City watched land-and-air race Contest: In 1908, a balloonist challenged a motorist to see which one would make the Northwest Baltimore-to-downtown round trip faster.


Baltimoreans have never lost their affection for airplanes and other, odd airborne craft.

In 1910, 500,000 citizens got their first sight of an airplane when French aviator Hubert Latham flew over the city. Twenty-six years later, the ill-fated Hindenburg, bearing swastikas on its tail fins, paid a quick visit to the city while cruising to its base at Lakehurst, N.J.

Through the years, experimental planes have flown around the area from the old Glenn L. Martin Co. Middle River plant. Sputnik and even UFO sightings during the 1950s and 1960s kept Marylanders scanning the night skies.

This September, they turned out to watch an F-117A stealth fighter soar over eastern Baltimore County as the star performer of the Chesapeake Air Show. They got some unexpected excitement when a wing fell off the plane, sending it to the ground. Fortunately, no one was killed.

He flies through the air

But one of the most daring -- and memorable -- aeronautical feats occurred July 23, 1908, when balloonist Lincoln Beachey challenged motorist Isadore I. Wolfe to a race from Electric Park, a Northwest Baltimore amusement park, to downtown Baltimore and back.

Beachey, a stunt balloonist, came to Baltimore from Toledo, Ohio, a few days before the race to put on air shows at Electric Park.

"Lincoln Beachey spent about 25 minutes in the air in a flight in his airship from Electric Park last night," The Sun reported in the days leading up to the contest. "He went higher than usual and made a circular swoop of about one-eighth of a mile in diameter.

"The spectators at the park and those at a distance saw him to better advantage than before. A searchlight, which was used by the city as part of the municipal illuminating scheme during the big conventions held here a few years ago, was yesterday lent by the management of the park by Mayor Mahool."

Powered by a motorcycle motor, the cloth bag that comprised the balloon had to be filled with gas before each flight. Beachey would carefully pour sulfuric acid over a bucket of iron filings. The gas created by this mixture was then forced through a purifier and into the bag.

On the morning of July 23, 1908, as part of the hype for the race, The Sun carried a front page advertisement. "Airship! Airship! Airship! The Marvel of the Age. LOOK OUT FOR THE AIRSHIP! AIRSHIP WILL DROP MONEY OVER THE CITY!"

At 10: 34 a.m., Beachey and his balloon lifted off and circled Electric Park as Wolfe fired up his six-cylinder Winton automobile and promised the crowd that he would be the winner.

"All along the route traversed by the airship, many thousands of people watched the daring aeronaut," reported The Sun. "Except for the mist which prevailed in the upper air the weather conditions were almost perfect and the flight, covering a distance of about 10 1/2 miles, was by far the best ever made by Beachey."

Beachey later told the newspaper, "Hardly had I gotten well into the air, a distance of about 500 feet from the ground, when I was unable to make out the earth under me. After making for town, I was able before going very far to make out the larger buildings, but only with a great degree of inexactness. It was impossible for me to see anything very clearly until I had passed in through Druid Hill Park. I could then make out the dome of City Hall and aimed my course directly for it."

Floating above city streets, Beachey later said, "I was able to make out everything perfectly. I was even able to see clearly the faces of people on top of the buildings over which I passed.

"While downtown I purposely sailed close to the roofs of the large buildings to exhibit to the spectators how completely I have my ship under control. There was never an instant yesterday that I did not have the most complete management of the airship."

As Baltimoreans looked skyward, Beachey threw out several hundred free passes to Electric Park and purses that contained from 50 cents to a dollar. As the money hit the sidewalk, many amusing scrambles ensued.

After circling City Hall, and the Baltimore American newspaper building at Baltimore and South streets, where news photographers recorded its passing, Beachey turned the balloon and headed for the return trip to Electric Park. The elapsed time for the airborne journey was 52 1/4 minutes.

Beachey passed over Wolfe and the Winton as it labored through Druid Hill Park, and landed ahead of the automobile by 15 seconds.

Rules of the road

"Had it not been for the fact that we were forced to slow down on Park Heights Avenue owing to the speed regulation and that while running through town we had to follow the streets, while the ship could pick out a direct course, we would have certainly defeated Mr. Beachey with the greatest of ease," said Wolfe.

"There would practically have been no race at all. My machine is a six-cylinder, 48 horsepower Winton and will make as high as 70 miles an hour. If the chauffeur had been able to let it out to that limit on Park Heights Avenue there would have been no catching it," he said.

While Wolfe fussed and fumed, the Winton Co. demanded a rematch.

Beachey soon became fascinated by airplanes and turned from ballooning to touring the country doing "aerial corkscrew flip-flops."

He thrilled audiences as he flew under a Niagara Falls bridge and wrecked monoplanes in St. Paul, Minn. In 1913, he flew too close to a rooftop in Hammondsport, N.Y., and swept one spectator to his death.

Death finally caught up with Beachey in 1915 at the San Francisco Exhibition. As he put the plane into a steep dive, the wings were torn off and the airship plunged into San Francisco Bay.

Pub Date: 11/16/97

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