The Story of The Flying Steamshovel
Note – This highly interesting bit of aeronautical history was originally written for the American Helicopter magazine, by Father Thomas P. Freney of Cranbrook. It is reproduced here with permission of the author and of the publishers of the magazine. Our deep thanks go to them for their courtesy. This version is somewhat abridged from the original for reason of space.
THE FLYING STEAM SHOVEL – as told by Father Thomas P. Freney
The Helicopter historians have slipped. Their statistics on vertical flight ranges from da Vinci to Sikorsky, with various nations and their inventors getting due credit for progress to date. But the log is incomplete, Western Canada’s entry isn’t included!
This early “eggbeater” deserves a nod with any hall of fame, in fact some of the inventions on record, with their pictures in the reference works and their models in the museums, couldn’t fly at all. This one could. From a pioneer angle it has the edge on most of them; and for only the proper turn of a valve, the whole social and economic trend might have turned … , or yet again, maybe not.
In any case, here are the delayed facts concerning Lou Gagnon, a boomer engineer, who got off the ground with his helicopter plane in Rossland, British Columbia, away back in the year 1902.
Modern experts point out that a helicopter, technically, is not a plane; at least not a fixed wing plane; and the auto gyro is something else again. Mr. Gagnon’s machine, a two engine job, has the merits of all three, but essentially it was a helicopter. It’s main feature an overhead rotor, power driven from a steam turbine, which lifted the whole thing up skyward from a standing jump. It was intended to go straight up and come straight down. It did both with modifications. A horizontal push propeller was geared to a one-cylinder engine out of a launch (boat). A pivot vane attached to it acted as a rudder.
As far as names go, the bystanders were not too technical. They called the machine the Flying Steamshovel on account of the resemblance. It had a cab amidships sheltering a large queen heater stove with a length of stovepipe running through the roof and an elbow at the top pointing astern. At the sides of the queen heater stood a number of upright levers and a boom ran out ahead with a box kite at the end instead of a scoop.
The fact that Lou Gagnon washed out as a pilot on his first solo flight is no reflection on the machine. Or on himself either, for basic training and aircrew classification were not to be known for a long age to come. Even to-day more than forty years later, with a world full of aircraft, the helicopter is still a backward infant; and with all the qualified pilots in the business, not many can fly one.
Lou Gagnon had been pulling a crack train out of Spokane. Originally from Toronto, he had been most places since, and had wheeled the fast ones on most of America’s iron trails. Husky and handsome, though no longer young, he looked more like an matinee idol than a wandering engine man. Polished manners and fine clothes, together with a quite manner, made him a little different from other railroad boarders at the Great Northern Hotel, which was better known as Mrs. L`Equier’s place across from the G. N. depot. They did not like his superiority tone.
Lou got on as a pump man at the Nickel Plate Mine, a job, which afforded shop facilities for the gadget he was inventing. He had invented several things before, without much profit; but this time he had the real thing. Had been working on it for years. Something that would raise the common workingman from slavery, and make the world take notice. His workshop was a shed out in the back of the hotel.
Night after night, through the wintry months, the noise of industry could be heard in the Gagnon plant. Secrecy surrounded the goings on. Even Joe Maderie, who had forge-welded some of the parts, gratis, couldn’t find out what they were for. All of which did not improve Lou’s social standing in the hotel.
Gradually Lou got to be a pest. He asked innumerable questions and answered none. He was spearing for technical opinions. And engineers who have been out fighting snow storms all day, with broken draw bars and the rest of it, don’t want to be pestered at supper table about thermodynamics or angularity of the main rod, especially when they are rusty on the topics.
The situation finally got tough. The nights filled with the noises of black smithing, boiler-making and carpentry. Then other sounds began disturbing the midnight hours – weird groans and hissing and rumbling.
One night in February the rumbling transcended to a deafening blast which bulged the door of the shed from it’s leather hinges. A roaring draft of air escaped, which blew fresh snow all over the place and knocked down some washtubs hanging on the back porch. The boys trying to sleep upstairs fervently wished Gagnon would blow himself and his apparatus to a hotter kingdom and said so.
