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PAST TIMES: Stellarton man helped start the motor of Alexander Graham Bell’s Silver Dart

Stellarton’s Andy Ross can be seen in several early photos of the historic Silver Dart flight off Baddeck, on Feb. 23, 1909.
Stellarton’s Andy Ross can be seen in several early photos of the historic Silver Dart flight off Baddeck, on Feb. 23, 1909. - Contributed

Canadian aviation history was made on frozen Baddeck Bay, Cape Breton, Feb. 23, 1909 and a Stellarton, man played an integral role before and after at this event.

World renowned inventor Alexander Graham Bell’s experiments to develop motor-powered heavier-than-air aircraft flight began in the Baddeck area in 1891 and culminated with the famous flight of the Silver Dart (or Aerodrome #4) on that winter’s day, 109 years ago.

Alexander and Mabel Bell were major initiators and financiers behind the aircraft flight experiments, and for the endless testing and dedicated work, needed a team.

Two years before the Silver Dart’s historical flight, a group of Canadian-American aeronautical enthusiasts formed the Aerial Experiment Association. They included Baddeck-born John Alexander Douglas McCurdy; Torontonian, F.W. (Casey) Baldwin; Thomas Selfridge, a lieutenant in the American Army; and Hammondsport, New Yorker, Glenn Curtiss, who was famous for the manufacture of motorcycle engines.

The association’s aim was simple – to put a man in the air.

The Bell mansion, Beinn Bhreagh (pronounced Ben Vreeah), was staffed by highly skilled employees who dedicated themselves to the never-ending challenges of dealing with a “genius at work” and running a private family household.

Since construction in 1892-93, Beinn Bhreagh was intended as a summer residence; the family regularly stayed there for much of the year, adding roads, wharves, workshops and research laboratories where innovative experiments with kites, tetrahedral construction, aircraft development, hydrofoils, and sheep breeding took place.”

It was at the Bell research laboratory that a young Stellarton man by the name of Andrew Edward Ross was hired as a machinist to work on various aspects of Alexander Graham Bell’s many experiments.

Andy Ross was born in 1886, to parents Peter Ross of Stellarton and Elizabeth Ann (Reid) of Little Harbour, Pictou County. After his formal schooling, Andy would apprentice at I. Matheson and Company of New Glasgow, one of the oldest, still operating metal fabricating companies in Canada. In 1908, I. Matheson and Company became heavily involved in supplying “considerable parts that were constructed for Bell’s laboratories in Baddeck for use in their trials on aircraft and hydrofoil boats.”

Having had the opportunity at I. Matheson to apply first-hand knowledge on many of Mr. Bell’s components, Ross was hired at the laboratory of the Bell estate. References are made in several of Aerial Experiment Association bulletins explaining a “Mr. Ross involved in the experiments that were being conducted at Beinn Bhreagh during the fall off 1908.” He is also listed as a staff member of the Bell Labs for 1909.

Alexander Graham Bell, himself noted in his journals, on several occasions the presence of Andrew Ross. On July 31, 1908, Mr. Bell states the motor boat Edruma ran into engine trouble travelling from Benin Bhreagh to the Central Wharf at Baddeck. “The motor boat Shamrock was offered to tow the Edruma to the lab., where Chief Machinist, Andrew Ross in five minutes time had a new spring” in the engine.

In a 1962 newspaper interview, Ross remembers his time working at the Bell Lab.

“I did the machine work on metals on the lathe. I worked on their engines, including the airplane engines of Glen Curtis.”

The three years spent at the Bell Laboratories presented some leisure time activities for Andrew Ross and the staff. Mr. Bell notes in his Aug. 24, 1909 journal “Aerodrome Co. beats the Lab.; The great first Quoit match of the season on Beinn Bhreagh was played at the Laboratory grounds last evening, resulting in a decided victory for the Aerodrome Co’s team. The scoring was as follows: – Score. McLean 50 5 woods Rudderham 49 5 woods Ingraham 100 23 woods Ross 31 7 woods 1 le?ner Terms:— For Lab. J. McLean and A. Ross; for Aerodrome Co. W. Rudderham and K. Ingraham. WFB.”

Interesting to note the game of Quoits (throwing heavy metal round disks at pins, like the game of horseshoes) was very popular throughout Atlantic Canada in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Town of Stellarton, during the height of Quoits popularity, boasted six Quoit pitches. Also noted by Mr. Bell, “Much interest was taken last winter in the old Scotch National Game of Curling” of which he mentions Andrew Ross as a member of the Beinn Bhreagh team that defeated the Baddeck club.

Alex and Mabel were extremely well liked and treasured by the citizens of Baddeck and surrounding area. When something was needed, the Bells kindly responded. They often hosted parties and ceremonies, and donated and helped in local and national causes and special events. There was always a crowd of onlookers that lined up along the Bras d’Or lake shoreline to witness the many outdoor experiments. The day the Silver Dart made its historic flight, “People came from everywhere. News of the trial spread through the village, a school holiday was declared for February 23rd. In addition, many businesses closed.” Over 140 names were recorded to have witnessed the Silver Dart’s airlift, including Andrew E. Ross of Stellarton.

“I worked on the Silver Dart which was built in New York state and I helped start the motor the day she flew off the lake ice and he is in the early pictures taken on that historic day when she became the first to fly in the British Empire. The Silver Dart was rolled onto the ice. Dr. and Mrs. Bell sat bundled in a horse drawn sleigh, along with the assembled crowd. Pointing the aircraft into the wind, the engine was started and after a brief taxi the Silver Dart, piloted by J.A.D. McCurdy. The machine rose from the ice after travelling about 100 feet, and flew at an elevation of about ten to thirty feet directly east for a distance of about half a mile. Landed without any jar whatsoever. The speed I should judge to be about forty miles per hour.”

History had been made.

Andrew Ross would end his tenure with Alexander Graham Bell in April 1910, move to Regina, Sask. and then on to Calgary Alta., where he enlisted in 1914 with the Canadian Expeditionary Force to fight overseas in the First World War. He returned to Alberta, where he was employed as a machinist at Calgary Iron Works until his retirement in the 1950’s.

John Ashton is a self-employed historical author and visual/graphic artist and lives in Bridgeville, Pictou County. He may be reached at ashtondesign@seasidehighspeed.com

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