How Pomona and San Bernardino almost became Kitty Hawk

The “Man Angel” was a gas balloon that tried unsuccessfully to entertain Inland Empire spectators in the summer of 1906.
The “Man Angel” was a gas balloon that tried unsuccessfully to entertain Inland Empire spectators in the summer of 1906. Courtesy photo

Inventor Alva Reynolds wanted to really dazzle the Inland Empire in 1906, but his plans just didn’t get off the ground.

Reynolds’ claim to fame was his creation known as the “Man Angel,” an oval-shaped gas balloon that carried a pilot in a wire cage shaped like a canoe. The pilot moved the craft forward with “oars” shaped like giant fans.

As goofy as this might have sounded, the Man Angel was a real attraction less than three years after the Wright brothers’ first powered flight. The public craved seeing anything lighter than air, and Reynolds, more of an entrepreneur than an aviator, was willing to take on any challenge for the paying public.

But that summer of 1906 just didn’t work out very well.

His first bit of hardship came July 4 when he put up $1,000 to race the Man Angel from Los Angeles to Pomona against a steam-powered White Flier automobile. He had a chance to make a few more bucks when Pomona officials offered him an extra $100 to make sure his craft flew over the city during Independence Day activities between noon and 4 p.m.

The first attempt was a complete dud after the Man Angel sprang a leak and the race was called off. Thousands who lined Pomona’s hills that July 4 were left scanning the horizon in vain.

It didn’t get better when the race was tried again July 15. After the start, the Man Angel barely drifted as far as Alhambra when westerly winds failed to appear. Meanwhile, the White Flier battled horrid dirt roads to reach Pomona in a rather remarkable time of 90 minutes. Folks there weren’t very impressed — they only wanted to see Reynolds’ balloon.

Undaunted, Reynolds moved on to San Bernardino, where he set up shop at the corner of Fourth and E streets for races sponsored by the Merchants Protective Association. Reynolds advertised “Airship vs. Auto Races,” a 5-mile race against a Rambler automobile Aug. 3 and a 10-mile race on Aug. 4.

In Reynolds’ temporary quarters, visitors watched as he mixed rather hellish concoctions to create the gas needed to lift the Man Angel. He poured 1,000 pounds of zinc filings into a drum of sulfuric acid. The resulting hydrogen gas filled the bag, while the outside was varnished to prevent leaks.

Or such was the plan.

On the first day, a huge crowd — many from out of town via trains — saw a whole lot of nothing. Reynolds’ craft got 20 feet aloft before an uncooperative breeze blew it into a wire. The pilot lost one of the oars before it was carried into some trees, tearing a hole in the bag.


Undaunted, Reynolds vowed to rebuild the balloon and hold the race on the following Saturday. Money due him by the Merchants Association was withheld until Reynolds got his bag of gas into the air.

On Aug. 11, George Friesby, Reynolds’ regular pilot, arrived for the race, though this time against a Buick. But there was to be no race that Saturday, as the Man Angel again couldn’t get off the ground.

In a desperate attempt to fulfill the deal with city officials, the Man Angel finally got aloft early Sunday morning, “and after drifting on the wind for 2 miles gradually settled to earth,” noted the Los Angeles Times of Aug. 13. Only a few early-risers saw the unscheduled flight.

On the following Tuesday, the Merchants Association voted not to pay Reynolds anything, saying “The San Bernardino public is very unappreciative, notwithstanding the fact that he made two distinct failures to fulfill his contract,” said the San Bernardino Sun of Aug. 14. Of course, Reynolds said he would sue the association.

He returned to town Aug. 22, hoping to reach a settlement, according to the Sun, but the merchants again refused to pay him the nearly $330 raised by subscribers for the event. The $125 in housing and other bills his operation still owed in San Bernardino were paid out of that total. Reynolds got nothing and apparently never made good on his lawsuit threat.

After his experience in San Bernardino, Reynolds pretty much disappeared from the lighter-than-air scene. News articles in 1909 announced that he was leading more of a down-to-earth experiment at Huntington Beach, generating electricity on a pier using the movement of ocean waves. He actually made it work, but the amount of power produced apparently did not encourage investors, and the project eventually went dark.

True love prevails

There’s more to the story of Dixie Woodside of Lordsburg (today’s La Verne) and her eloping twice in four days with different men, as we reported last week.

Woodside in July 1917 tried to elope with Claude Cowart, but her mother stopped the couple as they were heading off to be wed in San Bernardino. Four days later, she eloped with John W. Admire of Ontario, in whom her mother found much to admire.

Thanks to an article found by reader Eric Scherer, principal planner of the city of La Verne, we learned Cowart didn’t spend very long getting over his loss. Three weeks later, he married “a dashing Lordsburg widow,” Ethel Wilkins.

“The new romance is said to have effectively erased from his mind every trace of the attempted elopement,” reported the Sun of Aug. 3, 1917.

Interestingly, though, both couples settled in Lordsburg, making meeting each other at the store or on the street a little awkward, it would seem.

Joe Blackstock writes on Inland Empire history. He can be reached at or Twitter @JoeBlackstock.

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