A model of a dirigible in a Red Lodge saloon window helped Thomas C. Benbow raise cash to build a dirigible named the Montana Meteor.
The audacious Absarokee farmer/rancher risked his life racing the airship at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, the nation's first air meet.
Two years before the race, Benbow, a go-getter with an entrepreneurial bent, formed a corporation to build a dirigible balloon, according to Frank W. Wiley, who wrote "Montana and the Sky," an aviation history.
Benbow's 74-foot long, cigar-shaped airship was built at the Carl Myers Balloon Farm in New York. A 10-horsepower, 2-cylinder engine turned propeller blades arranged like a paddlewheel. Benbow perched near the motor in a basket below the hydrogen-filled bag and steered the craft with a canvas rudder.
"The contrivance looked like a huge supernatural being such as is read of in fairy tale books," according to one observer.
At the air meet, Benbow competed for a $100,000 grand prize. Promoters envisioned strange flying machines dazzling spectators by filling the skies above the fairgrounds, but only a handful of aeronauts accepted the challenge.
"Benbow attained great distinction in World's Fair aeronautics by actually getting off the earth," one newspaper reporter wrote.
Although the "Montana sailor of the skies" was tethered to a 150-foot rope during the test flight, he was hailed as the first aeronaut to steer his craft over the fairgrounds.
On his first free flight, Benbow's "sky chariot" drifted with the wind for nearly mile because he feared the over-inflated hydrogen bag would explode. When he started the motor, the airship displayed "considerable dirigibility" for a few minutes, then the engine quit due to a gas leak.
During another ill-fated attempt, the airship's anchor snagged the 30-foot high-wire fence around the aerodrome concourse.
"The flying machine was pitching and tossing on the end of the rope, more than eighty feet from the ground, and it was only by the utmost exertion that he was prevented from being thrown from the basket," according to a Red Lodge newspaper account.
Benbow managed to scramble down a rope to the ground.
The near-disaster offered "more thrills to the square moment for the spectators than any previous flight ever furnished," the St. Louis Republic reported.
Benbow made one final try before boxing up the deflated gas bag and shipping it back to Red Lodge. Although he arrived home short on cash, he later developed the Benbow chrome mines, near Nye and Dean on Rock Creek.