Times Herald Record August 23, 1995
An Historic flight of fancy at Orange Lake
by Bo Gill – Times Herald Record August 23, 1995
They came by trolley, horse, and carriage, boat, train, automobile and on foot to Orange Lake Park on Memorial Day, 1911. They stood in line to witness two spectacular and thrilling flights of a monoplane piloted by the famous birdman, St. Croix Johnstone, a daring blond-haired Chicago aviator.
More than 15,000 people battled their way to see for the first time in the history of the mid-Hudson a machine successfully fly through the air.
The exodus from the City of Newburgh began at 9 a.m. and continued until the exhibitions at 2 and 4:45 p.m.
The Orange Lake Traction Co. was forced to run trolley service at frequent intervals to accommodate visitors.
Ferry boats, operating on a 10 minute schedule, transported people from Dutchess County who struggled to find space on the trolleys.
The West Shore Railroad brought packed passenger trains from the north and south to Newburgh.
The Central Hudson River Steamboat Company’s William F. Romer brought more than 400 passengers from Kingston and Poughkeepsie to the Fourth Street dock in Newburgh.
Soon afterwards, a pair of 100 foot long steamers, the Frolic of Croton and the Juliette of Ossining , added 200 more to the throng seeking transportation to Orange Lake.
At 1:30pm the steamer Benjamin B. Odell of the Central Hudson Line docked with more than 2,400 people from New York City and Yonkers.
It seemed as if the crowd would never find a way to Orange Lake. The trolleys did not go to their north side switch in Newburgh in order to speed up the service from the riverfront.
Many people walked up to Broadway to seek rides in automobiles.
Long lines of automobiles stretched the entire length of all the roads leading into and out of Orange Lake.
Police, however, were able to keep the crowd under control as flight time neared.
At 2 p.m., the monoplane was rolled to the starting point on a dirt track opposite the Aetna Boat House. While French mechanic Robert Mercier hurriedly inspected the machine, Johnstone, attired in aviator’s clothes, gave his approval for the flight.
He climbed in behind the motor of the monoplane, and with a few twists of the propeller, the engine hummed.
As the speed of the motor increased, he signaled to the three men who were holding the machine to let him go for the takeoff.
More than 30,000 eyes looked to the sky as as a bewildered crowd saw the monoplane move along on the ground on its bicycle wheels and gradually soar above the ground like a big bird.
As the plane climbed into the air, the crowd yelled with delight, “She’s off!”
They could hardly believe that a man heavier than a bird was flying through space.
Their muscles grew tighter, and their blood circulated faster all the while being fearful of drawing a breath as Johnstone piloted the plane upward.
It brought a startling sensation to all as Johnstone maneuvered the monoplane northeast toward Newburgh, back to the lake where he circled it and then flew north again.
As he moved toward the track, the plane began to glide downward.
The throng exclaimed, “He’s going to land!”
But the aircraft began to rise again and soared around the lake. Johnstone then guided the plane into a perfect landing; the hum of the engine became quiet, and the propeller slowed up.
As the plane hit the race track, willing hands rushed to seize it, slowing the plane until it was at a standstill.
Bedlam broke out as spectators rushed to Johnstone. Crowd control was lost.
Johnstone handled the situation well and said he would make another flight.
He covered 13 miles in 14 minutes on the first trip. The flight brought home the fact that what had not been possible was now taking place. It was no longer a myth but a reality.
Spectators were in awe of the control that Johnstone held over the monoplane as he landed within 15 feet of where he had taken off.
The second flight, covered 15 miles and taking 16 minutes, had a far more different ending.
Encountering strong air currents, Johnstone was forced to seek a landing spot after taking off at 5:45p.m.
He selected a field owned by Gilbert Quick on the road leading from Orange Lake to Coldenham. He successfully landed, but conditions were not good for a takeoff.
Battling what he considered to be a 25 to 1 chance, Johnstone gunned his plane but, it failed to lift off as it raced along the ground, cutting a wide swath in the corn field.
Johnstone agreed to pay Quick for the loss of the corn.
The plane was towed from the cornfield back to Orange Lake.
Slight damage to one of the plane’s elevators was repaired, and Johnstone was ready for two more flights on Sunday.
He said the area was not conducive to flying, however.
“It is full of hills and valleys, and as soon as the airship passes over a low piece of land, you encounter a choppy wind that tends to draw the machine toward the ground. He said the treacherous wind made it necessary for a pilot to find an immediate landing area.
He experienced this more than 40 years before “Wings of West Point” began to train Cadets at Stewart Field. Tricky wind currents eventually terminated the Stewart Field training.
Johnstone and his wife were the house guests of Mr. and Mrs. Bryant Odell at their Orange Lake cottage.
They dined at the Palatine Hotel on Friday and Saturday nights.
During the two days, amazingly, there were no accidents, injuries or arrests.
Concession stands experienced their greatest business, as the crowd spent both days watching the exhibitions that were presented for free.
Not only was it the greatest day for the Orange County Traction Co. and the Orange Lake Amusement Park, it was a day that saw aviation history made in the Town of Newburgh.
|Webmasters note: I am still researching this story. While the year is almost assuredly correct I don’t think the date is accurate.
Later that summer Johnstone set an American record for Greatest Distance by an Aviator Alone in Mineola, N. Y., on July 27, Moisant (Bleriot Type) Machine, 176.23 miles
Sadly Johnstone died barely three weeks later when he crashed into Lake Michigan during the 1911 Chicago International Aviation Meet on August 15th.