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Aviator Lyman Gilmore, Jr. once said, “When man has robbed from the eagle his eagle secret, we shall be able to soar through the air unconcerned.”
On May 15, 1902, the eccentric inventor unlocked the clandestine mystery in the remote hills of northwestern El Dorado County. There, one year before the Wright brothers’ historic flight at Kitty Hawk, Lyman Gilmore became the first man in the U.S. to fly the friendly skies.
On that date,” Gilmore claimed in his flight log, “a 22-foot span monoplane powered by a 20-horsepower steam engine flash boiler was launched down a chute 100 yards long into the air and then continued in flight for some distance on its own power. It made a mile or more under perfect control.”
Growing up, Gilmore fiddled with bicycles, attaching them to gliders and pedaling the contraptions down hills while flapping his improvised wings. His father often chided his preoccupation with mechanical flight, calling it “sheer tomfoolery.” Yet, Gilmore continued to pursue his dreams of flight and later fashioned a more sophisticated model of his bicycle glider. This time, he constructed an 18-foot, fixed-wing glider, which he attached by rope to a horse.
hile records kept by Gilmore himself remain the primary source of his story, there exists a witnessed document, dated April 27, 1898, affirming his visionary spirit. Patent drawings show a pusher/tractor monoplane featuring an enclosed fuselage and vertical rudders, much like those found on a boat hull. Although photographs from 1898 exhibit Gilmore’s “flying machine,” none show the plane in the air.
In 1902, the federal government granted Gilmore patents on two steam engines meant for use in “aerial vehicles.” It wasn’t until later years that he claimed he had used one of them to launch his monoplane on a “flat area south of the Middle Fork of the American River.” Although no eyewitnesses came forth to verify Gilmore’s alleged May 15, 1902 flight, two large and comparatively advanced aircraft that Gilmore built in 1908 led to speculation that he definitely experimented with smaller aircraft in earlier years. These two planes and their hangers comprised what became the “Gilmore Aerodome,” making it the first commercial airfield in the country. Gilmore then formed the Colfax Aeroplane Company and sold shares to Placerville and Coloma residents.
Initially, the company flourished, but Gilmore’s reputation as an “oddball” spread throughout the Foothills. In 1909, after losing an election bet, he abruptly stopped shaving and bathing, vowing only to resume good hygiene when William Jennings Bryan became president of the United States. Some people swore he kept his pledge until his death in 1951.
Eventually, stockholders booted Gilmore out of his own company. Nevertheless, he started another business venture. On March 17, 1912, residents from Placerville, Coloma, Auburn and Grass Valley crowded around the runway at Gilmore’s “air camp” near Grass Valley expecting to see the inventor’s new plane fly off into the “wild blue yonder.” Although the plane eventually lifted off the ground, it crash-landed after clipping a rock.
Unfortunately, a 1935 hanger fire destroyed any proof of Gilmore’s alleged achievements, therefore making it difficult to separate fact from fiction. Although the question of whether or not he flew before the Wright brothers remains unanswered, Gilmore maintains his place among those early pioneers who never abandoned their dreams of flight.