City Quotient: Cromwell Dixon, Columbus’ Boy Aviator

The fearless teen was the first person to fly an airplane across the Continental Divide.

Jeff Darbee
Cromwell Dixon

I have heard a story of a very young Columbus airplane pilot from the early 20th century. Can you tell me more? One of our city’s earliest aviation heroes was Cromwell Dixon. California-born but Columbus-raised, this “mechanical genius” was credited with disassembling a clock at the age of 1. Fast-forward to April 1907, when the 14-year-old was finishing his “sky cycle,” a bicycle frame suspended from a “gas bag” (a blimp, sewn together by his mother), geared to turn a propeller. 

Utterly fearless, Dixon became Columbus’ first aeronaut that June when he soared for an hour at 200 feet (the height of Downtown skyscrapers) above Driving Park on the city’s East Side. In another flight a few days later, he thrilled spectators even more when he crawled out on the flimsy framework to vent the balky gas bag so he could descend. Public exhibitions followed, and his fame spread rapidly between 1907 and 1911 as he achieved altitudes of as much as 2,000 feet. 

Eventually, he turned to fixed-wing aircraft, with the support of aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss. Seeking another first, Dixon proposed a flight across the Continental Divide in Montana in late September 1911. Curtiss said it could not be done, but in less than two hours, Dixon flew from Helena, the state capital, to Blossburg and back, crossing the divide at Mullan Pass (a marker there recognizes this feat). Sadly, only a few days later, Dixon was performing at the Spokane Fair in Washington state when adverse air currents caused a loss of control; the plane hit the ground, fatally injuring 19-year-old Dixon. 

Earlier this year, CQ wrote about the mysterious 2006 disappearance of Jefferson Avenue’s unicorn sculpture. Just who was behind the temporary theft has never been determined, but we do have an update—of sorts. Katharine Moore of the Jefferson Center for Learning and the Arts has her suspicions. Circumstantial evidence points, she says, to a particular local person known, in concert with other folks, for slightly subversive acts—such as planting a tree in the middle of Mohawk Street in German Village to shame the city into repairing the bumpy brick paving. Moore says this individual also had a friend who owned a trucking company, and he wanted Columbus to install innovative outdoor sculptures similar to Chicago’s “Cows on Parade” in order to bring more art to the city. 

Conceding that her suspicions are far from confirmed, she tied all this together and has laid responsibility for that heinous act at the feet of the late Fred Holdridge, who—with his late partner Howard Burns—was German Village. Case closed? Not so fast. “I don’t think Fred would have done anything like that,” says travel agent David Schooler, a longtime Village resident and friend of Holdridge, a sentiment shared by Julie D’Elia, another good friend who acquired the Village’s Hausfrau Haven from Holdridge and Burns. 

So, if Holdridge did it, he took that fact with him when he left us; if he didn’t, someone is still at large. If any readers can add more to this tale, please email us. 

Jeff Darbee is a preservationist, historian and author in Columbus. Send your questions to cityquotient@columbusmonthly.com, and the answer might appear in a future column. 

Sources: Columbus Dispatch researcher Julie Fulton; Dispatch archives; Katharine Moore; David Schooler; Beth Ervin; Julie D’Elia