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Another Attempt at Aviation History Takes Off from Albany

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Turns out Glenn Curtiss wasn’t the only early aviator to take off from Albany for points, well, not unknown, but a long way away, and it was Curtiss himself who inspired it. He had branched into both building airplanes and teaching pilots how to fly. He built on his ideas for enabling water landings (and takeoffs), developing marine airplanes, and to promote their use, he sponsored an annual competition for distance covered by a hydro-aeroplane. In 1915, a flyer named Beryl Kendrick drew national attention for his attempt to win the Curtiss marine flying trophy with a journey from Albany to Cape Hatteras, a trip he didn’t quite make.

Curtiss Marine TrophyThe competition was for the longest flight (which still allowed stops for refueling and mechanicals) in a flying boat in a single day between June 1 and Oct. 31, 1915, and would award a trophy. The trophy, by the way, sounds fabulous: “a flying boat of the transatlantic type which is shown in flight over the globe. The globe is supported on a base representing the sea. A figure of Neptune rises from the sea in an attempt to drag the boat down to its level and on the other side stands Boreas, ruler of the winds, who is blowing upon the boat in an effort to upset it. The trophy is done in silver and cost $5000.”

Kendrick was a wealthy young man from Atlantic City, who took an early interest in flying. He attended Curtiss’s flying school in San Diego in 1914-15, and bought a Curtiss flying boat and was licensed to fly it back in Atlantic City. His first attempt at the Curtiss trophy was a set of circuits from Atlantic City to Bay Head, NJ, but he was forced to land with engine trouble after 300 miles. Despite this, later in the year he redoubled his efforts and determined to make the trip from Albany to Cape Hatteras, NC. A typewritten biography of Kendrick, found on Flickr of all places, says:

“On October 28th Kendrick and [co-pilot Frank] Mills started again on a flight for the trophy from Albany, New York to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, a distance of 750 miles. Their course was to be down the Hudson River and along the coasts of New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina. They planned to stop twice for refueling, at Bay Head, New Jersey, and Ocean City, Maryland, and expected to make the flight within ten hours.  They left Albany at 8:30 A.M. and all went well until about 11:00 A.M. when they landed at Edwin Gould’s Yacht Pier near New York City to tighten some wires. While there they refueled and as a result did not stop at Bay Head, which they passed at 1:00 P.M.

Flying conditions remained satisfactory until they reached the Delaware Capes where they began to encounter fog banks and serious trouble started. They pressed on and for two hours tried to extricate themselves from the intense fog by turning both seaward and to shore, and also by climbing to higher altitudes, to no avail. With their gas running low they were finally forced to land on the sea and await rescue. After fearing they might have to spend the night adrift the fog began to lift about 4:00 P.M. and a bit later they were able to see a fishing boat some two miles away. Using the last of their gas Kendrick taxied to the boat where he obtained some fuel. Leaving there they landed at Ocean City, Maryland at 5:30 P.M. after a total of 360 miles, thoughly [sic] soaked and quite exhausted from their misty exposure. Before they could make another try a bad hole was torn in the bottom of the hull forcing them to abandon the trophy event for the season. In spite of their misfortune Kendrick made a splendid flight and undoubtedly would have won the event if they had not encountered such extremely bad flying conditions.”

Kendrick’s flight was pretty widely reported.  News reports datelined from Ocean City said Kendrick made stops at Poughkeepsie, Dobbs Ferry, and Atlantic Highland before he lost his way in a dense fog and “when overtaken by darkness was obliged to land in Assawoman Bay.”

Glenn Curtiss was unusual among aviation pioneers; while he did die relatively young, at 52, he died of appendicitis. That’s not how aviation pioneers usually went. Kendrick, who continued to fly passengers around the Atlantic coast of New Jersey as a sort of charter service, was more consistent with the normal trend of the time. He was killed in a crash in Atlantic City in 1919, at age 27. “Kendrick evidently lost control while engaged in some flying antics at a low altitude and crashed in the surf while reportedly vainly trying to make a landing, in plain view of crowds of boardwalk sight-seers.”

When Glenn Curtiss Needs Gasoline, Servants are Dispatched

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Curtiss Flies Albany to New YorkOn May 29, 1910, the day finally came when Glenn Curtiss found the weather favorable, got into his aeroplane, took off from Van Rensselaer Island (now part of the Port of Albany) and flew on (with two stops) to Governors Island in New York City, meeting the challenge set by the New York World and receiving its $10,000 prize (something north of $230,000 in modern money). Although the prize was offered by the World, the New York Times covered and covered and covered the event, going so far as to engage a special New York Central train with priority rights to follow the plane down the Hudson, carrying reporters, photographers and Curtiss’s wife.

