The first place I read anything of Neosho pioneer aviator Hugh Robinson riding a motorcycle down the long flight of steps in Neosho’s Big Spring Park was in Dr. Roy Shaver’s daily trivia spot on the front page of the Neosho Daily News.
As to the location, I’m referring to the Big Spring steps connecting Spring Street to High Street. Yeah, those steps. The ones at the bottom of Big Spring Hill. The ones that just keep going up, up, up. And, yes, the ones that are currently closed off with orange construction fence and have been the subject of some talk and speculation lately regarding their fate.
However, those aren’t actually the steps Robinson performed his stunt on, though they are in the same spot. Today’s flight of concrete stairs was reportedly poured in 1923. But wooden steps existed long before then in the same spot. Those are the ones Robinson, ahem, attempted to ride down.
Hugh Robinson, whom the Neosho airport is named after, is probably most famous for inventing the “tailhook,” which is attached to military airplanes and enables them to land on aircraft carriers and rapidly decelerate by catching on a cable. Simple, but effective. The tail hook is still in use worldwide.
Robinson was born in Neosho in 1881 and had quite the career as a pioneer in all things aviation, not least of which was being the third person to make a successful flight in an airplane. He did a lot of risky stuff for the sake of aeronautics (and for fun, too, probably). Before his death in 1963 from a heart attack, Robinson had many near-death experiences while making his aeronautic experiments and also while performing just plain ol’ dangerous stunts. His lucky number was 13. It was emblazoned on his bi-plane.
Robinson made his first parachute jump from a hot air balloon in 1896. In 1907 he flew a glider that he built himself and that was towed by an automobile. In 1908 he flew the first American monoplane, which he also built himself. In 1910 he was helped design, and was the first to successfully fly, a hydroaeroplane. Also in 1910, Robinson was the first pilot to demonstrate the practicality dive-bombing, using oranges for bombs. There is a lot of information about Mr. Robinson that I don’t have space to include here, such as many more historic “firsts in flight,” his aeronautic engineering career, and the fact he was really into fast cars and motorcycles. He was even a daredevil stunt man.
But his stunts began as a boy in Neosho.
Robinson, whose dad, James, owned Neosho Planing Mill on the corner of Brook and College Street, built the first automobile ever seen in Neosho out of bicycle wheels and a motorcycle engine. He reportedly nearly killed himself, as well as innocent bystanders, several times with his reckless driving. He finally wrecked his “red devil,” and received some minor injuries. Robinson was the first person in Newton County to be issued an automobile license.
Page 2 of 2 - Before then, though, he built a motorcycle. He wrecked that too. But then came his show on the Big Spring steps. According to the May 31, 1911, edition of the then-Joplin Daily Globe in reporting on a Robinson visit to his hometown of Neosho, as a boy the future aviator had it in his mind that he wanted to out-do a circus performer who had recently rode down the Big Spring steps on a bicycle. The fearless young Robinson decided to do it in his self-built motorcycle. I could paraphrase this story, but instead I’ll just let you read an excerpt from the article itself:
“Hugh restored his dilapidated motorcycle to running condition and notified several of his boy friends when the event would take place. The boys were there and Hugh was there. For the first 30 steps the performance was perfect, but Hugh overlooked the fact that the steps were broken by a landing. When he reached the landing he and the motorcycle abruptly severed connections. He shot straight into the air for 20 feet and then dropped like a plummer for 20 feet more, and this time it took Hugh and two doctors two days to remove the gravel from him.”
And there you have it. The story of Hugh Robinson’s connection with the Big Spring steps.
Again, while the stairs where Robinson attempted his feat were not the concrete steps that are there today, they were the predecessor.
From newspaper articles, we know local people have seen and used a flight of steps at that spot in Big Spring Park since at least the 1870s. Personally, I’d rather see steps continue to exist there, rather than a blank hillside.
I don’t believe I am alone in that thought.
Wes Franklin serves on the Newton County Historical Society Board of Directors. He is also public relations and events coordinator for the City of Neosho. He can be reached at 658-8443.