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YESTERDAY WE admired the Rhonie murals at Roosevelt Field (http://wp.me/p2ETap-2GJ). Today, I’ll fill in some of Roosevelt’s history between its 1909 origin and 1951 demise. In between, there’s Glenn Curtiss, Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, Wiley Post and Tazio Nuvolari.
Tazio Nuvolari? (http://wp.me/p2ETap-Hi).
Yes, and Enzo Ferrari too.
In 1909, aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss persuaded the Aeronautical Society of New York to set up operations at Mineola Field, about 20 miles east of Manhattan as the crow (or Curtiss) flies. At the same time, the venue was also variously known as Hempstead Plains Aerodrome and Garden City Aerodrome.
In 1916, the U.S. Army Signal Corps took part of the property and established the Signal Corps Aviation Station, Mineola. Prior to the U.S. entering World War I, the station was used as a National Guard pilot training school.
During WWI, the entire tract was renamed Hazelhurst Field. Just before the end of hostilities, part of this became Roosevelt Field, named in honor of Quentin Roosevelt, Teddy’s son who had been killed in air combat during the war.
In 1919, New York City hotel owner Raymond Orteig offered $25,000 (around $335,000 in today’s dollars) for the first aviator(s) to fly from New York City to Paris or vice versa. For the five years of this initial offering, there were no takers. Orteig reissued the challenge in 1925, by which time aviation technology had progressed, and there was a lot of action involving Roosevelt Field and its environs.
For a while there, the hangars and 5000-ft. clay-packed runway of Roosevelt Field were separate from the adjacent Curtiss Field and another tract called Mitchel Field.
In September 1926, Frenchman René Fonck attempted a New York-Paris flight from Roosevelt’s runway, only to crash his overly laden craft on takeoff. On May 20, 1927, Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis was prepared in a Curtiss Field hangar and then trucked a mile to Roosevelt Field’s long runway for its fuel-heavy takeoff.
Nearly a thousand people saw Lindbergh leave. At Orly Field in Paris, 33 1/2 hours later, 100,000 welcomed him.
On June 29, 1927, less than two months after Lindbergh’s flight, Lieutenant Commander (eventually Rear Admiral) Richard Byrd and his crew had Roosevelt as starting point for their own successful transatlantic flight. Amelia Earhart and Wiley Post used Roosevelt as well on various record-setting endeavors.
The three properties were unified into a single Roosevelt Field in 1929. During the subsequent decade, it became the busiest commercial airfield in the U.S. As noted in Minute Epics of Flight, Roosevelt Field in 1933 was “the starting point of many famous voyages and the terminal of transcontinental flights.”
Part of it also became Roosevelt Raceway, venue for the 1936 and 1937 Vanderbilt Cup auto races. The international Vanderbilt Cup competition had last been run on roads nearby in 1916; this time around, World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker had a hand in its organization and execution.
The race track included the site of Lindbergh’s takeoff, with the rest of the 1936 3.97-mile circuit being twisty and bumpy. U.S. Indy cars competed with Bugattis, ERAs, Maseratis and Scuderia Ferrari’s Alfa Romeos. An amazing 60 entries are listed; 45 qualified for the race, including Tazio Nuvolari who gridded his Alfa Romeo 12C-36 in the middle of the third row.
The Europeans ran away from the Americans, the best placing Indy car finishing sixth, 25 minutes behind winner Nuvolari. There’s a wonderful video of the race near the end of http://goo.gl/a3rVuf. Check out several of Nuvolari’s neat passes.
In 1937, the German Auto Union and Mercedes-Benz teams (with Third Reich support) overwhelmed all contenders. Bernd Rosemeyer and his Auto Union finished first; Englishman Dick Seaman recruited to the Mercedes team was second, only 51 seconds behind after 3 1/2 hours of racing. The best placed American was Indy driver Joel Thorne finishing sixth in an Alfa; the best American car was a Miller-Offy driven by Bill Cummings to seventh.
International racing became particularly political in the late 1930s. There are two decidedly different videos of this German victory, http://goo.gl/FcGtD5, and http://goo.gl/ZT1Poi. Guess which one was produced by an English source and which by a German one.
To complete the Roosevelt Field story, the site is now the Roosevelt Field shopping mall, the ninth largest in the country. At one time, a plaque adjacent to the JCPenny store identified the point where Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis left the ground. The plaque has since been relocated to near the Disney Store. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2014
Thanks, Dennis. Great piece. And when I started at Newsday in 1970, the newspaper plant was on Stewart Avenue, just across from Roosevelt Field. I used to roam the shopping center and commune with the ghosts.