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July 19, 1914: Speed king defies death at fairgrounds

Posted by: Ben Welter under Minnesota History, Minnesota newsmakers Updated: October 3, 2011 - 3:49 PM

 

Radiolab used a 1920s jump-rope rhyme to introduce a recent piece on Lincoln Beachey, “one of the most famous men you’ve never heard of”: 
 
Lincoln Beachey thought it was a dream
To go up to heaven in a flying machine.
The machine broke down, and down he fell.
Instead of going to heaven he went to . . .
Lincoln Beachey thought it was a dream 
Renowned as “the world’s greatest aviator” in the early 20th century, Beachey was a barnstorming stunt pilot who invented many of the daring maneuvers performed at aerial shows today. His feats were seen by millions of people from San Francisco (where he “bombed” a fake battleship) to the White House (which he dive-bombed in another mock attack). More than 200,000 people are said to have witnessed his final flight at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in March 1915. The strain of a new maneuver tore the wings off his monoplane, and the fuselage plunged into San Francisco Bay. Strapped into the cockpit, he drowned before rescuers were able to reach the wreckage.
 
Beachey performed at least four times in the Twin Cities. Here’s an account of his show at the state fairgrounds in July 1914, eight months before his death.

Ace pilot Lincoln Beachey was evidently a snappy dresser.

Twenty Thousand
See Beachey and
Popular Oldfield


Birdman Shares the Honors
with the Perennial
Favorite.
 
All Sorts of Aerial Capers
Cut By the World’s
Greatest.
 
Mammoth Crowd Watches
the Fun and Appears
to Like it.
 
By Joe McDermott.
 
Minneapolis saw Lincoln Beachey take liberties with the law of gravitation and get away with it yesterday at the State Fair grounds.
 
 
  Lincoln Beachey
Twenty thousand were there and every one of the twenty thousand cheered him, perhaps, as no individual has ever before been cheered at the midway enclosure. He looped the loop, he skimmed and skidded, flew upside down and inside out, shut off his engine and dropped like a plummet until folks shut their eyes and feared that the daddy of all the birdmen had finally met his doom. But he didn’t even skin his knuckles and it would seem that the grim old guy with the long galways and the keen scythe will have his hands full catching up to this young bird.
 
Old man gravitation, for these thousands of years a sworn foe of the human race, was kicked in the seat of the pants yesterday as he has not been kicked in many a day.
 
Barney Was There, Too.
 
But Beachey wasn’t all the 20,000 paid their good dough to see. Marching shoulder to shoulder with the aviator in the estimation of the crowd was Barney Oldfield. He was the same old Barney, with the same old cigar and the same old smile and he was just as popular with the crowd as he ever was. A little heavier and a trifle grayer about the temples than on his first visit to the Twin Cities back in the dawn of the auto racing game, he was cheered just as hard and just as often as in the past. Some may call Beachey the headliner of the combination, but from the volume and density of the applause it is safe to go on record that Barney was the co-star, at least, yesterday.
 
The crowd was far larger than anyone expected and that includes Old Bill Pickens, who has been associated with Oldfield before Henry Ford broke into the league. Pickens, the original optimist, figured on a 12,000 crowd. As a result of the conjecture only that number of tickets were taken to the grounds. A long time before the fun was billed to start the management discovered the mistake. Hundreds of automobiles and thousands of pedestrians began their assault on the gates in earnest about 2:30. Ticket sellers, ticket-takers and guards were overwhelmed by the avalanche of and the gates were clogged with perspiring humanity before the management knew what was happening. The clamoring mob at the gates looked as big as ever when it was discovered that every ticket on the grounds had been snapped up by the ravenous speed fans. A limited supply of old State Fair tickets were commandeered and these took care of a section of the crowd. Others unable to secure tickets hurled pieces of silver at the attendants and tramped their triumphant way in over the scrambling ticket choppers.The Beachey-Oldfield combination departed last night with a fair-sized grip full of currency, but it’s safe to say that a few of the boys on the gates fared almost as well, relatively speaking.
 
Came on a Special.
 
