Historicist: The Sky’s the Limit
The 1910 aviation meet and Count Jacques de Lesseps’ flight over Toronto.
“In the sight of the people of Toronto the dream of one thousand years came true last night,” wrote the Toronto Telegram on July 14, 1910. “Rising from the crowd like a creature of life and being, a monoplane circled above over the heads of the crowd, then departed southward and westward, sailing away like some fabled bird born on the wings of the wind.” The event prompting such rhetoric was the successful flight over downtown Toronto executed by Jacques de Lesseps, a French aviator participating in the Toronto aviation meet. “Toronto [has] seen the first great flight,” continued the Telegram, “the beginning of many others that shall annihilate our mighty distance and make the man of our city a neighbour with his brother on the wave-washed shores of the Pacific.”
The meet took place in July 1910, seven year years after Wilbur and Orville Wright had managed their first successful (if brief) aeroplane flight near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. In the latter years of the 1900s, daring aviation pioneers made headlines across the world, experimenting with new aircraft, and making many more flights, some more successful than others. Torontonians’ first real opportunity to see the novelty of powered flight came in 1909, when Charles F. Willard provided demonstrations at Scarboro Beach Park. By some standards, Willard’s flights had been of limited success; although he managed to get his Curtiss “Golden Flyer” into the air on three occasions, each of his flights ended with uneasy landings in Lake Ontario.
In the summer of 1910, Canada’s first aviation meet took place near Montreal, organized by the Automobile and Aero Club of Canada. Though not financially profitable, the event attracted considerable public interest, with demonstrations and competitions featuring experienced pilots, most already famous for their flying exploits in other parts of the world.
One week after the end of the Montreal meet, a second week-long event was held in Toronto, organized in part by the Ontario Motor League, featuring many of the same pilots and aeroplanes. The site chosen for the Toronto meet was owned by the Trethewey family, and was a functioning farm near Weston, just southeast of Jane and Lawrence. The Globe reported that finding a suitable Toronto venue had proven a challenge for the organizers, as the site needed to be large and open, but also conveniently located along transportation lines, so that the planes and spectators could easily access the airfield. The Globe noted that “the Trethewey farm was thought of after [the thought of using] practically all open places in the city had been abandoned for some reason or other.”
(Above: Directions to the Trethewey property. The Toronto Telegram, July 8, 1910.)
In addition to clearing a runway in a pea field, the organizers needed to make considerable space for the storage of aeroplanes. Other purpose-built amenities included a grandstand capable of seating 6,000, and a special restaurant, where “supper a la carte” was served for the spectators. Frequent train service was offered not only to get visitors directly to the airfield, but also to get mechanics and their parts to and from the city for necessary daily repairs. For those privileged to own motor cars, additional space on the Trethewey property was made into a parking lot, and the Globe reported that “the Weston road will be oiled, if the necessary permission can be obtained, so as to render the trip pleasant to automobilists.”
The relative novelty of aeroplanes meant that all the participating pilots had taken up aviation quite recently. Ralph Johnstone, Walter Brookins, and Duval LaChapelle were amongst several who came on behalf of the Wright brothers, who had assembled and trained their own, touring exhibition flying team earlier in the year. Others at the meet included Gardner Hubbard, described in the Globe as “a wealthy millionaire of Boston, [who] will bring a machine built by the McCurdy-Baldwin people of Baddeck, Nova Scotia,” and Cromwell Dixon, a 17-year-old pilot billed as the “boy aviator,” who told the Star that he had been flying since he built his first dirigible balloon at age 13, but who had only first flown a monoplane at Montreal the week before.
The most prominent aviator, however, was Count Jacques de Lesseps, the son of notable French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps. Jacques de Lesseps had made headlines earlier in the year when he made the second successful flight over the English Channel in “Le Scarabée,” a monoplane constructed by French aviator and engineer Louis Blériot. De Lesseps had also made a name for himself at the Montreal aviation meet, when he had become the first to fly directly over a Canadian city. From the moment the Toronto meet was announced, the Toronto press gave de Lesseps considerably more coverage than the other aviators. One Globe article described him as “a tall, slender man with a face slightly aquiline in outline, but with a gentle, dreamy quality that, after one thinks of it, really fits in with one’s ideas as to what the pioneers in aviation should be.”
