“I was near Inwood-on-the-Hudson when I noticed a tiny speck in the air far up the Hudson. It was coming like the Twentieth Century Limited, and I knew right away that it was Curtiss. On it came, all the time getting bigger and bigger, and off Riverdale I begun to hear the whirring of propellers. I just stood there on the bluff and looked and wondered. I could not move.” -Description of Isham Park landing. (New York Times, May 30, 1910)
On December 17, 1903 Orville Wright took to the skies above the sand dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. He and his brother Wilbur conducted their experimental flight tests in total secrecy. While obsessed with flight, the Brothers Wright were equally concerned with securing their patents. The Wright brothers had true cause for concern.
Fast on their heels was another American inventor and business competitor named Glenn Hammond Curtiss.
A true modern hero, Curtiss blazed into the 20th century atop a roaring motorcycle. Traveling 136-miles per hour on a bike of his own design, Curtiss not only set a world record but earned the title, “the fastest man alive.“
Once Curtiss took to the skies no one could keep him on the ground–not the Wright Brothers and their army of lawyers, not the nay-sayers, not even the laws of physics.
Treated like a crown prince in Europe, Curtiss couldn’t sell a single airplane in the United States without paying royalties to the Wrights who owned every conceivable copyright concerning manned flight.
But while Orville and Wilbur had the courts on their side, Curtiss’ airplanes could out fly and out maneuver any machine the Wrights put in the air. In fact, the Wright’s planes were quickly becoming obsolete.
Then, in the spring of 1910, Curtiss showed the Wrights and the rest of the world who really owned the skies.
Incredibly, Inwood would play a starring role in the early history of aviation…
The Pulitzer Challenge
In the early morning hours of May 29th, 1910, Curtiss set out to do the unthinkable. For a purse of $10,000, offered by New York World publisher Joseph Pulitzer, Curtiss would attempt to fly from Albany to Manhattan.
Pulitzer’s rules were simple if not insane: Curtiss was allowed two stops to refuel and the entire distance of more than 150 miles had to be completed in less than twenty-four hours.
Curtiss was the only pilot in the world to agree to Pulitzer’s terms.
That morning more than 100,000 spectators gathered along Curtiss’ Hudson River flight path to witness one of the greatest spectacles of their day.
At 7:02 am Curtiss and his Albany Flyer were airborne.
Donning goggles, a cork life vest and rubberized waders, Curtiss kept pace with the news train. On-board the locomotive, his wife Lena hung out a window cheering her husband on while waiving a handkerchief. “It was like a real race and I enjoyed the contest more than anything else during the flight,” Curtiss later recalled.
Eighty-seven miles into his trip, Curtiss landed his Albany Flyer in an open field near Poughkeepsie where he borrowed oil and gas from curious motorists before taking back to the air.
Shortly after his second takeoff dangerous wind currents just south of Storm King Mountain nearly tossed the aviator from his plane. “My heart was in my mouth. I thought it was all over,” Curtiss recalled.
Regaining control of the airplane, Curtiss found himself in the homestretch. The Manhattan skyline was just visible on the horizon.
Then disaster struck.
Curtiss’ aircraft was leaking oil. He needed to put down before his engine froze up. But where?
Scanning the ground below, Curtiss looked for a large patch of green in northern Manhattan he had scouted out while planning his flight. Veering east from the Hudson, Curtiss put down in Inwood, on a stretch of land owned by the family of the late financier and leather merchant William B. Isham.
At 10:42 am, Isham’s daughter Flora and her husband, Minturn Post Collins, were reading about the flight in the Sunday paper when they heard a motor running behind the house.
Heading out back to investigate, Collins immediately realized he was standing face to face with the aviator he had read so much about in the morning news.
“I am certainly delighted to be the first to congratulate you on arriving in city limits, and am glad you picked our backyard as a place to land,” Collins told Curtiss.
All business, Curtiss responded, “Thank you, but what’s worrying me now is oil and gasoline. Have you any that you can spare?”
