Longview
area around in 1908-1913.
A second plane was built in Chicago and a pilot flew it in 1913.
But as the airship rose into the air, it struck the top of a utility
pole and crashed. Cannon again gave up flying and turned to more
down-to-earth inventions, including a cotton picker and a boll
Cannon died at Marshall
in 1922, but his legacy wasn't fully known until the town of Pittsburg
realized his aeronautical skills, built a replica of his Ezekiel airship for the l986 Texas Sesquicentennial and starting attracting
tourists intrigued by a powered flight that took place a year before
Orville and Wilbur Wright made American history.
September, 2002 Column
Published with permission
(Bob Bowman is a fomer president of the East Texas Historical Association
and the author of 28 books on East Texas history and folklore. He
lives in Lufkin.)