The "Knabenshue Toledo No. 1"

Photo credit: Toledo Blade


The Knabenshue Toledo No. 1 was built by Augustus Roy Knabenshue (b 1876, d 1960). Knabenshue was an American aviation pioneer, who by stroke of luck, and completely without powered flight experience, became the first American to pilot an airship under power - all in front of an approving audience. (See "Sidebar", 3rd column below). After his flight, where the press christened him the "Wizard of the Air", he immediately embarked on building his "Toledo".

Not much is written about the Knabenshue airships in terms of construction, but what one can see from photos, Knabenshue's No. 1 was clearly influenced by the airship design of Thomas Baldwin. Photos of the "Knabenshue No. 1" and Baldwin's "California Arrow" which Knabenshue piloted on October 25, 1904 at the St. Louis World's Fair, bear a striking resemblance. Both suspend a triangular frame catwalk as a "control car" under a set of square-mesh nets of strong cord which, upon inflation of the the gas bag, contain and hold the gas bag captive.

Constructed through the winter of 1904 and the spring of 1905, Knabenshue’s No. 1 was ready for flight in June 1905. The control "car" was 38 feet long, made up of square spruce struts (painted a silver color resulting in an "aluminum" appearance) and piano wire cross bracing making the entire frame very rigid. The gas bag is cigar-shaped, 62 feet long, made of Japanese silk "painted" with a special "varnish" developed by Knabenshue himself, and a capacity of 7,000 cubic feet of hydrogen. It is with great fortune that Mr. Knabenshue was able to complete the construction of his first two airships as vandals broke into his workshop on May 24th, 1905, and cut up and nearly destroyed one of the gas-bags! [It should be noted that Mr. Knabenshue was obviously confident in his design, as in August of 1905 he also had ready his very similar "Toledo No. 2", which he flew in and around Central Park, New York that same month, opting to fly the No. 2 instead of the No. 1 which he had with him as well.]


The Toledo No. 1 and all of the early Knabenshue airships were classed as "exhibition" vehicles - that is, having no military or commercial value. Though the 1917 "D'Orcy Airship Manual" lists Roy Knabenshue as an airship builder [then in Pasadena, CA], it only states "Builder of numerous airships of the car-girder, pressure type, all of which served exhibition purposes but one which is listed herewith." Ouch! (Knabenshue's 1913 "Pasadena" passenger airship was the only listing.)

But Roy Knabenshue's pioneering work was done prior to 1917, and what he accomplished is nothing short of amazing. The fact that he earned such a "meh" entry in the D'Orcy manual in no way detracts from what Roy Knabenshue accomplished! Imagine assembling the parts, standing on a narrow triangular framework, while ascending and descending only by climbing forward or aft along the rickety framework!

The airship's altitude was not regulated by means of a gas valve attached to the balloon. It had no valve! When the gas-bag is filled with hydrogen the silk neck of the gas inlet was simply tied-off with a piece of rubber. Elevation was provided by the quantity of gas in the gas-bag, then after rising to a certain height the gas expanded due to the decrease in atmospheric pressure and said pressure would overcome the constraint of the rubber tie around neck of the gas inlet - releasing some of its volume and allowing the machine to settle to stabilize at altitude! Of course, as the sun further heated the gas, the whole process would repeat, limiting the vehicle's altitude and endurance.

Otherwise, Mr. Knabenshue would descend by scrambling forward on the gondola's framework, thus tilting the nose of the balloon downward, and using the thrust by the propeller alone, the airship was "pulled" downward. (Similarly, to ascend, the pilot only needed scramble aft.) Only about 20 pounds of ballast was carried for emergencies. There was also no "throttle"! The ship's speed was what it could attain at a fixed RPM.

Roy Knabenshue admitted in interviews that only in the absence of heavy wind, was it possible by means of propeller thrust and rudder to guide the airship. The practical airship of the future, he said, "would need to dispense with the huge gas­filled bag which offers more resistance to the air currents than the canvas of a fair-sized sailing vessel."


