Late last fall a friend and I were motoring to Ithaca for the festivities at Cornell surrounding the dedication and DNA ribbon cutting of Weill Hall designed by Richard Meier, when my friend suggested we stop at the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport, NY, on Lake Keuka. I hesitated, admittedly not knowing a byte about Glenn Curtiss. Fortunately, my friend insisted, and the museum visit introduced me to the “Father of the American Aircraft Industry” and the pivotal role Curtiss played, in partnership with Rodman Wanamaker, bringing aeronautics to the shores of Palm Beach, as well as later, when Curtiss became one of South Florida’s most influential developers.
First stop, a look at when hotel guests and the cottage colony walked onto the lakefront, put on goggles and hopped a plane. Long before the jet path brought a high-def vibe to the town’s South End, Palm Beachers were buzzing all over the island in their own boat planes and aerial yachts. Then, an appreciation for Rodman Wanamaker’s contribution to New York and Palm Beach’s shared history of early aerobatics before touching down inside the Curtiss Museum and the aviator-turned-developer’s exploits in South Florida.
Too often, Palm Beach’s history of fabled fortunes, enormous mansions and giddy parties overshadows a more significant past, when islanders were part of a greater cultural vanguard. Before World War I, and the decade following, Palm Beach was at the forefront of commercial aviation development as a result of the engineering ingenuity of Glenn Hammond Curtiss (1878-1930) and the pioneering vision and largesse of Rodman Wanamaker (1863-1928).
In response to the Wright Brothers ongoing covert aeronautical research, Alexander Graham Bell formed the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA) in 1907, a joint US-Canadian endeavor to design and build commercially-feasible aircraft, with Glenn Curtiss, as director of experiments, and John A. D. McCurdy, a renowned Canadian aeronaut, among them. Within months, the AEA’s five-man group achieved the first officially-recorded public flight in Hammondsport, soon followed by the development of the first seaplane. By 1909, the AEA disbanded as the Curtiss motorcycle shop had become an airplane manufacturing plant, forming the Curtiss Aeroplane Company.
In 1911, John McCurdy brought a Curtiss plane to Daytona, Key West and Palm Beach for demonstration flights. During McCurdy’s flight over Palm Beach, the world’s first wireless message was reportedly sent from a plane to the ground. The following season there were several aerial yachts providing sightseeing rides over the island. That year, when R. A. Fanciulli crossed the Flagler bridge in a wheelchair, the toll collector insisted on collecting a toll from Mr. Fanciulli’s partner, Walter Brookins, who was flying one hundred feet above Fanciulli. During that season, hydroaeroplanes gave air shows along with the annual motor boat races on Lake Worth. With Palm Beach’s temperate winter weather, the government shipped the latest Curtis hydroaeroplanes to Lake Worth for training by their air pilots, constructing a hangar on the west side of the lake across from Royal Park and south of the middle bridge.
By 1914, Palm Beach Life magazine had added Aviation to its sport pages, detailing the various flights leaving from the Curtiss flying boat dock at the Royal Poinciana Hotel. Passengers donned scarves, jackets and bathing suits under their sporting clothes, just in case of an unexpected dip in front of The Breakers. In one issue, the article noted, “In less than a minute, they were 700 feet in the air above the island at a rate of 35 to 90 miles an hour…often beaching the craft in front of large crowds at The Breakers.”
Mrs. Arthur Wright, a prominent winter visitor, proclaimed that “…when she was far beyond the water and land, she felt re-born and there was no sport that can prove its equal.” Mrs. George Jonas, the wife of Palm Beach’s mayor, became so enthralled she wanted to study aeronautics immediately, so she could fly “whenever the fancy dictates.” By 1916, several companies offered illuminated moonlight flights over Palm Beach for hotel guests from the east side of the lake.
But, it was Rodman Wanamaker’s partnership with Glenn Curtiss and the formation of the America Trans-Oceanic Company that popularized winging from New York-to-Palm Beach, seaplane flights from a flying boat station at Peacock Point in Port Washington, NY, and landing on Palm Beach’s lakefront.
Rodman Wanamaker: “The Aristocratic Aeronaut”
Rodman Wanamaker had made the family’s New York department store into a showcase for some of aviation’s notable milestones, from staging an early hot-air balloon lift off from the Manhattan store’s roof to being the first store with an airplane department, offering metal monoplanes for $25,000. A member of New York’s Aero Club, Wanamaker imported the first airplane to the United States, paying $2,200 in 1909 for a French Bleriot. He established the annual Rodman Wanamaker Trophy, awarded to “members of the fair sex.” who reached the highest altitude. He was appointed a special deputy police commissioner, overseeing New York’s first sky patrol, planes armed with machine guns on the lookout for daredevil stuntmen and stray German pilots, perhaps. Wanamaker’s nephew, also named Rodman Wanamaker, became a deputy police commissioner who made the New York police force the first in the nation to put helicopters into service.
In 1914, Wanamaker and Curtiss had formed the America Trans-Oceanic Company, named for their intent on making the first non-stop trans-Atlantic crossing. Unfortunately, it was delayed by the onset of World War I; then, ill-fated, when in 1927, the Wanamaker-sponsored flight arrived slightly short of landfall after Charles Lindbergh’s historical flight. Wanamaker had pursued his dream “…in the cause of science and world peace …for the uplift of the whole world…”
But instead, he and Curtiss began a commercial airline passenger venture between Long Island and Palm Beach, with Grover Whalen, as the company’s vice-president of operations.
The Rodman Wanamaker Flying School was set up in Port Washington. Once in Florida, Trans-Oceanic’s flying boats took off for Nassau, Bimini and Cuba. The company’s Palm Beach hangar housed seven planes.
The Big Fish was a converted 12-passenger Curtiss H-16 utilized for trips to Bahamas and Havana. Smaller, six-passenger planes were used for “joy hops” to Miami. The moonlight flight left Palm Beach at 5 pm and arrived in Jacksonville five hours later. The company made four trips a week to Bimini. In 1917, Atlantic City-Palm Beach was an 18-hr. flight; by 1921, New York-Palm Beach took 9 hrs. 56 mins. with one fuel stop.
In January 1920, Rodman Wanamaker and five companions, including son-in-law Gurnee Munn, were adrift for 26 hours, when his personal hydroaeroplane went down in the Atlantic between Palm Beach and Nassau. Upon their rescue, The New York Times wrote, “… flying to the Bahamas for a handshake with John Barleycorn was fast becoming the leading outdoor sport in these parts.”
The Glenn Hammond Curtiss Museum, Hammondsport, New York
The Florida Years
In 1907, Glenn Curtiss was a motorcycle manufacturer; seventeen years later, he was a multi-millionaire as the “Father of Naval Aviation” and retired from the airplane business, moved to South Florida and became a land developer. He established the towns of Opa-Locka, Hialeah, and Miami Springs. In 1930, shortly before his death, he formed the Florida Aviation Camp, moving his aviation school there from its Biscayne Bay location. He then donated part of the land for the Miami Municipal Airport, first known as Glenn Curtiss Field, later becoming a part of what is now known as Miami International Airport.
If you go:
Glenn H. Curtiss Museum
8419 State Route 54
Hammondsport, NY 14840