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High weirdness over Rossland

Updated: May 14, 2021

One of West Kootenay’s best bits of folklore is the Flying Steamshovel, the story of an amateur aviation enthusiast who apparently built and flew a homemade helicopter in Rossland that crashed on its maiden voyage in 1902. (Since 1990, it has also been the name of a Rossland pub.)

Historians Valerie Patanella and Ron Welwood have looked into it — both the tale itself and the man who popularized it, Father Thomas Freney. He collected affidavits from witnesses for a story published in the November 1947 edition of American Helicopter, but no contemporary newspaper account has ever been discovered.

But there was an early attempt to create a flying machine in Rossland which apparently predated the Flying Steamshovel and did appear in the newspaper. I was stunned when historian Ron Shearer sent it to me. Here it is from the Rossland Evening Record of Dec. 6, 1897:

An update appeared a week later.

But there was nothing further. The 1898 Rossland civic directory listed a butcher named Henry Lohwan at 30 1st Ave. West. He was not listed in 1897 or 1899. I can find no other sign of Mr. Lohman/Louman/Lohwan in Rossland or anywhere else before or after these reports.

(Someone else had the same idea of building an air ship to reach the Yukon: the Butte Daily Post of Nov. 27, 1897 reported that inventor Hiram S. Maxim was building such an aircraft at San Francisco. He had already been experimenting with plans for a flying machine for years.)

Is this the genesis of the Flying Steamshovel? Hard to say, but none of the names mentioned above appear in that story. Also, the reference to “wings” means at least one of the aircraft was more like a primitive plane than a helicopter.

It is, however, proof that some Rosslanders were interested in flight, making the Flying Steamshovel look more plausible.

This sentence is also noteworthy: “For several months they have been engaged designing and experimenting … but the secret was well guarded and very few people knew of the existence of a flying machine factory in Rossland.” That sounds similar to the clandestine laboratory where the Flying Steamshovel was supposedly born.

While the machines above don’t appear to have actually flown, something odd did appear over Rossland a few months earlier. The incident is sometimes included in UFO literature about the mysterious airship wave of 1896-97.

An “aerial vessel” depicted in Scientific American, Jan. 1, 1887.

However, what was seen over Rossland certainly wasn’t an airship. It seemed too localized for a meteorite and lasted far too long for ball lightning. My best guess is the aurora borealis, which is not usually visible this far south, but there have been exceptions. This appeared in the Evening Record of Aug. 10, 1897 under the headline “Saw ball of fire.”

A luminous ball of fire that glowed strangely and shed about itself a halo of variegated colors, hovered over Rossland for a time last evening and was seen by several well known citizens, among whom were: Maj. Cooper, J. Wilson, Magistrate Jordan, Andy Revsbeck, Alderman Fraser, Inspector Barr and others. When first observed it was hull down on the horizon, but approached with the swiftness of light, and after hovering about for over a quarter of an hour poised in midair, surrounding itself the while with flashes of colors, it streaked off in a southerly direction and soon faded from sight …
At first it was supposed to be a shooting star, but as it approached nearer it gleamed like a great ball of fire and poised itself directly above Red mountain. Although the moon shone quite brightly it did not seem to dull the lustre of the stranger. Those who were watching saw a weird sight. Little particles of fire seemed to shoot out from the mail ball and then a flash of red followed. It looked for all the world like a lighthouse with a revolving flashlight of colors …
After showing its respects to Rossland the wonder made several wide circles like a bird undecided what course to pursue and then struck and air line and passed rapidly away towards the south.

Although the Record devoted considerable space to the event on its front page, the rival Rossland Miner didn’t mention it at all — which may or may not be telling. The Record waxed rhapsodic for several more paragraphs which I’ve edited out, and noted similar things had recently been spotted over other cities.

Indeed, it was also observed in Vancouver. According to the Victoria Daily Colonist of Aug. 14, 1897, thousands of people viewed “a mysterious luminous body” that “has been seen in many parts of British Columbia during the past month.”

At 9 o’clock it was travelling with tremendous rapidity in the same direction as the earth, and at a speed which would circle the globe in 24 hours. It is low down in the horizon, just skimming the mountain tops in the southern sky. It is travelling with slightly rising and falling motion. It is extremely brilliant, red in the centre, and surrounded by a luminous diaphanous mist.

So what was it? Any theories?

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