Glenn H. Curtiss, Gar Wood And A Chris-Craft – A Winning Combination In 1918

First Curtiss Jenny at Hammondsport, N. Y. - Air Force Historical Agency Photo

A week ago we decided to write a short story about Glenn H. Curtiss and the development of the famous Curtiss water cooled engines of the early 1900’s. I have to admit that my knowledge about Curtiss and the development of the Curtiss series of engines was limited at best, although I was aware of some his his achievements as a pioneer in the aircraft industry, as well as his early motorcycle speed records. And of course we know that the Curtiss OX-5 V-8 was used by some of the early wooden boat manufacturers such as the Indian Lake Boat Company / Dart Boats in the 1920’s & 30’s.

However, what I didn’t realize (until last week) was just influential Glenn H. Curtiss was, not only as a pioneer in the early days of the aircraft industry, but the history of the man and his accomplishments – it’s truly remarkable. So remarkable in fact, that it’s impossible to even begin to describe his accomplishments in a short story. There is so much information that has already been documented on every aspect of his relatively short life (and over the last 130 years), that my attempts to learn more about Glenn Curtiss resulted in me getting lost on the Internet for hours and hours over the last week, as I learned more. It was almost like reading a good book that you just couldn’t put down.

So finally we thought the best way to keep the Glenn H. Curtiss story as short as possible was to simply publish a list of his accomplishments (thanks to our friends at Wikipedia), add a few links to some of the historical information, and fill in the blanks with a few vintage images.

Glenn Hammond Curtiss (May 21, 1878 – July 23, 1930) was an American aviation pioneer and a founder of the U.S. aircraft industry. At the south end of Lake Keuka, one of New York State’s Finger Lakes, sits the small village of Hammondsport. Settlers moved into the area by the 1790s, in 1829 Lazarus Hammond surveyed the area, and the village itself was incorporated in 1856. The village has long been one of many engaged in New York’s profitable wine-growing industry. These days, the village boasts a population of only a few hundred people. However, the village also can boast that on May 21st, 1878 it was the birthplace of one of aviation’s greatest visionaries, Glenn Hammond Curtiss. (excerpt from The Life and Times of Glenn Hammond Curtiss by David Langley)

He began his career as a bicycle builder, then a motorcycle builder and racer, later also manufacturing engines for airships as early as 1906. In 1908 Curtiss joined the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA), a pioneering research group founded by Alexander Graham Bell at Beinn Bhreagh, Nova Scotia to build flying machines.

In 1907 Curtiss rode the world’s first V-8 powered motorcycle to a land speed record of speed of 136 miles per hour in Ormond Beach, Florida. Having riden the motorcycle faster than even the typical locomotive of the day, he became known as “The Fastest Man on Earth.” That same year in June, he flew over Hammondsport, NY in a Thomas Baldwin dirigible powered by a Curtiss engine. This was the very first time that Curtiss went aloft in any sort of aircraft. After alighting from the craft, he was now so interested in human flight that he soon started planning how to make the dirigible fly faster.

The Village of Hammondsport, NY - Photo Courtesy / Steve Knapp

Curtiss rose to fame by making the first officially witnessed flight in North America, winning a race at the world’s first international air meet in France, and making the first long-distance flight in the United States. His contributions in designing and building aircraft led to the formation of the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company, now part of Curtiss-Wright Corporation. His company built aircraft for the U.S. Army and Navy, and during the years leading up to World War I, his experiments with seaplanes led to advances in naval aviation. Curtiss civil and military aircraft were predominant in the inter-war and World War II eras.

Glenn H. Curtiss Timeline
Courtesy of Wikipedia – (click here for the full story)

– 1878 Birth in Hammondsport, New York
– 1898 Marriage
– 1900 Manufactures Hercules bicycles
– 1901 Motorcycle designer and racer
– 1903 American motorcycle champion
– 1903 Unofficial one-mile motorcycle land speed record 64 mph (103 km/h) on Hercules V8 at Yonkers, New York
– 1904 Thomas Scott Baldwin mounts Curtiss motorcycle engine on a hydrogen-filled dirigible
– 1904 Set 10-mile world speed record
– 1904 Invented handlebar throttle control; handlebar throttle control also credited to the 1867–1969 Roper steam velocipede
– 1905 Created G.H. Curtiss Manufacturing Company, Inc.
– 1906 Curtiss writes the Wright brothers offering them an aeronautical motor
– 1907 Curtiss joins Alexander Graham Bell in experimenting in aircraft
– 1907 Set world motorcycle land speed record of 77.6 mph (124.9 km/h)
– 1907 Set world motorcycle land speed record at 136.36 mph (219.45 km/h) in his V8 motorcycle in Ormond Beach, Florida

