THE AUTUMN SUN HAS SET. Paul Geisz Sr. and I have spent about 20 minutes trekking through the thick brush along the south shore of Keuka Lake, in upstate New York. Behind us, bulldozers sit silently after another day of work demolishing the old Garrett Warehouse in preparation for 26 new lakefront condos. Nothing looks particularly historic here; there’s no sign telling visitors that on March 12, 1908, on the frozen surface of this lake, the Red Wing, the first U.S. airplane designed and built by someone other than the Wright brothers, took off on its first flight.
Wetlands block our way ahead, so we double back to my rental car and head south. We turn into the Hammondsport Junior-Senior High School parking lot. Now we’re surrounded by parkland; about 100 feet from us is the lake. By this time it’s dark, and the rising moon flickers on the surface of the water. Here, at least, there are a few signs of resident Glenn Curtiss’ accomplishments. You can make out an airplane mounted on a pole several feet from shore. It is a model of the Curtiss A-1, the U.S. Navy’s first airplane. Next to Geisz and me is a short flagpole in a black, angular stone base about four feet tall. Carved in it are Curtiss’ major accomplishments, along with the dedication date: July 4, 1978, exactly 70 years after Curtiss flew the third airplane he designed, the June Bug, and won a Scientific American trophy for making the first public flight of at least one kilometer. The base also notes Curtiss’ 1906 speed record on a motorcycle (136 mph), his invention of the floatplane, and more.
“It’s not much of a monument,” says Geisz, a former cop from Philadelphia in his late 60s who moved here after he retired.
“Well, the Wright brothers were first,” I reply. At the spot where they made their 1903 flight, atop Kill Devil Hill in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, there is a grand 60-foot-tall Art Deco monument, paid for by the U.S. government.
“He flew a kilometer,” Geisz says—almost 3,300 feet. “They flew yards.”
“But they did it five years before he did.”
“The one who really flew first was Langley. Did you ever see his airplane?”
“Not up close.”
“The shot of him flying.”
“Into the Potomac,” he says.
“Oh yeah, I’ve seen that one.” It dates back to 1903, just before the Wrights’ first flight. Smithsonian Secretary Samuel Langley’s Aerodrome arcs off its houseboat catapult and goes right into the river. That’s not flying; it’s more like plunging. But never mind.
There’s no use arguing about it. The Curtiss people always think they’re right. I’m a Wright Guy.
KEUKA LAKE LIES ON the edge of Hammondsport, New York, the quiet village where in 1878 Glenn Hammond Curtiss was born. (Though he was not a descendant, he was named after village founder Lazarus Hammond.) Curtiss was raised here and in Rochester, and it was in Hammondsport that he built and rode motorcycles, designed and constructed early airplanes, and now lies buried alongside his wife and sons. But unlike Kitty Hawk or Dayton, Ohio, where images of the Wright brothers are everywhere, little in Hammondsport indicates Curtiss’ presence. At the Glenn Curtiss Museum, which is located outside of town, executive director Trafford Doherty says: “Hammondsport could have done a little more for the favorite son. Not even a statue” pays homage to Curtiss in the village. The grade school bears his name, but it’s nowhere on or near the building. The city’s phone directories are mostly filled with listings for all the wineries in the valley. This is New York wine country. That’s what brings tourists to Hammondsport every summer. Not Glenn Curtiss.
Now a group wants to change that. For starters, Curtiss supporters hope to fly the museum’s replica of the June Bug in 2008, on the 100th anniversary of that flight. But beyond that, the group, the Friends of Hammondsport, wants to build an 11-acre Glenn H. Curtiss Memorial Park along the southern shore of Keuka Lake. They envision erecting a wrought-iron gate at the entrance, as well as a wall with the names of Curtiss, his family, and the people who worked with him and flew his machines in those early days of aviation. Something substantial. After all, the lake is where Curtiss and his team made history.
Carl Slater, an 82-year-old Hammondsport native, says his father (born in 1894) would ride his bicycle down to watch men tinker with an early airplane. “Curtiss needed a part from his shop,” Slater says, “and he had no transportation, so he asked Dad if he could borrow his bicycle. He borrowed it and rode it up there. Here is a master of all transportation, and he has to borrow a bicycle from a local kid. Curtiss asked Dad if he liked to swim and Dad says ‘Yes,’ and he said ‘You can come down to the dock anytime you want to,’ and my dad took him up on it.”
The 11 acres the Friends want to transform is owned by the H&B Railroad, which was built around the turn of the last century to transport wine grapes from Hammondsport to Bath, a small town seven miles south. An abandoned train depot sits on the land, as does a garbage dump.
The railroad wants to sell the acreage; it is required to offer it to the village first. It’s asking $1.35 million. So far the Friends have raised 10 percent of that ($5,000 came from the surprisingly still-extant Curtiss-Wright Corporation, which now manufactures stuff like nuclear power plant valves—it’s gotten out of the aircraft and engine business). The Friends have until July 31 to raise the other $1.2 million.