During the summer of 1906, Knabenshue entered the No. 1 in a contest for a cash prize for the first airship to successfully fly from Toledo to Cleveland. He encountered problems shortly after takeoff and was forced to land on the roof of a building near the intersection of Cherry and Seneca streets in Toledo, severely damaging the craft. The No. 1 had to be disassembled to bring it down, and the No. 1 was never assembled again. (Toledo Magazine, "The Blade", Feb 24, 1980.)

[As an example of how difficult it is to sort fact from fiction in researching events of 100 years ago, here is a citation from the April 4th, 1907 edition of "The Automobile" magazine:

Toledo, 0., April 1. - Toledo automobile dealers consider their first attempt at holding an automobile show to have been so much of a success that they have already announced that another show will be held next year on greatly enlarged and much more elaborate plans. In addition to the display of cars, marine engines, oils and accessories, airship Toledo No. I, was on exhibition, while Roy Knabenshue, Toledo's noted aeronaut, made explanations.

So is this the "Toledo No. 1"? Or is this a "new" No. I or No. 1? Was the airship no longer flight worthy and only displayed at the auto show? If so, does this match the Toledo Blade article from 1906 that the No. 1 was "never assembled again? What are the true facts of the fate of the Toledo No. 1?]

By 1909, public interests in airships waned as airplanes were becoming all the rage. Knabenshue himself went to work for the Wright Brothers a planner for their "Wright Flier" exhibitions.

Ignominious End

In 1912 Knabenshue returned to airship work and started a dirigible passenger flight service in Pasadena, California. In 1914 he flew his dirigible "White City" over Chicago. This ship made history in 1913 and 1914 by doing aerial sightseeing over the Middle West.

During World War I, Knabenshue built observation balloons for the Army. Later, he worked for the National Park Service till he retired in 1944, and spent the next 10 years or so doing odd jobs helping recondition aircraft.

Augustus Roy Knabenshue held Balloon License Number 31, Dirigible License Number 4, built ten airships and numerous balloons, was a prominent member of the Early Birds and had earned a significant place in American aviation history. He died on March 6th, 1960, nearly destitute, living on a meager pension income.


How Roy Knabenshue became the 1st American to fly a powered airship:

(The following text is from a photo in the Jean-Pierre Lauwers Aviation Collection

Augustus Roy Knabenshue was born July 15, 1876 in Lancaster, Ohio to Samuel S. and Salome Knabneshue. The family later moved to Toledo, Ohio where Roy’s father became editor-in-chief of the Toledo Blade. It was there that Roy became interested in lighter-than-air flight after seeing a balloon ascension when he was only five years old. His interest continued to grow in the years that followed and in 1899 he bought a captive balloon and its equipment. The next season, he began to take short leaves of absence from his job at Central Union Telephone Company and was operating his balloon at fairs and carnivals, charging attendees for ascensions. To protect his day job and spare his socially prominent family embarrassment, Knabenshue used the name “Professor Don Carlos” at his balloon engagements. By 1900, Knabenshue had begun to fabricate additional spherical balloons himself, for use in free ascensions.

In October of 1904, Knabenshue took a new balloon to Saint Louis to enter it in contests associated with the First World’s Fair, also known as the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. There he met Thomas S. Baldwin, who brought his dirigible California Arrow to the event. The airship proved incapable of lifting off with Baldwin aboard and the slimmer Knabenshue was asked to substitute as pilot. Possessing no experience with dirigibles, Knabenshue accepted Baldwin’s instructions and on October 31* became the first person under official observation to successfully pilot an airship in the United States.

[*Note: The Knabenshue flight in the California Arrow was on October 25th, 1904, but the drive shaft to the propeller broke, and Knabenshue was forced into an uncontrolled landing over an hour later in a field across the Mississippi. On October 31st, they tried again, and this time, the flight was entirely successful, with the take-off and landing completely controlled, earning Knabenshue his celebrity, and the Grand Prize for the 1.6 mile round trip flight.]

Sites of Interest

Toledo, Ohio

Fresh from his momentous flight on October at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, Roy Knabenshue returned home to Toledo and raised funds and built his "Toledo No.1". When he finished in June, 1905, he encountered a "dare" by wealthy Toledoan, A. L. Spitzer, who had offered $500 to the first "aeronaut" who could land on his office building in downtown Toledo. So in what very well might have been Knabenshue's first public flight of his new airship, on the 30th of June, 1905, Knabenshue attempted and succeeded in the challenge!

