September 30, 1911
Cromwell Dixon became the first person to fly across the mountainous Continental Divide. The 19-year-old Dixon, who received his air pilot license only the previous month, had well-established credentials when it came to transportation pursuits. As a boy, for example, he constructed a rollercoaster for the kids in his neighborhood. Dixon was no older than 11 when built himself a motorcycle.
Dixon also developed a strong interest early on in more airborne means of mobility. At the age of 14, he won first prize for his homemade dirigible “Sky-cycle” at the 1907 International Balloon Race in St. Louis. Dixon went on to showcase and fly his airships over the next few years in a variety of other venues.
In his history-making flight across the Continental Divide, Dixon departed the Montana State Fair in Helena in a Curtiss “Pusher” biplane at 2:08 that Saturday afternoon. He then flew about 15 miles (24.1 kilometers) to the west through the Continental Divide’s Mullan Pass to get to the community of Blossburg, soaring as high as 7,100 feet (2,164.1 meters) during the course of his trek. This flight took 26 minutes.
Dixon’s return flight to Helena that same afternoon proved to be more challenging. He encountered difficulties trying to reach the necessary altitude due to strong winds. This flight took 43 minutes, with Dixon finally landing back at the fair grounds at 3:59 p.m. Dixon’s aviation accomplishment in crossing the Continental Divide earned him $10,000, which was presented to him by Montana Governor Edwin L. Norris.
Tragically, however, Dixon died just two days later in Spokane, Washington, when his plane crashed at the Interstate Fair there. “Youthful Daredevil of Sky Flirts with Death in Air Once Too Often,” announced a front-page headline in the Montana-based newspaper Butte Miner. The newspaper also reported on the public reaction in Helena to Dixon’s untimely demise on that first Monday in October. “The news of the death of Cromwell Dixon cast a gloom over the entire city late this afternoon,” stated the article on the prevailing mood in Helena that day. “No one, in the history of Helena, had so completely won the city as the boy aviator did during his appearance at the state fair here last week.”
Dixon’s Continental Divide flight was memorialized with a monument erected in 1912. This monument has been moved several times over the decades, and it now stands in Helena’s Morrison Park.
For more information on Cromwell Dixon’s record-setting flight across the Continental Divide, please check out http://www.helenahistory.org/cromwell-dixon.htm and the 1 September 2004 Airport Journals article “The Boy Aviator: Cromwell Dixon and the Conquest of the Continental Divide” at http://airportjournals.com/the-boy-aviator-cromwell-dixon-and-the-conquest-of-the-continental-divide/