Every once in a while I am seized by civic pride and use this space to extol repeatedly the importance of Dundalk in the history of our nation. Those near me roll their eyes as I set off on my tirade and those from elsewhere snort derisively and dismiss me as a one-trick pony with an ax to grind (how’s that for mixed metaphor?).
But I persevere because I cannot help sometimes but be stunned by our achievements. It was in our fields that the Redcoats were stymied on their ultimately unsuccessful march on Baltimore.
Our region witnessed the birth of the planned industrial community that eventually replaced a company town system in which workers were paid in company scrip and couldn’t own their own homes. We built the steel and ships that helped win two world wars.
At Fort Holabird, the Army tested and perfected vehicles, including the world-famous jeep, that proved invaluable to the war effort. We made the bricks that built Baltimore.
And, when manned flight and the airline industries were in their infancy, we provided a nursery critical to the development of a technology that now makes it possible to cross our continent in hours instead of weeks.
For once I’m not joking. Logan Field, a creation of the Baltimore Flying Club, and the relatively gentle waters of the Patapsco (ideal for seaplanes) attracted airplane designers and manufacturers who tinkered, tested, tweaked and perfected the flying machines that now give us mobility that was literally unthinkable 200 years ago.
In fact, it was only the unreliability of our weather that eventually drove the designers out west where they could build hangars that did not need to survive snowstorms.
In 1925, the world paid tribute to our role in the rise of the airplane. But we’ll get to that in a moment. The story actually begins in France in 1912. In that year, Jacques Schneider, a French industrialist and airplane enthusiast, noticed that seaplanes received far less attention from designers and engineers than other types of aircraft.
Monsieur Schneider believed that seaplanes were the future of passenger transport because they required relatively little infrastructure for cities located on a large body of water (and what major cities are not located on a body of water large enough to land a seaplane in?). All you needed was open water and a pier and you had commuter air service.
To encourage a focus on the seaplane, Schneider offered a trophy and a cash prize to any pontoon plane team with the best time over a course of 150 nautical miles. This race, originally known as the Coupe d’Aviation Maritime Jacques Schneider, kindled the imagination of the air-crazy public of the day. In America it was known as the Schneider Cup.
From 1913 to 1923 the race was held in Europe. The cup passed back and forth between Italian, British and French competitors. The nationality of the team that held the cup determined the location of the following year’s contest, so the event moved around from Monaco to Venice, Naples and the United Kingdom until, in 1923, something remarkable (especially from the European point of view) happened. A pilot named D. Rittenhouse flying a Curtiss CR-3 won the race off the coast of the Isle of Wight.
What was so remarkable? Rittenhouse was an American. According to the rules, the competition was going to the colonies.
And where in all our great land (or, at least, along all our great coastline) did the American organizers choose to stage this race? Why do I insist on asking questions with obvious answers? Is it an annoying habit I can control? I will answer one of these questions below (Can you guess which one?).
The influential Baltimore Flying Club, based at Logan Field in Dundalk, piped up and brought the world-famous race (an event that in Europe had drawn crowds in excess of 250,000) here.
No race was held in 1924 (possibly to let the Europeans recover from the shock of losing to the Yanks), so event planners laid out a course in 1925 that started at Bay Shore (off Millers Island), where temporary facilities including hangars were built, then to the Gibson Island Lighthouse, then to Huntingfield Point on the Eastern Shore and then back to Bay Shore. The rigidly triangular course measured 50 kilometers, and pilots had to complete seven laps to win.
Bad weather postponed the race for two days (and destroyed a group of Army seaplanes off Sollers Point that were intended for the airshow that was to kick off the festivities). But, on Oct. 25, 1925, the U.S Army team, two U.S. Navy teams and a team each from Italy and Great Britain were gassed up and ready to go.
Thousands of spectators cheered as the planes took off at five-minute intervals, and the crowd waited breathlessly for each plane to reach the turn marked by a pylon on a barge just offshore. From early in the race, however, it became clear that California pilot James Harold “Jimmy” Doolittle had the advantage in his Curtiss R3C-2. With an average speed of almost 233 mph, he won the race handily and shattered several seaplane speed records.
But that was nothing. The next day on a straight course Doolittle broke the world airspeed record when he got his Curtiss up to 245.7 mph.
Doolittle later entered the history books when he led the first bombing raid on Tokyo. But he first made history right here.