Aeronaut’s tragedy shocked state in ’08

Posted Aug. 31, 2008, at 9:08 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:26 a.m.

Five years after the Wright brothers took off at Kitty Hawk, Bangoreans watched the practical prospects for flight develop with great excitement as well as skepticism and trepidation. It seemed that for every report of a successful flight in an aeroplane or a dirigible, there was a report of a disaster at a county fair or some other exhibition.

Men of unimaginative bent remained skeptics. “[T]he machine that can rise in the air and move away in any direction, except toward the earth, is yet to be discovered,” asserted the Bangor Daily News on Oct. 19, 1907. “The overwise ‘professors’ who carry inflated gas bags about from one agricultural fair to another and advertise to give practical demonstrations of how ‘flying machines’ can fly, if not arrant fakes and frauds, are at least misrepresenting what they can do and are making a living under false pretense.”

A few weeks before the Bangor Daily News editorial ran, Capt. Thomas Scott Baldwin, known today as “the father of the American dirigible,” made the first airship flight over Bangor. His appearance was a disappointment. Because of windy conditions, he was only able to get up for two short flights around the fairgrounds. Calling him a fake, however, was a bit of an exaggeration. At the end of the fair, Baldwin even apologized for his craft’s limitations.

Flight fever had hit Bangor. Airships and aeroplanes — real and imagined — were everywhere, in the newspapers where Santa Claus delivered toys in them, in the silent films shown at Bangor’s new movie theaters, on the covers of books such as H.G. Wells’ “War in the Air.”

Sometimes people seemed to be hallucinating. In early January, 1908 the Bangor Daily News announced that a crowd on lower Exchange Street (where many of the saloons were located) had spotted a “spook ship” in the sky. A reporter made these observations on Jan. 3 and 4. Across the Penobscot River, over Orrington, floated a strange object in the darkening sky. It was not a star, nor an electric light. Bluish flames flashed as it moved in a wide circle and finally disappeared. Spies perhaps? Probably just “an advertising dodge,” the skeptical reporter concluded.

The appeal of air flight was not lost on Bangor’s entrepreneurs. In August, the Northern Land Co. hired Professor Skibini, “the world’s greatest aeronaut,” to parachute out of his balloon over Broadway Terrace, a development on Center Street. About 2,000 people attended on Aug. 19, the first day of the extravaganza. Twenty-three lots were sold.

Even though Thomas Scott Baldwin’s appearance had been a little disappointing the summer before, the owners of the Eastern Maine State Fair in Bangor in 1908 scheduled another air act. One Professor Bonnett ascended in a balloon and parachuted to the ground. Unlike a dirigible, which had a motor and actually moved about, the balloons manned by Skibini and Bonnett appear to have been tethered to the ground, serving mainly as jumping platforms.

Later that summer, the Central Maine Fair in Waterville decided to have its own air show, hiring the daring aeronaut Charles Oliver Jones and his dirigible, Boomerang II. Jones hailed from Hammondsport, N.Y., one of a group of air pioneers, including Baldwin, who were building and testing various types of aircraft. They were attracted to the place by another famed flyer, Glenn H. Curtiss, who manufactured engines used in many of these efforts including the dirigibles used by Baldwin and Jones.

Jones was known as a daredevil “who had literally courted death while giving exhibitions at amusement parks in the vicinity of New York. No more daring sky-pilot ever made ascensions,” said a story in the Bangor Daily News. He had had several recent hair-raising accidents. A few weeks before he had fallen into the Hudson River from his airship. In a separate event, he had landed a balloon in “a net of highly charged wires.” Another balloon had broken away prematurely, and Jones had narrowly escaped being “dashed to pieces.”

The aeronaut’s luck ran out on Wednesday, Sept. 2 over Waterville when the hydrogen-filled Boomerang II was set afire by a spark from its gasoline engine. Before the eyes of an estimated 20,000 or 25,000, including his wife, the gas bag collapsed, and the machine fell about 200 feet to the ground. As it fell, Jones was seen crawling far out on the under carriage trying to point the nose down to deaden the shock.

“The lurid flames mounted higher and higher as the burning hydrogen gas began to pour from the envelope, and the great airship began to drop, slowly at first, then faster as the balloon became emptied of gas, and the weight of the rigging, the eight-cylinder gasoline engine and the poor doomed aeronaut began to take effect in a sickening side-swoop like that of a wounded bird,” reported the Bangor Daily Commercial on Sept. 3.

A huge crowd ran to the scene and began looting the wreck in a shameful scramble for souvenirs. A group of men had to break a corridor through the crowd so that Mrs. Jones could attend to her dying husband.

This pathetic spectacle prompted the editorial writer for the Bangor Daily News to write yet another angry editorial about air travel in Sept. 7. Jones had died for a cause “that no more than remotely concerns the affairs of sane men and women.” If all that mattered was gate receipts, perhaps Mainers should bring back the death penalty and perform public executions at fairs. To tame the savage instincts of fairgoers and to protect women and children from having to watch such horrors, “balloon ascensions” should be banned at fairs, he wrote.

But the genie was already out of the bottle. All you had to do was read headlines in the newspapers in the days after Jones’ death. “WRIGHT MADE THREE PHENOMENAL TRIPS. Broke All Aeroplane Records,” said a front page headline Sept. 10 in the Bangor Daily News. The next day: “WRIGHT BREAKS HIS OWN RECORD, Makes Most Remarkable Flight During a Ten Mile Wind.” The Wright brothers were making airplane flights lasting more than an hour. The deaths of Charles Oliver Jones and many other fliers — in what the BDN called “aerial suicides” — would be just minor footnotes in history.

Wayne E. Reilly can be reached at wreilly@bangordailynews.net Thanks to Rick Leisenring, curator at the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum for information about the career of Charles Oliver Jones.

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