Pit Stop in Poughkeepsie: Glenn Curtiss and His “Hudson Flyer”
In today’s modern world, most of us have been in an airplane. Some people enjoy the thrill of a 747 taking off take-off down a runway and lifting steadily into the air, while others prefer to keep their feet squarely on the ground. The idea that something could weigh over 400,000 pounds and fly as high as 36,000 feet at a cruising speed of 500 mph would probably boggle the minds of early aviators. For Glenn Curtiss, the man who broke barriers and records in the new world of fast-moving machines, his flights may have been a little lower and a little slower, but they still boggled the minds of his contemporaries.
Glenn Curtiss was no stranger to speed. He raced bicycles in the 1890s, and after the turn of the century, he moved into the world of internal combustion engines. Curtiss set a land speed record in 1903 on his hand-built motorcycle, reaching a top speed of 64 miles per hour. He did it again in 1907 with a motorcycle that contained an eight-cylinder motor of his design; on smooth sand in Ormond Beach Florida, he reached a top speed of 137 mph. In 1904 his modest engine shop in his hometown of Hammondsport, New York, had caught the eye of a dirigible pilot named Captain Tom Baldwin. Baldwin wanted to use the motorcycle engines for his dirigible airships (essentially giant balloons). Curtiss began building little “wind wagons” to test out his engines in flight, thus beginning his career in aviation.
Curtiss expanded his home shop into a working factory, where he continued his work of building engines and experimenting with airplanes. With the excitement of the Hudson-Fulton celebrations of 1909, word got around that a $10,000 prize would be offered to the fastest flier to make the trip from Albany to New York City over the Hudson River. Curtiss began his preparations by taking a steamboat up the river to see what the route would look like from a ground view. On the way up, he stopped in Poughkeepsie and considered where he might land for refueling. He considered the grounds of the Hudson River State Hospital and visited with the superintendent Dr. Taylor who said, “Why, certainly, Mr. Curtiss, come right in here; here’s where all the flying machine inventors land.”
Curtiss decided that a field south of the City of Poughkeepsie would be a better location and settled on a property known as Gill Meadows. On the 29th of May, 1910, at 7:03 am, Curtiss left Albany in a plane that he named the “Hudson Flyer” and made his way south as a train followed (as best it could) along the way. He rode non-stop to Poughkeepsie, would write later on, “approached the great bridge at Poughkeepsie and began to deliberate whether it would be better to pass over or beneath it.” He ended up flying 150 feet above the already towering train bridge. He later wrote in his book, “The entire population of Poughkeepsie had turned out, apparently, and resembled swarms of busy ants, running here and there, waving their hats and hands.” He landed safely in the field about three miles south of the Poughkeepsie, where a crowd greeted him with cheers around 8:26 am, having flown 74 miles in 83 minutes. He wasted no time asking for fuel, which had not yet arrived, as he had traveled faster than anyone had anticipated. Fuel was brought from the local Van Benschoten garage, and Curtiss was back in the air within an hour.
He continued south down the river past West Point, reaching Yonkers by 10:30 am. Once he was within the city limits of New York, he landed temporarily at Inwood to make a phone call to the New York World (they were the ones offering that $10,000 prize) to let them know he was within the city and heading to Governor’s Island. He made his way to New York City, where he swore, “New York can turn out a million people probably quicker than any other place on earth.” He circled the Statue of Liberty and landed safely on Governor’s Island with a total of 2 hours and 51 minutes of flying time, a distance of 152 miles, and an average speed of 52 mph. Not only had he won the prize money, but he also had incidentally won the Scientific American trophy for the longest continuous flight from Albany to Poughkeepsie.
Curtiss, Glenn Hammond. “The Curtiss Aviation Book,” 1912.
The Poughkeepsie Eagle News, May 30, 1910.
Photo 01 – Sepia-toned photograph of Glenn Curtiss’ Hudson Flier, on the ground. LH Collections.
Photo 02 – Sepia-toned photograph of Glenn Curtiss’ Hudson Flier aloft. LH Collections.
Photo 03 – Early airplane, piloted by Glenn Curtis. He flew from Albany to New York City. LH Collections.