Transcontinental

DeVaux    BicycleAuburn

June 2, 1896. New York City. Sponsored by the Comet bicycle wheel company, Norman DeVaux, a nineteen year-old cycling enthusiast from Canton, Ohio, sets out to ride across the United States with a friend, John LaFrance. The standing record for a transcontinental bicycle crossing is just over forty-one days; DeVaux and LaFrance hope to make it in forty. Though the Good Roads movement is thriving, it hasn’t yet translated into very many good roads: the 3600-mile route that DeVaux and LaFrance plan to follow—most of what will eventually become the Lincoln Highway—is little more than a series of rutted wagon tracks and cow paths, lacking signs or services of any kind.

 

Ten days after leaving New York, DeVaux and LaFrance passed through Chicago, and on July 8 “two tired and dusty wheelmen” arrived in San Francisco with an elapsed time of 37 days, 14 hours, and 30 minutes—having averaged the astonishing rate of nearly a hundred miles a day over almost entirely unpaved roads. Following the epic ride, Norman DeVaux determined to become a bicycle mechanic and went into business with his brother in Toledo, entering numerous bicycle races as well. In 1900 the New York Times referred to him as “the noted road rider of the West.”

Over the course of the next year DeVaux married, sold his interest in the store to his brother, and acquired E.G. Eager & Co., a retail bicycle parts business. The previous owner had just become the Toledo representative for The “Mobile” Co. of America, an early steam automobile manufacturer. Intrigued by the new form of transportation, DeVaux taught himself to be an auto mechanic and is said to have been involved in building the first Cadillac. A salesman by 1903, he discovered that he enjoyed fast driving over long distances. Two years later he raced a one-cylinder Cadillac the 260 miles roundtrip between Toledo and Cleveland in well under twelve hours.

DeVaux befriended the president of Buick, William C. Durant, who was then in the process of building General Motors. In late summer 1906 DeVaux was a driver on the team that drove a two-cylinder Buick touring car from New York to San Francisco in an attempt to break the existing transcontinental automobile record of thirty-three days. At times the “autoists” had to drive along railroad tracks, diving suddenly down the embankment whenever a train appeared. The trip included a grueling twenty-hour stretch in Wyoming that left DeVaux “all but a physical wreck”; he then lost track of where the road went—he had no signs to follow—and drove the Buick off course for fifty bumpy cross-country miles. He telegraphed: “Could walk faster than I have been able to drive the car on account of the condition of the highways.” The team nonetheless broke the transcontinental driving record by nine days.

DeVaux and his wife decided to stay in San Francisco, which was rebuilding after the earthquake and fire. He started out as a factory representative and the west coast distributor for Buick before taking a position with the City Hall Automobile Company, in the process of which he obtained his California “chauffeur’s license.” The City Hall dealership initially sold the American Mors car; beginning in 1907, it also offered the Auburn, named for the location of its manufacturing plant in Auburn, Indiana.

To generate enthusiasm among potential buyers skeptical of the durability of automobiles, DeVaux concentrated on headline-grabbing endurance drives, including a trip between Oakland and Fresno—two hundred miles he covered in 11.5 hours, including a couple of meal stops. The consummate salesman, DeVaux went down to Fresno at the wheel of an Auburn and returned the next day in an American Mors. In 1908 he shattered the speed record between San Francisco and Fresno, making the trip in seven hours and sixteen minutes, better than two hours below the existing record.

In early 1909, DeVaux expanded into Oregon and established an Auburn dealership in Portland. But toward the end of the year he switched back to Buick, leaving the Auburn agency to be managed by Robert Simpson, who hired Eugene Ely as a salesman and mechanic. When Charles Hamilton brought his aeroplane to Portland in March 1910 (see 13 Feb 16 post), DeVaux agreed to race a Buick against it for a $100 cash prize. Although the track was likely to be muddy, DeVaux expressed confidence in his ability to vanquish the flying machine—but Hamilton won the race, beating one of DeVaux’s employees.

