As darkness gathered one October evening in 1920, Arnold Adair swept up Unaweep Canyon in his biplane, then climbed above the canyon walls and soared over the treetops in the nearby national forest. When he spotted the small forest fire, he banked low over the blaze and dropped chemical bombs to extinguish the flames along its leading edge.
Adair hadn’t put out the fire, but he had demonstrated to his forest-ranger passenger that “aero planes” could be used to quickly spot and limit the spread of wildfires.
Arnold Adair and his high-flying firefighting were fiction. They burst from the imagination of a man who knew both Unaweep Canyon and early aviation: Laurence La Tourette Driggs.
Driggs was way ahead of his time. The first actual use of an airplane to fight fires by the U.S. Forest Service was in 1930, when a wooden beer keg full of water was dropped on a blaze. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the Forest Service used airplanes to drop chemical retardants on fires, according to the Forest Service website.
Driggs’ name is recognized in western Colorado as the man who built the Driggs Mansion. The Daily Sentinel has published several articles recently about the efforts to stabilize the remains of that mansion, which lie just off Colorado Highway 141 some 18 miles east of Gateway.
When Driggs and his family began work on their home, probably in 1914, it was in an extremely isolated part of the West. But Driggs was hardly a recluse.
He was born in 1876 in Saginaw, Mich., grew up in Oregon and became a lawyer in New York. He married Mary Ogden in 1904, and the couple later had two sons. Driggs became a deputy attorney general for the state of New York in 1909.
Driggs’ life changed in 1913, when he learned to fly. He soon became an outspoken advocate for aviation and one of America’s leading authors on the subject.
It’s not clear what piqued the family’s interest in western Colorado, but by 1915, Laurence and Mary had moved their family here, son Ogden recalled.
In 1916, Driggs acquired the mining rights for the Mayflower copper mine in Unaweep Canyon. Through the Desert Land Act, he obtained legal title to 160 acres near Mayflower Gulch in 1917, and another 159 acres the following year. He began work to acquire title to the land several years earlier.
In 1914 or 1915, Driggs hired the Grasso family, Italian stonemasons from Grand Junction, to build a home, the sandstone structure we now know as Driggs Mansion.
But Driggs was gone during much of that process. He and Mary were in Europe, where Laurence observed and wrote about air battles in World War I, becoming one of the premier authors on aerial combat.
He met air aces like U.S pilot Eddie Rickenbacker, with whom he cowrote a book on heroes of the air war.
He accompanied Britain’s Royal Air Force to the front. Later, he joined the Royal Air Force Flying Club, a model for the American Flying Club that Driggs organized in 1918.
Before the war ended, he conjured up the character of Arnold Adair, “American Ace.” Adair would appear in four novels from 1918 to 1930. He also would be the lead character in short stories such as “Fighting Forest Fires From the Air,” published in Outlook magazine in January 1921.
Driggs enthusiastically promoted and explained aviation to the American public, discussing issues such as military airplanes, and using aircraft to assist commercial fishing.
He also lamented in print the fact the United States wasn’t rapidly developing a commercial air industry. He touted the safety of flying, gave regular talks about aviation, and garnered publicity with events such as taking the founder of the Girl Scouts, then 70-year-old Juliette Lows, for a ride in his biplane.
Throughout the 1920s, he and Mary were active members of the East Coast elite, getting frequent mention in both society columns and news articles. Perhaps that’s why they lost interest in western Colorado. They sold their mansion and property to George E. Turpin in December 1923. Driggs died in 1945 while living in Maryland.
He left behind an iconic structure in Unaweep Canyon. But his larger legacy is the U.S. aviation industry. He was an early investor, through Colonial Western Airways, a predecessor to American Airlines. More importantly, he was a tireless advocate and booster for aviation — with the daring assistance of Arnold Adair.
Information for this column came from the Museums of Western Colorado, from books and articles written by Laurence Driggs, and from newspaper archives.
Spent Friday with my good friend, Mike Perry, searching for the remains of a 1909 train wreck just off Baxter Pass near the Utah border. Mike had been to the site about 25 years ago, and was able to find it again. Not much left but a big chunk of steel that is believed to be part of the locomotive’s boiler, and some odds-and-ends pieces.
The Baxter Pass road is built on the old Uintah Railway grade, which operated from 1904 until the 1930s. This particular train went over the cliff during a snowstorm in February, 1909. I’m standing near the point where the train went off the tracks.
