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History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925
Chapter 96: Atwood's Airplane Flight Through the Valley.

[This information is from Vol. II, pp. 1399-1402 of History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925, edited by Nelson Greene (Chicago: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1925). It is in the Reference collection of the Schenectady County Public Library at R 974.7 G81h. This online edition includes lists of portraits, maps and illustrations. Some images have been relocated to the area in the text where they are discussed. As noted by Paul Keesler in his article, "The Much Maligned Mr. Greene," some information in this book has been superseded by later research or was provided incorrectly by local sources.]

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1911 — August 14-25, Atwood's 1,266-mile flight from St. Louis to New York — Flies 95 miles from Syracuse to Nelliston, August 22, and stays overnight at Fort Plain — Flies 66 miles from Nelliston to Castleton, August 23, with a stop in Glen for repairs — "Following the Mohawk."

This chapter, relative to the first aeroplane flight through the Mohawk Valley, is the seventh chapter treating of valley transportation. The others have covered early Mohawk river traffic, turnpike travel, Erie Canal, railroads and Barge Canal.

In the light of recent feats of aviation, such as 24 hour coast to coast flight, trans-Atlantic flight and around-the-world flights, the 1911 long distance flying feat by Atwood seems insignificant. However, in those early days of aviation, it was a notable performance.

In 1911 Harry N. Atwood made a flight by aeroplane from St. Louis to New York, a distance by air of 1,266 miles. It was an epoch-making event in the history of aviation and formed a fitting chapter in the long record of travel and transportation along the Mohawk, for Atwood followed our river in his air journey through this part of the state. Birds of passage follow the same route from lakes to coast. In the fall and winter months gulls are seen flying over the Mohawk River. This is a sight which has been noted frequently and it was fitting that the first bird man who flew over Central New York should follow the same air path. The St. Louis-New York flight, for its time, remains one of the most noteworthy accomplishments of aviation the world over. Atwood had flown from Boston to Washington, in June-July, 1911, and this was, up to that time, the longest cross country air journey made in the western hemisphere, eclipsing Curtiss' great flight down the Hudson from Albany to New York, the previous year, 1910.

Harry N. Atwood left St. Louis August 14, 1911, and reached Chicago, 283 miles away, in 6 hours and 32 minutes, the same day. He made Buffalo, August 19, and his flight through New York State with the distances and the places he reached each day are as follows: August 20, Buffalo to Lyons, 104 miles; August 21, Lyons to Belle Isle (near Syracuse), 40 miles; August 22, Belle Isle to Fort Plain, 95 miles; August 23, Fort Plain to Castleton (on the Hudson), 66 miles; August 24, Castleton to Nyack, 109 miles; August 25, Nyack to New York, 28 miles. Duration of flight, 12 days. Net flying time 28 hrs., 53 min. Average speed 43.9 miles per hr. Air distance covered, 1,266 miles.

The following is from the Fort Plain Standard of August 24, 1911:

"With the ease, grace and confidence of a huge eagle, from out of the western sky Tuesday evening came young Atwood, the St. Louis-to-New York aviator, and it was the good fortune of Nelliston and Fort Plain to get for nothing that for which many cities paid big money — the presence of the foremost bird-man of them all so far as long flights in a short time is concerned. The sight afforded as Atwood came within the vision of the thousands watching intently for him — at first little more than a speck surrounded by a whirl — was one that will never be forgotten by those who witnessed it. Steadily drawing nearer and nearer, for a time coming as straight as the proverbial gun-barrel, and then suddenly shifting to his right, but only for a brief period, the bold but cautious aviator seemed to be searching for a safe place to land. Suddenly resuming his course, somewhat south of east, he dashed over the mill portion of Fort Plain and over the Mohawk River, spied the vacant lot in the rear of the E. I. Nellis homestead, Nelliston, and alighted like a graceful, high-flying bird desirous of spending the night in seclusion and in comfort.

"All this happened shortly before 7 o'clock Tuesday evening, August 22, 1911 (screw the date to your mind), when Atwood was first discovered by the thousands watching and waiting for him, until exactly 7 o'clock, when he alighted safe and sound at the point mentioned. And it was certainly a novel, thrilling, never-to-be-forgotten sight to behold man and machine come from out of the sky — a phenomenon — and a few moments later, through landing, shift himself into a mere human being exciting wonderment by the aid of mere man's cleverness.

