The Day the Aeronauts Flew in Latonia
Augustus Roy Knabenshue
This is Knabenshue and the dirigible he flew at Latonia, but this image was not taken at Latonia.
One hundred years ago, on November 1, 1909, the Cincinnati Enquirer broke the news: a group of guarantors, meeting at a country club on Grandin Road in Cincinnati, would sponsor a big aviation meet, “carrying out the main idea of giving an exhibition of the four stages of aerial navigation,” on November 12, 13, and 14, 1909 at the Latonia Race Track.
The four stages to be represented would be:
1. Mongolfier Hot Air Balloons. A Mongolfier balloon is what is today known simply as a hot air balloon. For the Latonia show, aeronauts would be parachuting from the balloon. For extra excitement, a man would be shot from a cannon suspended by chains from the balloon;
2. Gas balloons, which would be part of a “race to the coast.” The sponsors expected this group to have the largest class of entrants. (Gas balloons are different than hot air balloons, because they use unheated helium or hydrogen gases for lifting. Hot air balloons can go up for hours; gas balloons can go up for days.)
3. Dirigibles. These airships flown by noted aeronauts A. Roy Knabenshue and Lincoln Beachey would be racing each day of the meet;
4. Heavier than air flying machines. These earliest airplanes would be most notably represented by Glenn H. Curtiss, “the famous aeroplanist,” winner of numerous international aviation awards, who would “make daily flights starting in front of the grandstand and [circle] the track at terrific speed.”
On the next day, the Enquirer reported that Charles F. Willard, a Harvard graduate, would also be competing for the prizes offered. Willard was, at the time, the holder of the world’s record for “cross country flight.” Of course, when they said “cross country,” you should note that the “cross county” record at that time was 12.5 miles in 15:30 minutes, set by Willard at Rheims, France the prior August, 1909. The record for height was an estimated 1640 feet, and was held by Wilbur Wright, near Potsdam, Germany, the previous October 2, 1909.
The Enquirer noted that after these European exhibitions, three other cities (New York, Chicago, and St. Louis) had had some aviation display, but this would be “the first time in the world an exposition of aerial navigation history in its every phase is to be presented to the public.”
Construction at the Latonia track began immediately on “the largest plant ever used for the manufacture of hydrogen gas.” Thirty tons of iron filings and tanks of sulphuric acid were delivered to the plant. The man in charge of the plant, Leslie B. Haddock, was quoted as saying there was “no chance” of a hitch in the filling of the balloons. Haddock was making ready his own gas balloon at his factory in Ludlow, Kentucky. The cannon which was to be used to shoot a man from a hot air balloon was displayed. In Cincinnati, a balloon went up, and when “the aeronaut . . .reaches a high point over the city, he will throw out a couple of hundred orders for passes to the aviation meet. . . .After dropping the shower of passes, the aeronaut will jump from the balloon and descend in a parachute.” Large parties from other cities were said to be coming, from Indianapolis, Dayton, St. Louis, and Canton. One hundred small balloons were sent up, each with a ticket for admission. Horse racing was suspended for the time being.
Glenn Curtiss was the big attraction. Besides holding the record for the longest cross-country flight, he was also famous at the time for riding a motorcycle on Ormond Beach, covering a mile in just over 26 seconds. It was said that “his nearest competitor for speed was a bullet.” From Hammondsville, NY, the then 31-year-old Curtiss, son of a Methodist preacher, always appeared calm and not excitable. In most photographs, he wears a dour expression. He would go on to develop the Curtiss “Flying Jenny,” and sell thousands of them to the U.S. Navy for deployment in the first World War.
Day One , Friday, November 12, 1909
“Successful” was the Enquirer’s headline after the first day of the event, and the paper went on to say that “it will be awful hard for the Cincinnati public to get back to baseball, horse racing, auto speeding, golf, tennis, and the like, for the real thriller, everybody has to bow down to the air kings.” Over 5,000 people were admitted to the Latonia Race Track, and another 5,000 watched from rooftops, from the tops of box cars on the L&N, or from trees that had been climbed. A passenger train on the L&N was stopped for ten minutes so that passengers could get out and gawk at the spectacle.
The only incident of the day was when a team of horses, pulling a wagon of supplies for the balloon camp, pulled in front of Curtiss’ plane, slightly damaging a wing. A crowd pleaser of the day was the race between the two dirigibles, flown by Toledo’s Roy Knabenshue, and Cleveland’s Lincoln Beachey. “They are pioneers of the air-sailing game, and handle their machines with such perfect grace that they fly like a bird,” gushed the Enquirer. The favorite of the crowd however, was 17 year-old Cromwell Dixon. Attending the event chaperoned by his mother, Dixon flew his hot air balloon up over 800 feet on the longest and highest flight of the day, the Enquirer estimated. Dixon himself estimated his flight at 1500 feet, and the New York Times reported 2,000 feet. Charles Wells ended the day with a parachute jump from a balloon, “doing stunts that would have made a circus performer turn green with envy.” The Times said “In three of the dirigible events, Roy Knabenshue, Lincoln Beachey and Cromwell Dixon swept around the track, intersected it, swept over and above each other, and finally came back to earth, each time within a few feet of the spot from which they started.”