Glenn Curtiss Jan 24,1907 Ormand Florida - 136.3 MPH Land Speed Record Day

– 1908 First Army dirigible flight with Curtiss as flight engineer
– 1908 One of several claimants for the first flight of an aircraft controlled by ailerons
– 1908 Lead designer and pilot of “June Bug” on July 4

June Bug 1908 Aerial Experiment Assn Flight, Hammondsport, NY - Wikipedia Image

– 1909 Sale of Curtiss’s “Golden Flyer” to the New York Aeronautic Society for $5,000.00 USD, marks the first sale of any aircraft in the U.S., triggers Wright Brothers lawsuits.
– 1909 Won first international air speed record with 46.5 mph (74.8 km/h) in Rheims, France
– 1909 First U.S. licensed aircraft manufacturer.
– 1909 Established first flying school in United States and exhibition company
– 1910 Long distance flying record of 150 miles (240 km) from Albany, New York to New York City
– 1910 First simulated bombing runs from an aircraft at Lake Keuka, NY
– 1910 First firearm use from aircraft, piloted by Curtiss
– 1910 First radio communication with aircraft in flight in a Curtiss biplane
– 1910 Trained Blanche Stuart Scott, the first American female pilot
– 1910 First successful takeoff from a United States Navy ship (Eugene Burton Ely, using Curtiss Plane)

Ely takes off from the USS Birmingham, Hampton Roads, VA 1910 - Wikipedia Photo

– 1911 First landing on a ship (Eugene Burton Ely, using Curtiss Plane) (2 Months later)
– 1911 Pilot license #1 issued for his “June Bug” flight
– 1911 Ailerons patented
– 1911 Developed first successful pontoon aircraft in U.S.
– 1911 Hydroplane A-1 Triad purchased by U.S. Navy (US Navy’s First aircraft)
– 1911 First dual pilot control in May
– 1911 Developed first retractable landing gear on his Hydroaeroplane
– 1911 His first aircraft sold to U.S. Army on April 27
– 1911 Created first military flying school

Curtiss Aerodrome - Buffalo, NY - Photo Courtesy

– 1912 Developed and flew the first flying boat on Lake Keuka, NY
– 1912 First ship catapult launching on October 12 (Lt. Ellyson)
– 1912 Created the first flying school in Florida at Miami Beach
– 1914 Start production run of “Jennys” and may other models including flying boats
– 1917 Opens “Experimental Airplane Factory” in Garden City, Long Island
– 1919 Curtiss NC-4 flying boat crosses the Atlantic

The Curtiss NC-4 - Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy

– 1919 Commenced private aircraft production with the Oriole
– 1921 Developed Hialeah, Florida including Hialeah Park Race Track

Hialeah Race Track - Hialeah, FLA (circa 1939)

– 1921 Donated his World War I training field to the Navy
– 1923 Developed Miami Springs, Florida and created a flying school and airport
– 1923 (circa) Created first airboats
– 1925 Builds his Miami Springs mansion.
– 1926 Developed Opa-locka, Florida and airport facility
– 1928 Created the Curtiss Aerocar Company in Opa-locka, Florida.
– 1928 Curtiss towed an Aerocar from Miami to New York in 39 hours
– 1930 Death in Buffalo, New York
– 1930 Buried in Pleasant Valley Cemetery in Hammondsport, New York
– 1964 Inducted in the National Aviation Hall of Fame
– 1990 Inducted in the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in the air racing category

Vintage Curtiss Brochures

Throughout his life, Glenn Curtis designed a number of unique flying boats for the US Military. Here’s one of his earlier versions – the Curtiss MF Model, which was powered by a 90HP OX-5 V-8 similar in structural design and power of the JN-4 “Jenny” from around 1918.

Curtiss MF Flying Boat - Image Courtesy USCG Aviation History Archive

In April 2010 this vintage 1917 Curtiss MF Seagull Flying Boat sold at auction in New York to an anonymous phone buyer for a reported 506,000.00 US. When Bonhams New York listed the unique piece, it was estimated to sell at between 300K to 500K.

The Curtiss OX-5 was an early V-8 American liquid-cooled aircraft engine built by Curtiss. It was the first US-designed engine to enter mass production, although it was considered obsolete when it did so in 1917. It nevertheless found widespread use on a number of aircraft, perhaps the most famous being the JN-4 “Jenny”. Some 12,600 units were built through early 1919. The wide availability of the engine in the surplus market made it common until the 1930s, although it was considered unreliable for most of its service life. Today the engine can be found powering many Edwardian automobile racing specials on the historic racing scene.