By early 1911, DeVaux was working as the west coast representative for Reo automobiles (later REO) in San Francisco when he ran into Ely, whom he had known since their 1909 racing days and who was by then under contract to fly for Glenn Curtiss. Subscribing to the popular theory that automobiles and aeroplanes would soon be manufactured jointly, DeVaux suggested a scheme wherein (1) he would take the west coast franchise for Curtiss aeroplanes, (2) Ely would appear in Reo cars in connection with his flying exhibitions in California, Oregon and Washington, and (3) the two of them would split the profits on the sale of all Curtiss aeroplanes on the west coast. After Curtiss tentatively approved the arrangement, DeVaux served briefly and unofficially as Ely’s manager in May and June 1911.

He never took the proposed Curtiss franchise, but later that year he was reported to have purchased a new eight-cylinder Curtiss machine, and shortly after Ely’s death (on 19 October 1911) DeVaux formed a management company in the Bay Area called DeVaux Aviators. The company’s chief pilot was Frank Bryant, a former Auburn racing driver whom DeVaux had known since 1908, if not earlier. The two continued to associate in flying exhibitions until 1914.

Beginning in 1915, DeVaux returned his focus exclusively to the automobile industry. He went to work for Chevrolet, which was led by former Buick executive Durant, the force behind DeVaux’s epic 1906 cross-country drive. The Chevrolet operation proved such a success that Durant decided to open a west coast assembly plant in Oakland. DeVaux became president, general manager and half-owner of the Chevrolet Motor Co. of California. With the outbreak of World War I, he registered for the draft at age 41 without requesting deferment, although he had a wife and a ten year-old daughter. He wasn’t drafted.

When Durant left Chevrolet in 1920 to produce his eponymous automobile, DeVaux followed, using the shares of General Motors stock he had received for his Chevrolet interest (then valued at $4 million) to purchase shares in the new Durant company. He quickly worked his way up to presidency of Durant Motors of California, and in 1921 he assisted Durant in the manufacture and distribution of the Star automobile, an inexpensive model intended to compete with the Ford Model T. The venture was a failure.

The Great Depression effectively put an end to the Durant brand, whereupon DeVaux bought out the plant in Oakland and started his own manufacturing company. His business partner was Colonel Elbert Hall (whose Hall-Scott engines had once powered Captain Tom Baldwin’s Red Devil biplanes). The company offered the “DeVaux sedan” at the price of $705. Unfortunately, consumers with money to spend on new automobiles could afford more luxurious models, while those without much cash were content to buy used vehicles. In the end, after DeVaux had sunk some $17 million of his own money into the business, fewer than five thousand automobiles were produced, and the company went bankrupt in 1932. Today the DeVaux sedan is a rare collector’s item, with only a hundred or so known to exist.

Mired in the Depression, DeVaux hit upon the idea of manufacturing an American car for export. The sole “De-Vo” unit built as a sales model in 1936 was shipped to South Africa (it was discovered nearly three decades later and eventually restored), but the market wasn’t there, and DeVaux never produced or sold another unit. He joined the Hupp Motor Car Company and helped to develop its Skylark model. Despite healthy pre-orders, production was delayed until 1939; ultimately only three hundred or so were manufactured. Hupp failed in 1941.

With America’s entry into World War II, the 64-year-old DeVaux left the automobile business for good. He moved to Arizona with his wife Myrtle and was involved in copper and silver mines for nearly twenty years, achieving some success with the Reymert Mine near the town of Superior. Norman and Myrtle DeVaux, once among the wealthiest couples in America, “lived like hermits in an unpainted shack in a hot, barren canyon.”

Myrtle died in 1955. By the time DeVaux reached his eighties, his daughter in Florida was concerned about him living by himself. After years of resisting, he packed his belongings in 1964 and made one final transcontinental drive—this time solo, and seeking no record. Three months after arriving in Florida, Norman DeVaux died at the age of 87.

