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Gilmore flight mystery 100

The Gilmore Aerodrome was established in 1907 on land that is now Lyman Gilmore School in Grass Valley.
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In a year and a half, aviation lovers will gather atop a cliff near Kill Devil Hill, N.C., to pay homage to the birth of the first flight.

But to hear some people in Nevada County, the honor bestowed on the Wright brothers, who took flight Dec. 17, 1903, at Kitty Hawk, will come at least a year and a half too late.

That accolade, some believe, must be given to a bearded inventor who was so principled he vowed never to bathe until William Jennings Bryan became president, and often kept pertinent details out of the purview of those who would profit from his innovations.



Determining Lyman Gilmore Jr.’s place in aviation history as the first to fly a craft heavier than air near Iowa Hill 100 years ago today has never been easy.

“I don’t know” if Gilmore ever made that flight, said Nevada City historian Bob Wyckoff, who has studied Gilmore on and off for years. “He was quite a mysterious man, a bona-fide character, one of Nevada County’s finest.”




A book recently self-published and written by Placer County resident Mary Parker, “Lyman Gilmore, Jr.: Aviator and Inventor,” does little to put the mystery to rest, the book’s author admits.

“Part of it is fact that can’t be verified,” said Parker, 74, a resident of Iowa Hill who crafted her paperback using news accounts of the man’s life. “People shouldn’t take the book as gospel; they should take it as fact and part fiction, and I hope it will interest people more in studying his history and getting it recorded.”

This much about Gilmore is known: He was born June 11, 1874, the sixth of 11 children. Always interested in flight, Gilmore built an airfield in 1907 on what is now a middle school that bears his name. Gilmore held at least a dozen patents for newfangled submarines, high-speed trains and helicopters that could fly as fast as 500 miles an hour and land on water.

After rejecting numerous overtures, the U.S. War Department finally accepted Gilmore’s idea for a barge used to transport soldiers during World War II.

Still, no one can verify his flight. Most of his records were destroyed when hangars burned at his airport in the 1930s.

“We have nothing to document it, only his word,” Wyckoff said.

Tony Sneaton, director of the firehouse at the Nevada County Historical Society, believes Gilmore’s account to be true.

Sneaton almost purchased an oil painting of Gilmore’s historic flight, painted a full year before the Wright brothers’ historic feat.

“Having initially seen the painting that predates the flight, I have no doubt whatsoever that it happened,” Sneaton said. “God only knows what happened to that painting. Now that I look back on it, it was an unbelievable loss.”

Gilmore died in Nevada City Feb. 18, 1951. Parker, who is selling the book herself, said her tome will probably keep people guessing.

“I think it will extend some of his myths, because it’s impossible to prove some of the things he did.”

For a copy of 3Lyman Gilmore Jr.: Aviator and Inventor,² call Mary Parker at (916) 451-4035. The cost is $15.


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