Monday, February 24, 2014

The “Birdman” of Hamilton

'Birdman' Beachey,  putting on flying show at the Hamilton Fair

[Reprinted with permission, by © Jim Benjaminson, Author]

When Orville and Wilbur Wright first took to the air in 1903, no one could imagine the future aviation would hold for the world. For people living on the flat prairies of North Dakota it would be seven more years before anyone would witness the daring exploits of a “birdman” when Archibald “Arch” Hoxsey gave the first demonstration flight in the state at the Grand Forks fairground July 19, 1910.

First North Dakota flight at Grand Forks Fair, 1910

Hoxsey had met Orville Wright in March of ’10, when Orville opened a school for aspiring aviators in Montgomery, Alabama. It was here Hoxsey learned to fly and joined other pilots in the Wright Exhibition Team, a troupe of flyers scheduled to give flying exhibitions around the country. These flyers would be the first to fly the new Wright Brothers Model B aircraft. Hoxsey’s Grand Forks flight was witnessed by an estimated 10,000 people as he flew 2,500 feet in the air during his 22-minute flight. Hoxsey’s flying career—and his life, at age 26—came to an end that same December during an exhibition flight in Los Angeles when his plane plummeted from a height of 7,000 feet. Hoxsey could not only claim being the first aviator to fly in North Dakota but to also carrying the first (former) United States president when he took Theodore Roosevelt airborne two months earlier in St. Louis.

Residents of Pembina County who had not been present at the Grand Forks exhibition would have to wait an additional three years before the first recorded airplane flight took place in the county. Hillary Beachey—billed as the “World’s Greatest Aviator”—was booked to make an appearance at the 1913 Hamilton Fair. Ads in the Cavalier Chronicle reading “see the dizzy, death-defying aeroplane flights by daredevil aviators every afternoon” drew large crowds to the fairgrounds. After the fair, the Chronicle reported “the program of attractions was perhaps larger and better by far than that of any previous fair held in the county. Perhaps the chief among these were the several flights of Hillary Beachey in his Aero Plane.”
Beachey made three “ascensions” as the flights were called, during the fair, the first on Wednesday afternoon, July 30th, 1913 and one flight each Thursday afternoon and evening July 31st.

According to the Chronicle published the next day, the flights were “very successfully accomplished and were the admiration of the people. In every flight, Prof. Beachey was up in the air from twenty to thirty minutes and made a fifteen to eighteen mile trip, finally landing the plane in the place upon the fairground from which he started. In the flight each time he came from within three to four miles of Cavalier. In the Thursday afternoon ascent he reached a height of 2,000 feet…and sailed along at the rate of sixty miles an hour as easily, smoothly and steadily as an eagle in mid-air.”

Born in 1885, Hillary Beachey, like other early pilots, started his aviation career flying balloons and flew a dirigible at the 1905 Lewis & Clark Exposition in Portland, Oregon. Although he had two serious crashes under his belt prior to his appearance at Hamilton—his brother Lincoln Beachey would be killed in a plane crash in 1915—Beachey continued to fly well into his later years until a stroke grounded him. He remained in a California State Hospital until his death at the age of 79 in 1964—one week short of 51 years since making his appearance as the first “birdman” in Pembina County.

Beachey’s appearance at the fair had a long-lasting effect on many of the young men attending the fair. His “aeroplane” was shipped to Hamilton by rail and then assembled to the south of the fairgrounds where he could take off and land to the best advantage of fairgoers seated in the grandstands. Among the young boys helping unload, assemble and then dis-assemble the aircraft were J. B. Martin and Lester Eddington. Eddington would later become a pilot himself under the tutelage of Claude Skinner, while J. B. preferred to keep his feet firmly on the ground.

Sadly, the first “home grown” Pembina County flyer remains lost to history.

© Jim Benjaminson