The story of Calbraith Perry Rodgers Jr. and his Vin Fiz Flyer isn't just one about flying transcontinental when it seemed to be an impossible feat. And, it isn't just a story about the exploits of a member of a prestigious military family hailing from Harford County.
As Peter Ianniello, owner of Mt. Felix Vineyard & Winery, which sits next door to the Rodgers ancestral home Sion Hill, says, the Vin Fiz Flyer tale is one about "overcoming tremendous adversity and odds."
On Sept. 17, 1911 — 100 years ago Saturday — "Cal" Rodgers took off from Sheepshead Bay, N.Y., in his newly-bought Wright biplane (he was the first civilian to purchase one) and began his trip across the country as part of legendary newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst's $50,000 coast-to-coast air race. When he finally made it to California almost two months later, he became the first person to fly from coast to coast.
It was just months earlier that year that Rodgers had become a pilot. And, it was just shy of eight years removed from Orville Wright's history-making first manned flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C., on Dec. 17, 1903.
The Rodgers family owned the brick mansion Sion Hill in Havre de Grace and other properties and was considered very well off. The family was established in America by John Rodgers, a Scot, who settled in Havre de Grace in 1700s and owned the waterfront tavern that still stands in the city today. Both Sion Hill and Rodgers Tavern are on the National Historic Register.
C.P. Rodgers Jr. was born in his mother's hometown of Pittsburgh. His father, Calbraith Perry Sr., was an Army cavalry officer who was born at Sion Hill in 1845 and, as a teenager, was left behind to care for the family's home and farm while his father and older brothers went off to fight for the Union. C.P. Sr. was on duty in Wyoming Territory when he was killed by a lightning strike five months before his namesake son was born.
Illustrious military men
Cal Rogers was from a lineage of military leaders. He was related to Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry, who fought in the War of 1812 and helped with negotiations of the first treaty between Japan and America, as well as Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, who is famous for his role in the Battle of Lake Erie, also in the War of 1812. Numerous Rodgers and Perrys were high ranking naval officers well into the 20th century.
His cousin was Lt. John Rodgers, who was born and raised at Sion Hill. The son of an admiral who was married to C.P. Jr.'s mother's sister, John and Cal Rodgers developed a close relationship as youngsters, according to the 1985 book "Flight of the Vin Fiz," by E.P. Stein. Cal spent many summers at Mt. Sion where, according to Stein, he preferred the fresh Maryland air to the smoky air of his native Pittsburgh.
John Rodgers became a Navy pilot — the second in the U.S. Navy to get his wings — and received orders in June 1911 to go to Dayton, Ohio, to check out a plane that aviation pioneers Orville and Wilbur Wright had developed. On a whim he invited his cousin to come with him on the trip.
Up to this point, C.P. Rodgers hadn't found his calling at age 32. He was deaf in one year because of contracting scarlet fever at a young age and couldn't join the military like the rest of the men in his family.
He tried panning for gold with a brother in Africa and racing yachts, motorcycles and automobiles, but nothing seemed to fit — until he watched the planes and "birdmen," the early term for aviators, at the Wright's flying school. He decided he wanted to learn to fly.
"He falls in love with aviation and discovers his life's passion," said Ianniello, who has done extensive research over the years on C.P. Rodgers and his Wright Flyer. Ianniello added that Rodgers "scooped up" the Wright plane and bought it for $5,000. Actually, according to Stein's book, he was able to buy the plane only because his indulgent mother, heiress to the Pittsburgh glass works fortune, gave him the money.
Within weeks of graduating from the Wright flying school and getting his own plane, Cal Rodgers was flying in air exhibitions in the Midwest and thinking about his airborne future. The Hearst coast-to-coast race appealed to his sense of adventure and he decided to enter.
Zion Hill landing
Back in Harford County in September 1911, the air age really arrived on Sept. 16, 1911, when Lt. John Rodgers flew from College Park to visit his parents in Havre de Grace, landing in a field on "Zion Hill," which belonged to Robert Mitchell. Zion Hill was the local name for the area overlooking Chesapeake Bay, where the Rodgers homestead and the Mitchell homestead, Mt. Felix, sat surrounded by farm fields and forests.
The John Rodgers landing in Havre de Grace caused quite a stir in a community where motorcars were still considered a curiosity — and big news items — and "aeroplanes" were judged by many to be a pipe dream chased by idle young men.
The following morning after he landed at the Mitchell field, an estimated 2,000 people came to see Lt. Rodgers and his plane, asking questions about the flying machine and aviation in general, as reported by The Aegis on Sept. 22, 1911.
Under the headline "An Airman's Visit," editor and publisher John D. Worthington wrote: "It is hard for the conservative people of Harford County to keep pace with modern inventions. A few years ago, doubting people did not believe that the automobile would ever become a practical success yet today it is the strong rival of steam, and electricity in speed, usefulness and pleasure. In the same way the flying machine has been for all ages the limit of the dreamer's imagination, but its daily operations have already demonstrated, not only that it is as practical as the auto was a few years ago but in proportion to the difficulties to be overcome, its possibilities are infinitely greater."
It would, however, be the other Rodgers cousin who would soon make aviation history.