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Curious Cbus

Aviation prodigy Cromwell Dixon's career took flight over Columbus

 Cromwell Dixon piloting his airship, The Moon.
Technical World Company
Columbus Metropolitan Library
Cromwell Dixon piloting his airship, The Moon.

In 1911, Cromwell Dixon made aviation history by becoming the first person to fly across the Continental Divide, the mountain range that stretches across the Americas and includes the Rocky Mountains. Days later, the 19-year-old aircraft pilot prodigy was killed in a tragic crash.

During his short momentous career, Dixon traveled across the county exhibiting his talents, but he grew up in Columbus’ University District, where his homemade “skycycle” dirigible made him a local celebrity.

WOSU reader Jay Hoster asked Curious Cbus to dig into Dixon’s local history, which offers a unique glimpse into Columbus at the turn of the 20th century.

Dixon was born in San Francisco on July 9, 1892 but moved to Columbus in 1893 after his father, a serial money embezzler, was arrested for the second time. His mother chose to take Dixon and his sister Lulu to Columbus because her brother was a police officer in the city.

 Photograph of a young Cromwell Dixon, date unknown.
Harold E. Morehouse Flying Pioneers Biographies Collection
National Air and Space Museum
Photograph of a young Cromwell Dixon, date unknown.

Starting a new life in Columbus proved a challenge for the Dixons, who quickly found themselves once again in legal trouble.

Newspaper accounts from 1905 detail an ongoing struggle between Mrs. Dixon and a group of neighborhood children who bullied young Cromwell and frequently destroyed the Dixons’ property. In retaliation, Mrs. Dixon issued such severe threats against the kids that the neighbors declared her a “menace” and called for her removal from the neighborhood.

Ousted from their home at 1559 Highland Street, the family moved just two blocks north to 221 West 11th Avenue, which is now the site of Ohio State University’s 11th Avenue Parking Garage.

 Ohio State University’s 11th Avenue Parking Garage
Sydney Sauer
Cromwell Dixon's childhood home at 221 West 11th Avenue was torn down as Ohio State University's border expanded. The land is now the site of the 11th Avenue Parking Garage.

It was at this new home that Dixon started to build complex contraptions in his backyard, including a roller coaster and a motorcycle, which got the attention of the community.

Inspired by contemporary aviation celebrities like Roy Knabenshue, who he saw at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, Dixon became fascinated with flight.

At the time, air travel took place in dirigibles, a primitive aircraft that consists of a large gas-inflated balloon attached to a steering system. Though rare, large dirigibles such as the Goodyear blimp still fly today, but in Dixon’s time, aspiring aeronauts often built unique dirigibles of their own design.

The mechanically-inclined Dixon was no exception. He designed a “skycycle” dirigible, which consisted of bicycle pedals that steered an enormous silk balloon. He began construction in 1905 at the age of 13.

Postcard with a photo of Cromwell Dixon.
Columbus Metropolitan Library
Postcard circa 1908 with a photograph of Cromwell Dixon names him the youngest inventor and aeronaut in the world.

The prodigy spent two years building the aircraft and ran test flights on Ohio State’s campus. He enlisted local experts to verify the safety of the device, and even saved the machine from an arsonist on one occasion.

Dixon became such a celebrity amongst the university students that he was elected the Ohio State Football mascot in 1906, long before Brutus Buckeye was created.

Rivalry between two boy geniuses

Despite his early accomplishments, Dixon wasn’t the only young aviator vying for the public’s attention, and he certainly wasn’t the most famous.

Another local boy, Jacob Fisher, also started construction of a homemade dirigible in 1905. Fisher was already well-known for miraculously surviving a cancer operation where five-eighths of his stomach were amputated. He further impressed the community by growing prizewinning plants, including a 39-pound cabbage, in his prolific vegetable garden.

Cromwell Dixon's homemade dirigible in flight.
Ohio State Journal Company
Columbus Metropolitan Library
Cromwell Dixon's homemade dirigible in flight.

Fisher’s local fame and successful garden venture made it quite easy for him to garner investments, which expedited the construction of his airship. Locals believed he was a born prodigy, and Fisher himself claimed to have been chosen by God for success in his airship venture.

“The good Lord has seen fit to take away part of my stomach, but I believe that with its loss my brain power was increased,” Fisher told The Columbus Dispatch in 1906.

With the city sold on his claims, he founded the Jacob Fisher Airship Company and raised $10,000 (over $280,000 today) from investors across the state.

For Cromwell Dixon, funding was harder to come by. Most of the initial investments in his airship came from his mother, who believed wholeheartedly in her son and was frequently described as more enthusiastic about the airship than Dixon himself.

Mrs. Dixon was eventually able to raise $10,000 from wealthy investors in St. Louis, but the single mother continued to pay for emergency repairs herself.

Despite these financial challenges, Dixon completed his skycycle, which he named The Moon, in June of 1907.

His first flight was a leisurely hourlong float above the Columbus Driving Park racetrack, now home to the Driving Park neighborhood just east of German Village.

Newspaper Headline reads Cromwell Dixon Takes An Outing A Mile In The Air, makes splendid flight in his skycycle before admiring thousands, Alights at Shepard., Jacob Fisher Fails To Make His Machine Work.
The Columbus Dispatch
The Columbus Dispatch
Headline from The Columbus Dispatch reports Dixon's success over rival Jacob Fisher, July 1, 1907.

An article from The Columbus Dispatch the following day recounts how the machine “responded to every touch of the enthusiastic lad as he manipulated it gracefully” for an audience of 500 “shouting and excited spectators” who had emerged uninvited from the surrounding neighborhoods.