He placed a phone call to a newspaper office in New York City to check the weather there, and when assured there wasn’t “breeze enough to flap the flag against the Court House pole,” he replied, “That’s good enough. I’m Glenn Curtiss, and you can say that I have decided to make a start. I am going to leave Albany right away.” And so he did, garbed in canvas fishing waders (for warmth) , a leather jacket, and with cork life preservers strapped to his body.

“Glenn H. Curtiss, until yesterday known as the aviator who had captured the international speed trophy at Rheims, arose from the tide flats of Van Rensselaer Island, at Albany, at 7:03 o’clock yesterday morning in the smallest biplane that has figured seriously in the world’s great flights. He sped upward to a height of 1,000 feet, maintained it for over forty miles, swung then over the Catskills at a far greater height, once attaining a maximum of almost 5,000 feet, dropped down above the Hudson waters for another forty miles, and landed finally at Governors island at noon. He had covered 150 miles in an actual flying time of 2 hours and 46 minutes, and had won for himself enduring fame, in addition to a prize of $10,000 offered for the feat by The New York World.

The flight, which sets a new mark in the conquest of the air, was made through a territory presenting a great variety of perils, far greater than any other stretch that aviators have tried. Side canons, high cliffs, eddying currents, and reverse currents shooting out of gulches into the Hudson Valley all played their part. One stretch made Curtiss fight every inch of his way, while his tiny craft tossed and pitched like a yacht in a hurricane. Through the difficult places, which include the treacherous Storm King pass, Curtiss pumped oil into his craft so plentifully that a long blue haze hung out behind him, fanning itself into shape behind, like a comet’s tail.”

Curtiss Flight from Albany to New York, from the Library of Congress

From the Library of Congress, the Curtiss flight from Albany to New York.

A stop near Poughkeepsie was always planned, at the Gill farm in a place that was then called Camelot. The stop was supposed to take 15 minutes so he could refuel. Why there was no fuel when he got there seems to be a mystery. Curtiss brought the plane down at 8:25, “running twenty-five feet through the dewy grass before coming to a stop,” where about 20 people were waiting and cheered his arrival. He asked where the gasoline and oil he was expecting were, and Farmer Gill answered that he hadn’t seen it.

“Curtiss, who had been moving around looking over his machine, exclaimed: ‘Well, that’s too bad. I’m rather sorry I stopped. I could have gone on to West Point if I’d known that, or perhaps made New York.’”

Give the Times points for creative writing there. We’re going to assume that someone risking life and limb to make aviation history, doing something never done before, and chasing a $10,000 prize as well, probably said something stronger than “Well, that’s too bad.” His 15-minute stop turned into more than an hour, but more crowds were gathering and many of them came in automobiles. Curtiss asked the crowd if he could have some of their gasoline, which at least three of them were glad to give. His 50 horsepower V-8 engine had consumed all of five gallons getting from Albany to Poughkeepsie. After further inspections and minor adjustments to the aeroplane, he took off again at 9:25.

It was by no means an entirely smooth flight. The Times, watching from the accompanying special train, reported on the course:

“…Storm King, with all its terrors, was at hand. What the water navigators have said of it was none too strong to express the view of the aeronaut. The zigzagging motion of the earlier troubles now gave place to pitching and lurching, and made Mrs. Curtiss blanch with fear and hold tight to the window ledge from which she looked, while asking to know how quickly it would all be over. The castled parapets of West Point loomed across the river, fronting the higher backland hills. Curtiss seemed to like the going there, for he kept close to the trees and just sped along the top … Iona Island was immediately ahead and he was lurching, mostly in jerks straight up and down, worse than in any previous flurry. Every one on the train almost forgot to breathe, while Curtiss bobbed and jostled with the air to the island’s edge. There he seemed to be blown back by a head wind that held him in spite of his propeller’s thrust. His forward elevators suddenly bent down and the craft began to settle. His cause seemed lost and all thought he was surely going to land … Curtiss dropped maybe to within fifteen feet of the ground. Then he skimmed along, rose to avoid the roofs, passed just to the left of the powder plant tower and half way up its height, and was out into the broad bend at Peekskill.”

Times of Curtiss's FlightApparently all that maneuvering took up more fuel than had been expected, because once past the Spuyten Duyvil, Curtiss set down again on the back lawn of the Isham mansion at Broadway and 214th street, where he was welcomed by one Minturn Post Collins, son-in-law of the late William B. Isham, who happened to be seated upon the veranda as the plane approached (as one so often is). The Times, whose reporters had to follow by automobile after the train veered off toward Grand Central Station at the Spuyten Duyvil, reported that Mr. Collins said “I am certainly delighted to be the first to congratulate you on arriving in the city limits, and I am glad you picked out our back yard as the place to land. You are great, there’s no doubt of that.” To which Curtiss was said to have replied, “Thank you, but what’s worrying me now is gasoline. Have you any that you can spare to replenish my tanks?” Collins did. A servant was dispatched. As one so often is.

