Wednesday, August 22, 2012

An Early Aviator Visits Fort Plain

Fort Plain, August 22, 1911: The fragile biplane glided over the village at dusk and landed in a field across the river. Out stepped aviator Harry Atwood, an early graduate of the Wright brothers' flying school near Dayton, Ohio. Fort Plain historian Nelson Greene recounts that Atwood did not know the name of the locality where he had landed. A young boy ran up towards the plane.

"Where the devil am I?" Atwood asked him.

"In Ed Nellis' cow pasture," the boy answered.

Great-Uncle Frederic remembered the event thus:

Frederic w. Mother & Father, 1912, w. unidentified relative
In the summer of 1911, village residents were intrigued when it was reported that early aviator Harry Atwood was coming. Atwood left east St. Louis [in an attempt to] make a flight to New York City, a distance of some 1266 miles, which he completed in eleven days. As word came through via telegraph that Atwood’s plane was coming down through the valley, everyone gathered up on the hillsides to await his arrival.

That evening, Father, Mother, and I went up to the top of the hill in back of our house and there, sure enough, just before dusk, along came Atwood. Dusk was rapidly falling, so he had to make a landing, and he landed on a farm over slightly north of Nelliston.

This was the first airplane I ever saw, and I was six years old at the time. It’s quite a contrast to the planes which now regularly fly intercontinentally and around the world at high speeds, carrying hundreds of passengers.

Atwood’s plane might be described as a collection of poles or spars, wire, cloth, and a low-horsepower engine. It seemed to be strung together with wire, and many people flocked over to view it.

In fact, the Sheriff had to send over a number of men to surround it and keep the people away because they might have taken it apart as souvenirs. Atwood stayed in Fort Plain at the hotel that night, and the next morning took off and eventually arrived in New York. The day he landed outside of Fort Plain he had taken off from a village near Syracuse and that day made a total of 94 miles.

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Atwood's historic flight, the first through the Mohawk Valley, was one leg of a cross-country flight from St. Louis to New York city, a total distance of 1265 miles. He had been offered a prize of $10,000 to make this long-distance flight. The August 26, 1911 edition of the New York Times includes the following details: Atwood left St. Louis at 8:00 AM on August 14 and arrived at Governors Island, NY City on August 26. The flying time for the entire trip was 28 hours and 31 minutes. The average distance of each leg of the journey was 63 1/4 miles, with an average speed a little over 44 miles an hour. (One wonders how the aircraft managed to stay aloft at what seems to us today such a dangerously slow speed.)

View from the cemetery hill across the Mohawk River to Nelliston field

Atwood's flight beat the previous world record by 101 miles, and was described in the Times article as "the greatest cross-country flight in the history of aviation." But Atwood was apparently quite modest about the feat he had accomplished. "I want a bath and some clean clothes more than anything else," he declared upon arriving at the Hotel Knickerbocker, where he was the guest of the proprietor.  

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At some point many years later, a section of the family property up on the hill above the house was sold to the village cemetery, when the cemetery expanded. Ironically, Frederic and his parents are now buried only a few yards from where they stood on that August day 101 years ago to watch Atwood's plane glide to a landing in Ed Nellis's field. 

- Greene, Nelson. Fort Plain Nelliston History 1580-1947. Fort Plain-Nelliston Historical Society, 1947. 

- "Atwood Ends Record Air Trip," New York Times, August 26, 1911.

- Wikipedia article on Harry Nelson Atwood: ; accessed 8/21/2012. This article includes a photo of Atwood and Albert Leo Stevens, from the Library of Congress collection.

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