"With a wild rush many of the thousands who had long waited for Atwood, expecting only to see him pass over Fort Plain, hastened to the scene of the landing, and the shouts of people, mingled with the noise of automobiles, motorcycles, clatter of hoofs and rumbling of wagons, quickly caused that which was apparently chaos and pandemonium.

"The surging, seething mob soon surrounded man and machine, and he, coolest of the wild assemblage, made every effort (and with success) to save his biplane from damage. Atwood begged, expostulated and warned and was quickly aided in his efforts by men who realized the all but helpless predicament in which the aviator, far from police protection, found himself through the intense enthusiasm of the admiring but rash, thoughtless thousands. But all's well that ends well, for despite the eagerness of the crowd, no damage was caused to the biplane.

"After assuring himself that the machine was safe and in good hands, Atwood was brought to Hotel Greeley by autoist Harold Gray, and from the time the car left the Nellis aviation field until the wash-room of said hotel was reached, Atwood was cheered, shouted at and greeted with yells of admiration and encouragement from lusty thousands. And then (prosaic mortal that he is) he ate a hearty supper heartily! And all the time people, and then more people, were arriving in front of Hotel Greeley, and the big crowd included the old band, and the J. J. Witter Fife, Drum and Bugle Corps. Noise? That isn't quite the word, but it will suffice.

"When the cause of it all felt sufficiently rested and refreshed, he was escorted from the Greeley grill room to Canal Street by Postmaster Scott and was cheered, cheered and then cheered, and then introduced to the crowd, after which came a modest, well-put, brief expression of thanks for the cordial greeting. And then the old band turned loose 'Come Josephine in My Flying Machine.' Rather pat, that old band, eh?

"When he could break away without causing displeasure, Atwood, with others, returned to the Nellis lot, located the biplane carefully for the night, and then came back to Hotel Greeley, where the aviator retired about midnight, after leaving a call for 5.30."

"The Making of an Aviator" was the title of a very interesting paper contributed to the Saturday Evening Post (December 7, 1912) by Harry N. Atwood. In it, under the subheading of "Following the Mohawk" he described his journey, in the air largely over the valley, from Syracuse to Fort Plain, although he does not mention the place or Nelliston by name. This sketch forms one of the most interesting documents of flying yet published and the Mohawk Valley part is here reprinted:

"The great future of the aeroplane — its coming necessity to mankind and its marvelous possibilities — was impressed upon my mind most strongly one night when I was making a leg of my flight between the cities of St. Louis and New York. Owing to the inclemency of the weather I had been obliged to remain upon the ground until late in the afternoon. I was located in a little valley in the hills just outside the suburbs of Syracuse. In accordance with my customary schedule I desired to cover at least a hundred miles more toward my destination. At sunset the disturbing wind elements suddenly died out and I immediately prepared for flight. Ten minutes later and the smoke of the City of Syracuse was fast becoming a speck in the western horizon.

"I shall never forget that beautiful evening. The Mohawk River lay beneath me; but, as it wound in and out between the hills, I would leave its course for a few minutes at a time and pick it up again at another point. Twilight set in and the valley and the river became very indistinct. The tops of the hills and the mountains, however, stood out clearly in the waning light.

"One by one I could make out the lights of the farmhouses, thousands of feet beneath me in the valley; and they seemed to increase in number in exactly the same manner as the stars above me increased in number.

"Finally the Mohawk became shrouded in darkness, and it was only when passing over a lighted village or town that I was able to distinguish anything. I felt as if I were in a dream.

"I gazed into the dark depths and wondered what sensation the mortals down there were experiencing as I roared over their communities! I did not experience any inability to keep my equilibrium, but I did experience a peculiar sense of giddiness, which was probably due to the unusual surroundings. Mile after mile I flew, high over the valley, marveling at the wonders of the situation and forgetting that sooner or later I should be obliged to make a landing. This realization came to me very forcibly when I discovered that it was almost impossible to make out even the tops of the mountains. Then I selected the first hill I came to and began circling round it in long spirals, gradually coming to it closer and closer. Finally discovering an opening among the trees, I dropped into it safely. [At Nelliston, opposite Fort Plain.]

"It seems to me that this experience alone demonstrates very clearly the possibilities and the adaptability of aviation to almost every type of mankind. The only feature about it that can be criticised or questioned is the fact that it is accompanied by considerable danger; but it will not take long for human ingenuity to eliminate this one and only obstacle."

In 1925, the great dirigible balloon, the Shenandoah, passed westward over the Mohawk River, completing the aerial history of the Mohawk Valley up to that year.

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