Creating advocates for history through the stories of greater Los Angeles.
by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Aviation was just a few years removed from the achievement of the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, when a landmark event took place in January 1910 at the Dominguez Ranch fifteen miles south of downtown Los Angeles on the old Rancho San Pedro in the form of America’s first air meet and only the second held in the world.
As noted in this Cal State Dominguez Hills web page, pioneer aviator Glenn Curtiss was the winner of the first meet, held in France in the summer of 1909, and was given the privilege of selecting the location of the next international event. As it was winter, Los Angeles was chosen as the spot for obvious climatic reasons!
From 10-20 January, a quarter million people, many of whom came down via the Pacific Electric Railway to a specially expanded station, took in the spectacle and drama of events and races featuring airplanes, hot air balloons and dirigibles. Altitude, speed and endurance were the focus of competitive events featuring cash prizes.
The three best-known aviators at the event were Curtiss, Charles Willard and French legend Louis Paulhan. The special grandstand erected for the meet had a capacity of 26,000 persons and each day averaged about 20,000. The popularity was such that the Pacific Electric ran trains every 2 minutes from downtown Los Angeles to the site–so PE owner Henry E. Huntington, who retired later in the year, may have been more than wise to invest $50,000 of his vast wealth to support the event!
As explained in this Smithsonian Air and Space Magazine website, Paulhan, who brought four planes to Los Angeles, was the star of the event, being guaranteed $25,000 to compete (hence the use of the word “international” in the meet’s title) and he broke world records for height and endurance. Curtiss did well in speed events, but Paulhan’s cash haul was more than triple than that of his competitor.
As air meet author Kenneth Pauley expressed it, the event “really had a tremendous impact on how people thought about transportation,” specifically aviation, which was thought of as a novelty by many. Noted in the article was that the origins of the aerospace industry in greater Los Angeles can be traced back to the air meet.
What wasn’t mentioned was that, within fifteen or twenty years, air travel was used for military purposes, namely World War I, which had its flying aces engaged in daredevil battles in the sky; for commercial uses in shipping goods in increasing amounts; and for passenger service, allowing those who were willing to pay high fares the chance to get to places more quickly than by train or automobile.
The Homestead is fortunate to have two snapshots from the 1910 meet that, according to Pauley, are extraordinarily rare closeup views of aircraft and some of the famous pilots featured in the events. He considered them so rare that they were included in the Arcadia “photo book” on the event that he and the Dominguez Ranch Adobe published at the end of 2009 just in time for the centennial celebration of the meet.
The view shown here, according to Pauley, is of one of Glenn Curtiss’s Flier craft. Seated in the machine is Lincoln Beachey, who was better known for his piloting of dirigbles, but who switched to airplanes as they overtook the other in popularity. Standing next to Beachey is Curtiss with pilot Roy Knabenshue, another meet competitor, at the right.
There is a second photo, but maybe we’ll save that for another post from the “From Point A to Point B” series on transportation!