Image of 1896 bicycle from http://www.machine-history.com/sites/default/files/images/Bicycle%20of%201896.jpg. Auburn advertisement at http://www.earlyamericanautomobiles.com/advertising.htm Many details of DeVaux’s post-1911 life come from “If Only in Another Time…The Story of the DeVaux-Hall Motors Corporation” by Keith R. Jones, an unpublished 1999 paper furnished to the author by DeVaux historian Gary Yelle, who also provided the image of Norman DeVaux.

 

Advertisements
Transcontinental

Almost Famous

DSC_0392              Whipple Hall

January 24, 1910. San Diego, California. When Curtiss aviator Charles Hamilton (see 13 Feb 16 blog post) gives his first exhibition after the Dominguez Field meet, he uses an improvised hammock seat to take passengers for paid rides on the eight-cylinder Rheims racer. One of those passengers is Whipple Hall, a 28-year-old Oakland socialite, Stanford alumnus, and son of a California appellate court judge. At a reported 235 pounds, Hall weighs more than twice the diminutive Hamilton, and his immediate claim to fame is becoming the heaviest man to ride in an aeroplane. Within six months Hall will be celebrated as a member of the Curtiss team, one of “America’s Famous Aviators”—despite the fact that virtually nobody has seen him fly, or ever will.

 

Eugene Ely once referred to the Halls as “the hard luck family,” and indeed the life of Whipple Spear Hall at times verged into tragedy. In 1897, vacationing at his family’s summer residence in Santa Cruz County, the fifteen- year-old accidentally killed a friend with a gun he thought wasn’t loaded. He attended Stanford for a year (1900-1901), joined the Zeta Psi fraternity, played left tackle on the freshman football team, served as a class officer during the spring semester, and unsuccessfully sought election to the Athletic Committee of the student body officers. For reasons that are unclear, Hall never returned for his sophomore year of college.

He took a genteel job instead as an insurance appraiser, and over the next two years his name appeared in Oakland and San Francisco “News of the Smart Set” society columns, primarily by virtue of his attendance at parties and plays. He enjoyed dancing and cards, and though he was not especially athletic he took up fencing at one point.

There’s a suggestion that Judge Hall became displeased with his son’s behavior. In August 1903, at the age of 21, Whipple Hall traveled to Japan as a waiter/baggage handler on a transport ship, returning three months later with unaccustomed calluses on his hands. The following year he won appointment to the Jefferson Guards, a quasi-police detachment at the 1904 St. Louis Exposition, but upon arriving he contracted appendicitis, and he was back in Oakland before Roy Knabenshue (4 Mar 16 blog post) made his famous flight in California Arrow.

When Hall married an Oakland society girl in January 1906, the wedding was hailed as “one of the most important of the year, both families being of social prominence.” Hall went through another brief stint in the insurance business, but by the winter of 1909-1910 he was convalescing in southern California from a vaguely described illness. He happened to be visiting family friends in San Diego when Hamilton arrived with the Rheims racer.

As unlikely a pair as they made, the tall, handsome socialite and the tiny, odd-featured ex-circus performer hit it off from the start—improbably enough, both had visited Japan within the past few years. Hall was so smitten by the flying life that he became a part of Hamilton’s traveling retinue as the aviator worked his way north to Fresno, then back through Arizona and out to El Paso.

In late February, Glenn Curtiss found he needed cash to post a bond in the Wright brothers patent litigation, so he entered into a sham transaction in which Hamilton supposedly bought the Rheims racer and two other aeroplanes. Curtiss also advised Hamilton that if he sold one or more of the three machines to a third party he could keep any sales proceeds above $4,000.

As it happened, Hamilton did know someone with an interest in buying an aeroplane. Whipple Hall paid $4,000 cash, with an additional $1,000 promissory note to Hamilton.

On March 18, on a prairie near Tacoma, Washington, Hall attempted his first solo flight. “Though he did not get more than ten feet from the ground he was in the air for about 300 feet and the flight was considered successful for the first attempt at manipulating a machine.”Stanford became the first American university to produce an aviator.

