From the Museum Archives: First flight in Northwest Colorado
On a cool autumn afternoon in 1914 Hayden, a human being was seen occupying space previously reserved for only birds, clouds and celestial bodies. It was a monumental occasion — one that shook the very fiber of reality for the people of Northwest Colorado.
In 1914, just one year after a successful Railroad Days event celebrating the arrival of the first train to Hayden, Haydenites decided to keep the momentum going by introducing an annual Routt County Fair. In addition to showcasing Yampa Valley’s finest agricultural products, the fair was meant as a social gathering that would include horse races, baseball games, dances and more. However, one of the biggest hurdles with any new event is convincing people to change their normal habits and give it a shot. One way to do this is by promising the people something they’ve never seen; even better, promise something they’re guaranteed to never forget.
Such was the case with the very first Routt County Fair. Just two weeks before the gates were set to open, a large headline in the Steamboat Pilot proclaimed “BIRD-MAN, IN AEROPLANE, WILL BE FAIR ATTRACTION”. This was huge! Only 11 years earlier had Orville Wright become the first human to set to the skies in a plane. Since that time only a handful of people possessed not just an airplane, but the skills and nerves to actually fly one. But somehow the fair organizers pulled together $650 — $16,000 today! — to give the people of Northwest Colorado a chance to see something that would truly take their breath away.
As expected, the news traveled and an estimated 2,000 people came from far and wide to be part of the festivities; the town of Hayden only had about 350 residents at the time. As good fortune would have it, 12-year-old John Rolfe Burroughs, the locally renowned author, would be in attendance while on his very first date. He recalled the flight in his book titled “Headfirst in the Pickle Barrel.”
“The plane just cleared the barbed-wire fence which marked the western terminus of the rodeo ground, barely missed a telephone pole, and then — miracle of miracles — could be seen soaring above the tall cottonwood trees along the Yampa River!”
He continued, “… everybody, including a contingent of excited dogs and two or three wild-eyed calves residual from the rodeo… raced across the field to congratulate the aviator, to grasp his right hand, and to pound him on the back until they very nearly jarred his teeth loose.”
Unfortunately, the pilot that day, Weldon B. Cooke, was performing the very next week in Pueblo when turbulence sent him tumbling 2,000 feet to his death. Just a couple days earlier, however, while flying the 45 miles between Colorado Springs and Pueblo, he had set a new record for the longest flight above 5,000 feet. It was also the longest flight ever recorded in the state of Colorado.
It’s easy to take for granted the wonders we now witness every day, but on that day nobody left the fairgrounds unaffected from what they had witnessed. Burroughs summarized that, next to the acquittal of Ann “Queen of the Cattle Rustlers” Bassett the year before: “… the performance put on by the flyer and his machine at the Hayden fair was the most momentous event ever to occur in northwestern Colorado up to that time.”
Paul Knowles is assistant director of the Museum of Northwest Colorado. To learn more, drop by the Museum of Northwest Colorado at 590 Yampa Ave., or visit the museum’s Facebook page, facebook.com/MuseumNorthwestColorado.