While waiting for the gasoline, “automobiles by the score came chugging up, the occupants, men, women and children, leaping out and running across the open field to get a chance to congratulate the aviator.” As a reminder of what era we’re talking about, the police department sent a horse-drawn patrol wagon up to the hilltop estate to help keep the crowd in check. It wasn’t entirely clear that Curtiss would proceed – he had reached NYC, after all, and could claim the prize, but he thought he could take off again from this location. The machine was refueled, and Curtiss enlisted the help of a few bystanders to give the machine a push, and he was off again. “All along Riverside Drive people had assembled to witness the flight, and in the upper parts of the drive small boys climbed trees. Warning of Curtiss’s approach was signaled by every vessel, yacht, launch, or steam barge over which he flew, and by the time the machine was off 150th Street the drive was crowded with admiring thousands, while from windows and roofs other thousands watched.” And so the scene continued, on down to the Battery, with onlookers leaning over the rails of ferries and steamships, gathering on the piers, watching the bulletins in Times Square. Today, you need to win a football game or have a sex tape to get this kind of public attention. Then, it was for a feat of daring science.

Curtiss landed safely at Governors Island, then still a military installation, greeted by officers and their wives. With a suspicious bit of poetry, one of the first officers to reach Curtiss was the Surgeon General of the Department of the East, Col. John Van Rensselaer Hoff. That his middle name was identical to the name of the island Curtiss had taken off from some hours before was not commented on, but neither could it have been missed. Col. Hoff was said to have panted hospitably (having run up to the plane), “We had almost given you up.” Curtiss responded, “I had to make two stops, one at Poughkeepsie and one at Inwood, you know.”

His wife arrived to greet him, and they kissed in front of the crowd. Curtiss removed his flying gear, including the canvas waders, full-length waders with boots built in.

“Dearie, I forgot my shoes, and left them up in Albany,” he said to his wife, and then a World representative arrived to announce that a check was being prepared in the office, and Mr. Curtiss had better come along to enjoy it.

From here on out, Hoxsie shall refer to him as Shoeless Glenn Curtiss.

Glenn Curtiss Waits For the Wind to Blow the Right Way in Albany

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Glenn Curtiss 1909On May 26, 1910, inventor/aviator Glenn Curtiss was in Albany (we wrote about it here), alternating between his hotel room at the Ten Eyck and Van Rensselaer Island, where there was a two-poled tent that covered his flying machine, a cloth-winged biplane with a V-8 engine of 50 horsepower driving a wooden rear propeller. In case you wondered, he was paying the owner of Van Rensselaer Island for the privilege of taking off from his tilled field. The New York Times said the owner wanted $100 for the privilege, but eventually reduced his demand to $5. No doubt the exit fee might have irked Curtiss, but he was seeking a $10,000 prize offered by Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World newspaper for the first flight from Albany to New York City. The flight didn’t have to be non-stop – carrying that amount of fuel was considered impossible at the time – but only two stops for fuel were to be allowed.

Not only was the length of the flight, nearly 150 miles, pretty much unprecedented, but no one had attempted such a distance over water, where those finicky and frail flying machines could be exposed to some very fickle winds that could cause disaster. While waiting for the right conditions, and for his aeroplane to be absolutely ready, Curtiss was paying careful attention to wind.

“When Curtiss arose at 4 o’clock this morning [May 26] a single look out of his hotel room window convinced him that an early morning flight was out of the question. The wind was blowing in gusts at the rate of from twelve to fifteen miles an hour, fishtailing from southwest to northwest. He went back to bed, did not get up again until 8 o’clock, and only after a leisurely breakfast crossed over to Van Rensselaer Island and the tent in which his fifty horse-power biplane was being assembled.”

Later he returned to the hotel, saying he wouldn’t attempt to fly unless the wind abated and changed direction. By 3 in the afternoon, the flight had to be deferred to the next day. The Times pointed out that the wind was actually worst at Albany and that further south on the route and all the way to Poughkeepsie atmospheric conditions were almost ideal and the course would have been safe.

The Times provided a very detailed description of the river topography, noting all the hills and valleys, places where the banks were close to the river and would demand Curtiss fly higher, and other spots where it widened out and he could stay close to the ground. Below Stuyvesant, “Safety demands, five miles further south, that the aviator who would continue to New York shall travel at least 500 feet high, for the steep, rocky banks of the river, it was evident, caused queer wind swirls and baffling air currents.”

Curtiss would be able to cut off some river miles crossing over some of the river’s bends. “The river shore is on the east bank a constant series of bays and indentations, and a great gain in the distance flown can be made by traveling on the hypotenuses of the triangles made by the sides of the bays.”

