The Vin Fiz visits Elmira

by Diane Janowski
©Copyright 1999-2013. All rights reserved.

The Vin Fiz leaving Sheepshead Bay, September 17, 1911. Image courtesy of the author.

On September 11, 1911, the Elmira Star-Gazette reported that:

"C. F Rodgers, the young aviator backed by Ogden Armour [of hot dog fame], will pass over Elmira the lost of this week on his record breaking aeroplane flight from New York to Chicago. If things go right, Rodgers should reach this city the second or third day out of New York. In all probability he will make a stop in Elmira, whether or not he spends the night here.”

"Vin Fiz" was the name of a new grape-flavored soft drink that sold for a nickel and was hailed by the Vin Fiz company [a division of the Armour Company of Chicago, Illinois] as "refreshing and invigorating." The new product, however, presented one large marketing problem – it tasted terrible. The company knowing that it needed a very special strategy if they were to sell their product came up with a novel idea to boost its popularity. The marketing team chose an aviation stunt to promote their soda pop. The Vin Fiz people decided that a good way to spread the word of their product was to endorse and financially support an aviator in this endeavor.

About eleven months earlier, publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst offered $50,000 to the fastest aviator to cross the country coast-to-coast within thirty days. With Hearst's contest, Vin Fiz had its gimmick. Early in this contest, several aviators tried, but the task proved too difficult. Even nine years after the Wright brothers first successfully flew, airplanes were still considered impractical and were reserved for novelty flights at county fairs and flying exhibitions. These airplanes flew at levels lower than the tops of our hills, had no radios, could only fly in good weather, and broke down on almost every flight.

In September 1911, three aviators said that they were ready to try. Hearst set no specific route - just to fly from ocean to ocean. Pilot Robert Fowler intended fly from California to New York, while pilots Jimmy Ward and Vin Fiz's Calbraith Perry Rodgers were to Fly from New York to California. Fowler took off in California on September 11. Ward left Governor's Island, New York on September 13, and Rodgers left Sheepshead Bay, New York on September 17. His aircraft was decorated with the Vin Fiz trademark and, in addition to the prize money, should he win it, Rodgers was to receive $5 from Armour for every mile flown with his aircraft so lettered.

Robert Fowler crashed on his first day in the California mountains, but he vowed to continue. After a week of crashes, he finally became utterly discouraged and quit the challenge. Meanwhile. Jimmy Ward planned to follow the Erie Railroad line through New York, but at Jersey City, New Jersey, got confused and started following the Lehigh Valley Railroad line. When he realized his mistake, he retraced his route to Jersey City and found the correct railroad line and headed toward Middletown, New York where 6,000 fans were waiting. On his second day, the wire service out of Port Jervis, New York reported, "Never before in the history of Neversink and the Delaware River Valley has any single event caused as much excitement and interest as the flight of Aviator Ward, who is bound from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast." At this point, the weather turned bad and he was stuck in Callicoon for two days, missing his “fly over" at the fair at Owego, New York. On the fourth day, Ward was seen over Binghamton at 2:45 PM, but soon developed mechanical difficulties and landed at Owego. When he left Owego on the fifth day, someone was supposed to telephone Elmira to say that he was coming, but before the call was made, Ward was already here. A few people reported seeing him fly over Elmira at 11:15AM, and shortly thereafter his bearings burned out and he was forced to land on Rose Hill in Corning. Repairs took almost three days. On the eighth day, he took off, but soon crashed in farmer Benjamin Lynch's cornfield near Addison. Farmer Lynch threatened to sue for his damaged corn, but changed his mind the next day. Ward claimed he had a "jinx" on his plane. Ward eventually had to abandon the challenge because his funds ran out.

Thirty-two year old Calbraith Perry Rodgers (1879- 1912) had less than sixty hours of flying experience when he left New York in a Wright brothers’ type EX spruce, wire, and fabric bi-plane with a 35 horsepower, 4-cylinder engine. "Cal's" plane followed a special train that was operated by the Vin Fiz Company. The passenger car, with its top painted white, served as his beacon. Rodgers' wife, Mabel, his cousin, Lt. John Rodgers, Crew Chief Charles Taylor and other members of the crew occupied the other cars. The special car was dubbed the "white hangar" and provided a first aid center and machine shop with spare parts and tools. Rumor suggested a coffin too, "just in case."

