Heart of Louisiana: Charles Page’s airship

Updated: Aug. 25, 2020 at 9:30 PM CDT
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PINEVILLE, La. (WVUE) - This may be one of the more remarkable moments in aviation history that you’ve never heard of.

About the time the Wright brothers were flying their first airplane, a Pineville, Louisiana man was doing the same thing.

The way the family tells this story, the idea started with a dragonfly.

“The story goes that he would watch those things in flight for hours at a time and I assumed that it’s where he got his inspiration to build an air ship,” says Joseph Page.

Page is talking about his grandfather, Charles Page, a farmer and timberman in Pineville, Louisiana.

Granddaughter Kattie Page Williams heard the same story.

“At an early age I was told that he had this invention, the airship or the airplane,” says Kattie.

The year was 1903 when Charles Page turned his inspiration from a flying insect into an airship. It was about the same time that the Wright brothers were taking flight with their airplane.

Page got a patent for his airship in 1906 before the Wright brothers. But Page’s story takes and unusual turn.

He planned to enter his airship in a competition for a $100,000 prize at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis.

“He took his life savings. He built a working model, tested it at his home in Pineville and then shipped it off by train to St. Louis, Missouri where he was going to follow, fly the airplane in St. Louis, Missouri and then become a chapter in all of our history books,” says Michael Wynne.

But the aircraft never arrived at the World’s Fair.

“His plane was destroyed or stolen possibly due to the fact that he was an African-American,” says Wynne.

“I think that because he was a black man who had the audacity to try something that had never been done before, it’s probably one of the reasons why the model disappeared and the history was never corrected to show that,” says Joseph.

Writer and amateur historian Wynne is trying to rewrite a missing part of aviation history. He’s collected newspaper stories, drawings of the airship and Page’s 1906 patent.

“Charles Frederick Page’s airplane was somewhat primitive compared to the Wright brothers. It did have its own engine for horizontal movement, but it actually relied mainly on balloons and was called airship.”

There is no record of Charles Page ever building another airship. But there is a renewed effort in the city of Pineville to publicly recognize his achievements.

“There are things that you didn’t talk about back in that day, back in that time unfortunately,” says Clarence Fields.

So fast forward to where we are today, you’re anxious to give some recognition to Mr. Page. Why is that?

“The issues, making people understand, you know, that this individual, Mr. Page actually did something that he was never recognized for and this community was not recognized for because of him,” says Fields.

“I really often wish I had known him because I think our generation could have learned a lot from him, says Kattie.

Even Charles Page’s final resting place in Pineville has been covered up with bricks and concrete in an unmarked family crypt. Buried here is a man who was fascinated with flying and he figured out a way to do it.

There is even more surprising aviation history from the central part of the state. A man from Alexandria invented, flew and patented one of the earliest helicopters.

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