A month later, while Hamilton was at an aviation meet in Memphis, Hall was said to be making “trial flights” near Mendota, in California’s Central Valley. He had reportedly added five-foot extensions to each end of the upper wing, hoping the expanded surface area would lift his weight. On April 22 he formally announced his intention of becoming a professional aviator: “APPELLATE COURT JUDGE’S SON MAKES FLYING HIS BUSINESS,” read the headline in a San Francisco newspaper.

Hall’s public debut was to take place in Fresno on Raisin Day, April 30 (eventually delayed to May 1), at an exhibition sponsored by the local Driving Club and the Union High School League. Unfortunately, with his wife and daughter watching, he failed to get off the ground on his first attempt and crashed into a fence, sustaining cuts to the face and injuring his back severely enough that he couldn’t walk. Later accounts upgraded his injury to a “slightly fractured skull.”

Hall was engaged to fly at San Jose’s Rose Carnival two weeks later. The afternoon of May 13 was quite breezy, a potential problem for early flying machines. With eight thousand people waiting, Hall inadvisedly started the engine of his aeroplane inside its tent. Winds blew the flapping canvas into the spinning propeller, which splintered. The rudder supports were torn out as well, and the cloth on the lower plane ripped. The repaired aeroplane was shipped to San Francisco for a static exhibition by the Pacific Aero Club from May 19-21, during which Hall, seated in his machine, could be viewed “as in full flight.”

Hall was nothing if not optimistic. He hired a manager, Charles Bryce, who booked an engagement for him during the first weekend of June at Medford, Oregon. There Hall met Eugene Ely, likewise in the first month of his aviation career. Neither man made a successful flight.

Notwithstanding his Medford failure, Hall secured a contract to fly in Eugene, Oregon. Touted by Bryce as “one of the world’s greatest aviators” and credited with Charles Hamilton’s roundtrip flight from San Diego to Mexico, Hall was said to be widely known as the “King of the Air”—a fact noted with bitter amusement by the Medford newspaper. On June 18 he flew a distance of somewhere between several hundred yards and three-quarters of a mile, but when one of the machine’s guide wires snapped he was forced to land. Strong winds the next day blew his aeroplane backward while it rested on the ground; he understandably made no attempt to fly.

Ely and Hall traveled together to the Midwest, where journalists readily parroted Bryce’s claims that the duo had

performed in the far east, where millions of Chinese have watched their flights. At Hong Kong alone 72,000 paid for admission to the pavilion where the machine was on view. These two men are among the most celebrated aeroplanists in the world.

Elsewhere they were said to have flown before the Mikado, and to be known by the Japanese as “man-dragons.”

Ely went on to join the Curtiss team, achieving significant success, but a combination of weather, weight and health issues kept Hall on the ground. He gave up his flying aspirations in August and returned to Oakland after loaning his aeroplane to Hamilton, who had quit the Curtiss team and was in the process of building his own flying machine, the “Hamiltonian.”

Although Hall never appeared in the air as a Curtiss flyer, he was included in a composite photo of “America’s Famous Aviators” that appeared on a picture postcard in late 1910. The lone pioneer aviator with any sort of college education, he was an affable fellow, well liked by Curtiss and his flyers. Ely wrote in September to his friend Hall, then convalescing in a San Francisco hospital: “Curtiss inquires for you every time I see him.”

Hall sold his machine to former dirigible pilot and novice aviator Lincoln Beachey in December but bought it back and resold it to a Berkeley society man. At the end of the year, using a photographic negative to print copies of the photograph that substantiated his claim to be a “famous aviator,” Hall began acting as manager for Bud Mars, who had quit the Curtiss team. In early 1911 Hall arranged for Ely and Willard to appear at Salt Lake City, and he attempted to schedule an exhibition for them in Mexico, but the Mexican government ended up dealing instead with the Moisants (11 Mar 16 blog post).