Beachey arrived shortly before noon on a special train from Winnipeg and he did not have his machine assembled and ready for aerial climbing until after the scheduled starting time. Barney Oldfield was the first on the program and he received a typical Oldfieldian ovation when he swirled onto the track in his Fiat Cyclone. His first venture was an attack on the Hamline track record, a mark established by himself. The track was heavy with the summer’s dust and a bit treacherous on the turns, but Barney said he thought he could knock the bottom out of his old .49½ performance. He failed but he did skim the mile in an even 50 seconds. That didn’t lower Barney’s whit in the estimation of the crowd and all hands cheered him and his cigar just as hard as though they had done the four-quarters in nothing flat.
 

Barney Oldfield with his trademark cigar.

 

With Barney out of the way, Beachey was announced and the crowd loosened up its wilted collar and prepared for a careful survey of the upper regions. Then the famous machine was wheeled out by a bevy of young men eager to touch the hem of the Beachey garment. Following was the sunburned little rough rider of the sky who has flown around the capitol at Washington; under the suspension bridge at Niagara Falls, who won the New York to Philadelphia air race, who has been farther above the earth than any living American and who has done things in the sky that make most people dizzy to think about. The hero-worshippers in the pilot’s wake started the Gnome motor buzzing near the pole in front of the grandstand and some half-hundred railbirds were chased off the fence by the breeze from the blades and the accompanying dust.

 
And Then He Started.
 
Then they cast off the gang plank or whatever they do aboard aeroplanes, the staccato sputter of the exhaust drowned out all other noises, the machine glided along a hundred yards and then soared with the grace of a swallow above the heads of the crowd.
 
After some straightaway flying to warm up his motor, Beachey opened up and in the argot of baseball, “he had everything.” He cut some 90 degree banked figure eights, he dipped up and down with the ease of a bird, drove the machine with his hands above his head, tore off some aerial tangoing and then swooped down in front of the grandstand and made a precise landing at the finish line. The crowd, which had been held spellbound by his evolutions, broke into cheers. Beachey had been up only five minutes but it seemed fifty.
 
Then there was a burst of smoke, a roar, a zip and Oldfield swept past the grandstand in his 300 horsepower Christie. He was still on the trail of a new track record, the announcer confided. But the engine was not working the way the driver desired and the best he could do was a mile .51.
 
Dropped Like a Rock.
 
Beachey took the stage again with Odfield’s disappearance. He started as though he meant to shatter a few altitude records. After fighting his way up to 3,000 feet, he shut his engine off without warning and began to drop like a rock. According to what we learned in physics, a body drops 15 feet the first second and the square of 16 times two, or some such matter, each succeeding second. It looked as though Beachey traveled all of that fast, but being uncertain as to the exact formula used in determining the velocity, no one in the press box was able to figure out his speed. The veracious press agent says the speed of the falling plane is about 240 miles an hour, and for want of proof it may be better to let it go at that. In his decent, Beachey assumed control of the plane about a thousand feet from the earth and after flying upside down, volplaned to the track. More cheers.
 
The thread of thrills was then taken up by Beachey and Oldfield in their widely heralded race for the “championship of the universe.” After a spectacular dash around the track, with Beachey a few feet above Oldfield’s head like a giant dragon the majority of the distance. Oldfield was declared the winner in .50 2-5.
 

The Minnesota State Fair grandstand in 1915. (Photo courtesy mnhs.org)


Then the Big Show.
 
Then followed the big spectacle of the afternoon – Beachey looping the loop in midair. It was the first time in the history of the northwest that this has been done and the daring bit of aerial legerdemain came as a spectacular climax to the afternoon’s work. He circled around several times before attempting his greatest bit of art. Then he made a sudden little dip, shot straight down, up, and clear around for a perfect loop. Three times he did it before alighting.
 
In his three appearances in the air, Beachey was off the ground for a total of only 17 minutes but it’s a safe guess that the twenty thousand saw more action crowded into those 17 minutes than ever before in their lives.
 
There are people in Minneapolis who say they were held up 25 cents apiece extra to get into the grandstand, in the face of advertisements to the contrary. There are others who say they were charged 25 cents for the privilege of parking their automobiles in the paddock. And there are still others who were caught in the rush for street cars after the show and were late to dinner. But nobody has come forward who wouldn’t do the same thing or go through the same rush again, rather than miss the performance.
 

Two months later, Beachey and Oldfield were back in Minnesota for another performance at the fairgrounds. This ad -- at least, I'm pretty sure it's an ad -- appeared in the Minneapolis Tribune.

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