His plan was to refuel at the Gill farm, just short of three miles south of Poughkeepsie. But to get there, Curtiss would have to get some air, flying well clear of the railroad bridge whose top was 212 feet above the water. “A series of flags on both side of the river, starting about two miles north of the Gill farm, denotes the approach to the landing site, and there is hardly a likelihood of the aeroplanist running past the farm by mistake.” Once on his way again, he would have to deal with the extremely tricky winds of the lower Hudson valley and the Palisades, and once in the neighborhood of Fort Lee ferry (the George Washington Bridge wasn’t there yet), “Curtiss will have to pass over a constantly shifting panorama of moving vessels, whose smoke clouds and hot air exhausts will inevitably cause peculiar wind currents. This condition will require a cool head and a machine perfectly under control.” This wasn’t speculation – it was based on the experience of Wilbur Wright, who had flown from Governors Island to Grant’s Tomb in September 1909, and he found that passing steamships gave him one of the hardest tasks of his experience. He said in the future he would never attempt it at less than 3,600 or 4,000 feet in altitude.

On the 27th, the winds were no better, and the effort was delayed again. As evening fell, it seemed the wind had fallen as well, and Curtiss elected to take a trial run in the plane at about 7 o’clock. It was a fifteen minute flight that was nearly disastrous. He took off from Van Rensselaer Island, and had just gotten off the ground and over the tree tops

“when a sharp wind caught him abeam, whirled him around, and sent him zigzagging off toward the river, much as a kite dives when caught aloft in a sudden current of air. The aviator, however, seemed to recover his control after a long left drive at a sharp downward angle, and jumped rapidly upward on level planes. He was seemingly getting under way again in good form when another blast sent him whirling off to the right in among the tree tops, the planes [wings] tipping badly as the wind ripped through them. Curtiss rose to avoid the trees, and then something happened which was an entirely new experience for him. He said afterward he hardly knew how to account for it except on a theory that a wave of air bursting over him from the rear at a higher rate of speed than he was making carried him down as would a breaking billow of water an ocean bather.

What the hundred-odd watchers standing in front of the Curtiss tent, how half a mile in the rear of the flier, saw was the machine drop at terrific speed from a height of apparently about 200 feet right to the ground. Everyone held his breath, expecting that Curtiss had been seriously injured and his aeroplane demolished. Several women screamed, while a score of men set off across the intervening meadowland on the run. They were reassured, however, when they saw the Curtiss machine rise slightly and then settle down in good form.

The first to reach the spot found the aviator unharmed. He said that he had dropped through the air as if a vacuum had formed suddenly underneath him, and that the only reason he had not struck the ground before stemming his downward rush was that the planes when near the surface seemed to cushion upon the air and rebound slightly enough to send him gliding forward. . . .

When he wheeled the aircraft into his tent half an hour later Mr. Curtiss said that he would leave his hotel at 8 o’clock in the morning and would be prepared to fly before daylight in the morning mists. He added that his study of Catskill weather moods had convinced him that no time was so propitious for a flight as the hour just before the dawn, and he proposed to utilize that to its full advantage to-morrow.”

Tomorrow: The Successful Flight OR, When Glenn Curtiss Needs Gasoline, Servants Are Dispatched.

Glenn Curtiss and the Albany Flyer

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Glenn Curtiss in his Albany Flyer

Glenn Curtiss in his Albany Flyer, 1910

The Wright Brothers first achieved sustained, powered, heavier-than-air flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in December 1903. Their first flight was 120 feet for 12 seconds; their fourth and final flight of that day covered 850 feet in 59 seconds. However famous that is now, the flight was barely noticed at the time. Their suspicious and sometimes contentious relationship with the press meant that much of what they did in subsequent years was little reported, or received with skepticism. Even when the press was allowed to watch, photography was banned, leading to more questions than answers.

So it was that the first public flight of a heavier-than-air craft really wasn’t until 1908, when F.W.”Casey” Baldwin took off from the frozen surface of New York’s Keuka Lake and covered 318 feet, 11 inches for 20 seconds before crashing into the ice. Baldwin was part of a group called the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA), which included Alexander Graham Bell, J.A.D. McCurdy, Army Lieut. Thomas Selfridge, and a young man from Hammondsport in the Finger Lakes named Glenn Hammond Curtiss.

Glenn Curtiss in France

Glenn Curtiss in France

Curtiss was a bicycle racer who built his own bicycles, then branched into motorcycles and other motorized vehicles and craft. He developed the motor that powered America’s first dirigible. His V-8 powered Hercules motorcycle achieved 136.3 mph in 1907, gaining Curtiss the title of “Fastest Man on Earth.” Two months after Baldwin’s flight, Curtiss flew an AEA plane 1017 feet in controlled flight, using horizontal rudders (ailerons) on the wings. In 1908, he competed for a Scientific American trophy that required flying in a straight line for one kilometer. In what is characterized as the first officially recognized, pre-announced and public observed flight in America, Glenn Curtiss flew 5090 feet. A year later, he flew 24.7 miles, and in another race set a speed record of an average 46 mph.