By mid-April Hall and his wife and daughter were on their way to Australia, where he expected to promote exhibitions by Clarence “Dick” Walker, a Salt Lake City man flying Ely’s original machine, and Didier Masson, one of the French aviators who had been at the Dominguez Field meet. Hall’s plans came to naught when Walker and Masson both crashed at an interim stop in Honolulu and had to return to America. Hall and his family continued on to Australia and Singapore.

In late 1911 Hall returned from the Far East and made one final attempt to succeed in aviation. He served briefly as manager for Didier Masson, and his name was mentioned in connection with the establishment of an Oakland aviation school at which Masson would be chief instructor. But by March 1912 Masson had a different manager, and Hall was moving his family permanently to Manila, where he established an import business.

He returned occasionally to the United States over the next three decades, most notably during World War I, when he was reported to be serving in the naval reserve. He commanded the American Legion of the Philippines. He was eligible for, but appears never to have sought membership in, the Early Birds of Aviation.

In 1942 Hall returned to Oakland for the final time, dying shortly thereafter at the age of 60. In his obituary, the Stanford alumnus was misremembered as having been a football star for the rival University of California (“one of the greatest grid[iron] players the west ever produced”) and was hailed, justifiably, as “one of the handsomest men ever seen in this part of California.” As to his brief stint as one of America’s Famous Aviators, there was not a word.

 

Almost Famous

The Revolutionaries

August 17, 1910. Deal, England. A novice American aviator, flying a French-made Blériot monoplane and misidentified in news reports as a Spaniard, makes the first passenger flight across the English Channel. He brings with him his mechanic—and a cat mascot. In an era where aviators need to keep sight of the ground to stay oriented, however, his real innovation is using a map and compass to navigate. Claiming that the day of his Channel crossing marked only his sixth time in an aeroplane, John Moisant (“moy-sant”) makes “a cometlike appearance in the aviation firmament,” becoming an instant American hero. Just as cometlike, he will be dead by the end of the year. Eight months later, his sister will become the second licensed pilot in America.

 

John Bevins Moisant was born in 1868 to French Canadian parents who immigrated to Illinois in the early 1850s and later moved to San Francisco. He had two older brothers and three younger sisters, including Matilde. In 1896 Moisant brought his wife and infant child to what was then known as simply “Salvador” in Central America, where his brothers operated a sugar plantation. In 1901 Moisant’s wife returned to San Francisco to petition for a divorce. Moisant followed her, and—in what would today be considered kidnapping—brought his five-year-old son back to Salvador.

In 1907 his brothers were imprisoned by despotic Salvadoran president Figueroa. Moisant organized three hundred Nicaraguan troops, led them into Salvador, and effectively started a revolution that lasted until the U.S. Navy intervened on behalf of the imprisoned Americans. Two years later, when Moisant again tried to start a Salvadoran revolution, the navy rebuffed him.

Moisant set off for Europe, reportedly on behalf of the president of Nicaragua, to study the potential use of spherical balloons and dirigibles in Latin American warfare. He happened to be in France at the time of the August 1909 Rheims international aviation tournament, which persuaded him that heavier-than-air flying machines were better adapted to his needs. Convinced also by what he saw at Rheims that effective military aircraft would require construction materials more solid than the standard bamboo and silkcloth, Moisant set about designing an aluminum aeroplane. After a year of experimenting, he abandoned his efforts and learned to fly a standard Blériot monoplane, which he reinforced with metal.

In the days following his remarkable Channel flight, mechanical difficulties hampered Moisant. It ultimately took him three weeks to cover the rest of the seventy miles between Paris and London, where he claimed a $25,000 prize for the first flight between the two capital cities.

Sizeable aviation prizes then being offered in America—useful for financing revolutionary activities—convinced Moisant to enter the international tournament held at Belmont racetrack (site of the thoroughbred Triple Crown race) in October 1910. Eugene Ely was present at Belmont, along with the rest of the Curtiss team. Alfred (“Fred”) Moisant, the eldest of the siblings, traveled north to serve as his brother’s manager.

