Two Wings and a Prayer

One hundred years ago, in the tiny East Texas town of Pittsburg, the Reverend Burrell Cannon interpreted apocalyptic words in the Bible as instructions to build a flying machine. And he succeeded, sort of. Are the history books wrong about who was first in flight?

January 2003By Comments

IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE word, and it told reverend Burrell Cannon to do something crazy. The source was Ezekiel, one of the old-time prophets of the Bible, who spoke of a vision of four winged humanoid creatures joined as one in a square, each facing outward like superheroes, and emerging from a fiery windstorm. Each being had four faces—a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle—and they were as bright as fire, flashing like lightning. “And they went every one straight forward: whither the spirit was to go, they went; and they turned not when they went.” The creatures rode in a chariot whose wheels were—this was the most important part of the vision—”like a wheel inside a wheel,” and stretching over it all was an arch and a throne: a chariot of the Lord.

If you’re going to become obsessed with a vision, the Book of Ezekiel is a good place to start. Cannon, a late-nineteenth-century East Texas preacher, spent more than fifteen years poring over its ancient, inscrutable words, so arcane, according to fourth-century biblical scholar Saint Jerome, that in the old days Jews under thirty weren’t allowed to read them. He understood that the Book of Ezekiel was sometimes read along with Revelation to foretell the Apocalypse. His own interpretation was less fiery but almost as astounding: a blueprint for man to fly, to get a little closer to heaven—and to make a little money. By the time the reverend, who was also a sawmill operator and an inventor, began building his Ezekiel Airship in a Pittsburg machine shop, in 1900, he had mapped out every spar, wheel, and wing that Ezekiel had revealed, and he had attracted dozens of investors, aiming to cash in on the most important invention of the impending modern age. Cannon finished the airship two years later, a giant flying machine with a 26-foot wingspan and wheels inside wheels, more Jules Verne than Old Testament.

And then, according to several witnesses, the thing flew. In 1922 a guy named Gus Stamps, who had worked on the airship, told the story of its flight just before he died to Morris Thorsell, the eldest son of the man who ran the machine shop. Fifty years after that, just before he died, Thorsell related the tale to Pittsburg historian Lacy Davis. Three decades later, one hundred years after that virgin flight, Davis told me what happened. It seems that in late 1902, a handful of men who had worked on the airship took it out for a test flight in a nearby pasture. “Stamps was elected to fly the thing,” Davis said. “He got in, started it up. It lurched forward, rose up to about ten to twelve feet, then began to more or less drift toward a fence. Then the engine began vibrating and Stamps cut it off. The airship came to rest about one hundred sixty feet away.” According to the Stamps account, Cannon wasn’t there; it was apparently a Sunday, and he was off preaching.

Others corroborated Stamps’s account, from turn-of-the-century Pittsburg children to Cannon family descendants who had heard the airship’s story passed down for several generations. Much of what we know, or think we know, about the Ezekiel, as they call it in Pittsburg, a town about 120 miles east of Dallas, comes from stories like these, twice- and thrice-told tales several steps removed from their source. The stories are believable in their sincerity, and they call into question one of the most monumental feats in American history. In December 2003 celebrations will take place all over the country to commemorate the one-hundred-year anniversary of the Wright brothers’ inaugural flight near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Is it possible that a man living in East Texas, taking his instructions from a man in Babylon, beat them to the sky a year earlier?

BURRELL CANNON WAS BORN APRIL 16, 1848, on a farm near Coffeeville, Mississippi, where he grew up working with wood, steel, and machines. Later, he studied mechanics at Mississippi College in Clinton and became a Baptist preacher. At age thirty, he left Mississippi for Longview to start a timber business, eventually moving all over northeast Texas, cutting trees and milling logs, preaching, and tinkering with small inventions. In 1896 he wrote to Mary Cannon, a niece in Mississippi whom he had never met, telling her that he’d been married four times and had two children; “Have been rich twice but poor now. Am going into business again soon with hopes for the future.” By this point he already had two patents—for a machine that cleaned cotton and a butter churn dasher—but he had much bigger ideas.

It was the late-nineteenth century, and the frontier was no longer out west but in the sky. For years inventors had played with handheld feathered wings, balloons, dirigibles, and gliders, but now the race was on to build the first aeroplane or airship powered by an engine and controlled by a pilot. Texas had its pioneers, mainly Jacob Brodbeck, a German immigrant who some said flew a spring-powered airship in San Antonio in 1865, and William Custead, who perhaps flew a balloon cum boat with wings at Elm Mott, near Waco, in 1899. But while most aviation innovators, like Brodbeck, studied birds for inspiration, Cannon was studying the writings of a prophet.