“It was grand,” Collins later told reporters. “…And that’s the best word I can think of to describe it. Imagine yourself seated on your veranda with no thought of an airship in your mind, and then suddenly wake up and see one of the finest machines in the world coming down in your backyard. It was simply perfect in every respect, and although it was all over in less than a minute it was a sight that I shall never forget. Curtiss was so modest about it all, too, and when I congratulated him he did not seem to realize that he had accomplished one of the greatest aerial feats in the world’s history.”
Collins gave Curtiss some gas and sent a servant down the hill to a nearby boathouse to fetch some oil. While this was being done, Curtiss phoned the newspapers to let them know that while he had landed within city limits, he still planned on flying to his final destination on Governor’s Island as planned.
When Curtiss returned an enormous crowd surrounded his plane. It seemed that the whole world had descended on Inwood to catch a glimpse of the great aviation pioneer and his magnificent contraption.
The Kingsbridge police station quickly dispatched a horse drawn wagon full of officers to the Isham estate to help maintain order.
Sergeant Edsall, who witnessed Curtiss’ plane pass the Spuyten Duyvil said, “It was the finest sight I have ever seen. No bird ever flew with more grace than did Curtiss as he came down. I was near Inwood-on-the-Hudson when I noticed a tiny speck in the air far up the Hudson. It was coming like the Twentieth Century Limited, and I knew right away that it was Curtiss. On it came, all the time getting bigger and bigger, and off Riverdale I begun to hear the whirring of propellers. I just stood there on the bluff and looked and wondered. I could not move.”
Realizing Curtiss was going in for a landing, Sergeant Edsall sprinted up the hill to the Isham property.
“As I reached the top of the hill I saw Curtiss jump out of the machine and shake hands with Mr. Collins,” Edsall later told the New York Times. “I knew that people from everywhere would head for the Isham place, and I sent in a call for reserves from Kingsbridge, and, say, did you ever see people spring up from everywhere as they did here in this, one of the most sparsely settled parts of New York?”
Another takeoff was going to prove tricky business. In addition to the crowd of onlookers, Curtiss realized he had flown into a cul-de-sac. His only option, a dangerous one, was to roll down the hill then steer his airplane past the unforgiving walls of the Spuyten Duyvil as he gained altitude.
Technically he didn’t have to continue at all. Pulitzer’s rules only specified he land in city limits. For this sportsmanlike act he would earn the respect and admiration of New Yorkers for years to come.
At 11:42 Curtiss took off from the Isham lawn and once again headed west for the Hudson River. A fleet of automobiles attempted to chase the plane down Riverside Drive, but could not keep up.
All along the west side spectators took to the shoreline, piers and ferries struggling to catch a glimpse of Curtiss as he ventured south, circled the Statue of Liberty, then landed on Governor’s Island at almost exactly the stroke of noon. Total flying time: Two hours and fifty-one minutes. Average speed: Fifty-two miles per hour.
While he would become an international hero, opening the door for commercial flight, air-mail and a host of other modern applications, Curtiss provided a sober insight into the future of aviation. He told reporters that during his flight two thoughts had occupied his mind. One was the need for landing fields and the second was the airplane’s potential as a weapon of war.
“All the great battles of the future will be fought in the air,” Curtiss stated. “I have demonstrated that it is easy to fly over cities and fortifications. It would be perfectly practical to drop enough dynamite or picric acid down on West Point or a city like New York and destroy it utterly.”
At a later award ceremony, presenter/publisher Charles Mann said, “Three names will always be associated with the history of the river—that of Hudson, the explorer; that of Robert Fulton, the introducer of river navigation; and that of Glenn H. Curtiss, the birdman.”
Curtiss died in Buffalo, New York in 1930 following complications from an appendectomy.
His company, the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company, later merged with that of the Wright brothers to become the Cyrtiss-Wright Corporation. The company exists to this very day.
As for the $10,000 check… Curtiss gave it to his wife who told reporters she’d likely spend the money on an automobile.
Back in Inwood, Flora and Julia Isham wound up preserving a piece of aviation history, though likely not for that reason. In 1912 the Isham women donated their land, the site of Curtiss’ landing, to the City of New York for the creation of Isham Park.