John Moisant took second place in the Gordon Bennett Cup speed race at Belmont, losing to a more powerful Blériot monoplane flown by Englishman Claude Grahame-White. But the enthusiasm greeting his finish was nothing next to the jubilation that attended Moisant’s victory the following day in a timed race to and around the Statue of Liberty. Yes, he had a foreign name, had spent much of the past decade in Salvador, and had achieved his aviation fame in Europe. But at Belmont he was an American, and a great one.

Belmont Park rocked and roared…with an outburst of wild, uncontrolled enthusiasm…. Mr. John B. Moisant, American, had won the Statue of Liberty flight after it had passed hopelessly to all appearances to Mr. Claude Grahame-White.

The 42-year-old Moisant—he admitted to 35—was the toast of not just the town but the    country. (Grahame-White filed a protest against Moisant for having started outside the official time window, and the international flying association eventually disqualified the American, stripping him of his Statue of Liberty victory.)

On the final day of the international meet Moisant was quoted as saying: “Within a few years—maybe only three or four—I expect to fly from America to Europe in an aeroplane. This is not at all a wild prophecy. It is based upon facts. We shall soon have metal airships, which shall fly at the rate of 100 miles an hour.” A metal “flying boat” was in fact prepared to cross the Atlantic four years later, when World War I intervened. The first crossing had to wait until 1919.

Meanwhile, John and Fred Moisant formed a traveling “aerial circus.” They contracted with a number of international aviators and booked dates throughout the southeastern U.S. during the last two months of 1910. They also announced plans to open a flying school on Long Island. By the end of November the Wright brothers were said to be preparing patent infringement suits against the Moisants.

John Moisant expressed interest in a prize being offered for the first flight from Havana to Key West, rumored to be $20,000. As December arrived, he targeted two additional flight duration milestones: the Michelin International Cup and its $4,000 prize for the year’s longest flight within a closed circuit; and the Scientific American trophy for the year’s longest verified point-to-point flight. He figured to establish both records on December 31, giving potential competitors no time to break his marks before the qualifying period ended at midnight.

The Moisant International Aviators were performing in New Orleans during the final week of 1910, but bad weather ruled out a point-to-point attempt. Given the distance involved in the circuit flight—the record then stood at 363 miles of continuous flying—Moisant borrowed the more powerful Blériot of a teammate, René Barrier, and planned to spend all day in the air.

The wind was fairly strong when he ascended at 9:00 a.m. on December 31 and flew west of New Orleans to a special field designated for the attempt, which was to be witnessed by Aero Club of America officials. The terms of the Michelin prize required Moisant to fly along a marked course, always within sight of the judges. When he was blown sideways just before landing to make an official start, he attempted to return to the course.

Perhaps because the larger gasoline tank necessary for the record-breaking attempt altered the balance he was used to, or because Barrier’s machine was unfamiliar to him, when Moisant made the minor adjustment the aeroplane “turned head downward and the spectators saw the aviator pitch clear of the machine, falling like a plummet fully 100 feet, landing on his head.” John Moisant, America’s hero, died from a broken neck on a field just outside New Orleans. The site of the crash, used later for keeping cattle, was named “Moisant Stock Yards,” and the airport eventually built there received the identifier MSY. That’s the code used to this day for Louis Armstrong International Airport.

Fred Moisant went on to open the Moisant Aviation School in April 1911 at Mineola on Long Island, at first using Blériot monoplanes but eventually manufacturing his own.

Matilde Moisant, ten years younger than John, was a different sort of revolutionary. She wanted to fly, because her brother had. Matilde began taking flying lessons at the Moisant school in July, and within a month she became the second licensed female pilot in America. In September she established an altitude record for women, rising to above 1,200 feet. In October her defiance of a prohibition against flying on Sundays led to a Keystone Kops-style chase across Long Island; with the help of friends, she got away from the sheriff.

Along with her brother Fred, Matilde Moisant led the International Aviators’ tour of Mexico in early 1912, in the midst of the Mexican Revolution. As her brother had, she crashed in Louisiana, but she escaped unhurt. Nevertheless, as the deaths of pioneer aviators began to mount, Moisant announced her intention to retire from exhibition flying. On April 14, at Wichita Falls, Texas, making what she had already said would be her final flight, she crashed again, and this time her machine and clothes caught fire. Her instructor dragged her from the burning plane, which was destroyed. Remarkably, she was unscathed.

