First flight in El Dorado? Did the Gilmore brothers beat the Wright brothers to the skies?

Robert Fowler’s “Cole Flyer” in Sacramento, circa 1911. | Nevada County Historical Society

Grass Valley resident Lyman W. Gilmore may have dissed gravity when he took flight in a homemade airplane on May 15, 1902. A coal-fueled, steam-powered engine provided energy for lift. His 32-foot monoplane was genius in design, with a pilot compartment and innovative single wing covered with aluminum (likely the first) and retractable landing gear (another first).

Skeptics sneered that the engine weight and its fuel supply were too heavy for takeoff and, perhaps more importantly — too heavy to allow for a sustained flight time. Nevertheless, during the early 20th Century the reclusive inventor, helped by his brother Charlie, allegedly piloted more than 20 flights from 100 yards to 1 mile or more in a controlled manner about 3 feet off the ground at Big Meadows in El Dorado County. Witnesses were few, but if true, the secretive Gilmore brothers preceded Orville and Wilbur Wright’s 1903 historically recognized first flight by at least a year.

Witnesses were few, but if true, the secretive Gilmore brothers preceded Orville and Wilbur Wright’s 1903 historically recognized first flight by at least a year.

The Gilmore brothers built two larger monoplanes and in 1912 a large crowd gathered to witness their debut. One failed to get off the ground and the other suffered a broken driveshaft before liftoff. The Gilmore’s Grass Valley Aerodrome hanger burned in 1935, destroying the aero planes and Lyman’s aeronautical drawings, but a 1907 photograph of the monoplane is evidence that his designs were at the vanguard of aircraft development. Lyman’s spirit lives on at Grass Valley’s Lyman Gilmore Middle School with the motto “Flying into the Future.”

Fowler races cross country
Robert Fowler was born in San Francisco in 1884. In his 20s he was a well-known racecar driver in America and Europe. When he learned about the development of the newfangled flying machines, he wanted in. From then on, he was infected with the aviation bug and it defined him for life. Fowler earned widespread acclaim as an early aviation hero who set records and gained enduring fame.

In October 1910, publisher William Randolph Hearst offered a $50,000 prize to the first pilot to fly coast-to-coast, either direction, in 30 days or less, by Nov. 1, 1911. Fowler had no flying experience, but figured extensive cockpit training wasn’t required. He may have been right. Calbraith P. Rodgers, an avid motorcycle racer at the time, received 90 minutes of flying instruction from Orville Wright before soloing. Two months later he won $11,000 in an exhibition endurance competition.

On Sept. 11, 1911, with less than seven weeks remaining before the Hearst contest expired, Fowler took flight from San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park heading east. Thousands cheered for him to be the first to fly over the Sierra and the first to cross the country by air. (Just 45 years before this competition, the primary long-distance transportation vehicle was a covered wagon.)

Fowler’s only competitor, the aforementioned Rodgers, took off from Long Island, N.Y., on Sept. 17. A third pilot, James Ward, crashed and ended his quest after flying only a week.

These pioneer-era planes had range and power limitations; in S.F. it took 10 men to push Fowler to takeoff speed. Crashes were expected so a crew of mechanics with spare parts followed via Southern Pacific Railroad, on the same tracks that Fowler intended to use as guidance in his flight across the Great Basin.

His idea of flying over Donner Pass at 7,056 feet in elevation was breathtaking. Reduced oxygen for the engine and erratic mountain winds were a real threat. After a short promo stop in Sacramento, Fowler landed in Auburn that evening after averaging about 50 mph.

According to Fowler’s 1966 obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle, he had only three hours of flying lessons with Orville Wright when he, “set out to conquer the continent by air, in a machine that weighed 200 pounds and had a maximum speed of 45 miles an hour.”

The statement is dubious, however. Fowler was flying a biplane with two propellers powered by a 30- to 40-horsepower Cole Motor Car Company engine. The plane weighed close to 900 pounds. The automobile engine was 200 pounds heavier than the original Wright motor installed in the aircraft and had a lower performance rating. Fowler, however, was certain that the Cole motor increased thrust and improved handling. He was willing to bet his life that it represented the future of aviation propulsion technology. Incidentally, Cole Motor Car Company was the financial sponsor of this widely publicized flight attempt.

The next morning, on Sept. 12, Fowler flew east toward Donner Pass, but as he climbed the Sierra west slope he ran into gusty headwinds. He reached Blue Canyon at elevation 4,700 feet where air turbulence proved too much for the underpowered biplane. Just 25 miles west of the pass, he was forced to retreat.

Near Alta the bucking plane flipped in an updraft and crashed into trees that broke the wings, propellers and rudders. Fowler suffered minor injuries, but the “Cole Flyer” required 12 days of waiting for parts and repairs. Between Sept. 24 and 29, he charged to the summit several more times, once getting within a few miles of the pass, only to be blown back each attempt. Every flight risked injury or death.

Fowler failed to breach Donner Pass. Undaunted, he departed for southern California. On Oct. 19 he flew from Los Angeles toward Florida with no maps, no landing fields and no navigational directions. He arrived in Jacksonville on Feb. 17, 1912, becoming the second pilot to fly across the country.

Rodgers beat him by arriving in Los Angles on Nov. 5, 1911. Both pilots were too late to win the Hearst Prize, but for Fowler, who lived until 1966, it was just the first of many aviation accomplishments. Rodgers was killed in a plane crash on April 3, 1912. Donner Pass was finally conquered by air in 1919 with a 90-HP engine.