We returned this week from our trip to Lakes Superior, Huron and Michigan, where I engaged in a very small amount of research. Mostly Judy and me, my sister Karen Moucha, and our dog Lila had a wonderful time exploring and sightseeing, even if it was a bit warmer than we had hoped. Now it’s back to work on my next column for The Daily Sentinel.
Judy and I are heading north to Lake Superior for a couple of weeks. I’ll be doing some research on the fur trade in that region, and working on my next history columns while friends take care of our house. We’ll be enjoying the cool weather around the big lake. We may even engage in some of this:
Things weren’t looking good in the middle of what we now call Canyonlands National Park in the summer of 1869.
Jack Sumner, the second in command of the John Wesley Powell expedition to explore the Green and Colorado rivers, expressed his concern in his journal.
“July 17th – 18th – 19th – and 20th. In camp taking observations and repairing outfit; examined our stores and found we were getting very short as we were compelled to throw away 200 pounds of flour, that had got wet so often it was completely spoiled.”
They were camped just below the confluence of the Colorado River (then called the Grand) and the Green River. They hadn’t yet made it into the fearsome Grand Canyon, and they were already seriously short of food. There was grumbling about Powell’s leadership and debates about how and whether to continue.
Most of the expedition members would survive the trip, arriving at the Virgin River at the end of August. But Sumner would harbor animosity toward Powell would for decades.
Even so, the 1869 expedition remains one of the most spectacular tales of exploration of the American West. You can read more at the links above to my history columns. Or pick up a copy of Powell’s book, “The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons,” or Wallace Stegner’s biography of Powell, “Beyond the Hundredth Meridian.”
The Colorado Plateau Horseman’s Hall of Fame is holding our second annual induction ceremony at the Mesa County Fair this coming Thursday, July 14.
Representatives of the Ute Indian Tribe from Utah, officials from Dinosaur National Monument and family members of two longtime horse-breeders from western Colorado and eastern Utah will be present Thursday, July 14 at 6 p.m. for the ceremony, which will be in the main rodeo arena of the Mesa County Fairgrounds.
Colorado Plateau Horseman’s Hall of Fame’s mission is to recognize and honor those horsemen and horsewomen and organizations, as well as those special horses that have made a significant contribution to the equine industry in western Colorado and eastern Utah.
With that in mind, this year’s honorees include:
The Ute Indians, who were the first horsemen and horsewomen of western Colorado and eastern Utah, and who developed the first horse-breeding and horse-trading programs in the region, while also developing the first system of horse trails. They were one of the first Indian tribes in the United States to acquire horses.
The Carnegie Horses of Dinosaur National Monument, which collectively hauled more than 350 tons of dinosaur fossils from the monument to a railroad station more than 60 miles away. They were instrumental in the early development of the monument.
The late Ben Johnson, a nationally recognized Appaloosa breeder, horse trainer and horse-show judge from the Appleton area of Mesa County. He also helped establish horse programs locally and nationally, worked with young horsemen and horsewomen and became a renowned sculptor whose work depicted horses and the West.
The late Joe Taylor, a Moab-area rancher known for raising some of the top quarter horses in the country, including several world champions. He was a dominant breeder during the 1970s and 1980s. For many years, he also served as a judge for horse shows for multiple breeds.
The induction ceremony is made possible with the assistance of supporters such as Absolute Prestige Limousine Service Ltd.; Bud Signs and Neon; and the Mesa County Fairgrounds.
Reflecting on the Declaration of Independence on the Fourth of July is a timely tradition. After, the Declaration is the reason for the holiday. And those important early phrases are still critical, even if they have been applied imperfectly in this country throughout our history:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness,”
But I have always been struck by the final lines of the Declaration, which don’t receive as much attention. After laying out their case for becoming independent from England, and laying out their case against the king of England, the Founding Fathers knew full well their words would be taken as treason by British authorities, and they could be hanged for signing the Declaration. So the final words of the document are especially meaningful:
“And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our Sacred Honor.”
I wonder how many people today, myself included, would be willing to pledge their lives and all of their material fortune for this country.
I couldn’t come up with anything especially patriotic to write about for my next Daily Sentinel history column, which is scheduled to run July 4, so I decided to write about horses.
In particular, the column will focus on the Carnegie horses — dozens and dozens of teams of horses and mules that hauled bones from the quarry at Dinosaur National Monument, south some 60 miles to Dragon, Utah. Once there, the fossils were loaded on the Uinta Railway, hauled over Baxter Pass into Mack, Colo., and reloaded onto Denver and Rio Grande Western trains for shipment to the Carnegie Museum at Pittsburgh, Pa.
Here’s a photo of several of those teams beginning the trek from Jensen, Utah to Dragon.