In late 1912 Moisant visited her brothers in Central America and was quoted as opining that the Panama Canal was susceptible to aerial bombardment. Rumors surfaced during World War I of her having volunteered her services, first to the French (to attack Zeppelins) and later to the Americans (to fly along the Mexican border). But the next time she actually went aloft was in 1929, on her first flight as a passenger.

Moisant lived in Salvador until roughly 1920, when she moved to Los Angeles. In her later years she returned to flying, reportedly continuing to do so into her seventies. She remained in southern California until her death in 1964 at age 85. On what would have been her eighty-sixth birthday she was inurned at the Portal of the Folded Wings Shrine to Aviation, beside the remains of her brother John.

Motion picture footage of John Moisant’s departure on his Paris-to-London flight can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NH1nCr_WO5I

 

The Revolutionaries

Against the Wind

roy-knabenshue-2

October 31, 1904. Saint Louis. Balanced on a catwalk hanging below the Baldwin-Mars dirigible California Arrow, Roy Knabenshue rises two thousand feet above the Louisiana Purchase Exposition and completes a three-mile circular flight. With a Curtiss motorcycle engine powering the airship at better than six miles per hour, Knabenshue demonstrates his ability to fly “against the wind.” He crawls to the rear of the catwalk, and the dirigible rises; he scrambles forward to make it descend. A tiller operates a rudder that turns the craft. The moment Knabenshue touches down, a jubilant crowd carries him around the exposition grounds on its shoulders.

“Captain Tom” Baldwin, inventor of California Arrow, had arrived at the exposition eager to claim an astonishing $100,000 prize offered to the first airship operator able to fly three laps of a ten-mile circuit. But at more than 200 pounds the captain was far too heavy for his dirigible. With Bud Mars unavailable, Baldwin engaged as his pilot a slim balloonist he had just met.

Augustus Roy Knabenshue, born in 1876 and the son of a Toledo newspaper publisher, had quit his job installing telephone switchboards to become a professional balloonist. Like Mars, Knabenshue used an assumed name, “Professor Don Carlos,” to protect his family from embarrassment by association. He was at the St. Louis exposition operating a standard spherical hot air balloon, with which he took paying customers on “free ascents”—i.e., untethered to the ground.

Nearly twenty million visitors attended the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. Knabenshue, after a shaky start, piloted California Arrow a total of twenty-three times, none more sensational than his three-mile flight on October 31. The period for claiming the $100,000 prize had expired, but the effect on crowds of seeing an airship sail overhead is impossible to overstate: “[C]lerks deserted their desks, street cars were stopped, and all business suspended until the machine passed.” Never before had Americans seen a man travel through the sky as he pleased.

After the exposition, Baldwin and Knabenshue brought California Arrow to Los Angeles. On February 12, 1905, Knabenshue raced a Pope-Toledo automobile across town for a hundred-dollar bet. The driver of the car blamed his loss on restrictive city speed limits, but the powerful Curtiss engine had shot Knabenshue over the nine-mile course in under twenty minutes. Knabenshue returned Toledo and went into the dirigible business, while Baldwin built a new airship and hired as his pilot the young man from San Francisco many would eventually blame for Eugene Ely’s death: Lincoln Beachey. After flying at the 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition in Oregon, Beachey too left Baldwin and joined up with Knabenshue.

Four years later, when the Wrights returned to Fort Myer to complete government acceptance tests of their flying machine, Knabenshue and Beachey were in attendance and tried without success to persuade the Wrights to hire them as aviators. After the meeting, a frustrated Knabenshue vowed to build an aeroplane of his own, “take it off to some secluded spot and learn to fly,” and then send photos to the Wrights to convince them he could do it. If that didn’t work, he said, he would “move out to California again and give it up.”