Hammondsport is a long way from Albany, so why are we talking about this? Well, in 1910, the New York World newspaper (publisher: Joseph Pulitzer) offered a $10,000 prize for the first successful flight between Albany and New York City following the Hudson River route. Two stops would be allowed, because it would be impossible for an airplane to carry that much fuel. Glenn Curtiss was determined to win the prize. It’s a little amazing to think that in the course of just a few years we went from powered flight that hardly anyone knew about to being able to fly a kilometer in a straight line, to, just two years later, flying from Albany to NYC. It was touted as the longest route devised over water. It was certainly not the same as flying over open ocean or a Great Lake, but flying down the Hudson presented some pretty formidable challenges for a craft of the time. For starters, we’re still talking about an open biplane — two fabric wings, rear-mounted wooden propeller, no cockpit. Basically, a powered kite. To facilitate a potential water landing, his airplane was fitted out with two tin floats.

In late May of 1910, Curtiss came to Albany to prepare for the flight. The New York Times reported that

“The aviator has been making much quiet preparation for his feat. For the last six months, off and on, he has been experimenting to determine the ability of his latest model to alight on the water and to keep afloat there without upsetting. Other aviators have alighted on water before now, but none has done it intentionally, and their accidents have revealed next to nothing that could be of benefit to Mr. Curtiss. The latter, however, has fashioned a sort of apron arrangement which he expects will keep his craft right side up should it drop with him into the Hudson, and by means of which he hopes, in the event of a fall, to be able to rise again.”

The weight of his safety devices, “which will include life buoys,” meant he couldn’t make the trip without stopping for fuel, and the plan was to do so just south of Poughkeepsie.

“His biplane will weigh 1,000 pounds, inclusive of his own weight of 145 pounds. It will be equipped with an eight-cylinder motor, developing 50 horse power. According to the aviator, it has a spread of supporting surface less than one-half that of any other biplane now in use.

The start will be made from [Van] Rensselaer Island, below the bridges across the Hudson at Albany, about 4 o’clock to-morrow morning [May 26] if the weather conditions prove favorable. If not, the start may be deferred until nightfall. Should he start in the morning Curtiss expects to reach here some time in the afternoon. A night start will necessitate a stop all night at Poughkeepsie, and the resumption of the flight on Friday morning.

The problem of alighting in this city has bothered the aviator, but he expects to be able to land at the Battery. The high buildings, occasioning conflicting air currents, he expects to prove his greatest source of trouble.”

Curtiss had taken the steamship Albany along the river to reconnoiter the proposed route of his flight, and tried to study the air currents over the river. He expected to take off on the 26th, but missed that window.

Van Rensselaer Island 1874“Through twelve hours of constant work upon his aeroplane to get it in shape for its proposed flight down the Hudson to New York, Glenn H. Curtiss, the aviator, convinced a large gallery of Albany residents to-day that aerial navigation, so far as getting readily aloft is concerned, is still far from a perfect science. By his delay Curtiss lost a favorable day for a flight.

Mr. Curtiss’s five mechanics swarmed upon his machine early this morning and eased work only when the darkness made it impossible to continue. The aviator, who had directed the task at intervals, said as he left his craft for the night that there was still eight hours’ work ahead of him before it would ready to test in a preliminary flight. . . .

For twenty minutes just at sunset Curtiss brought his machine out of the two-pole tent where it has been assembled on the tide flats of Van Rensselaer Island, just outside the Albany city limits. It was then ready for flying except that harmonies have still to be established between the front and rear rudders, and that the ‘Ailerons,’ as the small movable planes between the main planes are called, had not yet been put in place.

Curtiss started his engine several times for the delectation of the multitude which assembled in automobiles, in carriages, and on foot. As the big wooden propeller blade picked up its thousand revolutions a minute it forced a spurt of air out behind it which turned straw hats into gliders by the score and sent them spinning toward the Hudson.”

The craft was compared to the “June Bug,” a machine that Curtiss had taken to Governors Island during the previous year’s Hudson-Fulton celebration but in which he had done little flying, disappointing the crowds who had come to expect something spectacular. The new craft,  known as the “Albany Flyer,” was eight feet longer in wingspan. Black balloon cloth was used in place of silk and brown varnish for the wings. The front elevating planes were larger, as were the ailerons and the rear rudder.

His plan was to not only follow the river’s route, but to stay close to its surface. “I shall fly close to the water all the way down, and if I’m upset I shall count on my five airbags and two tin airtight compartments to keep afloat. My hydroplane attachment in front will force the machine to skim along on the surface until by the loss of speed and momentum it gradually settles to a depth of about two feet, just the tips of the lower plane and half the propeller blade projecting above the surface. All I will have to do will be to stand upon the seat to keep my feet dry and wait for help. If I am compelled to do that this trip it will probably cause me to lose the event, as I cannot start again from the water, and I have little faith in being able to tow the craft ashore in condition to take the air at once from land.”

