Column: Bygone Days
The First US Air Show took place in SoCal in 1910.
December 5, 2019
On Dec. 4, 1909, the first women’s aviation club in the nation was formed to raise money for an air show to be held on the mesa of Rancho Dominguez in Southern California. The Dominguez Air Meet, planned to run from Jan. 10-20, 1910, was the first air meet ever held in the United States. Dirigible pilot Roy Knabenshue (1876-1960) and aviator Charles Willard (1883-1977) who already had plans to spend the winter season in Southern California, had contacted Glenn Curtiss who had won the world’s first aviation meet in Rheims, France, in August 1909. Rules for that meet specified that the winning nation hosts the next competition. Knabenshue asked Curtiss if he would consider joining them for an air meet in Los Angeles. Curtiss felt Los Angeles was a logical location for the meet, especially if held during the balmy winter season. The only problem was financing. In October, Knabenshue approached Los Angeles promoter Dick Ferris who accepted the challenge and proceeded to plan a larger show than Knabenshue, Willard or Curtiss ever imagined.
Dick Ferris (1864-1933) was a first-rate salesman, actor, writer and showman. He was also an officer in the Aero Club of Southern California which was established in 1908. The purpose of the club was to explore airship models, test several new types of engines and eventually build two complete machines. But Dick Ferris wanted more: to help the Southern California economy by putting the southland on the map as the center of aviation in the United States.
Ferris convinced Pacific Electric railway magnate Henry Huntington to contribute $50,000 ($1.4 million today) for an “aviation week” in Southern California. The money would be used as a guarantee to lure the top aviators in the world to America’s first air meet. The catch was that others had to subscribe to an equal amount of money for Huntington to match it.
On November 19, 1909, the Los Angeles Merchants and Manufacturers’ Association undertook the task of raising $50,000 to supplement Huntington’s gift. Some questioned the motive behind the event referring to it as a “showman’s game,” and one paper even went so far as to call it “Mr. Huntington’s circus,” intimating it was designed solely to aid streetcar traffic. But most Southern Californians were excited about the idea, many individuals sending in whatever they could afford to meet the $50,000 challenge.
Dick Ferris’ wife, actress Florence Stone, was behind the idea to get women involved. The Women’s Aviation Club was formed during a meeting at the home of Mrs. John Reavis, whose husband was a prosperous realtor. Both women were members of the Sunshine Club which had been supporting local causes since 1897. The newly formed group planned to raise money for the air meet by organizing an excursion to Mount Lowe on January 5th. Members of the club set up ticket booths at local department stores, including Hamburger’s Department Store, the largest department store building west of Chicago. They also made sure they had club members selling tickets on the 4th floor of Hamburger’s where Glenn Curtiss had his airplane on display.
The price of a ticket was $2 ($54.50 today). Four hundred tickets were sold, not quite the 5,000 the Women’s Aviation Club had hoped for. Once at Mount Lowe, participants heard a lecture on aviation, witnessed a demonstration of searchlight-signaling done by the National Guard and enjoyed the opportunity to glimpse Halley’s Comet through the Mount Lowe telescope. An unexpected treat was snow!
Dick Ferris and the Merchants’ Association had hoped to get the support of the parent branch of the Aero Club of Southern California, but that support was not forthcoming and time was getting short. On Dec. 24, 1909, an article appeared in the Los Angeles Herald stating the Merchants’ Association was upset that the governing body behind the Aero Club of America was imposing “impossible conditions” upon them, such as having only licensed pilots participate (a license could only be obtained by being a member of the Aero Club), offering no money, only prizes, to the pilots and not wanting to charge a fee for attendance. An exasperated Dick Ferris told how he had contacted Curtiss and other aviators asking if they would participate in the meet. They replied saying they needed guarantees ranging from $3,000 ($82,000) to $10,000 ($273,000) each. When they were told that the Aero Club of America only wanted to offer prizes and that the minimum would total $50,000 ($1.4 million today), their replies were, “Keep your prizes–– we cannot fly unless guaranteed real money.”
The article went on: The Merchants and Manufacturers’ Association of Los Angeles, under whose auspices the aviation meet in Jan. 10 to 20 is to be held, feels it has reached the limit of dictation by either the Aero Club of America or any other similar organization. It has proceeded in good faith and repeatedly assured the Aero Club of America that the international meet to be held here was one of true sportsmanship and that the contests were for scientific achievements and not for profit in any way, manner, shape or form. It has duly received the sanction of the local club, which is affiliated with the Aero Club of America, and has proceeded in perfect harmony with the rules outlined by it.
The meet was on, regardless of not receiving support from the official body of the Aero Club of America.
Henry Huntington’s Pacific Electric (PE) rail line led through the airfield which adjoined Dominguez station, on the west of the main line of the Pacific Electric to Long Beach. The PE worked out plans for the installation of sidetracks, overhead switches and other facilities to handle the additional traffic. An important consideration was finding enough electricity, and it was determined there was an ample supply for any emergency on the Long Beach line. It was estimated the PE could handle 200,000 people a day. It would run trains from Los Angeles every 2 minutes, hauling 700 to 800 passengers on each trip. Another way to get to the meet was by using the Southern Pacific railroad which had a rail line to the area.