The OX-5 was the last in a series of Glenn Curtiss designed V engines, which had started as a series of air-cooled V-twins for motorcycles in 1902. A modified version of one of these early designs was sold as an aircraft engine in 1906, and from then on the company’s primary market was aircraft. The basic design had slowly expanded by adding additional cylinders until they reached the V-8 in 1906. They also started enlarging the cylinders as well, but this led to cooling problems that required the introduction of water cooling in 1908. These early engines used a flathead valve arrangement, which eventually gave way to a cross-flow cylinder with overhead valves in 1909, leading to improved volumetric efficiency. The US Navy ordered a version of this basic design in 1912 for its A-1 amphibious aircraft, which Curtiss supplied as the OX. These improvements and others were worked into what became the OX-5, which was first built in 1910. (The above information was originally produced by Wikipedia, to see more on the Curtis OX-5 story and full history click here.)

Curtiss OX-5 Lone Star Flight Museum, Galveston, TX - Wikipedia / Willy Logan Photo

Curtiss OX-5 at Canada Aviation Museum - Image Courtesy lmnop88a

So by now you are probably thinking to yourself, what is the connection to Glenn Curtiss and Gar Wood in 1918 and what does all this have to do with wooden boats.  Good question. 

As the story goes, Gar Wood and Christopher Columbus Smith (of Chris-Craft fame) probably did more to refine the “step” hydroplane concept than anyone else. Wood and Smith collaborated on “MISS DETROIT III” in 1917. They were the first to try a lightweight aircraft engine adapted for marine use in a race boat. The engine in question was a 1650 cubic inch Model V-4 (V-12 Cylinder) Curtiss power plant. (The above is an excerpt from the Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum, you can see the entire Gar Wood racing history on the Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum website by clicking here)

In preparation for the 1918 Gold Cup race, Gar Wood wanted a better, faster boat.  And the competition for the Gold Cup was growing.

He talked to several engineers about putting an aeroplane engine in a boat. Marine engines were heavy. Gar Wood wanted a light fast engine on the old theory of light weight per horsepower. The engineers were skeptical, advised against it. They thought it was the creation of a mad brain.

But Wood was stubborn. “If we want speed,” he said, “we’ve got to cut weight.”

Wood knew that Glen Curtiss, of the Curtiss Engine Company, had been using an aeroplane engine in his Miss Miami, a boat that had traveled fifty-five miles an hour with an air propeller. Curtiss had been given an order by the British Navy during the War to build a twelve-cylinder V-type engine of light weight and high power. He built several of these engines. They were all rejected by the British Navy and Curtiss had sustained a tremendous loss.

Commodore C. D. Cutting, a friend of Glen Curtiss, told Gar Wood he thought he could get one of those engines.

Wood said, “Fine. I’ll buy it if you can.” – Cutting got the engine for Wood. It was shipped to Wood’s plant in Detroit.

Through the entire winter Wood worked on it. Before he finished he had increased the propeller revolutions from 1,650 per minute to 2,000. He also decreased the engine weight from 1,320 pounds to 1,250 pounds. That was four hundred pounds less than the weight of the Sterling engines in his “Miss Detroit II.” Wood, satisfied, told the Smith boys to start work on a new hull.

They climbed into their overalls, rolled tip their sleeves and went to work. They’d done that before, many times. The thing they created was a masterpiece. The “Miss Detroit III” was made out of seven different kinds of wood, the finest speedboat ever shaped by human hands up to that time. It was built to ride entirely out of water from the bow back to the step.  It was powered by the Model V-4 light weight Curtis V-12 cylinder engine.

Gar Wood went on to capture the 1918 Gold Cup with “Miss Detroit III”.  (To see the entire story of Gar Wood’s successful effort to capture the 1918 Gold Cup which was re-printed from “Speedboat Kings” you can click here

Miss Detroit III (foreground), Miss Detroit II & Miss Minneapolis - Mystic Photo Archive

From 2000 to 2005 Mike Michaud from Maine built a beautiful replica of the historic “Miss Detroit III” Chris Smith / Gar Wood 1918 single step hydroplane.  Below are a few photos of the boat which was completed and lauched in the summer of 2005.  You can see the complete story od Mike and the replica project by clicking here, you go to the Vintage Raceboat Shop website.