After a day’s delay—many of the aeroplanes had sustained damage during the rail trip from Montreal—it was de Lesseps who made the first flight at the Trethewey farm on July 8, 1910. According to the Globe, de Lesseps’ Blériot monoplane “rose into the air at 7:23 o’clock like a large bird with graceful white wings outspread, and circled three times around the course in five minutes before finally alighting to receive the plaudits of the spectators.”
Over the next few days, the aviators got a feel for the Trethewey runway, attempting a variety of short flights, mostly in the evening when the conditions were deemed best (and when working Torontonians could find time to travel to the airfield). Amongst those who attended were mayor George Geary and Lieutenant-Governor John Morison Gibson; several Toronto newspapers reported on the meet as a society event, listing the well-to-do in attendance.
Also in attendance were representatives of the Royal Canadian Engineers, who were interested in the potential of using aeroplanes in wartime situations. On Monday, July 11, after the pilots had developed a better sense of the local flying conditions and were able to achieve greater heights, the Wright company had Ralph Johnstone drop a “bomb” from his biplane. Johnstone’s bomb was actually a ginger ale bottle, and its impact was punctuated on the ground by an explosion triggered by an electric battery, to simulate a real bomb’s impact. Other, land-based military-themed demonstrations served as entertainment in between flights. Later in the meet, the Royal Canadian Engineers and some local boy scouts staged a mock battle at a simulated fort, described by the Telegram as representing “the war of the future,” with firecrackers and small mines used to simulate shell fire. The Telegram reported that even more elaborate military demonstrations had been planned, but that “the aviation committee have decided to eliminate most of the proposed engineering features and constructions on account of the danger to both the public and the aviators.”
Later on July 11, after Johnstone achieved a height around 900 feet, de Lesseps responded by flying to a height estimated by some to be as high as 1,500 feet, and then swooped down quickly before straightening out, to the spectators’ delight. The press saw this as the beginning of a friendly rivalry between the two aviators, as the two took turns attempting various awe-inspiring demonstrations. Johnstone provided what the Globe described the next day as “the most amazing exhibition of aeronautical skill yet given in Toronto.” In the air for 18 minutes, the longest flight of the evening, Johnstone executed a series of swoops, corkscrew descents, and other manoeuvres which “seemed to spectators a most reckless sporting with life and death,” and which “looked more like the graceful progress of a giant porpoise at play than anything else.”
Not all the flights during the course of the meet were successful, however. On July 12, John G. Stratton had considerable difficulty with his Blériot monoplane. After failing to get airborne on multiple attempts, he finally managed to get it up to 30 feet, at which point he encountered problems with his rudder. In the words of the Globe, Stratton “managed to avoid two trees but came crash into a third, smashing the rudder, breaking a wing, separating the body of the machine, and nearly breaking his arm. He stayed up in the pine tree with his machine about twenty feet above the ground, badly shaken up, although he was walking around in the evening.” “That is my third time now and I don’t seem to mind it,” Stratton told the Star. “I had a smash-up once in France, and once in the States.”
The climax of the week came on the evening of July 13. Count de Lesseps took his monoplane up and, after making three passes through his course around the Trethewey farm, got up to an estimated 3,000 feet. He then set off in a southeast direction, toward downtown Toronto. As he reached the lake, spectators could reportedly just make him out changing course, flying east along the shore until he passed Spadina Avenue, at which point he turned back for the farm. If those in Toronto had been oblivious to what was going on at the airfield, they weren’t anymore.
“People came hurrying from all directions and necks were craned as long as Count de Lesseps and La Scarabée remained in sight,” wrote the Telegram. “All the [streetcars] stopped, and motormen and conductors and passengers ran out into the streets to see the birdman,” reported the Star. “One old man, who had nearly fallen in his hurry to see the aeroplane, exclaimed: ‘Little did I think that before I died I would see a man fly over the city. I remember the time when I laughed at the idea that a carriage could go without horses.'”
(Left: Map showing the approximate route taken by de Lesseps. The Toronto Star, July 14, 1910.)