But the big day finally came. On an afternoon off, Lou pried open the front of the shed and skidded the secret weapon out into the yard. Black smoke was curling from the miniature stack. Lou turned on the blower. The he hastily dragged out the prefabricated biplane wings, a set for each side, and bolted them into place. They were made of pine and canvas and piano wire bracing; and they slanted backward at an angle from the fuselage, instead of being straight across.
Lou sprinkled more coal onto the fire and oiled around. Then he brushed the fog off the big steam gauge above the boiler. With his eyes still on the gauge, he reached up and slowly valved some steam into the turbine. The long blades began to revolve. Carefully he valved in more steam until the rotor was a blurred circle against the sky.
Next he cracked the throttle of the horizontal engine. The push propeller began ticking over. Still watching the gauge, he adjusted the blower and threw in another fire. Lou was proceeding cautiously – everything here on was experimental.
By this time the upper windows were crowded with faces. The night shift men had been awakened by the activity and a crowd was gathering out on the road.
Among those remembered were a laundry Chinaman, some women and children and few miners coming down from the hill. Also shuffling across the deep snow, were an engineer called Red, and his fireman who had slipped over to the Bellview Bar before taking their train down the treacherous curves of the Sheep Creek Canyon to Northport.
After a final look at the steam gauge, Lou pulled on big woolen mitts and stepped onto the operating platform. From the windows above came numerous questions and suggestions. Lou Gagnon was in a tight spot now, but he had been in many a one before. His long awaited moment had come. He turned up his Mackinaw collar and pulled down his red woolen cap.
Holding a truss rod with one hand, he began valving more steam to the rotor. Each turn gave it a marked increase in speed. Soon there was a down draft of air that blasted everything loose from the scene. The bystanders took shelter around the corner of the building from where they could watch the proceedings.
Presently the rickety framework began to shudder and the front end lurched clear of the ground. Lou stepped forward still holding on, and the stern wobbled into the air. The whole thing started upward uncertainly, At the same time it began to revolve from the torque. Lou widened the throttle of the push propeller and adjusted the pivot plane with one of the upright levers. Glancing at the gauge, he let more steam into the turbine.
A few feet higher the machine began revolving the other way. Another jerk on the pivot plane checked that, but when it stopped turning one way, it started back in the opposite direction. Lou ignored this for another few feet while he wiped the mist off the gauge and adjusted the injector and the blower. By the time he had cleared the top of the hotel the flying steamshovel was really going round and round.
Lou widened the throttle again, which was the wrong thing to do. It increased the spin, which, as the pilot must have forgotten, was not from the rotor but from too much anti-torque of the propeller. He saw his mistake and shut off the steam completely. This was also was a bad one. A few moments later, when he opened the throttle again, the revolving continued. Looking back, Lou saw that the push propeller was not turning over. He widened on the throttle and shut off several times. Nothing happened. He glanced at the steam gauge and adjusted the blower. Then he reached up and cut off some of the turbine steam. Soon he was pawning frantically like a one arm-juggler from one control to another.
It suddenly dawned on Lou what the trouble was. His one lung engine was stuck on dead center. It had a manual device for correcting this, but it was out of reach from where he had to stand. In desperation he turned the upper valve on the turbine`s casing, then climbed back to off-center the main rod.
Whatever he did with that upper valve, it was disastrous. While Lou was draped over the cross head grappling with stalled mechanism, the overhead windmill died quickly with a sickening groan. The tail dropped first and the ramshackle machine corkscrewed downward into a spin. Barely missing the edge of the hotel, it landed upside down on the starting place with a noise like the crack of doom. An explosion of steam and smoke and cinders ballooned into the wintry air.
The spectators, more numerous now, scattered in all directions, all except Red and his fireman. They dived into the smoke screen and heaved the wreckage off the prostrate pilot. When they turned him over he still showed signs of life, so they flagged a passing cutter and sent him to the hospital. His condition was found to be serious from a broken leg and shock.
Some of the night shift had scrambled downstairs and were standing around in red flannel underwear regardless of the sub-zero air. An investigation of the crash took place. There wasn’t much to study. Just a lot of tangled junk. The big blades were smashed and the turbine lay with a huge dent in it`s side, steam issuing from it’s seams. The Gagnon annoyances had definitely came to an end. Fresh snow was beginning to fall. Before going back into the hotel, the boys dragged the remains of the craft back into the hanger and boarded everything up.