The “Miss Detroit III” replica then came up for auction at the Warner Collection Auction in 2010.  Long time hyrdoplane driver, team owner and enthusiast Dr. Ken Muskatel purchased the boat at the auction and returned it to the Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum for display purposes.  It was also shown at the 2011 Lake Tahoe Concours d’Elegance with the twin V-6 Chevrolet power that Mike Michaud installed.       

Ken Muskatel is also the Past President of the Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum near Seattle, Washington and continues to support the museum.  Ken’s guidance and contribution to the Museum is immeasurable.

Miss Detroit III Replica - Image Courtesy Vintage Raceboat Shop / Mike Michaud

Miss Detroit III Replica - Image Courtesy Vintage Raceboat Shop / Mike Michaud

Approximately 20 years ago, Ken Muscatel purchased one of the two remaining 1916 Curtiss Model V-4 engines known to exist from an antique car museum.  The only other example known to exist is on display at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in Washington, DC.  With the help of fellow Woody Boater and hydroplane enthusiast Ike Kielgass, Ken is now in the final stages of restoring the ultra rare Curtis V-12 to be installed in the “Miss Detroit III” later this summer. 

The engine restoration work was entrusted to Robert Mishko at Rocky Summit Performance in Tennessee.  Here are a series of very interesting photos of the Curtiss V-4 restoration project from Mishko’s shop. 

Robert Mishko commented when he began the rare Curtiss engine restoration how cool it was to think that he was the first person to open up this motor after almost 100 years had passed.  And from the photo’s it appears to be in great shape for it’s age. 

And here’s what it looks like today, ready for another 100 or so years of service.  A true work of art to an engine guy…

Next step is to install the cylinder sleeves (jugs), valve train and exhaust…

Ike Kielgass was able to also locate a set of ultra rare 1920 Stromberg M-4 carburetors which are correct for a marine application of this vintage.

Vintage 1920 M-4 Stromberg Carburetors

When I spoke to Ike last week he indicated that they were hoping to have the Curtiss V-4 completed later this summer and then get it installed in “Miss Detroit III” in time to water test it later this year.  The boat may be used for some limited demonstrations in conjunction with a few Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum events, and then it will be displayed in the museum for everyone to enjoy and appreciate once again.  You can also click here to visit the awesome Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum website.

Thanks to Dr. Ken Muskatel and Ike Kielgass for sharing this story with us, and we look forward to the day “Miss Detroit III” is completed with the big Curtiss V-12 power and back in the water.  That may require a special bike ride to see and hear the re-launch.

Also, if you are ever in or traveling through the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, plan to stop by the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport, NY. Here’s the link to thier website. Hammondsport, NY / Lake Kauka is where our friend and fellow Woody Boater Mike Mayer (from Lake Oswego Boat Co) is from, and his father – Legendary “Hank the Plank” still resides there at his boat shop.


30 replies
  1. m-fine
    m-fine says:

    If anyone travels to the Fingerlakes region, stop by the Glenn Curtis museum in Hammondsport. His contributions to aviation are way under recognized. The Wright brothers managed a brief virtually uncontrolled hop with the aid of a strong head wind. Curtis was able to take off manuever in flight and then land back where he started, the first true powered flight. Then there is his contribution to motorcycles (grip throttle) boats, and internal combustion motors in general. It is odd that he is not far more well known.

    • don vogt
      don vogt says:

      Thanks for the great curtis story, Texx. Many readers may not realize there is another connection to wooden boating beside the use of the OX 5 in boats (by the way as you know our friend Paul Harrison has one-is there anything he doesnt have?). That is the beautiful woodwork in the cockpits of planes. My grandfather had a Curtis Oriole when they started private production of these in the early 20’s, and the interior would put any wooden boat to shame. There is a reason these were called airships in those days. Many of the early workers in the production of planes, such as in the case of Boeing, were recruited from ship building because of their woodworking skills.

      • Texx
        Texx says:

        Thanks Don. The contribution that Glenn Curtiss made to the aviation industry and to his country is truly remarkable.

        Look closely at that V-12 engine, the oiling system and connecting rods, and realize that was all designed and built long before modern technology, with crude tools and instruments.

  2. matt
    matt says:

    Man that connecting rod shot is so hot.. Who needs Donzi girls..I now know more about Curtiss than I do about my own wife! I am sorry Honey, I forgot your birthday… But did you know that in 1911 Curtiss Developed first successful pontoon aircraft in U.S… Really.. Honey.. honey..

    • m-fine
      m-fine says:

      And then there are wooden flying boats!