Knabenshue and Beachey brought racing airships to the January 1910 international aviation meet at Dominguez Field, near Los Angeles. But, upon seeing Glenn Curtiss fly his high-powered aeroplane at sixty miles an hour, Beachey is said to have remarked: “Roy, our racket’s dead.”

Shortly afterward, the Wright brothers did hire Knabenshue—not to fly, but to manage the team of aviators who would exhibit on their behalf, in competition with Curtiss. The first Wright team exhibition took place in June 1910 at the newly resurfaced Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Beachey, though not a team member, was allowed to participate, but he failed to get aloft in a monoplane of his own design and ended up joining Curtiss as a mechanic.

At the end of 1910 the two leading Wright team aviators died in terrible crashes. Curtiss traveled to Dayton in April 1911, hoping to settle the patent litigation, and had a “long talk” with Orville Wright. Curtiss wrote to his business manager: “I also saw Knabenshue, who complains about the exhibition business going to the dogs.” Indeed, by the end of 1911 the exhibition era was all but over, and the Wrights soon disbanded their team. Knabenshue began managing aviator Glenn Martin, who in May 1912 flew a hydroaeroplane nearly seventy miles roundtrip between Los Angeles and Catalina Island, the most successful long-distance overwater flight to date.

At the end of 1912 Knabenshue returned to dirigibles, establishing a passenger service between Pasadena and the summit of nearby Mt. Wilson (famous for its observatory) while he worked on construction of the 28-passenger, Zeppelin-style airship he hoped to have in service at the 1915 Pan-Pacific International Exposition. He also attempted to establish dirigibles as personal transportation vehicles capable of displacing automobiles.

During the diplomatic tensions with Mexico in 1913, Knabenshue’s name was listed among the aviators said to have volunteered for the U.S. Aviation Reserve Corps organized by millionaire aviator Albert Bond Lambert (for whom the St. Louis airport is named). Knabenshue and his dirigible appeared in an early silent film, Won in the Clouds (1914).

He soon left the dirigible business again, and by 1916 he was associated as engineer and mechanical advisor for the United States Circus Corporation, which promised to revolutionize the modern circus by traveling from city to city in trucks, rather than trains. When Germany’s employment of Zeppelins to bomb Paris and London prompted the U.S. Navy to order military dirigibles, Knabenshue was the pilot hired to demonstrate their nighttime stealth capabilities. He spent the rest of World War I manufacturing captive observation balloons and providing instruction to student aeronauts.

After the war Knabenshue quit flying for good and went into various automotive businesses, including manufacturing, tires, and oil. He invented an auto gear-shifting mechanism as well as a foot-operated emergency brake. He even experimented with attaching a ground-based radio antenna to a small balloon so as to eliminate static.

Knabenshue was a founding member of the Early Birds of Aviation in 1928, membership in which was limited to those who had flown an airship or aeroplane before the U.S. entry into World War I. Later in 1928 he returned his focus to dirigibles, by then known as blimps. He proposed to build a 430-foot airship that could, using a new form of fuel, carry forty passengers all the way across the United States. The Great Depression ended his practical association with flying, although he did eventually take a job as principal aviation clerk for the National Park Service.

In 1934 Knabenshue was honored at a ceremony marking the thirtieth anniversary of his pioneering dirigible flight. He retired to Los Angeles, where his health declined. He was bedridden at the time of the fiftieth anniversary celebration of his St. Louis flight, but in early 1955 he reportedly retraced, by blimp, the route of his cross-Los Angeles race half a century earlier.

In 1959 Knabenshue christened a Continental Airlines 707 jet and rode with the press party from Los Angeles to Chicago, a trip that took only three and a half hours. Later that year he expressed skepticism about the notion of rockets ever carrying men to the moon. He was a guest of honor at the ceremony to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Dominguez Field air meet, but he suffered a stroke the following month and died in March 1960 at the age of 83.

Roy Knabenshue is buried at the Portal of the Folded Wings Shrine to Aviation in North Hollywood.

Save

Against the Wind