AN AGE OF WONDERS IS THE PRESENT ONE, declared a Bangor Daily Commercial headline a century ago. LIFE IS REVOLUTIONIZED. As if they wanted to eliminate time and space, Americans were fascinated by technological breakthroughs in transportation and communications. Inventors such as Thomas Edison and Maine’s own Sir Hiram Maxim were celebrities. Hardly a day went by that some new feat was reported in the newspapers. “Even children in the backwoods know how an aeroplane looks. … They know all about wireless telegraphy, mile-a-minute automobiles and other marvels,” the Commercial informed its readers on July 10, 1909.
Professor Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, was one such celebrity. He passed through Bangor on Dec. 12, 1908, on the noon train from St. John, New Brunswick. An enterprising Commercial reporter cornered him at Union Station. They talked about Bell’s latest passion — the aeroplane.
Telephones were old hat by now. Their use was expanding rapidly. Even farmers were installing them in their barns. Bell was working on something else at his laboratories in Nova Scotia and New York. Like so many other inventors, he was trying to build a practical aeroplane.
“Will flying machines ever be perfected …? Surely they can and that point has been reached. When a machine can successfully fly 20 miles as one did recently that is proof positive that a successful flying machine has been made,” Bell told the reporter, referring to recent well-publicized breakthroughs by the Wright brothers and others.
Bangoreans were no strangers to air travel. Balloonists regularly appeared at the Eastern Maine State Fair. Sometimes they jumped out of their balloons to the ground with parachutes.
The first airship or dirigible to fly over the fair — or anywhere else in Maine, according to the Bangor newspapers — occurred during the summer of 1907. The California Arrow was flown by Thomas Scott Baldwin, who has been called the Father of the American Dirigible. Baldwin flew his dirigible over the fairgrounds on Aug. 29 and again the next day. The California Arrow “responded to every turn of the rudder like a well built ship in the water. He made it go up, down, before the wind, straight into the wind, and in circles 300 feet above the ground and fully demonstrated that his machine is a success,” said the Commercial.
Two years later, in the spring of 1909, newspaper readers were informed that a Bar Harbor man would fly his aeroplane over the Eastern Maine State Fair that August. Alexander V. Wilson’s “machine, which is of his own invention, is comparatively unknown in this state, but in New York state and some of the other commonwealths where flying machine inventors are numerous it is well known,” said the Commercial on April 2. Wilson had nicknamed his machine “The Old Hen.” Equipped with an 18 hp engine, its most successful trip so far had been when it covered a distance of 1,710 feet at an altitude of 27 feet.
The Bangor Daily News said on Aug. 10 that Wilson had built the first heavier-than-air machine in Maine and “patrons of the fair will witness the first public exhibition of an aeroplane ever given in Maine — a Maine-built machine operated by a Maine inventor.” The “famous Bar Harbor inventor” would make “flights between 1,000 and 2,000 feet every day of the fair.”
Wilson had spent a lifetime studying aerial navigation. “He was one of the pioneer parachute jumpers, has made many ascensions in ordinary gas balloons and has witnessed all the important tests of dirigibles and aeroplanes, including the trials by the famous Wright brothers,” said the story. He “was one of the first to discover that the secret of success lay in the flexibility of the outer ends of the wings.” An earlier story that appeared in the Commercial on Oct. 17, 1908, indicated that the wings of Wilson’s plane “have for all purposes the same movements as those of the bird; that is the flapping movement as noted and also the tipping of the wings either forward or upward as occasion may demand.”
Some advertisements for the fair, such as one on Aug. 12 in the Bangor Daily News, included prominent mention of “A.V. Wilson, the Famous Bar Harbor Aeronaut,” saying he would “positively appear in daily flights in his aeroplane …” The altitude at which he would operate his machine had been increased to 2,000 to 3,000 feet. “This feature alone is worth the price of admission,” claimed the advertisement.
Perhaps a few cautious lines in the Bar Harbor Record on June 2 explained what happened. “If everything goes all right, that is, both machine and negotiations, Bar Harbor people who attend the Eastern Maine State Fair at Bangor the coming season will probably have an opportunity of seeing the invention of a fellow townsman in operation.” In other words, don’t get your hopes up. Anyone who came to the fair that August looking for Wilson was disappointed. His name disappeared from the advertisements. I did not see any mention of him in newspaper stories about the fair, either that he performed or that he canceled. It would be awhile before local folks could boast an aeroplane had flown over the Queen City.
Thanks to the Bar Harbor Historical Society for background information on Wilson. An illustrated collection of Wayne E. Reilly’s columns titled “Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire” is available at bookstores. Comments on this column may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org