11 September 1911
Like today, the dawn of the twentieth century was a time of fast-paced, technological change that was dramatically transforming people’s lives. Within a lifetime, people went from oil lamps to electricity, from the pony express to the telephone, and from the horse and buggy to the automobile. In December 1903, on a beach a few miles south of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, mankind took the next transformative, technological leap. Two brothers, Orville and Wilbur Wright, made the first, heavier-than-air, powered flight. That first flight, with Orville at the controls, lasted but a few seconds, and it only covered some 120 feet at an altitude of roughly 10 feet over the wind-swept, sand dunes. But it was a stunning achievement. Two years later, the brothers developed their first practical flying machine called the Flyer III that could stay aloft half an hour and travel a distance of more than 20 miles.
Within a few years of the Wrights’ initial flight, aviation literally took off, notwithstanding countless crashes that claimed the lives of many early flight pioneers. In 1906, the Brazilian Alberto Santos-Dumont made the first powered flight in Europe, wowing Parisians in his Oiseau de proie (bird of prey). John McCurdy made the first Canadian powered, heavier-than-air flight in February 1909 near Baddeck, Nova Scotia. His airplane, the Silver Dart, was developed by the Aerial Experiment Association organized by Alexander Graham Bell and financed by his wife Mabel who was an aviation enthusiast. In July 1909, Louis Blériot of France, flying his Type XI monoplane, became an instant celebrity when he made the first successful flight across the English Channel. The following month, Charles Willard flew his Curtis biplane, the Golden Flyer, over the Scarborough beaches to the delight of Toronto residents. Unfortunately, Willard was forced to ditch into Lake Ontario. Flying in the late afternoon, he blamed approaching darkness for the crash but he had only taken one flying lesson, and had been flying for just two weeks.
Air shows, where aviation enthusiasts could meet, share notes, and compete also became popular, attracting thousands of fans. The first was held in Paris in September 1909. The first North American show, held in Los Angeles in January 1910, drew more than a quarter million spectators. Canada hosted its first aviation meet outside of Montreal in July that same year. Many of the great aviation pioneers attended including Count Jacques de Lesseps flying a Blériot monoplane, four members of the newly established Wright Brothers exhibition team in their Wright Model A airplanes, as well as John McCurdy flying a Baddeck machine. To great excitement, De Lesseps flew over downtown Montreal on a 50-minute round trip from the Lakeside (now Pointe-Claire) field where the meet was held.
In Ottawa, interest was high in this new technological marvel. In September 1910, Professor McKergow of McGill University gave a lecture to the Royal Society at the Normal School (now part of Ottawa City Hall) at the corner of Elgin and Lisgar Streets. Despite the great advances that had been made in aviation, the good professor opined that “the aeroplane will never be used for anything but sport or war.” He did concede, however, that if we could come to understand air currents, the problem of transatlantic air travel might be solved. By taking advantage of the trade winds, he believed an airplane might be able to travel from France to someplace in the southern United States in 50-60 hours.
Ottawa residents had to wait until September 1911 for their first glimpse of the magnificent men in their flying machines. In the spring of that year, a spokesman for the Central Canada Exhibition said that they were looking to hire an aviator for $1,500 (roughly $32,000 in today’s money) to make ten flights, two per day, of not less than five miles in distance. The flights were to be the highlight of the 1911 Exhibition. The Ottawa Evening Journal reported that the Belgian aviator and dare-devil Charles Morok had signed a contract to give demonstrations in his Curtis biplane. Morok was famous for the aerial stunt called the “Dip of Death.” The newspaper also claimed that his airplane would race an automobile—a favourite event at aviation shows and fairgrounds at that time. It was not to be. Either the newspaper was misinformed, or the aviator got a better offer. That September, Morok performed at the Sandusky Fairgrounds in Fremont, Ohio.
In early September, virtually on the eve of the opening of the Exhibition, it still wasn’t clear which aviator would have the honour of being the first to fly over Ottawa. One press report claimed that Charles Willard, who had made the inaugural Toronto flight, had been engaged on the same terms as offered to Morok. However, Willard was out of the running as he had been injured a couple of weeks earlier at a fair in St Louis. John McCurdy’s name was also mentioned, but he too was a no-show. Speculation was that he had commitments elsewhere. With everything “up in the air,” so to speak, advertisements for the Ex only promised an un-named “Famous Aviator” would perform two flights per day.
In the event, two competing companies of aviators showed up, each claiming to have a contract to perform at the Exhibition. Jean Wilmer, a French-American pilot, along with Georges Mestich of Belgium and Gressier of France arrived in Ottawa with their Morane monoplane. Virtually simultaneously, another troupe, led by Captain Thomas Baldwin, also arrived ready to perform in one of Baldwin’s “Red Devils,” a Curtiss “pusher-type” biplane. Apparently, both companies had been engaged by a booking office in New York City.
To settle matters, the organizers of the Exhibition suggested that both troupes provide demonstrations. Instead, the two competing companies agreed between themselves that Baldwin’s troupe would fly. Twenty-one year old Lee Hammond, “the noted and daring aeronaut,” who worked for Capt. Baldwin got the nod.
Hammond arrived in Ottawa with his airplane by train at noon on 11 September, 1911. He had just enough time to get to Lansdowne Park in time to make his first demonstration flight. Indicative of how dangerous flying was at that time, Hammond was still shaking off the effects of two airplane crashes, both into water. Three weeks earlier, he had broken an ankle after his aircraft stalled and fell into Lake Michigan. He was fished out by a U.S. Revenue Cutter. Just the day prior to his arrival in Ottawa, he had had a second watery crash while performing with Tom Sopwith, later of Sopwith Camel fame, at Coney Island, New York. Fortunately, he sustained only minor cuts and bruises.