He had been parsing chapters 1 and 10 of Ezekiel, using them word for word as instructions. For example, the purpose of the four faces in the vision, he posited in a handbill that he later distributed, “must be to designate the various parts of the airship, so an engineer could direct to any part for repairs.” The emphasis on “spirit” was obviously electricity, and the arch was no doubt a sail or a wing. The most important feature was the wheel inside the wheel, “the wonder that makes aerial navigation possible.” Cannon built some eight to ten airship models, all of which had big outer wheels that were meant to be used for speeding up for takeoff. When they went one turn forward, the smaller inner ones would go one half-step back, turning the paddles and propelling the ship up and through the air. In some ways, the airship resembled a hovercraft, floating on the current of air created by the paddles. The angle of the fans would control the steering of the airship, which, as in the vision, would be able to go in any direction—forward, backward, or sideways. It would descend like a parachute.

In the summer of 1900 Cannon sold his mill in Pine, where he had been living with his fourth wife, Amanda, and began working in earnest on developing the Ezekiel. “I don’t think I am cranky after fifteen years of study,” he wrote in a letter to Lillie Gilbert, another niece, “but the barriers are being removed and I now see success.” To raise capital, he moved to nearby Pittsburg, a thriving cotton and timber town of two thousand, and began to preach and lecture about his airship. By nature and by trade—preacher, inventor, businessman—Cannon was an optimist, and this was an optimistic era, the Age of Progress. Even as he preached the Word of God, he couldn’t help but preach the gospel of capitalism, and he found plenty of Pittsburg’s city fathers willing to back his new airship. That August he and ten investors incorporated the Ezekiel Air Ship Manufacturing Company for $20,000, selling stock at $25 a share. Their prospectus claimed that stockholders would become millionaires. Cannon would start off building a one-man model, some 21 by 26 feet, but he had plans to build a version that was 100 by 125 feet and capable of carrying 41,000 pounds. Flying was one thing, but carrying a large payload—now that was progress.

In February 1901 the Pittsburg Gazette extolled the Ezekiel’s wheel design and declared that if the airship flew, “untold wealth will be the reward of solving the question of aerial navigation.” Also that year Scientific American, the St. Louis Star, and the Dallas Morning News came to write about the Ezekiel. Crowds besieged the machine shop, and Cannon complained he couldn’t get any work done, so he limited viewing times and charged 25 cents for admission. Locals marveled at the light chassis made of aluminum and hollow steel, with six-foot bicycle wheels serving as the big wheels and wings that were covered in fabric. It was to be powered by an eighty-horsepower, four-cylinder gas engine, and the fuel was ingeniously kept in the hollow framing of the chassis. Cannon handed out circulars explaining Ezekiel 1 and 10 and sold photos of a model of the airship for 50 cents. By May the $25 stock was selling for $200 a share. In August that figure was up to $1,000. Cannon told the Morning News that the Ezekiel would be finished soon.

But all was not well in the machine shop or the corporation. Expectations had been running high, but Cannon kept pushing the completion date back. Impatient investors, discouraged by the delays, began withholding money. Worksheets show that Cannon toiled on the airship at the machine shop through October 1902, but by the time of the Stamps test flight late that year, the reverend was running his operation on a shoestring. According to Stamps’s later account, the reason the airship had vibrated so violently, causing him to turn the engine off, was because Cannon was forced to use a flimsy sawmill dust-cleaning chain to drive the wheels instead of something sturdier and more expensive.

By the end of 1902, Cannon was broke, and no one was eager to help him. Davis says it was a matter of undelivered goods: “He hadn’t produced what he’d promised: an airship capable of flying and carrying a payload. The stockholders refused to give him any more money and wanted nothing more to do with him.” It wasn’t just investors, either. The Gazette, which had been such a booster, stopped writing about the airship. “I think they were sick of him,” says a local amateur historian, John Holman, who has compiled a book on the airship. “And I think he was sick of them.” A few months later, Cannon moved back to Pine, taking his airship with him. No one was terribly surprised to see him go.

Spurned by Pittsburg, Cannon loaded the Ezekiel onto a railroad flatcar and headed north. He was hitting the road to preach the gospel and pass the hat, and eventually, some said, he was going to St. Louis for the upcoming World’s Fair, where a reward of $100,000 was going to be offered for anyone who made a sustained controlled flight. But somewhere near Texarkana, in the Red River Bottoms, a windstorm as big and fiery as anything in Ezekiel blew the airship off the flatcar and into the ground, destroying it. He left the remains where they lay.

Ever the optimist, Cannon never looked back. Soon after the train disaster, he wrote to Lillie and told her that he was trying to reorganize the corporation: “There is a chance of success yet, if I can get clear of that wrangling Pittsburg crowd who wanted everything yet had no money to keep their agreement with me.” And for the next eight years, long after the race was over and the Wright brothers had won, Cannon kept his strange dream alive. He built a second airship in 1911, creating another corporation back in Longview and selling more stock. Details are even sketchier about this version, but apparently it ran into a telephone pole on a test flight and was destroyed. Cannon abandoned the Ezekiel, this time for good.

In his final years Cannon was a flat-broke widower, living with his stepdaughter’s family in Longview. Still, he kept inventing: an Apparatus for Automatically Photographing Persons Moving Along a Confined Way and a cotton harvester. In 1922 a fire destroyed all his plans and drawings for the Ezekiel Airship. He died later that year.

