“The Uncrowned King of the Celestial Pathfinders” 1

It might seem like another dreary Monday to you, but September 30 has an exciting Montana tale of daring and adventure:

By 1911, an aviation craze had utterly engulfed the nation. Air shows happened almost daily, and aviators received celebrity treatment with newspapers studiously recording their every feat. In September of 1911, Helena became added to the annals of aviation history due to the exploits of Montana’s adopted hero: Cromwell Dixon. Dixon had all the spunk and personality Montanans love in their heroes. Born in 1892, he had created a cog-driven boat, a box camera and a rollercoaster in his Columbus, Ohio backyard before he reached his teens. At the 1904 World’s Fair, flight captured his imagination, and within a year he had invented an airship and became the first aviator to ever cross the Mississippi. For four years he supported his family flying his handmade dirigibles at fairs and carnivals. However, by 1911, acknowledging that the era of the dirigible had ended, Dixon switched his attention to fixed-wing aircraft. On August 7, 1911, he became the forty third pilot in the U.S. to receive a pilot’s license from the Aero Club of America and, at only nineteen, the youngest registered pilot in America. He immediately signed on with the Curtiss Exhibition Company and began a grueling tour across the U.S. On that trip, he stopped at the Montana State Fair in Helena. For two days he wowed the crowds with spirals and corkscrews and somersaults. On the third day, September 30, he pulled off an even bigger stunt. At two o’clock, he took off from the fairgrounds and, watched by thousands of spectators, pointed his Curtiss airplane, the Hummingbird, west toward the Rocky Mountains. At 2:34, he landed in a field in Blossburg, Montana, becoming the first aviator to ever cross the Continental Divide.

Tragically, at an exhibition in Spokane two days later, an unexpected gust of wind toppled his plane into the ground, killing the young aviator. Although hundreds of thousands of people across the country witnessed Cromwell Dixon’s feats of daring, Montana adopted him as one of its own. Within a year, a bronze plaque on a granite monument commemorated the young airman at the Montana State Fairgrounds. In 1939 the Forest Service dedicated a picnic area and campground in his honor on MacDonald Pass, just off of U.S. Highway 12, near where Dixon landed.

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Cromwell Dixon’s Aviation License

Photo Courtesy of the NRHC Svoboda Montana Picture Postcard Collection

[1] Quote from a letter by Montana Governor Edwin L. Norris to the citizens of Blossburg, delivered by Dixon, in which he praises Dixon. Found in: Del Phillips, “The World’s Youngest Aviator: Cromwell Dixon,” Montana: The Magazine of Western History, 59, 3 (2009).

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