Birdmen of 1910: Early Aviation in the Mile High City

By Jeff Miller

One hundred years ago, flying was magic. Just the thought of an “aeroplane” lifting off the ground set strong men’s hearts to flutter and pioneer women to swoon. Aircraft were fragile things made of wood, wire, canvas and prayers. They looked more like giants’ toys than real machines, yet they took people where only angels used to tread. Aviators were daredevils, birdmen, barnstormers — and always handsome, in a dashing, heroic sort of way. They tempted the fates every time they pulled on their leather caps and took their machines bounding down improvised runways.

Just as with magic, though, people who didn’t actually see man and machine fly didn’t really believe it was possible.

In Colorado, skepticism ran even higher. Many felt these newfangled machines couldn’t handle Denver’s mile-high altitude, not to mention the formidable Rocky Mountains.

Thankfully, a few institutions and individuals believed it could be done and set out to prove it. In the summer of 1909, the Denver Post offered prizes totaling $10,000 for the first demonstration of a mechanically propelled flight in Colorado. To win, a plane had to carry a passenger, fuel for a trip of no less than 125 miles, and be able to reach a speed of at least 40 miles per hour. The contest, which had a six-month time limit, drew eight airplane builders, six of whom were from Colorado.

Unfortunately, the contest flopped when no demonstration took place.

In January 1910, a month after the Post’s deadline, Louis Paulhan, the French “birdman,” came to Denver. He had been traveling the country staging flying exhibitions and had been contracted by F. B. Hutchinson, a Denver businessman, to attempt the state’s first engine-powered flight.

Paulhan’s grand entrance into the city was almost as spectacular as if he had flown in. He and his wife were accompanied by an entourage of 35 mechanics, engineers and workmen, as well as his Farman biplane. Paulhan’s publicity man had arrived earlier to promote the event, but had little to do — the aviator had made the national news a few days before when he had broken a previous altitude record by soaring to a height of 5,000 feet during a Los Angeles aerial show. By the time the Frenchman arrived in Denver, everyone knew of him and wanted to see him fly.

The event was so big, even the city got involved. Tram cars and a special train ran from downtown Denver to Overland Park, where the pilot was to put on a three-day show. (Overland, along the Platte River west of Broadway, was used because its racetrack was perfect for a runway.) The city also removed some high fences that might get in the plane’s way, and sent a dozen policemen — six on horseback — for crowd control.

The poor men in blue were completely overwhelmed when the biggest crowd in Denver’s history, an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 people, gathered on Tuesday, Feb. 1, 1910, to see Paulhan’s scheduled 3 o’clock flight. (Didn’t any of these people have jobs?) On the first attempt, the plane rose 20-30 feet off the ground for only a matter of seconds.

F.P. Gallagher, a Rocky Mountain News reporter, wrote on February 2: “Before the biplane mounted into the air, the thousands of spectators in the park and on the surrounding hills speculated with something like awe as to what sort of sorcery they were about to behold, and after the queer device of wood and canvas had swept out into the field, jumped into the air and fluttered like a barnyard fowl for a few seconds, they looked at one another, as if to inquire, ‘Is this the miracle we came out to see?’”

Paulhan tried again, but no luck. More than half of the disappointed audience left, still wondering if sustained flight was possible. Those who stayed in the cold winter afternoon were finally rewarded on Paulhan’s third attempt. With a shudder and a roar the frail biplane, spitting oil and smoke, bounced down the gravel racetrack heading for the sky. As the freezing spectators held their collective breath, the plane rose from the ground as if pulled by the hands of an unseen puppeteer, then moved off into the darkening sky.

Paulhan reached an estimated altitude of 100-300 feet (an accurate measurement was impossible because of the fading light), then turned back to the field in hopes of landing. Much to his surprise, the excited crowd had swarmed over the field. Buzzing the startled spectators, he made another turn before finding a stretch of open field for landing.

Not exactly a spectacular aerial display, but nonetheless Colorado’s first recorded engine-powered flight.

On the third day of the exhibition, Paulhan also made the history books with Colorado’s first recorded plane crash. Just when he had coaxed the plane 20 feet off the ground, it began “acting up” and crashed into a group of spectators. Three people with minor injuries discovered firsthand that the miracle of flight had its downside. Paulhan was unhurt, but had problems of his own: the engine continued running after the crash and kept driving the propeller into the ground. The brave aviator jumped from the cockpit and turned the motor off by hand. After the incident, Paulhan discovered the downside of fans — they stole most of the pieces of his plane as souvenirs.

It was obvious that Denver’s love for aviation had found its wings. Any time or place a plane was scheduled to perform, a large crowd was sure to gather.

Aware of this fact, the Colorado State Fair Committee — thinking itself shrewd — decided to hold an air exhibition during the 1910 state fair. A group of flyers and airplanes assembled on Sept. 3, 1910 at the Pueblo fairgrounds, ready to make magic for the large crowd that had gathered. Unfortunately, no rabbit popped from the hat that day. Not one aviator was able to coax his craft into the air.

After this aerial fiasco, three Colorado aviators, Walter Brookins, Arch Hoxsey and Ralph Johnstone, decided to put on their own exhibition at Overland Park, Nov. 17-20, 1910. They wanted to prove, once and for all, that sustained flight in Colorado was possible.

A lot of people wanted to see them try. On the first day 25,000 showed up. This time, they got what they came for. On the first attempt, all three planes rose into the sky. Hoxsey flew to an astounding 3,500 feet, showing that Colorado’s altitude was no deterrent to flying, while Brookins and Johnstone gave an exhibition of “skillful flying.”

Success had its bitter side, though. Later in the day Johnstone was killed when his plane stalled and dove to the ground.

Most early crashes weren’t fatal. Jack Payment and Art Wagner (later responsible for the nationally-known, Denver-built Wagner biplane) survived a crash in Berkeley Lake when they attempted to fly in 1910. Their dip even gave the duo the novel idea of attaching pontoons to the wheels. Within a year they had made Denver’s first amphibian aircraft and demonstrated it on Sloan’s Lake.

The first record of a Denver-built plane being flown in Colorado was on Aug. 4, 1911. The Rocky Mountain News reported that the pilot, “George W. Thompson,” was using an assumed name to protect his “aged” mother, who, if she knew what her son was doing, would “collapse under the strain.” Thompson gave a three-day exhibition, flying his Mattewson biplane from the Jefferson County fairgrounds at Lakeside.

Within a few years, airplanes became more stable and reliable. The first Colorado passenger taken aloft — other than an aviator — was H. V. Deuell, a Rocky Mountain News reporter. The Denver Post, not wanting to be outdone, sent photographer Ralph Baird up a short time later. Deuell flew in a Wagner biplane on Feb. 28, 1914, from the hangar at Manhattan Beach, an amusement park on the north shore of Sloan’s Lake. The plane rose 30 feet into the air and traveled 16 miles in 15 minutes.

Deuell wrote: “The sensation, I imagine, could be duplicated by riding a rocking chair on a cloud, there was no sense of insecurity. Thought of danger from wind and height was lost in the intoxication of the most wonderful excitement man has succeeded in inventing for his amusement.”

The magic of flying had come to Denver citizens. It would be years — and millions of jaded air miles — before most people would lose that wondrous feeling.

Jeff Miller is a Denver freelance writer and author of the book “Stapleton International Airport: The First Fifty Years.”

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