Full-size Replica Ezekiel Airship
A handful of obscure, motorized airplanes claim to have been flown before the Wright brothers did so in 1903. But none has the civic support, or the biblical pedigree, of the one in Pittsburg, Texas, where a life-size replica hangs in an annex of the Depot Museum.
The Rev. Burrell Cannon, a local Baptist minister, read in the Book of Ezekiel of "living creatures" rising from the earth and a "wheel within a wheel." He believed that these Bible passages contained the secret to powered flight.
Cannon formed The Ezekiel Air Ship Mfg Co., sold $20,000 in stock to his neighbors, and supervised the construction of his contraption in a local iron foundry.
It had large, fabric-covered wings and was powered by a small engine that turned four sets of vertical paddles mounted on wheels within wheels. It would fly the same way that a side wheel paddleboat churns its way through water -- except that paddles don't work that way in air, and Ezekiel mentioned nothing about wings or an engine. So how could it be biblical, and how could it possibly fly?
Nevertheless, in the autumn of 1902 -- so the story goes -- one of the workers in the foundry decided to take the airship out for a test run. He got it maybe 15 feet in the air, and covered about 50 yards. But there were no newspaper reports of the flight, no photographs, no eyewitness accounts.
Vernon Holcomb, at the Depot Museum, told us that he knew of "five documented second-hand accounts," a standard of proof that would only pass muster with the most desperate pseudo-investigative shows on cable.
And yet, if true, the Rev. Cannon's airship would have beaten the Wright Brothers' craft by over a year.
For some unexplained reason the airship was never flown again. Instead, the reverend, seeking funds, put it on a railroad flatcar to ship it to the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. It only got as far as Texarkana, and then was destroyed by a storm.
Thin as the evidence may be for Rev. Cannon's success, it was good enough for Pittsburg. In 1987 the local Optimist's Club built a full-scale replica of what is now called "The Ezekiel Airship," based on one surviving photo -- "So clear that you can see the bolts," according to Vernon -- and displayed it in a local restaurant.
In 2001 Pittsburg residents built a custom annex to the town's Northeast Texas Rural Heritage Depot and Museum, hung the replica from the rafters, and hired a firm from Houston to design an exhibit around it. The result is surprisingly impressive and informative. The Optimists did an excellent job -- their replica looks as if it could hang in the Smithsonian -- although they concede that it is too heavy to fly. According to Vernon, the reverend somehow was able to build the same airship at the weight. How he did so is yet another mystery. No parts survive, nor any patent drawings or plans. "He didn't want anyone to see what he was doing," Vernon explained.
The annex includes an exhibit of the Rev. Cannon's Bible, open to the first chapter of Ezekiel. In the gift shop there are Ezekiel Airship post cards and books, a half-hour documentary on DVD, plus miniature gold Ezekiel Airship Christmas tree ornaments.
The state of Texas, never shy about boasting, has erected an official historical plaque two blocks south of the museum. It marks the field where the airship supposedly flew, either on biblical smarts or just a lot of Texas hot air.