Former Auburn man's 1897 'airship' full of hot air

·7 min read

May 21—Let's cut to the chase: the Lewiston Daily Sun and the Lewiston Evening Journal botched their 1897 coverage of former Auburn resident Arthur Wallace Barnard's "flying machine" taking to the skies over Tennessee.

They wrote about it as something unique and inspiring, perhaps even a milestone in the history of flight.

What the papers inexplicably left out is that Barnard copied a "Skycycle" that flew in 1895 — right over downtown Lewiston.

Days after Barnard launched his bicycle-powered balloon at a fair in Nashville — garnering laudatory news coverage across the land — a fellow named Carl Myers in upstate New York issued a statement to the press claiming that Barnard's airship copied one he'd already built, flown and patented.

Myers said Barnard was a "wholly inexperienced" aviator "and had no part in designating this sky cycle airship" that had received so much acclaim. He said he built the machine Barnard flew and shipped it to him in Tennessee.

Barnard, who worked for at least of couple of years in Auburn about 1890, admitted to The Nashville American that much of what Myers said was true.

That shouldn't have come as a surprise to the newsrooms of the competing dailies in Lewiston since each of them had covered Myers' flight extensively just a year and a half earlier.

After all, Myers' "Skycycle" took off before a big audience from Haymarket Square at the end of Lisbon Street, where at least two reporters were among the crowd on hand to witness the event. It landed in Frank Oble's farm field in Lisbon.

Surely somebody at the Sun or the Journal remembered seeing Myers pedaling furiously overhead on a cool, breezy autumn day 18 months before the breathless news about Barnard arrived from the Tennessee Centennial Exhibition.

But if they did, they didn't think it was worth reminding anyone about it by mentioning it in print.

Myers, who initially billed himself as a captain but ultimately decided he would claim to be a professor, had been flying a bicycle-powered balloon since 1892.

There's an advertisement from that year in the Indianapolis Journal touting Capt. Myers' upcoming flight in his "Sky-Cycle or Air-Ship" at Woodsdale Island Park, with special trains ready to take gawkers to and from the event.

It appears that Myers occasionally collected some spare cash by exhibiting his pedal-powered balloon at fairs throughout the region.

In late October 1895, Myers came to Maine.

An advertisement for Merchants' Week in Lewiston promised that "The Latest Wonder, The Skycycle" would be exhibited on Oct. 20 for the first time in New England.

At "an enormous expense," the advertisement claimed, Lewiston's merchants had convinced Prof. Carl E. Myers to make an ascension from the city into the heavens.

It would be "the most wonderful sight ever shown in Maine," they claimed, urging one and all to come see it.

Railroad fares would be cut in half for the big event.

Myers and two assistants showed up at Haymarket Square before 9 a.m., with a growing number of gawkers on hand to see them get ready for an ascent.

Surrounded by a rope fence, the men created a lime trench, mixed in some iron and other unnamed ingredients and created an unidentified, lighter-than-air gas which they used to fill a large bag.

By 11 a.m., a large crowd filled the square, leaving just enough room for the trolley line to operate.

Everyone was so anxious to get a look at Myers and his Skycycle that they began surging forward, pressing the front rows into the shipping containers that held the ropes. Some people were under the balloon itself and one stepped on, and snapped, a wing.

With no help from the police and a growing danger, the Sun reported, Myers told his assistants holding the ropes to "let her go."

"She went like a skyrocket," the Sun said, and in no time the wind began carrying the flying machine to the south as it rose.

The crowd watched "until it appeared very small and disappeared," the Sun said.

Meanwhile, it added, Dr. J.W. Beede of Auburn found somebody had snitched his pocketbook with $73 in it. Several others also fell prey to pickpockets.

"I got off after much trouble," Myers told the Sun. "I had gone up but a few hundred feet when I noticed that the mercury in my thermometer was falling."

"I soon found the temperature to be at the freezing point," he said, which shouldn't have been too big a surprise at the end of October in Maine.

"I went up to 9,000 feet," Myers said, and it got even colder, with the wind blowing 25 miles an hour.

"The balloon snapped and crackled above my head viciously," he told the Journal. "At one time, I feared the fabric might rend."

He said that by pedaling the attached bicycle, he can make his balloon go for 10 miles in an hour on a calm day, but the conditions in Lewiston were anything but calm.

"I was going 15 miles an hour to the southward in spite of what I could do," Myers said, so he quickly determined that he should find a way to get out of the river valley and onto the ground.

The Journal said the voyage "would have given a wild goose a hot chase" at that rate.

From his vantage point high above the ground, he said, he couldn't distinguish hills from flat ground except by the shadows cast.

"The Androscoggin was a thread of silver that one could step across. The fields were like spots on a checker-board," Myers said.

Seeing a little house near Lisbon, "where I might get help," Myers said. He managed to come down within 50 feet of Oble's house.

Myers said a boy who saw him land came rushing into the house hollering, "Come out and see what's here. Come and tell me quick. It's as big as a haystack, but it talks like a man."

For a fee, Oble put the damaged Skycycle in his farm wagon and took both Myers and his balloon back to Lewiston, arriving back at the square by 4:30 p.m.

The Journal called it a "rather disappointing flight."

Barnard's initial flight in Tennessee 18 months later wasn't much different, except that he landed in a tree outside of Nashville.

But instead of calling it a disappointment, press reports hailed it as a breakthrough in aeronautics, a marvel that put men one big step closer to honest-to-God flight.

It wasn't really. It amounted to little more than a bicycle dangling from a balloon with an extremely limited ability to move the balloon in a particular direction in the absence of a breeze.

Barnard readily admitted that he was inexperienced, as Myers charged.

"Oh, in the matter of practical experience he may approach the truth, but the theory has been the study of my life," Barnard told the Nashville paper.

He claimed he had made noteworthy improvements to Myers' design, but they couldn't have amounted to much since he only received the craft a few weeks before he ascended in it.

Myers said in a comment published in the Buffalo Morning Express in New York that "for Mr. Barnard to claim any portion of the invention or construction is absurd."

The unnamed Nashville reporter declined to take sides, pointing out that his own "aeronautic ventures have been confined to kite flying" and he didn't feel qualified to venture a judgment.

But, let's face it, Myers flew something that looked an awful lot like Barnard's craft 18 months beforehand in a city where Barnard had lived not long before. He almost certainly heard about it and may well have seen it for himself.

Myers, though, was not exactly clear headed on the whole matter.

He told reporters that he planned a cross-country trip from San Francisco to the Atlantic coastline on his Skycycle.

Fortunately for him, it doesn't appear he ever tried to make the journey.

Along with his wife, Carlotta, with whom he worked on flight at his "Balloon Farm" in Frankfurt, New York, for decades, Myers made some progress toward what would someday become dirigibles.

For a time, the pair constructed most of the balloons and dirigibles in America. Myers flew one for 700 miles, no small feat.

Barnard, meanwhile, slipped into obscurity.