The Fastest Man Alive: the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum

4 Mar

If he hadn’t been seduced by speed the history of motorcycling would read differently. He was known as the “the fastest man alive,” but that just wasn’t fast enough and so he took to the skies. If not already known as “the father of naval aviation” Glenn H. Curtiss would be proclaimed as America’s motorcycle pioneer.

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The “H” stands for Hammond, after Hammondsport, the town where he was born and that’s where I’m headed. This is the New York Finger Lakes Region and one of my favorite motorcycle-touring destinations. Located in the western part of the state are eleven long, narrow, glacially gouged lakes spaced like a hand reaching south from the Great Lakes Lowlands to the edge of the Appalachian Mountains. It’s a bucolic landscape that, in the humid haze of mid-summer, often takes on the characteristics of Impressionist watercolors. It’s a part of the world seemingly designed for motorcycle touring.

Securely nestled against the northern edge of the Appalachian Mountains, Keuka Lake is one of the hidden gems of the Finger Lakes. Shaped like the letter Y, the northern end of the lake around Penn Yan is noted for its Amish farms and Mennonite restaurants. The V shape at the northern end of the lake is known as Bluff Point and a short detour down Skyline Drive and back up on either East- or West Bluff Drive is time well spent. I happen to prefer Route 54A on the west side to that of 54 on the east, but it’s more a matter of mood than anything else. Any approach to Hammondsport, which is located at the very base of the Y, turns out to be a winner.

Glenn Curtiss was a champion bicycle racer who decided to fix a Bolton De Dion engine to a bicycle frame to create a “pacer.”  Not satisfied with the results he designed his own proprietary engine and had it produced in John Kirkham’s engineering shop in Bath. His 2 1/2-hp engines utilized ball bearings on the crankshaft (roller bearings after 1903) and were the most powerful motorcycle engines being produced during these pioneering years. On Labor Day in 1902 he burst onto the scene, racing his motorcycles to win 2nd and 3rd place finishes. The following May Day he showed up at the first hillclimbing event promoted by the New York Motorcycle Club on a V-twin motorcycle—the very first V-twin–that put out an astonishing 5 hp and blew away all competition. As both a rider and an inventive motorcycle designer, Glenn Curtiss was a force to be reckoned with as he accumulated one record after another in all classes of motorcycle competition.

Curtiss motorcycles were the fastest things on two wheels, but he kept designing larger and more powerful engines. It was a Curtiss V-twin that powered the first successful dirigible flight in the United States in 1904. By 1906 almost all of the dirigibles flying in the United States were powered by Curtiss engines, and it was an experimental V-8 aircraft engine that Glenn Curtiss fitted to a modified motorcycle frame and wheeled onto the wet sand at Ormand Beach, Florida on January 24, 1907. Timed by members of the Scientific American, he was clocked at 136.3 mph before the spindly driveshaft broke. He became known as “the fastest man alive” and would hold the motorcycle land-speed record until 1930.

The original motorcycle resides in the Smithsonian Institution, but an exact replica—down to the broken driveshaft—can be viewed at the museum in Hammondsport along with original and restored Curtiss machines. The only surviving example of J.N. William’s experimental three-cylinder, rear-hub mounted rotary engine motorcycles—Clady’s Model—is displayed alongside a 1907 Couch, 1910 Shaw, and 1905 Nelk. There’s a 1917 Henderson, a 1922 Evans, a Ner-A-Car made in Buffalo in 1924, a 1930 Harley-Davidson hillclimber, and a 1936 Indian with sidecar. It gets even more interesting as one moves beyond motorcycles to aviation.

One fragile wing of the June Bug II hangs over the motorcycles. This is an exact replica of the historic aircraft that made the world’s first publicly announced airplane on July 4, 1908 from the field where the museum now stands. It’s hard to imagine anyone would dare pilot such a flimsy craft. The original made history by flying a distance of 5.090 feet across Pleasant Valley, but in 1978 this replica was flown over ten miles before being placed on exhibit.

There are other replica, restored, and original Curtiss planes displayed on the museum’s hanger floor including a 1911 A-1 “Triad” seaplane, a 1912 Curtiss “Headless” Pusher, and 1914 America Flying Boat. The famous WWI Curtiss J-1 and JN-4D “Jenny” are exhibited alongside a 3/4-scale replica of a P-40E “Warhawk”—the planes flown by the famous “Flying Tigers” squadron. The largest artifact in the collection is a Curtiss C-46 Commando, which sits outside marking the entrance to the museum.

One special aspect of this museum is that even the replica planes have been flown. One section of the building houses a restoration workshop, although some projects are not restoration work at all, but the building of replica planes from the ground up. The arcane skills and knowledge that’s required to build a fabric-covered, wooden-frame airplane fitted with a primitive engine that can actually be flown makes this one of a handful of important aviation museums in the country.

There are dozens of engines on display, including an original 4-cylinder dirigible engine from 1906 and a Pratt & Whitney R-4360 Wasp Major, the largest reciprocating-piston engine ever produced (eight were used on the Howard Hughes’ famous Spruce Goose). There’s a Curtiss Model S 6-cylinder in line (1912), a Liberty V-12 (1918), and a Lawrence A3 opposed twin (think 1917 Indian Model O and BMW boxer). The 28-HP straight-four Henderson engine represents another motorcycle company than ventured into aviation. In 1914 the Curtiss company produced the V2C10, a 200-hp V-8 engine!  Considering that motorcycle race engines of this era topped out around 12-hp and aircraft engines around 90-hp this represents quite a technological advance.

The museum also features bicycles, the history of women aviators, a sweet collection of boats, and artifacts from his years in Florida developing the towns of Opa-Locka, Miami Springs, and Hialeah. Glenn Curtiss even turns out to be one of the original developers of the travel trailer (Aerocar).

Sitting on the veranda of Chateau Frank with a glass of Reisling and gazing down at the blue waters of Keuka Lake I contemplate what it must have been like during the first decade of the 20th century when this idyllic location produced motorcycles, dirigibles, and primitive flying machines. A few miles away are two more aviation collections: The National Warplane Museum and The National Soaring Museum. Elmira is known as the soaring capital of the U.S. and this is where the largest collection of gliders in the world is to be found. It sounds like the perfect destination for tomorrow and all I have to do is decide which choice motorcycling roads to take. Meanwhile, an array of award-winning wines has been set out for me to taste and I now must concentrate on the job at hand.

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One Response to “The Fastest Man Alive: the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum”

  1. twotiretirade March 5, 2012 at 4:18 am #

    I have been through Hammondsport many of times but never knew the history behind it. Thank you for bringing this information to light. Very cool

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