Ask McGehee

Who was the Mobile inventor who allegedly flew a plane before the Wright brothers?

John E. Fowler reportedly built a plane that briefly flew over Monroe Park in 1901 — more than two years before the Wright brothers first took to the air in North Carolina. Fowler’s flight took place in Mobile’s favorite waterfront amusement park, which would later be replaced by Brookley Air Force Base and today is home to a number of aeronautical operations, including Airbus.

Fowler was born in Mississippi in 1862 and first appeared in Mobile city directories in 1895, where he listed his occupation as “Sewing Machine and Clock Repairer” in his home on Savannah Street.

Fowler may have arrived with the idea of building an airplane. In May of 1897, Mobile’s Daily Register reported that Fowler had “the only original airship of all time. If Captain Fowler had been able to make the thing fly, he would now be in the swim.”

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Witnesses claimed they saw Fowler fly his craft out over Mobile Bay. One recalled seeing him land it on the beach, another in the Bay — “in the swim.” What the captain is thought to have flown was a glider of sorts, since his craft had no engine.

A Curiosity at Five Cents

Fowler moved his creation to Monroe Park and placed it behind a tall fence. He invited Mobilians to pay a nickel to see the airship from “8 a.m. to 7 p.m.” and advised them, “Do not come after sundown.”

Monroe Park was the creation of streetcar magnate J. Howard Wilson, who placed it at the terminus of his trolley tracks near the bayfront. Ridership skyrocketed. For over two generations, it was Mobile’s pleasure grounds, offering a roller coaster, baseball park, open-air movie theater and, for a time, the chance to meet Mr. Fowler and see his flying contraption. Mr. Wilson’s streetcars of the day were adorned with signs inviting Mobilians to “Take this car to see John Fowler’s flying machine at Monroe Park!”

The nickels came in but were never enough to get Fowler what he needed: a custom-built engine for his plane. He even attempted to lure investors at $1 per ticket, but the money was never sufficient to purchase what he required.

Fowler said that the famed Wright brothers slipped into town one day and paid him a visit. In 1903, the brothers flew their first plane in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and Fowler firmly believed they had borrowed from his design, especially regarding the rudder and wing shape. That visit has never been authenticated.

Despite the Wright brothers’ success, Fowler continued to try and perfect his craft. In 1904, he moved his machine to a lot on Dauphin Street and again offered tickets to the public to take a look, charging adults a dime and children a nickel. “Give me your patronage, ” he advertised, “and I will give the people of Mobile a flying machine!”

The lot was open every day except Sunday, from 9 a.m. until 9 p.m. On Sundays, Fowler attended a Baptist church on State Street and was known to stand up and argue with the preacher on a biblical point. Afterward, he would head to the waterfront. There, perched atop a wooden piling, he would espouse his views on biblical tracts as well as social causes.

A Mob Destroys His Machine

Although described as “a quiet and considerate man, ” Fowler was often mocked as he preached by the waterfront. Before he could fly his final creation, it was torn to pieces by a group of vandals.

He finally gave up on a flying machine and concentrated on repairing clocks and sewing machines. Fowler was the only one able to keep the antique clock outside the mayor’s office in working order. In 1916, when a hurricane damaged the massive clock atop the Mobile County Courthouse, experts from out of state were called upon for repairs. When they could find no way to get it running, Fowler was chosen and kept it in order until the 1926 hurricane knocked it out for good.

Before his death, John Fowler was invited for a ride in an airplane. When he returned to the ground, he said, “Well, I knew they would get it someday. I was just ahead of my time.”

Fowler died in 1939 at the age of 77 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Magnolia Cemetery. In 1997, a group raised funds to install a proper marker noting the final resting place of “John Ellis Fowler, Pioneer of Flight.”

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