Chemung County Historical Society volunteer Joyce Van Curen's grandmother lived in Middletown. New York and she was "visited" by Rodgers when, on his takeoff from Middletown, he crashed into her chicken coop killing her chickens. Joyce's grandmother had never seen an airplane and she was mad. "She went out and gave him the devil." That crash put Cal’s plane out of commission for three days.

Spotters on the Lake Street bridge in Elmira first saw the Vin Fiz after 5:00 PM on September 22. At first he was just a speck in the southern sky, but as he neared, he was flying so low that the words "Vin Fiz' were clearly readable.

When Rodgers got to Elmira, he flew over the city looking for the Chemung County fairgrounds. He saw nothing that looked like it, and doubled back. He saw his train near the Elmira Bridge Works (between Miller and Home Streets). It had been sideswiped by a freight train, but sustained no serious damage. In an effort to get to his train, he landed in the first field that he came to - farmer Edmund Miller's open meadow (now McNaught Field near Miller s Pond) at 5:55 PM. Both the Star-Gazette and the Elmira Advertiser said that his landing was "graceful.” Youngster Lucy Leverich, whose home on Maple Avenue was across the street, was one of the first to run and greet the aviator. Rodgers was then taken "to the city" in an automobile to the Hotel Rathbun where his crew had gathered.

The airplane was roped off for the night. The next morning, spectators began gathering early, and by 8:30 AM the meadow "looked like a county fair." After making some minor repairs, several thousand Elmirans watched Rodgers leave the Southside at 2:15 PM.

Rodgers continued his journey through New York State, west to Illinois, south to Texas, and finally west toward California. Eventually weather and machinery failure cost him any hope of winning the prize. He was in Oklahoma when the prize date expired, but he continued to on to fulfill his contract with the sponsor. Rodgers had his share of problems, in Texas where he admitted he had spent more time on the ground than in the air. He said, "I'm the only aviator on earth who had a tire punctured by cactus spine.”

The Vin Fiz was the first airplane ever seen in many of his stops or crashes. Elmira was slightly more sophisticated than the rest of the country because two months earlier the city witnessed Lincoln Beachey's bi-plane. In Austin, Texas, 3,000 spectators came out to see their first airplane. On October 17, 1911, the Vin Fiz became the first airplane to be seen in Denison, Texas. Rodgers landed in a field near Denison to refuel his plane after dropping little pink leaflets advertising Vin Fiz. He then lost his way and went nearly to Wichita Falls before he corrected his direction and headed for Fort Worth. He did go on to finish his contract with Armour and became the first man to fly across the continent. Cal Rodgers utilized forty-nine days to travel 3,350 miles. He made sixty- nine stops and crash-landed nineteen times, and the Vin Fiz had to be rebuilt four times. He ended the first transcontinental flight by landing in Tournament Park (now on the Cal Tech campus) in Pasadena, California.

Even though Cal made it to California, he felt his journey was not complete until the Vin Fiz actually touched the Pacific Ocean. On November 12 he left Long Beach, but was forced to land. On December 10 he tried and succeeded by landing on the beach and taxiing into the water.

A few months later, Rodgers was "chasing sea gulls" when one bird became caught in the rudder wire, and while trying to extricate the bird, the wire broke and the plane crashed into the Pacific Ocean killing Rodgers. In 1934 the rebuilt Vin Fiz joined the collection of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.

Calbraith Perry Rodgers was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1964.

Sources:

Elmira Advertiser. September l l-30, 1911
Elmira Star-Gazette, September 11-30,1911
http://caltech.edu/matchi/pasadena.html
http://nasm.edu/nasm/aero/aircraft/wroghtex.htm
Personal interview, Joyce Van Curen, December 1999.

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