“I wasn’t scared. I had plenty to do and no time to think of danger,” Dixon told reporters after The Moon touched down from its 200-foot debut flight. “The thing worked better than expected. There are a few improvements to make, and then it will be perfect.”

After several successful flights at the racetrack, Dixon began performing daily at Olentangy Park, an amusement park in Clintonville that opened in 1896.

Rival Jacob Fisher planned his debut flight for the same date and time as Dixon’s first Olentangy Park performance. He chose a site just a few blocks away on Indianola Avenue at another local amusement park.

Large crowds gathered at each location to watch the boys compete in the defining moment of their rivalry.

While Dixon soared, Fisher was unable to get off the ground. The crowds who had come to witness his flight ran to see Dixon instead, leaving Fisher to sit “green with envy” in his broken dirigible, according to a Columbus Dispatch reporter who described the scene.

Despite Fisher’s fierce belief that he would eventually beat Dixon, he never had a successful flight and went bankrupt by the end of the year.

Text advertisement: Look toward Olentangy Park our Cromwell Dizon will be at Olentangy Park four days, beginning today and closing Sunday. The greatest boy aeronaut in the world. ascensions at about five o'clock each day. go and see him.
The Columbus Dispatch
Olentangy Park advertises the Cromwell Dixon air show, July 4, 1907.

The dangers of life in the sky

Cemented as the greatest aviator in the city, Dixon began to expand his exhibitions beyond Columbus. Over the next three years, Dixon took The Moon to air shows in Boston, Chicago, St. Louis and beyond where thousands of people consistently flocked to see his skycycle in action.

While his flights at these exhibitions were largely successful, Dixon came close to disaster several times.

During his first major flight in 1907, Dixon’s skycycle stalled at an altitude of 2,000 feet, forcing the fearless aviator to crawl to the edge of the ship’s thin frame and let out just the right amount of air from the gas bag.

A year later, Dixon’s ship got stuck in a tree then floated away, leaving him clinging for life on a tree branch. At an air show in Massachusetts in 1910, Dixon was blown out to sea and narrowly escaped a 500-foot fall into the Atlantic Ocean.

The prodigy’s aviation endeavors also posed a threat to his crew.

In June of 1910, he asked a boy from Chillicothe to help balance the plane by standing on it, but a rope suddenly snapped, launching the dirigible and the 10-year-old boy over 3,000 feet in the air. The skycycle floated for over five miles with the unwilling passenger, who managed to land the plane unscathed.

At another exhibition, one of his crew members crawled inside the gas bag to make a repair and was knocked unconscious by the toxic gas inside. He was discovered inside the dirigible minutes away from death.

photo of Cromwell Dixons in the aircraft that would take him over the continental divide.
Montana Historical Society
Cromwell Dixons sits in the Curtiss biplane that he used in his historic flight over the Continental Divide, September 1911.

World's youngest aviator

In 1911, Dixon decided to start a new chapter of his aviation career. Ditching the dirigible in favor of the fixed-wing airplane, he became the youngest person in the world with a pilot’s license at the age of 19.

Throughout August and September, he performed daring flights at exhibitions across the Midwest and worked as a brand representative for the up-and-coming airplane manufacturer Glenn Curtiss.

He earned a place in aviation history on September 30, 1911, when he took off from Helena, Montana and became the first person to fly across the Continental Divide.

The flight was incredibly dangerous, and one wrong decision or gust of air would have sent Dixon plummeting down into the Rocky Mountains. Despite the risks, Dixon completed the feat safely and received a large cash prize for the monumental accomplishment.

Unfortunately, Dixon’s career was cut short by a fatal accident just three days after his groundbreaking Continental Divide flight.

Two minutes into an exhibition flight in Spokane, Washington, his plane hit a powerful gust of air, flipped over, and fell for 100 feet into a rocky ravine.

photo of the crashed plane and a crown of onlookers. text: The Curtis Biplane a total wreck at bottom of the railroad cut quarter mile east of Spokane Interstate Fair, accident occurred 3:02 pm Oct 2nd 1911, aviator Cromwell Dixon instantly killed, born July 9th 1892."
Martin Photo
Montana Historical Society
Site of Cromwell Dixon's fatal crash after taking off from the Spokane Interstate Fair, Oct 2, 1911.

He sustained severe injuries to his head, collarbone, and right leg. Dixon was taken to the hospital and pronounced dead just 30 minutes later. As his airplane dropped out of the sky, spectators reportedly heard his final words: “Here I go!”

Dixon’s body was transported back to Columbus, where he was laid to rest at Green Lawn Cemetery. Newspaper accounts of his funeral detail the boy’s tremendous popularity, noting that the church was completely filled with mourning neighbors.

“He had just arrived at the pinnacle of his career, after ceaseless struggles, and with the future holding out nothing but brilliant promises,” his grieving mother told the press at Dixon’s funeral. “And nobody could have helped loving him.”

Gravestone at Greenlawn Cemetery reads "Cromwell Dixon, 1892 - 1911, Worlds Youngest Aviator Loved By All
Michael De Bonis
Cromwell Dixon's headstone at Green Lawn Cemetery in Columbus, Ohio.

Besides his headstone in Green Lawn Cemetery, there are not many physical artifacts of Dixon's legacy left in Columbus.

In 2010, a woman in Salt Lake City, Utah discovered a small fragment of fabric allegedly from Dixon’s airplane wing amongst her great-grandfather’s keepsakes. An episode of the PBS series History Detectives traced the fabric’s history and verified that it came from a plane that Dixon borrowed from a fellow pilot and crashed on August 31, 1911.

That small scrap of fabric is the last known relic of Cromwell Dixon in existence, but its careful preservation stands testament to the Columbus-bred aviation pioneer and a promising career that was cut short by tragedy.

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