By the way, the Times wasn’t kidding around in its coverage. It had engaged a special New York Central train with “a fast locomotive and a single coach car, prepared to leave at a moment’s notice to accompany the aeroplane on its journey.” The train would have priority over all other trains, and would carry Times reporters and Curtiss’s wife. Curtiss said he could keep the train company “so long as it went no slower than forty-five miles an hour.” From the train “a bulletin service to The Times on the progress of the flight will be maintained.” Curtiss expected to reach Poughkeepsie in an hour and three quarters; three miles south of that city, he was to take on twelve gallons of gasoline and replenish his oil and water supply at the Gill farm. That stop was to take about fifteen minutes, and then he expected to reach New York in two more hours. “His present intention is to land at Battery Park, or if the cross wind currents from the skyscraper district are too strong to permit him or effect a safe landing there, then at Governors Island.”

Tomorrow: we’ll cover the path and a false start or two.

Phoenixville Phriday: The Pennypacker Tragedy

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Disasters on RailroadsLast week we made mention of a railroad tragedy on the Pickering Valley Railroad, where a cow on the tracks led to the death of an engineer. But an 1877 storm led to a much bigger disaster, at the time the most fatal train wreck in Chester County history.

On Oct. 4, 1877, a torrential rainstorm washed out the track near Kimberton. The railroad was running a locomotive, two passenger cars, and a combination milk and baggage car (as the line’s primary business was milk runs). Up in Schwenksville that day, at what is now called Pennypacker Mills, was a reunion of the Pennypacker family, to which 1500 descendants of Heinrich Pennypacker, who settled in the area around 1700, were invited, and they came from all over the country. Rain forced the celebration indoors for the most part. Returning to their homes in the evening, reunion attendees made up most of the 130 passengers who left Phoenixville just before 6 p.m. for Byers Station. As The New York Times put it:

“The night had closed in intensely dark, rain was falling in torrents, the small streams along the route had overflowed their banks, and in many places the track was covered with water, which the ditches were unable to carry off as fast as it fell. Near Kimberton, about four miles from Phoenixville, the train ran into a wash-out at least 30 feet deep. The train consisted of the engine, two passenger cars, and a combination baggage and milk car, in the order named. The engine fell a mass of shattered iron at the bottom of the cavity, instantly killing the engineer, Frank Kenney, and the fireman, George Griffith. Conductor Golden, Brakeman Major, and Baggage-master Gamewell were in the baggage car, which remained on the track and escaped without injury. The first passenger car fell on top of the engine, and the second went crashing down on both, tearing off the roof of the first car, its end remaining on the bank. The conductor walked to a farm-house in the neighborhood, procured a horse and wagon, and drove back to Phoenixville, from which he sent a train with surgeons and medical appliances. It was 8:30 when the relief train felt its way cautiously to the edge of the chasm, and the storm was still raging furiously. By this time many of the wounded had been rescued and cared for in the baggage car and in the neighboring farmhouses, though the work of getting them up from the badly-shattered wreck was one of great difficulty. The wounded, of whom there is a terribly long list, were first attended to, and then the dead were got out from the wreck, the body of the fireman, Griffith, not being reached until late to-day.”

A 1999 article said that the bells in Phoenixville were rung to call rescuers to the train that went to the scene. It also said that the Masonic Hall became a morgue for the dead, and physicians came in from Pottstown and Norristown. The Times listed seven killed, including Nathan Pennypacker, and thirty-two wounded, including a barrel full of Pennypackers. A coroner’s jury noted that there had been two inches of rain between 5 and 6 p.m., and 4.92 inches had fallen in total; the jury called the storm “not only severe, but indeed phenomenal.” There was no question that this tremendous torrent through a steep gully of sandy soil was phenomenal, but the jury did find some design flaws in that the railroad had not allowed for sufficient drainage in the area. But it also did something else stupid and possibly lethal on a dark and stormy night: it ran with the engine backwards, its light shining onto the tank, not out onto the tracks. Somewhat different from the Times account, the jury found the train was constructed as follows:

“First, the engine reversed, with tank foremost and engine running backward, with the head light upon the front end of the tank as it ran; second, the gentlemen’s car, on the night in question, occupied by both sexes; third, the combination of ladies’ and baggage car in one; fourth, and last, the milk car . . . The train was run in this manner in violation of the rules of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad Company, operators of the Pickering Valley Railroad …”

The jury found that if the railroad had followed its own rules, the order of the cars would have been locomotive and tank first, milk car second, and then the two passenger cars; the rear car would have been the gentlemen’s car, which theoretically would have remained on the track, which the milk car did. Of course, the women would still have been toast, but so it goes.

