December of this year, America will mark the centennial of the Wright brothers'
airplane success at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina -- an achievement regarded as the
beginning of powered flight.
But if a Baptist preacher from Pittsburg
in Camp County had been blessed with a better press agent, the centennial might
have been observed in East Texas a year earlier.
In late 1902, at least
a year before the Wright brothers soared into the sky, an airplane designed by
Rev. Burrell Cannon was flown 160 feet at Pittsburg. But the event went largely
unpublicized and it wasn't until 1976 that a state historical marker finally recognized
A sawmiller and inventor, Cannon got his idea
for the airship from the Old Testament book of Ezekiel, which described a flying
machine: "The appearance of the wheels and their work was like unto the color
of beryl and...their appearance and their work was as it were a wheel in the middle
of a wheel."
Cannon designed his airship after studying the Biblical
passage for years, making extensive mechanical notes, and finally producing a
design around 1900. His plans featured a series of wheels, a 26-foot wingspan,
and a cluster of levers which would control the plane's flight. The design looked
more like a crude helicopter than a conventional airplane. Cannon then convinced
ten friends to invest $20,000 in his Ezekiel Airship Manufacturing Company at
$25 per share.
Built at P.W. Thorsell's foundry in Pittsburg,
the plane was flown in 1902 by Gus Stamps, a foundry employee who worked on the
contraption. Stamps and his fellow workers rolled the plane into a pasture and
decided to try it out. It flew upward about ten feet and began to drift toward
a fence before Stamps killed the power to the four-cyclinder gas engine.
Cannon, ironically, wasn't present. He was preaching at a nearby church. When
Cannon failed to arouse additional interest in his plane at Pittsburg, he loaded
it onto a railroad flatcar and started to St. Louis, where the craft was to be
exhibited. But a storm blew it from the flatbed railcar near Texarkana, destroying
Cannon built a second airship around 1911 -- some eight
years after the Wrights' flight -- but it was also destroyed when a hired pilot
flew it into the top of a telephone pole during a test flight. The incident caused
Cannon to give up on his flying machine.
From 1914 to 1921, Cannon made
his home in Longview and at
the time of his death in 1923, he lived in Marshall.
Although he was 74, he was in the midst of perfecting an automated cotton picker
and boll weevil destroyer. In 1922, a fire destroyed all of his plans for the
But Pittsburg, which apparently didnšt think much of
the old preacher's invention in the early 1900s, has since embraced the history
of the Ezekiel Airship.
In a downtown museum, visitors will find a full-sized
replica of the plane and a tribute to its inventor.
Things Historical >
November 20, 2003
A syndicated column in over 40 East Texas newspapers
Published with permission
(Bob Bowman is the author of nearly 30 books on
East Texas history and folklore and a past president of the East Texas Historical
The First Air Flight by Bob Bowman