Beachey, Lincoln (1887-1915)

  • By Bill Alley
  • Posted 2/10/2005
  • Essay 7249
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Lincoln Beachey was one of the most famed aviators of his day. In the summer and fall of 1905 he made a series of thrilling balloon flights at Portland's "Lewis and Clark Centennial and American Pacific Exposition and Oriental Fair." In one feat he delivered a letter by balloon to the Vancouver (Washington) Barracks. Beachey was only 18 years old in 1905, but already he was a renowned aviator. No less a luminary than Orville Wright would later praise him as "the greatest aviator of them all." He died at the age of 28 after he lost control of his airplane during a demonstration flight in 1915.

Vancouver's Portland Fair

To celebrate the centennial of the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery, as well as to promote its growing economic interests, the city of Portland played host to the "Lewis and Clark Centennial and American Pacific Exposition and Oriental Fair" during the summer and fall of 1905. Among the fair’s many attractions, exhibits, and demonstrations were Beachey's balloon flights.

It had only been a couple of years since the Wright brothers had made their epic flight in a heavier-than-air aircraft, so Beachey at this early stage of his career was still traveling the country giving demonstrations in lighter-than-air controlled balloon craft. To entertain the crowds at the Portland fair, Beachey utilized a pair of airships, designed and owned by T. S. Baldwin, named the Gelatine and the City of Portland.

These craft consisted of a gas-filled bag with a framework carrying the motor, controls, and pilot suspended underneath it. The wear and tear of daily flights took their toll on Beachey’s airships, and in September components of the two ships were combined, with the gas bag from the Gelatine being fitted onto the framework of the City of Portland.

Airship Mail

The crowds had grown somewhat accustomed to the young aviator’s regular flights over the fairgrounds, so Beachey’s departure on the morning of September 19, 1905, seemed rather routine until the crowds watched as he disappeared in the distance to the northeast. It was soon announced that the aviator was carrying a letter from Theodore Hardee, a fair official, to the commandant at the Vancouver Barracks, General Constant Williams. Despite headwinds, Beachey reached the post parade ground in a mere 40 minutes, where a crowd had already gathered to welcome him. His delivery of Hardee’s greeting was hailed at the time as the first time an airship had been used to deliver a letter.

After a brief layover at the barracks, Beachey alighted for his return trip to the fairgrounds. But by this time winds had shifted, and he was unable to make headway. As his fuel ran low, he decided to land on the farm of A. B. Gilmore, near Orchards, Washington. Although the young aeronaut had been thwarted in his attempt to complete his return trip, his flight of almost two hours duration over Clark County was hailed as a new duration record, shattering by 20 minutes the flight of Alberto Santos-Dumont at the Paris Exposition of 1900.

From Balloons to Wings

In 1910 Beachey shifted his flying exhibitions to winged aircraft, and continued giving demonstration flights across the country with the Curtis Aircraft Co.’s aeronautics team. His reputation soared when in the fall of 1913 he became the first flier to perform a loop.

Sadly, during a demonstration flight at the Panama Pacific International Exposition in 1915, Beachey lost control of his plane. It plunged into the San Francisco Bay, ending the short life of one of aviation’s earliest celebrities.


Bill Alley, "Lincoln Beachey: Vancouver's First Aeronaut," Clark County History Vol. XLII, 2001-2004, pp. 63-64.

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