They found another problem, too, and thought that perhaps the practice of putting iron bars across the windows wasn’t necessarily in the best interests of passengers:

“We find that the practice of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad Company, in placing rods of iron across the outside of the windows of its passenger cars, forming an unyielding grating, is one fraught with great danger. In an accident similar to that on the Pickering Valley Railroad, on the evening of October 4th, by the windows being clear of these obstructions, the escape of passengers from a wrecked train would be greatly facilitated.”


Maps to Swear By, Not At

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Jim Fisk MapsHoxsie is at the age where he has probably forgotten more than he currently knows. And then he’ll run across an old article and the light will go off: “Hey, I used to know that!” For instance, this article from the Schenectady Gazette in 1970 was a reminder that local television personality Jim Fisk, a legend among local baby boomers as the “Uncle Jim Fisk” who hosted the Freihofer BreadTime Stories show, was also the man who put the Capital District on the map. Literally. He founded JIMAPCO, which for many years was the premiere (and sometimes the only) choice for local maps.

According to his obituary (he died Jan. 8, 2011), Fisk was a Glens Falls/Hudson Falls native who studied math and theatrical set design at Yale. After serving as an officer in the Army during World War II, he came back home and started work as a staff artist for WRGB in 1945, and became the host of the Freihofer show in 1956, where he finished the “squiggles” of children.

According to the Gazette article, he began mapmaking in 1965 in an effort to clarify lines where he lived in Niskayuna. “We were located right in between various lines – town, county, postal and school and there was so much confusion that I decided to straighten things out.” By the time this article ran, business was “getting so good now that he may be able to make maps exclusively.” He was releasing an atlas of seven area maps: Balltown/Suburbia, Route 50-Suburbia, Schenectady-Scotia, Rotterdam Suburbia, Saratoga Suburbia, Clifton Park/Suburbia, and Routes 5/7 Suburbia. (Mapmaking was a strength; consistent approach to hyphens and virgules, not so much.) The atlas could be purchased as Union Book Store or Culver Office Equipment.

Jimapco 1977In the early days, the maps were certainly not beautiful, particularly by later full-color standards, but they were clean and easy to follow. The business grew, and Jim Fisk retired, leaving it to his son, David. When David and his wife Christina retired earlier this summer, the retail store on Route 9 in Round Lake closed but the online business continues and paper maps are still for sale there and at Wilderness, Water & Woods on Route 9.

The internet and online mapping is a wonderful thing, but in a future where paper maps no longer exist, how will future historians look back and figure out what was where?

Mann and Anker

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Mann and Anker 1898We aren’t very familiar with Mann & Anker (or Mann, Waldman & Co., for that matter), but can only imagine what their store was like in 1898 when Fashion’s Queen held court there and gave her devotees the opportunity to pay her homage.

In 1899, both Mann & Anker, “makers of ladies’ garments,” and Mann & Waldmann, “wholesale dealers in ladies’ suits,” were destroyed by a fire that swept that stretch of South Pearl Street, in which “eight firms doing a prosperous business had their stock totally destroyed.” But they seem to have come back from that and returned to business at the same address; we find references to them at least through 1909. The building still stands across from the Times-Union Center at the corner of Hudson Avenue.

With all this ladies’ garment-making going on, you can well imagine that Lester Mann and F.L. Anker of Albany, New York, also have their names appear on a patent in 1898 – for a painter’s scaffold. Their improvement was that there were hinged sides so the painters couldn’t walk off the edge of an exterior scaffold.

Phoenixville Phriday: All Caused By A Cow

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All Caused By A CowHoxsie was surprised to search through an online archive of California newspapers and find more than a few stories that originated in his newish hometown of Phoenixville, PA. Some were of tragedy, some were of no consequence at all, but all were printed a long way from where they happened. In this case, the San Francisco Call of August 5, 1895, told the tale of tragedy on the Pickering Valley Railroad the day before:

“The passenger train on the Pickering Valley Railroad, due here at 8:40 o’clock, ran into a cow a short distance from Pemberton [sic; Kimberton], three miles from here, to-night. The engine left the track, several cars following it over a steep embankment. The engineer, Joseph Grow of Phoenixville, was instantly killed, and the fireman dangerously hurt, while half a dozen passengers were perhaps fatally injured. They were members of the Salvation Army from here, returning from Fegleys Grove, where a meeting was held to-day. The wreck occurred near the spot where so many members of the Pennypacker family were killed in a wreck some years ago.”

The Pickering Valley Railroad opened in October 1871, running from Phoenixville (where it connected with the Reading at what is now called Columbia Station) to Byers in Upper Uwchlan, near Eagle. It primarily served as a milk run, but also carried passengers, sometimes to tragic results. More on that next week.

A tiny bit of Pickering Valley Railroad track remains, up on the wall along Bridge Street, leading into the old Reading station. You can see it here.

The Value of the Telephone (and of Miss Worth)

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The Telephone Review 1914Now that we live in a time when it appears that most people feel the need to be engaged in telephone conversations at all moments of the day – while driving a car, while conducting a transaction, while going to the bathroom – it’s perhaps hard for some to imagine that there was a time when the telephone company had to sell people on the utility of telephone service. But so it was.

