Monday, October 4, 2010
An anniversary of something once thought unfathomable
Today we think NOTHING of going onto the internet, logging onto our favorite place to shop and then after buying something, we wait, my God, how we wait for that item to arrive. And if its coming from a place far, far, far, away, and you want it bad enough, chances are its coming via airplane.
This past weekend, the 100th anniversary of the first air freight in the world was observed with a ceremonial flight of a Wright Flyer reproduction from Dayton to Columbus.
The actual flight occurred on November 7, 1910, when a bolt of silk, left Dayton, Ohio, bound for Columbus, Ohio. The man behind this hair brained scheme was Max Morehouse, owner of Morehouse-Martins Department Store. And he paid a whopping $5,000 for the privledge of having his own dress goods flown by air back to him!
The idea of using "aeroplanes" to move freight between two points had been floated by Glen Curtiss, a Cleveland based aviator before November 1910, but no one was quite sure what good it would do or what to charge. But the idea fascinated Morehouse, and being the first one to do it fascinated even more.
In 1910, flying machines were still composed of open body "aeroplanes", and the Wright Brothers of Dayton held that patents on their flying machine design. These Wright Flyers were just seven years off the first short flight at Kitty Hawk, and they maintained control over virtually every plane built because of the patented design.
For the $5,000 one would think that Morehouse could have purchased his own plane, and cut out the middleman. But the Wrights wouldn't sell him a plane when they heard what Morehouse was going to do with it, and the idea concerned them. The Wright organization was concerned with "great things", while Morehouse wanted was a publicity stunt that would garner him world press. What the Wrights were trying to avoid was someone (or something) be it a bolk of silk, or the whole plane, dropping from the sky onto something on someone on the ground.
So for the amount charged, the Wrights would put up one of their planes, with one of the best pilots in their stable. Morehouse would secure a place to land for the landing and would handle the underwriting on the event. Max would also pay for a flying exhibition at Columbus' Driving Park (an early raceway, frequented by another Columbusite - Eddie Rickenbacker - who raced cars around the track, some reaching the dizzying speeds of up to 60mph!) Finally, Morehouse would also pay to have the plane dismantled and shipped back to Dayton via rail car on the afternoon of the completed flight, and the fair of all the Wright personal that were coming to see the event.
Not only were these early Wright fliers open, but they were essentially just a wood frame, canvas for the wings and rudders, wires and an engine and propellers. And wait, they also had wheels; it's really important to remember that they had two wheels for landing upon. Unlike the planes of today, they didn't fly that far off the ground, either; just high enough that they didn't slam into a tree, get tripped up on telephone wires or slam into a building.
On the morning of the flight, the pilot was strapped in the seat and silk bolt attached to the plane, wrapped in brown paper with some twine tied around for good measure. For a route to Columbus, the plane would follow a train route full of Wright officials and guests, who would get to Columbus before the plane would.
As fate would have it, the selected pilot - the best Wright had hurt himself by flying into something (in this case, the earth), so the Wright organization selected a relative youngster - Phillip O. Parmalee to execute the flying. For good measure, they also decided that the flight would also be trailed by an automobile, just in case Parmalee needed some help. The final change to the plan was to have Parmalee leave Dayton at 10AM, so the flight would arrive in Columbus in time for the noon lunch hour whistles. Morehouse and Wright felt that they could gin-up even more attention if workers leaving their offices and factories could witness and "aeroplane" flying overhead. Yay!
So on the appointed hour, 100 years ago November 7th, young Parmalee took off and went east into the morning. At some point, the automobile got mired down in muddy roads outside Clifton, Ohio, and it was out of the running. Without his "chase car" Parmalee continued merrily on his way and at somepoint he overtook the train that was suppossed to be faster than he was. By the time the flier was coming down to a perfect touchpoint landing, Parmalee had beaten the train to the train station. By the time they arrived at Driving park, the Wright party looked like a bunch of Johnny Come Lately's.
What came from this event was proof that the airpower of the era may not have been quite as mighty rail power, but it was faster. What also came from this event was Eddie Rickenbacker's fascination with airplanes was cemented. Rickenbacker would take that spark and parlay it into becoming's America's favorite flying ace in World War I, and later as the longtime and successful head of Eastern Airlines in the 1950s and 1960s.
What became of the 200lbs of black silk? Well at least half of it was cut into 2" lengths, glued to postcards and sold as souvenirs of the event that sold for a nickle. Max's wife and daughters all had dresses made from the material, and the rest sold as premium dress goods, with a story to tell to boot.
And Max Morehouse? Morehouse-Martins remained Columbus' most fashionable carriage trade store for a generation. Max and his wife Imogene continued to hold a grand place in Columbus society. Mae's brother- in-law was none other than Charles Anson Bond, Mayor of Columbus. But Bond is best known as the founder of Bond Clothing - the first national chain of menswear in the United States.
Max died in 1925. Morehouse-Martins was sold, and later merged with "The Fashion" (another local store), before eventually bought up Levy family and merged with their "The Union" a department store chain that was never called a department store. It was always simply "The Union". Finally, The Union was absorbed into Halle's of Cleveland under the Schottestein family before it went belly up in 1982.
The last great moment for Morehouse-Martins however came in 1985, when in the midst of being readied for demolition, the old store caught fire and burned within an inch of collapse. It was demolished for a downtown mall, which in turn was demolished, this past summer, and will be replaced by a "grand park".
But remember, greatness is not only something that comes to those who are simply first, it comes to those who are first, and do it with style, flair and a little showmanship.