Photo credits: Rosebud's WWI and Early Aviation Image Archive

And here is the landing site! The Spitzer Building today, in Toledo, with "X" marking the spot of the famed airship landing, (Lat Lon) 41.652673 -083.536297:

Photo credits: Bing maps

And the location in Google Maps:

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Photo credits: Google maps

Knabenshue launched his flight to the Spitzer building from what was then the Toledo (Lucas County) Fairgrounds "near the intersection of Door and Upton". Locating Door and Upton, and finding the intersection on a 1900 topographical map, the only area which was not then platted for streets and homes was the Northwest corner of the intersection. So I have placed a red rectangle on the topographic map shown here:

Photo credits: Public domain

(Click/touch the blue bar in the next image and drag left-to-right to see the above map overlaid on the modern map from Google Earth:)

Dorr-Upton Today Dorr-Upton 1905

So the location of the originating point of the flight, and likely location of the fairgrounds was in the area found here, today, (Lat Lon) 41.653515 -083.589013, as seen in Google Maps:

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Photo credits: Google maps

To close out this "site of interest" here is a montage of the various postcards of the Toledo No. 1, which were popular in the day. The caption of the montage suggests that the photo might have been taken at the fairgrounds:

Photo credits: Rosebud's WWI and Early Aviation Image Archive

Chicago, IL

This next site of interest was a fascinating study! Just two months after Roy Knabenshue's dangerous and record breaking landing on the Spitzer Building in Toledo, he had managed an exhibition of his airship at the "White City Amusement Park" in Chicago Illinois!

The amusement park was a popular and famous spot in Chicago, but the intervening 100 years, I discovered, left its memory - and location - all but forgotten! Nevertheless, thought I won't bore you with the details, I found the location of the amusement park, and pretty much, the exact location where Knabenshue hangared his No. 1 airship, and thus conducted his exhibition!

Many old photos and post cards exist of the White City Amusement Park, so here is one of the best:

Photo credit:

This exhibition was, of course, very big in the press, and a series of photos and stories were run in the Chicago Daily News in September 1905. Here is one of the photos, with overlays of the White City Amusement Park, and an "X" marking the spot from which the airship operations were conducted:

Photo credit: Rosebud's WWI and Early Aviation Image Archive

Compare this photo with the one above it to see the location in the larger area shot of the park.

Here is another photo montage showing the Toledo No. 1 lifting off from the gardens at the White City Amusement Park, and a view of the airship over the "Electric Tower":

Photo credit: Rosebud's WWI and Early Aviation Image Archive

Note that you can tell this photo of the airship is when it was beginning an ascent as Knabenshue is positioned far to the aft on the control car. This was his method of controlling ascent and decent - he would scramble forward or aft on the gondola's framework, thus tilting the craft up or down, and the propeller's thrust would then take the airship higher or lower! (Remember, you can click on any photo in these pages to see a larger version.)

So exactly where in Chicago did this happen? Right here:

Photo credit: Google Earth

The long ago and faded away "White City Amusement Park" was located on the southwest corner of 63rd and (what is now) S. Martin Luther King Dr. Note that even today, as the location of the "Parkway Gardens" apartment complex, you can still see the 45 degree angled corner on the SW side of the intersection, where the once grand art-decco entryway to the park once stood!

Here is the location of the amusement park as seen today in Google Maps, (Lat Lon) 41.779289 -087.616569:

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Photo credits: Google maps

Have you ever wondered how fast these small airships were? Here is a short ~1 min video of an airship race in Los Angeles (probably 1910). The video clip itself is completely ruined with an unnecessary overlay by "", (an outfit shamelessly profiting on public domain video), but ignoring the stupid overlay, you can see just how fast these things were! Mind you, they only jumped to about 15-20 mph, but think about it a minute! This thing is leaping forward and all you are doing is standing on and hanging on to a rickety wooden framework! No seats, no seatbelt, no protection whatsoever except all the cables and rigging to hang onto if you lost your footing! Wow!

Credit: Youtube