By PAUL FUGLEBERG
As usual, this year will bring a number of annual air shows and fly-ins to various Montana cities and towns.
Probably few people attending will be aware of the story of an old miner in the Castle Mountains, southeast of White Sulphur Springs. Some 11 years before the Wright Brothers’ achievement, Sure Shot Bill possibly came close to achieving aviation fame.
Several years ago, an exhibit in the Montana Historical Society in Helena told about it, as did a feature story that appeared in Montana weekly newspapers in 1922.
Seems that in 1892, Sure Shot Bill (last name unknown) divided his time between prospecting for silver and apparently dreaming about flying. He built what appeared to be a wood and canvas flying machine. Sure Shot must have done some reading on the theory of flight because the glider he built was the same basic principle used by aircraft designers years later.
He used a 40-foot lodgepole pine as a main stay for the canvas-covered wing. A deep groove was carved into the length of the pole and the stays of bent pine were fitted into this. And he fashioned a crude seat. The whole contraption was light enough that a man could lift it by himself. Apparently he planned to take a running start from the long grassy slopes of the mountain.
When he’d been drinking, Sure Shot shouted that he’d be willing to bet his silver claim that he could fly from Castle to the town of Lombard and beat the Jawbone Flyer, a train than ran on the branch line that the Montana Railroad Co. had built from the Northern Pacific’s main line at Lombard, 60 miles away.
As might be expected, Sure Shot was the object of scoffing and ridicule.
As far as is known, he never test flew his glider. A silver panic in the mills caused the mines to close and area residents debarked in haste to more glittering pastures.
Sure Shot Bill’s glider remained where he left it – just outside his cabin. In fact, the glider’s skeleton outlasted his cabin, though both now are long gone.
Perhaps in the decades that followed, as the airplane was successfully developed, some of those miners might have gained respect for their former Castle Mountains neighbor and his unfulfilled dream of flight.
Paul Fugleberg is a former editor and co-publisher of the Flathead Courier of Polson and the Ronan Pioneer. His freelance articles and photos have appeared in numerous national and regional magazines and newspapers, and he has written several books. He can be reached at email@example.com.