To the delight of thousands in Exhibition attendees, Hammond’s first Ottawa flight went off without mishap sometime after 1pm. Although a makeshift runway, fifty feet wide and five hundred feet long, had been laid out in front of the grandstand at Lansdowne Park, he took off from Slattery’s Field located across the Rideau Canal from the Exhibition grounds. Slattery’s Field, which today encompasses the Riverdale Avenue and Main Street area, was at the time used for pasturing cows. Captain Baldwin explained that the Exhibition grounds were too congested for Hammond to safely take off and land. In a short, five-minute flight, Hammond circled the Exhibition grounds several times before returning to land back at Slattery’s Field. He performed his second show of the day at roughly 4pm.
Problems seemed to dog Hammond. On the second day of the Exhibition, a storm collapsed the tent that sheltered his biplane, breaking the propeller. Later in the week, his engine conked out when he encountered dense fog at 1,000 feet. He landed heavily near the Rideau Canal, only missing another watery crash by a few feet. Undeterred by the experience, Hammond made his second flight of the day. That flight too ended badly, with Hammond crash-landing on Slattery’s Field, scattering the cows and damaging the tail of his biplane.
Despite his problems, Hammond’s aerial displays were the talk of the Exhibition. The Journal waxed lyrically about the flights saying that Hammond was “at times almost touching the blue and mottled sky, circling like a big bird in front of the grand stand, then darting off as if he was heading to fly over the entire city. Then soaring upwards, now swooping gracefully towards the earth.”
Described by the newspaper as handsome, blue-eyed and square-chinned, with an attractive personality, the daring, young aeronaut was also a big hit with the ladies. The Journal called him the “blue ribboned” boy” of the Exhibition. “Any man who would go up in an aeroplane the height he did yesterday when there was a thirty to forty mile and hour zephyr, shimmering around fifteen hundred feet up, can make himself a lion in the eyes of the ladies.”
On the last day of the Exhibition, before he left for Cassopolis, Michigan, the next stop on his exhibition tour, Hammond was thanked warmly by Earl Grey, the Governor General for his aerial displays.
A plaque commemorating Lee Hammond’s flights from Slattery’s Field, Ottawa’s first impromptu airfield, is mounted on the wall of the Hydro Ottawa substation located at 39 Riverdale Avenue. Lee Hammond died in 1932. Also commemorated on the substation wall is the landing of the first flight from Montreal to Ottawa made by William Robinson on 8 October 1913. Robinson was forced to use Slattery’s Field when, owing to his late arrival into Ottawa, the sports field at Lansdowne Park was being used by the Ottawa Rough Riders for football practice. Robinson delivered copies of the Montreal Daily Mail to senior federal and municipal leaders, including Prime Minister Borden and Ottawa Mayor Ellis as a publicity stunt to advertise the new newspaper.
Citizen (The), 1911. “Ottawa May See First Aviator,” 11 September.
—————-, 1911. “Opening Day Of Exhibition Broke Records Of All Years,” 12 September.
—————-, 1911. “Ottawa Saw Real Aeroplanes,” 12 September.
Ellis, Frank H., 1954. Canada’s Flying Heritage, University of Toronto Press: Toronto.
Ficke, George, 2005, “Lee Hammond,” The Early Birds Of Aviation, http://airandspace.si.edu/collections/artifact.cfm?object=nasm_A19500094000.
Fortier, R. 2009, “Canada’s First Aviation Meet – 1910,” Wings, https://www.wingsmagazine.com/, 26 June.
Globe, (The), 1910. “Count de Lesseps’ Flight Feature At Montreal,” 27 June.
Orléans Star, 2011. “Slattery’s Field Street marks 100 years of aviation in Ottawa,” 9 November, http://www.orleansstar.ca/News/Local/2011-11-09/article-2800460/Slatterys-Field-Street-marks-100-years-of-aviation-in-Ottawa/1.
Ottawa Evening Journal (The), 1910. “Prof. McKergow On Aviation,” 29 September.
————————————-, 1911. “Have An Aeroplane,” 10 April.
————————————-, 1911. “Ten Flights Cost $1,500,” 12 April.
————————————-, 1911. “Big Ottawa Celebration Opens On Monday For Annual Ottawa Fair,” 9 September.
————————————-, 1911. “Central Canada Fair Opens In Ideal Weather,” 11 September.
————————————-, 1911. “Daring Aviator Arrives,” 11 September.
————————————-, 1911. “Airship Mishap May Prevent Flight Today,” 12 September.
————————————-, 1911, “Lee Hammond: Daring Aviator Ready For flight At Exhibition Grounds,” 13 September.
————————————–, 1911. “Wold Fly Over Ottawa And Hull In Monplane, 15 September.
————————————–, 1911. “Thirty-Six Thousand At Fair Yesterday, 15 September.
————————————–, 1911. “Exhibition Figures Now Show Decrease,” 16 September.
————————————–, 1913. “Delivers Papers With Aeroplane,” 9 October.
Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, 2016. “Baldwin Red Devil,” http://airandspace.si.edu/collections/artifact.cfm?object=nasm_A19500094000.
Von Baeyer, C. & Krywicki, K. 2013. “Slattery’s Field In Old Ottawa South–Ottawa’s First Accidental Airfield,” Old Ottawa South Community Association (OSCA), 2011, http://www.oldottawasouth.ca/oos/history-project/history-project/555-slatterys-field-in-old-ottawa-south-ottawas-first-accidental-airfield.
Image: Lee Hammond and Thomas Baldwin at the Cass. Co. Fair, September 1911, JAC-382, http://www.postcardgallery.com/page14%20avaition.htm.