JULY 2018

JULY 2018
One Hundred Years Later, Same Message. 1916 - 2017


Saturday, November 15, 2008


I had to do some work to locate the starting point for Bob Fowler’s second attempt at a transcontinental flight. For one thing it has been buried under concrete and asphalt for a century. For another, some histories have mis-labeled it as “Wiltshire Field”, but that seems to have been a "spell check mis-correction" of the name "Henry Gaylord Wilshire". If you are familiar with Los Angeles at all you recognize that name. In 1895 Gaylord bought 35 acres around what would one day become MacAthur Park. Gaylord then humbly allowed the city of Los Angeles to build a road right through the center of his property, on the condition that they not allow any street cars to use it and that they name it after him. Then he promptly packed up and moved back to New York. He left his name no where else in Los Angles.
Wilshire Boulevard’s beginnings were very humble indeed, bisecting mostly beet fields. In 1910 the intersection of Wilshire Blvd. and Fairfax Avenue was an ideal location for an airfield, close to the budding metropolis of Los Angeles (320,000 citizens already) but open enough to allow pilots to crash regularly without killing the neighbors, because there weren’t any, except for a few deceased Dire Wolves stuck in the tar of the La Brea Tar Pits, just down the street. (BTW: "la brea" means tar in Spanish - so the "La Brea tar pits" translates as 'the tar - tar pits'.
There should be a plaque in the sidewalk or something at the corner of Fairfax and Whilshire, because not only did Bob Fowler start his second transcontinental flight from here on October 19, 1911, but it is also where Ameila Earhart took her first flight lesson, in a Curtiss Jenny, in 1921. In fact, lots of aviation history has happened at that corner of Hollywood.
Movie maker C.B. DeMille , in town to direct the first blockbuster “Squawman”, operated an airline out of there for a year or so (Mecury Aviation), until it went bankrupt. (see a young C.B. below) Then in March 1921 the air field was bought by flyer Emory Roger and his wife, and renamed “Rogers’ Field”. Emory then started up “Pacific Marine Airways”, in partnership with Sid Chaplin, brother to Charlie Chaplin. They flew to Catalina Island and sold Curtiss airplanes out of a showroom on the field - at least they did until Emory died in a plane crash in November of 1921. Then Emory’s widow ran the field until 1923, when she sold out to developers, and the airfield disappeared. That is what happens to everything historic in Los Angeles, sooner or later.
But that was all in the future in 1911. On October 19, 1911 Wilshire Field was just an open space out at the end of Wilshire Blvd.Late that afternoon Bob Fowler, at the controls of his new Wright B Flyer, renamed the "Cole Flyer", lifted off and headed east. He made only 9 miles that first day, landing in Pasadena. But the important thing was that he was back in the race. Bob’s financial backer, Reed Grundy, had always wanted him to start from Los Angeles because the mountains Bob had to cross here were so much lower that the Sierra and because the Los Angeles Board of Reality was coughing up a $10,000 bonus if he started from L.A. - okay, mostly because of the bonus. In fact, early the next morning, October 20, Grundy called Pasadena and begged Bob to fly back to Wilshire Field to collect another paycheck for an appearance down Fairfax Avenue at the L.A. motordrome with Barney Oldfield and company.
But Bob put his foot down and said he’d rather give up flying all together than start this trip three times. Grundy got the message and Bob flew on to Riverside, California, probably spitting and cursing all the way about what a jackass his manager was. I’m sure NASCAR drivers feel the same way about their sponsors, once in awhile. In two days of flying Bob Fowler covered only 69 miles. And the next day, October 21st, went even slower, because he was approaching the San Gorgonio Pass. The pass is only at 2,600 feet altitude, but it runs 22 miles long between the 9,000 foot tall Mt. San Gorgonio and the 11,000 foot tall Mt. San Jacinto, making it one of the deepest passes in the United States. For a cloth and wood airplane flying at between 2 and 4,000 feet above the ground, passing between towering mastiffs meant dangerous cross winds. The Cole Flyer struggled to make progress, but Bob kept going. Just as the 14,505 foot tall Mount Whitney stands just 76 miles west of Badwater, Death Valley, at 282 feet below sea level, Mount San Jacinto stands less than 100 miles west of the Salton Sink, at 220 feet below sea level (far upper right in photo). The line from the Gulf of California, through the Salton Sea, Death Valley (and north to Mono Lake) is the joint where California is being twisted, torn apart, bent and broken along the San Andreas Fault and a newly forming rift valley. Someday, in fourteen or fifteen million years, this is going to be the new west coast.
But having finally left this geological drama behind him, Bob Fowler was now over flatlands and flying in cool winter temperatures across the desert. And on October 25 he landed in Yuma, Arizona. Finally, after almost sixty days of starting, stopping and crashing, Bob Fowler had escaped California.Two hundred miles later, following the Southern Pacific Railroad line, Bob landed at Tuscon, Arizona. And there Bob had his brief encounter with a fellow traveler, the only other man on God’s green earth who truly understood what he was going through; Cal Rogers. They were together barely long enough to shake hands, and nobody had time to produce a camera. And then they separated without so much as a backslap or to compare notes: so much for the brotherhood of the air.
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