People were planning to come from all over the United States. By Dec. 29, four trains from Chicago to Los Angeles had been sold out. In Southern California, special automobile/buggy roads were mapped out and as well as an “official” road which was to be kept in perfect condition during the meet. The “official” road started at 7th and Main in Los Angeles, ran west on 7th to Central, then south to Slauson and West to Compton. It then followed the “regular” auto road south through Watts and Compton to Dominguez. At points where the road crossed the PE tracks a double force of flagmen were placed to avoid accidents on the road.
The price for a round trip ticket on the Pacific Electric was .30 cents ($8.20 today); for the Southern Pacific .35 cents ($9.50). General admission to the air meet was .50 cents ($13.60). If you wanted to sit in the grandstand that was another .50 cents. Parking for autos was $1.00 ($27.30), per passenger. However, if you purchased general admission and grandstand seats you would be allowed free parking. Some arrived by wagon or buggy. Many unharnessed their horses, tied them to wagon wheels, then proceeded to pull out chairs and lunches and settle in for the day in front of the autos, looking up to the sky whenever an aircraft came into view– all for free!
There was much to do besides just watching the air events. On the grounds of Aviation Camp were several amusement activities, a Ferris wheel, a merry-go-round, trained animal acts–– including an educated horse–– a moving-picture tent and other show attractions many of which had appeared at the Seattle World’s Fair the past summer. All were chosen by a special committee appointed by the Merchants and Manufacturers’ Association who promised “nothing but the very best would be permitted on the Midway.”
Crowds for Dominguez gathered early in the day, jamming the entrance to the Pacific Electric depot in Los Angeles. Once on the field, the crowd divided. Most headed along the sawdust path, past the yelling “barkers” of the sideshows to the grandstand. The others, not wanting to pay the grandstand admission price gathered below the grandstand and around the north corner of the field, bringing out their own seats– cracker boxes, fruit boxes and old boxes that could be sat on or stood on. Camp stools were also used. Those coming by auto had to park five or six cars deep in some places. Accidents were avoided only by the constant use of the horns, and if you left towards dusk the traffic leaving the field was so slow you could have walked faster.
Illegal liquor sales were rampant. Shortly before the end of the meet, the Los Angeles Herald published an article about the violation of the county’s liquor ordinance. There was only one licensed establishment that had paid for the privilege, but many illegal vendors had stepped in.
Over 20,000 people journeyed to Aviation Park on opening day, Jan. 10, 1910, to see these flying wonders. It was such a historic event, Long Beach school children were given a day off of school so they could attend. It was an event to set records. Louis Paulhan, who a year earlier made his living as a high-wire walker for $10 a week, set the world’s altitude record by rising to a height of 1,100 feet.
Because of the Women’s Aviation Club’s help in raising funds, the 9th day of the event, Tuesday, January 18th was designated “Ladies’ Day.” On that day Paulhan made a 45-mile nonstop loop between Dominguez and Arcadia. Below him, his wife trailed in an automobile, as dozens of others on horseback, buggy and other modes of transportation followed. Throughout the route, everyone stopped to look skyward to witness this historic event– the longest cross-country flight the world had ever known. Paulhan accomplished the 45-mile flight in one hour, two minutes 42 4/5th of a second, winning $10,000.
Following this exciting display, members of the Women’s Aviation Club decided they had to meet Paulhan, and especially his wife. Though he was told of their desire to meet him he was not in the mood, but the club members rushed him before he reached the Pacific Electric station and his special car. Seeing himself surrounded by women, and deciding escape was impossible, Paulhan spent 15 minutes greeting each of the club members individually, then made a getaway for his special PE car.
In summing up the results of the eleven days it was reported that Paulhan led in prize money, having won the cross country prize of $10,000, the endurance prize of $3,000 and the three-lap race with passenger prize of $1,000. Glenn Curtiss won $6,000, Charles Hamilton $3,500 and Charles Willard $250. Paulhan was hailed throughout the world for his accomplishments and in France, he became a national hero.
The event signaled the birth of aviation in Southern California, and the spread of air meets across the country. Aviators went on to other events. Paulhan traveled to San Francisco, then continued to New Orleans, for Mardi Gras celebrations. Charles Hamilton went to San Diego where he flew from the Polo Field in Coronado. Glenn Curtiss returned to his business in New York, but later returned to California and established operations at North Island, San Diego. Charles Willard went to Fresno, where he flew for Dr. Lee De Forest in his experiments on a radiotelephone system between an airplane and the ground.
Following the air meet, it seemed everyone had aviation fever, including the Women’s Aviation Club. They intended to “go into aeronautics socially, scientifically and practically.” To accomplish this, they planned to hire an instructor and learn how to fly, hold exhibitions of models of all sorts of airships “so that science may be developed by comparison.” The club also hoped to aid worthy inventors in securing financial aid so that their airships could be placed before the public. And while aviation fever was still rampant promoters decided to hold another air meet later that same year in Dominguez.
You can find more about this event and aviation history in my book Soaring Skyward: a History of Aviation in and Around Long Beach, California.