The steam shovel pilot never tried to fly again. After many weeks he hobbled back to the hotel on crutches and made a dicker to flunky around for his board until he got strong. He was broke and thin and had turned very grey.
Gagnon went to Spokane and worked in a haberdashery. He knew how clothes should be worn. The he joined a road show as a vocalist and went East. After a gap of twenty-two years his name turned again as a retiring locomotive foreman in an eastern railroad terminal. He returned to Toronto and died there a few months later.
Posthumous credit should be given Lou Gagnon and his helicopter dream. He invented one and flew it. At least he got into the air. The mechanics and the general principles were there. Lengthy statistics have been compiled on lesser achievements. Too bad he didn’t have a drifting throttle to keep the one lung main rod from stopping on center when he shut it off. The big rotor could have dangled him around indefinitely, and let him down easy, if he had kept it going. That much alone would have swung big changes into the kaleidoscope, as the inventor had envisioned. Perhaps humanity wasn’t ready to be uplifted yet — not with a flying steam shovel.
A personal note — Monseigneur A. K. MacIntyre V.G. P.A. told me in the sixties that the original article on the Flying Steamshovel was written by Father T. P. Freney and appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in the thirties. Some people disputed Father Freney`s story, so he went to the Rossland Hospital and obtained the medical records of Lou Gagnon`s injury. He also obtained affidavits from three witnesses who saw the helicopter in flight; they were Pete Lalonde and Joe Couture, and another person, whose name I cannot recall.
The following statement was found in February 1995 in the archives of the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Rossland, B. C.
Kimberley, B.C., June 22, 1946.
Statement of facts as I knew them from personal experience concerning Gagnon and his helicopter in Rossland, B.C. in 1902.
I witnessed the Gagnon helicopter flight in Rossland, B. C., about forty years ago. I was closely associated with the inventor at that time and owned the cabin in which he built the machine. We always called him Fred although Lou might also have been his name.
The Great Northern Hotel had previously been a boarding house, run by Mrs. L`Ecuier, at the Queen Best Mine shaft behind the present Catholic Church towards the Armory and was moved to the G. N. Depot when the shaft stopped operating. I worked with a team of horses moving the building by house mover MacKinnon. On the ground where the hotel was to go I owned a log stable and this was shoved back out of the way. I still owned it when Gagnon wanted to use it as a work shop.
The reason Gagnon kept the invention a secret while he was building the machine was because he wasn’t sure how it would it turn out and he was very sensitive about his ability along mechanical lines. He worked at the Nickel Plate Mine, mostly as a trouble shooter as he could replace any tradesman or mechanic there. He could run the hoist or compressor or the boiler room or any kind of machinery and could make repairs when anything went out of order.
Word leaked out around the hotel when he was ready to try out the plane. Among those I remember were there and saw the plane go up were; Mrs. L`Ecuier and Mrs. Tremblay; Emile Cote, who belonged at Birch Bank; Fisher, who had a livery stable on second avenue; Joe Maderie, Gagnon`s partner Joe Stall, of Spokane, who had married Mrs, L`Ecuier`s oldest daughter and Alex Constantine. And there were others in the hotel and some people on the street.
Gagnon opened up the shed front and throw down some planks on the snow and barred the flying machine out with a crowbar. He had steam up when he took it out to make a quick getaway. The propellers made an awful wind, worse than a hurricane, and the machine went straight up like a spider. As to high it went, I`d say well over 200 feet. When he tried to go ahead it backed down in circles and smashed up in the yard. Some fellows in the street got to him first. We sent him to the doctor in the back of a sleigh. He was bruised up and had a broken leg. After he got better he went to live in Spokane with Joe Stall and then I lost track of him.
Signed by Ed Deschamps
In the presence of: Lars Paulson T. P. Freney
Mr. Alfy Albo Sr. mentioned to me on March 2, 1995, that he recalled Mr. Joe Couture and Mr. Tony Lalonde describing the flight of the helicopter to his father when Alfy was a young boy.