The town of Pittsburg, Texas, is probably best known for its connection to automotive legend Carroll Shelby or a prosperous poultry pilgrim named “Bo,” who became famous in Pilgrim’s Pride commercials. And while the Northeast Texas Rural Heritage Museum offers nods to these two local boys who made good as well an eclectic array of rustic ephemera, the real reason to visit is a contraption that looks like steampunk meets Bible: the Ezekiel Airship.
The airship was inspired by the prophet Ezekiel’s encounter with a flying entity resembling, “…a wheel within a wheel.” Reverend Burrell Cannon first designed the craft around 1884, and built a proof of concept in 1900. After relocating to Pittsburg, Cannon convinced the townsfolk to help him form the Ezekiel Airship Manufacturing Company. They sold stock and raised $20,000—equivalent to over $600,000 in today’s dollars.
Assembly of the machine took place at a local foundry and the airship was said to have flown in a nearby field in the late spring or summer of 1902. If accurate, that would mean the Ezekiel Airship took to the air before Orville and Wilbur Wright achieved powered flight on December 3, 1903. But a question remains: Did the Ezekiel Airship actually fly?
No one can say with certainty. Some in Pittsburg still tell of those who passed down stories of witnessing the airship lifting off and making a brief, wobbly flight across an empty field. Three years later, Reverend Cannon loaded the airship on a flat rail car bound for the St. Louis World’s Fair. The exhibition had a concourse for anyone who built and successfully flew a “one-seater self-propelled flying machine.” Flyers could compete for a $100,000 prize offered by the U.S. government. But Cannon never made it to the competition. Somewhere near Texarkana, a storm blew the Ezekiel Airship off the rail car and shattered it. Reverend Cannon walked away from the wreckage, literally—the debris could be seen along the tracks for years. Despite the setback, Cannon continued to design and build other innovative machines.
The impressive machine on display today is not the original airship, of course, but a full-scale replica that was carefully put together by local craftspeople. Though there is no solid evidence of the airship ever flying, the mystery is enticing and as compelling as the elegant design of the replica.
Know Before You Go
The museum is supposed to be open Thursday - Saturday, from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m.
Be warned, due to low attendance this past year, the museum is sometimes closed on the weekends, too. You can call ahead and let them know you'd like to visit: 903-946-3243