By the time de Lesseps had turned back it was nearly 8:30 and his own mechanics, concerned that he would be unable to find the airfield in the coming dusk, lit a drum of gasoline on fire as a visual aid. Flying at a speed estimated at 70 miles an hour, de Lesseps found his way on his own, and landed to rapturous applause. “Immediately he was surrounded by enthusiastic friends,” wrote the Globe, “who wrapped him in the tri-colour and raised him on their shoulders, carrying him before the grandstand, where three cheers and a tiger were given with a will several times over before, breaking away, he made his way to his tent.”
Fellow aviator Walter Brookins noted the next day that de Lesseps had been smart in conducting his flight over the city at such a high altitude. If anything had gone wrong with the engine, Brookins explained, he would have been able to glide clear of the city to find a safe place to land, as had happened to Brookins himself at an earlier meet near Atlantic City. “There is no pleasure in it at all,” he told the Star. “You are so high that you cannot tell how fast you are going; it is very cold; the atmosphere is so rare that it is very uncomfortable, and altogether no one would do it very often for fun.”
Williams Trethewey, the owner of the farm, personally presented de Lesseps with a cheque for $500 in recognition of his achievement, and noted that the risk in such a flight had been considerable, but certainly worth it. “I consider that flight the big thing that we have had in Canada in connection with aerial navigation,” he told the Star.
The Telegram hailed de Lesseps’ flight as “the greatest sight of the twentieth century in Toronto…The whirr and call of the revolving fans beat a tattoo upon the bewildered brains of the mere humans who, with their fathers, had waited from Abraham’s day until now to see this thing come to pass.” Flights continued at the airfield until the 16th, but it was clear that it was de Lesseps’ flight over the city which had resonated most with Torontonians, and awakened them to the reality of a future with powered flight.
P.W. Sothman, chief engineer of the Hydro-Electric Power Commission of Ontario, told the Globe that he would “sooner take his chances in an aeroplane than in a machine [automobile] on the ground,” as collisions were far less likely in the air than in an automobile. “Of course, if I drop from the sky, I am a pancake, but if I crash into a telegraph pole, I may linger forty days in a hospital before dying anyway.”
Although the pilots at Trethewey farm managed a fatality-free meet in 1910, aviation remained an extremely dangerous activity. During the summer of 1910, the newspapers reported on dozens of fatal crashes around the world. Cromwell Dixon, the “boy aviator,” died in a crash in Spokane, Washington, the following year. Ralph Johnstone, whose demonstrations had so impressed the Globe, did not even make it through 1910, dying in a crash in Denver that November.
Count Jacques de Lesseps remained a favourite of the Toronto society pages in the months after his historic flight. The editor of the Globe‘s women’s page gushed at de Lesseps’ feats and evident charm, noting that “to achieve any success in aviation nowadays is sufficient to transform the merest mortal into a social lion, whom every hostess stalks with determination, and every woman worships with undisguised admiration.” While in Toronto for the July aviation meet, de Lesseps had been invited to the home of Canadian Northern Railway president William Mackenzie, where he met Mackenzie’s family; in January of the following year, the Toronto society pages gave considerable attention to the wedding of de Lesseps and Mackenzie’s daughter, Grace.
Following the wedding, the press reported that de Lesseps had announced his intention to give up flying, but he soon took to the skies again. After service in the First World War, he took up commercial flying and aerial photography. In October 1927, while taking photographs of the Gaspé Peninsula, he and his co-pilot, Theodor Chichenko, disappeared; partial wreckage of their plane was found a few days later, and de Lesseps’ body washed ashore in Newfoundland that December. A monument to honour both de Lesseps and Chichenko was erected in Gaspé in 1932.
Additional material from: The Globe (September 3, September 8, 1909; July 1, July 2, July 4, July 5, July 6, July 7, July 8, July 9, July 11, July 12, July 13, July 14, July 15, July 16, July 18, July 19, July 21, 1910; January 26, 1911); Toronto Star (July 4, July 5, July 6, July 7, July 8, July 9, July 11, July 12, July 14, July 18, 1910); Toronto Historical Association, A Glimpse of Toronto’s History: Opportunities For The Commemoration Of Lost Historic Sites (City Planning Division, Urban Development Services, City of Toronto, 2001); The Toronto Telegram (July 4, July 7, July 8, July 9, July 12, July 14, July 15, 1910).
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