In 1914, The Telephone Review, the house organ of the New York Telephone Company, provided this article from the Waterford Advertiser, under the heading “The Value of the Telephone,” to drive home the advantage of voice communications by wire, particularly for places whose fire alarms appear to have been burned down.

“The value of the telephone and a live operator was shown on Tuesday evening, May 2, about 11:30 o’clock, in Waterford. The village was quiet, and a fire was discovered in the Waterford Woolen Mills, situated at the head of Ballston Street. Since the burning of the Town Hall, on which was located the fire alarm, the village has been handicapped. An alarm was sounded on the steamer house bell, which, however, can be heard only a short distance. Word was sent to Miss Adelaide Worth, the efficient chief operator in Waterford of the New York Telephone Company. The fire was burning briskly at the time and no apparatus had yet arrived. Miss Worth, realizing the situation, telephoned the Reverend Alfred H. Valiquette, pastor of St. Mary’s Church, asking him to ring the church bell, which he did immediately, and the firemen were soon on the scene and succeeded in saving adjoining property.

Thirty minutes later, while the firemen were at this fire, another fire was discovered in a residence across the street from the Ford Hose House, and as the firemen were all away from the fire headquarters, Miss Worth again appealed to the clergyman, who again sounded the alarm, and a quick response was made, with a damage to the building of only $100. The loss to the Woolen Mill amounted to $10,000. Much credit is due to the operator for her action.”


A look inside the offices of the Albany Morning Express

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In its 51 years or so, the Albany Morning Express saw some tremendous changes, which it chronicled in its 50th anniversary coverage. They noted that when they began publication in 1847, the city of Albany contained 45,000 inhabitants, making it the 10th largest city in the United States at the time. There was only a single railroad connecting it with New York City. “The traveler to Boston took passage on the Boston, Albany and Troy road, and a line of railway connected Albany, Troy and Saratoga. Trains for the west left the railway terminus on State street at the top of the hill, from which point the cars descended to Broadway, received their passengers and were drawn back by means of windlass and tackle.” It was a very different city.

“Fifty years ago, all the streets in Albany were paved with cobblestones. For this purpose cobblestones are but little better than watermelons or overripe eggs. At the present time Albany has many miles of granite blocks, brick and concrete pavement. Albany is fast becoming one of the best paved cities in the country. Properly paved streets, added to our beautiful parks drives and boulevard [sic] are fast making Albany a very desirable city to visit and reside in.”

In 1897, the offices of  the Morning Express and the Evening Journal, both owned by political boss William D. Barnes, were in the Journal building at 59 and 61 State Street, and an adjoining building on James Street. Here’s a look at how they were arranged:

“The entrance to the counting room is on State street, to the editorial rooms, the president’s offices and the composing rooms at No. 7 James street; to the office of the weekly edition of the Express, No. 9 James and the mailing and press rooms, No. 5 James.

The business offices occupy the main floor. No paper in the state has a better arranged and more pleasantly fitting up counting room. The large force of clerks requires considerable room and they have it. Every convenience is afforded for transacting business with the public expeditiously. The general manager’s room adjoining, which is furnished with good taste and affords pleasant accommodations for those who have business to transact with the head of the business department, communicates directly with the president’s offices above. The rear of the ground floor is occupied by the mailing and city carriers’ department, No. 5 James street.

The president’s suite of chambers occupy [sic] the second and third floors. They are suitably furnished and decorated and have ready communication with all parts of the building. By means of speaking tubes the president is able to communicate ith the head of each department at his desk.

On the fourth floor is the library, including tiers of racks in which are kept bound volumes of the files of Albany and New York papers for the exclusive use of the establishment, and the proof readers’ department. The bulletin department is on the fourth floor.

The editorial room of the Weekly Express is at No. 9 James street. In the rear are the press and stereotyping rooms of the establishment. On the floors above are the editorial and the composing rooms.”

The Morning Express would be sold off and merged with the Press and Knickerbocker in 1899, but the Evening Journal would continue, eventually moving to its extremely impressive new building on the south end of the Delaware and Hudson Railroad headquarters building.

While they remained at their offices on State, the newspapers printed large headlines and posted them with the news of the day:

“The large, colored headlines, which appear twice a day on the bulletin boards of the Journal and the Express at the State street entrance, which are eagerly scanned by hundreds of people, who, in the hurry of business hours, have time only to catch bare announcements of important events, are an important and indispensible feature of the daily routine. They have given the local public many ‘beats’ of notable interest. The first announcement of the execution of ‘Bat’ Shea reached not only the Albany public but the papers through the state from the bulletin posted in front of the Journal office, notwithstanding the fact that the correspondents of two great news associations sent out full reports directly from the prison.”