FOR THE REST OF THE CENTURY in Pittsburg, the Ezekiel story was treated as a sort of rural myth. There had been other witnesses to Stamps’s flight, and they told the story, often to unbelieving ears. Residents Aubrey Swaim and his brother Parvin, who were small boys in 1902, told of watching the airship fly uncertainly toward a fence on which some other boys were sitting and how they scrambled to get away. Olive Coley, a young girl at the time, recounted how the airship had been tied with rope to the ground, and one of the holders had gotten tangled up in the rope and been pulled into the sky. And high school teacher Nina Berry made the Ezekiel her own personal history lesson for the town’s children, telling the story every year. Cannon’s local descendants spoke of the reverend as though he were a hero, and his granddaughter Lenita Tacea said her mother claimed that Cannon had actually been there on the day of the Stamps flight and that he had given the pilot instructions, but the airship had been too heavy and had hit a fence and stopped after going 167 feet (she said Cannon had measured the distance). Tacea also said the reason Cannon hadn’t flown it himself was because, at six feet four and two hundred pounds, he was too big.

More than half a century after Cannon’s death, in 1975, the Camp County Historical Committee asked member Lacy Davis to help prove the airship’s existence so the Texas Historical Commission would give Pittsburg a historical marker. In addition to the oral histories, Davis found the machine-shop worksheets that showed work being done on the airship in 1902. The collected evidence was enough to earn the town its marker, which in 1977 was placed beside the meadow. It said the airship had been “briefly airborne at this site late in 1902.”

Was it? If only there were a newspaper account, or better yet, a picture of the airship in flight. One photo does exist, but it’s of an earlier version of the final model, at rest. There are some questions of logic as well. Why, for example, didn’t the other men present at the test flight ever tell their versions of the story? And if the machine did fly, why were its backers so eager to pull out? These missing pieces leave the airship story with plenty of skeptics. Many believe, just as observers noted back in 1902, that the engine was too heavy for flight. Then there are the paddles. According to James Loewen, a gadfly pop-historian and the author of Lies My Teacher Told Me as well as a Web page called the Top Ten Silliest Historical Sites in America (the Ezekiel is at number three; uvm.edu/~jloewen/), the paddles would have negated any forward and upward motion every time they completed a circle. “The Ezekiel Airship never got off the ground,” he writes, matter-of-factly. Former General Dynamics aerospace engineer Robert Turner says Cannon took into consideration the negative lift factor by making the inner wheel “eccentrically located” so the paddles would pivot and not fully push air on the way back up, like the way a swimmer doing the crawl brings his cupped hands back to his body. Turner, who sits on the Camp County Museum Association board, allows that the wheel would have had to have been a well-made piece of machinery to accomplish this. I asked if he thought Cannon pulled it off. “I don’t know,” he says. “I worked in aerodynamics for years, and I found that the final product usually does not work as well as the theory originally said it would. The Ezekiel is problematical in my mind. But he did have witnesses.”

None of the firsthand witnesses are still alive, and eighty-year-old Jean Locke is the last surviving secondhand witness. When I asked her how many times she’s told the story that her mother told her, she laughed and said, “Oh, dear Gussie, I don’t know.” Her mother, Elizabeth Merrell, was thirteen and walking with her friend Agnes on a Sunday afternoon alongside the pasture when they heard a noise and looked up. “It came up above the fencerow,” Locke told me, “and they saw it up in the air. She didn’t know how high it was. It was just up in the air.” Locke doesn’t dress up the story. Her mother saw it in the air, and that’s that. “If she said she saw it, she saw it.”

WHATEVER THE TRUTH, THE HISTORICAL marker revived interest among Pittsburg citizens over the airship. In the mid-eighties Bob Loughery, a local building contractor and mechanic, built a replica for the Pittsburg Optimist Club, using Cannon’s windwheel patent application and the only existing photo. The replica sat in a local restaurant until 1998, when it was moved to the Northeast Texas Rural Heritage Museum, where it hangs today. In 2000 the Texas Department of Transportation gave the museum a grant of $169,000 to build an addition that will give the airship a permanent home. Everyone in Pittsburg is thrilled about the tourism possibilities; what was once considered a bust is now an official part of the town logo. “We don’t want to take anything away from the Wright brothers,” said John Holman, when I went to see the airship at the preliminary museum opening in October. “We just want Reverend Cannon to be recognized as an early aviation pioneer.” Davis agreed, and he told me what he and most here believe—the airship got off the ground, moved through the air and landed, but there was no control. It was flight but not controlled flight. Another old-timer was a little more candid, telling me, “Well, you can throw a rock and it’ll fly for a little while.”

Still, who hasn’t dreamed of flying, even if for only a few seconds? Walking into the museum and looking up in wonder at the replica, suspended in flight, it’s easy to recall that dream. Cannon’s reach exceeded his grasp—by an inch or by a mile, it doesn’t matter. What’s a heaven for?

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