Bangoreans had “aeroplane” fever a century ago. They had seen parachutists jump from balloons and a dirigible float around the fairground at Maplewood Park. Now, they were craning their necks hoping to see one of the new, heavier-than-air aeroplanes come bursting from the clouds.
Imaginations ran wild. Strange lights in the night sky produced strange news stories. On Jan. 4, 1910, the Bangor Daily News guessed mysterious glimmerings seen between Milbridge and Jonesport just might have been “the Worcester air-ship” allegedly invented by Wallace Tillinghast, provocateur of one of air flight’s great hoaxes. Similar spottings were reported all over New England, creating aeroplane hysteria. Tillinghast, a Worcester, Mass. businessman, made up the story that he flew his imaginary invention to New York, circling the Statue of Liberty — at night, of course, so as not to give away his secrets.
On Oct. 7, the Bangor Daily Commercial reported sightings of a “phantom aeroplane” noiselessly circling the city the night before. Then, on April 25, 1911, the same newspaper said an airship had been seen passing over the city. It turned out to be a 5-foot long mail order “toy” launched by youngsters on Center Street that eventually landed in a tree on French Street.
The aeroplane craze gripped the public. Professor Jewett of the University of Maine gave a lecture on the “construction and development of various kinds of airships” on Feb. 12, 1910, said the Bangor Daily News. The Commercial reported on Nov. 17 that a Massachusetts automobile manufacturer was enquiring about starting an “aeroplane factory” in the Queen City of the East.
Meanwhile, Bangoreans waited in vain to see an actual flight. They had missed the chance to boast the first flight in Maine. That honor went to Portland on July 4, 1910, when Joe Seymour flew his bi-plane for about a quarter of a mile (depending on the newspaper you read) at an altitude of about 40 feet until crashing into a fence. It might better have been called Maine’s first plane crash.
A flight of much greater duration was made by St. Croix Johnstone at Augusta on Aug. 9, 1911. Johnstone flew “25 miles up and down the Kennebec valley” at a height of about 1,500 feet, according to a Bangor Daily News wire report. The flight “gave Maine people their first glimpse of an aeroplane in action.” Johnstone was killed a week later when his plane crashed into Lake Michigan.
Bangor finally got to see an aeroplane lift off a few days later. The story of this event reads like a soap opera today. Readers may justifiably ask if it deserves to be classified as the Queen City’s first flight.
The organizers of the Eastern Maine State Fair promised as early as March 22 that aeroplane flights would be performed in August by C.C. Bonette (also spelled Bonnette), “the fearless aeronaut who has never disappointed his local audiences and who has perhaps given them more thrills than any other man.” Up until then, Bonette’s specialty had been jumping out of balloons in a parachute.
The newspaper story claimed incorrectly that Bonette would “introduce here the first real aeroplane flights ever attempted in the State of Maine.” Bonette might even “decide to come up town and circle the tower of City Hall.” The man who had performed at the fair for many years had a powerful incentive. He had agreed to make at least five flights of at least three miles, “or forfeit his salary.”
A virtual unknown in the fast-growing field of experimental aviation, Bonette recently had built his own biplane, naming it the Vermont I after his home state, the newspaper said on August 14. A picture of the frail-looking machine appeared in advertisements.
Some troubling details began emerging, however, the day before the fair was scheduled to open. Bonette had been in an accident a few days earlier, “wrecking one end of his aeroplane,” said the Commercial. He probably wouldn’t be ready to make his first flight until late on Tuesday, Aug. 22, because of repairs that needed to be made.
Each day the flight date was set back. Bonette had to order a new propeller. On Wednesday, he “again failed to aviate, much to the disgust of thousands who had come a long way to witness his advertised performance,” said the Bangor Daily News the next morning. Complaining about rising fair prices, the newspaper added, “Everything is going up except the aviator.”
The new propeller was not shipped until Friday, the fair’s final day. Attendance was poor. The disgruntled crowd shouted “Fake!” and “Tell it to Sweeney!” when the announcement that Bonette would not be flying that day was made from the grandstand, reported the Bangor Daily News. But things weren’t over yet.
On Monday morning this headline appeared in the Commercial: BONETTE MADE FLIGHT. At 4:50 p.m. Saturday (the day after the fair had closed) before “several hundred people,” the Vermont I left the ground for “a short flight.” Eight men held the airplane back as the propeller turned. Bonette raised his hand signaling them to let him go. “In five seconds [the plane] was racing at the speed of a trolley car across the grassy enclosure.”
After about 50 feet it lifted off the ground. But having achieved an altitude of only about 15 feet, the professor, as he was sometimes called, brought the plane down. “Bonette said that there was not enough power to make a safe flight,” the newspaper reported. If the Bangor Daily News covered this event, I have been unable to find the story.
Meanwhile an aviation phenomenon named Harry Atwood set a record flying between St. Louis and New York City by way of Chicago. He was making front page headlines all over the nation, as Bonette was trying to repair his plane.
“While Bangor has had as yet no opportunity of seeing the demonstration of the heavier than air machines in actual flight, all will note with much enthusiasm the success attending Atwood,” a Commercial editorial stated acidly on Aug. 25, the day before C. C. Bonette’s futile takeoff at Bangor.
In less than a year, Bangoreans would see what appears to have been the first truly successful flight over Bangor. The pilot would be none other than famous flying ace Harry Atwood.
Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears every other Monday. Thanks to Michael A. Cornett, the Maine Air Museum and Clark P. Thompson for some of the information in this column. Comments can be sent to the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.