The Enquirer ran 14 column-inches of the notables of Cincinnati society who attended the spectacle.
Day Two, Saturday, November 13, 1909
It was about 3 am Saturday when the first hitch of the day occurred. Jacob Berg, a laborer from Chicago helping with the helium tanks, was asked to check on some maintenance item, and apparently Berg didn’t understand that the gas was flammable. He removed a lid from the tank, gas escaped, his lantern ignited it, and there was created an explosion heard for miles and “a rain of iron filings, hoops, and barrel staves.” The Cincinnati Times-Star published a gory, detailed list of Berg’s injuries, and noted he wasn’t expected to survive.
The rest of Saturday fared a little better. Curtiss complained of the track being too rough to properly take off, but Curtiss and Willard both made several short flights within the confine of the racetrack. Cromwell’s dirigible had engine trouble. At one point he landed on several spectators in the infield, but, as the Times-Star graciously noted, “the balloon escaped damage.” There was no mention of damage to the spectators. Cromwell managed a 2.5 mile, 11 minute route through “Milldale” (the earlier name for the neighborhood now known as Latonia), and circled the steeples of the churches. But the longest and highest flight of the day belonged to Beachey, Knabenshue was again cited for his superb control of his dirigible.
The Enquirer ran 19 column-inches detailing the toilets (meaning the hair and make-up; not the privies), the gowns, the parties on the lawn and the luncheons, and ran a picture of Orville Wright talking with Alice Roosevelt Longworth. They reported a two-block wait to pay the toll to cross back to Ohio on the Suspension Bridge.
Day Three, Sunday, November 14, 1909
The climatic day was a disappointment. Stiff winds and a light rain meant the aeroplanes didn’t want to go very far or very high, although the dirigible operator Beachey managed going up 600 feet, and performed one flight of 11 minutes, and one of just over 6 minutes. There was only one starter Sunday evening in the gas balloon race, the Haddock balloon, from Ludlow, which took off late in the afternoon with 2 days supplies. Two other balloons that were present were the Cincinnati and the Wanderer. The Wanderer, from Dayton, Ohio, had broken from its moorings earlier, and there was insufficient gas for inflating the Cincinnati.
The Times-Star, which had a reporter aboard the Haddock balloon, ran the story Monday that the gas balloon had, during the night Sunday, been blown on a route north through Ohio, on a route that roughly follows today’s Interstate 75 to Toledo, across the western end of Lake Erie, then easterly along the Canadian north shore of Lake Erie, and finally south, back across Lake Erie on its eastern end, and came down in heavy winds in Derby Station, New York, not far from Buffalo.
None of the coverage ever mentions if, as advertised, they really did shoot a man out of a cannon hanging down from a hot air balloon.
The Fliers: The Epilogue
Glenn Hammond Curtiss (21 May 1878 – 23 July 1930) went on to merge his airplane company with the Wright Brothers, after a protracted battle over the patent on an airplane control component. He got out of aviation and moved to Florida to become a real estate developer. He died in 1930 of complications from an appendectomy.
Augustus Roy Knabenshue eventually worked as the general manager for the Wright Brothers. From 1933 to 1944 he worked for the National Park Service and then worked for a Los Angeles, California firm reconditioning used aircraft. In 1958 he had a stroke, and then had a second stroke at his trailer park home in Arcadia, California on February 21, 1960. He died on March 6, 1960.
Cromwell Dixon, 1892-1911, who was born in San Francisco but raised in Columbus, Ohio, and whose Mother sewed up his first hot air balloon, died two years after mesmerizing the crowd at Latonia. He plunged to his death while flying exhibitions in Spokane, Washington. October 1, 1911.
Lincoln Beachey, (March 3, 1887 – March 14, 1915), by most accounts the most “daredevil-ish” of the group, went from dirigibles to flying airplanes. He barnstormed with Barney Oldfield, racing the later in a car, the former in an airplane. He is credited with being the first American to do a 360 degree loop-the-loop in an airplane, and the first man to fly upside-down. He could fly backwards. He died in San Francisco in 1915 when, in the course of a 3500 foot dive, the wings were torn off his plane and he crashed into the bay. He survived the crash, but drowned. Some reported his was the largest funeral held in San Francisco up to that time. Some said he had a safety deposit box full of cash, and a fiance with a diamond ring, in every town in which he performed. The fantastical feats that he is absolutely known to have performed make it very dificult to separate out the ones just rumored.
And Charles Willard? He worked as an aviation engineer, and died at the age of 94 in 1977, having lived long enough to see a man land on the moon. What must the man have thought?
The Latonia event was said to have lost money for the promoters, due mainly to the large fee to get Curtiss’ participation, but there can be little doubt, that the thousands of people who turned out to see “the pioneers of the air sailing game” were boring grandchildren with stories for decades to come. And who can blame them? Because one hundred years ago in Latonia, men and women saw, not “heard about” or “read about”, but saw with their own eyes, heavier than air machines rise from the earth. You just know it was one of those moments when people said to themselves, “This changes everything.”
Or to use the aptly succinct sentence that the Times-Star used as its lead paragraph in it’s Saturday coverage of the events: “They flew.”
from Enquirer and Times- Star accounts of the time