      The thing is, the insurance premiums each year make a new 5200 bottom look like a bargain. And that’s before maintenance and operating costs. An amphib flying boat even makes a standard land plane ownership seem cheap (and safe!).

  3. Alex
    Alex says:

    Texx, that was anything but dry. I love reading about extraordinary people like this, regardless of their field(s) of expertise, and their seemingly endless list of world-changing contributions. What this guy did in 1910 alone was so amazing and humbling, it was almost hard to read on. I don’t get as worked up about old, rare, and expensive boats and motors as some people do. But this is different. Curtiss’s achievements are so much more than that. They are pioneering marvels by any measure in any time. Thanks so much for writing this.

  4. Bill
    Bill says:

    very informative story too many of these brilliant people like curtiss contributions are lost to our nations history by our education system. and the fact a lot of the kids today just dont care about these things nikola tesla invented alternating current radio control, the spark plug, x ray the electric induction motor, 700 patents altogether he changed all our lives and ill bet his name is never brought up in school today its a shame

  5. Alex
    Alex says:

    Memo to WoodyBoaters with young kids (say, ages 4-16). Among the wonderful, feature length animated films created by the immensely talented Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki of Studio Ghibli is a 1992 film called Porco Rosso (translation, “Crimson Pig”). The main character of the film is a WWI-era ace fighter pilot, a man with pig-like features owing to a curse. The film is centered around cool vintage seaplanes and the characters who fly them. Porco’s nemesis is a man called Curtis, a name clearly selected because of the contributions to early flight and seaplanes by the very Glenn H. Curtiss in today’s story. Don’t expect anything historically accurate in the film. It’s all good fun. In fact, the Curtis character is an incorrigible egomaniac. But the film has a wonderful story, is visually inspired, is beautifully scored, and carries positive messages about honor. It’s simply delightful.

    Here’s a link to more information about the film. Be sure to read the reviews at the bottom, of which there are many.

    Here’s a link to the Japanese trailer. (BTW, don’t worry, the U.S. distribution of the film comes with the menu choice of watching it dubbed (well done by Disney) or subtitled.)

    And here’s a link to Amazon, where you can order the film.ûichirô-Moriyama/dp/B0001XAPY2

  6. Alex
    Alex says:

    Bill, you’re spot on. Funny you mention Tesla. I, too, was thinking of him when I read about Curtiss. My kids and I watched a biography of Tesla several months back. He was amazing! You mention some of his important patents. The bitter, high-stakes battle he had with Edison over whether the U.S. would be electrified AC (his choice) vs. DC (Edison’s choice) floored me. We all know who won. Can you imagine taking on Edison?

    But did you know about his contribution to radio? While Marconi received the credit, it was Tesla who made radio possible. In fact, in 1943, the Supreme Court overturned Marconi’s patent in favor of Tesla.

    Here are specifics about Tesla’s contribution to radio.

    And here is a Wiki summary of his life.

    Like many of the brightest stars, he walked a fine line between brilliant and insane. Though he lived a long life, he suffered greatly for his overactive mind.

    • MikeM
      MikeM says:

      it’s true, m-fine…I was born MikeM the Plank, but once in grade school the teasing was too much so I shortened it to MikeM.

      NY state wasn’t large enough for the two of us so I moved to the great wine region of Oregon.

      Great story, Texx. I’ve been to the museum several times and have read many books on Curtiss…quite a man.

  7. Ronald
    Ronald says:

    What a great story, My wife and I will be stopping by the museum on the way to Clayton this year. It’s amazing to me that he did so much for aviation but you mostly only hear about the Wright Bros.

  8. Philip Andrew
    Philip Andrew says:

    What a brilliant story!! Thanks. I will forward this to my friend Gene at The Vintage Aviator. He’s going to love it.

  9. John Rothert
    John Rothert says:

    I went to that museum in Hammondsport and it is just fantastic. They have the scale just right…not as overpowering as the Mariners Museum for instance.
    They have actual planes that they work on in there and fly right out back. The displays of original hardware and vehicles is unreal.
    UNREAL is the word for Glenn too. Went 136 MPH on hard pack sand on a V8 motorcycle….he built the engine…and lay prone above it as he became the fastest (and bravest/craziest) man on earth. Chris and Gar was a team and a rivalry….but Glenn Curtiss and the Wright Brothers was the VARSITY GAME.
    John in Va.

    • Texx
      Texx says:

      John – I agree, going 136 MPH in 1907 on wet sand with what was probably an ill-handling motorcycle was quite an accomplishment.

      As a life long motorcyclist and a professional motorcycle roadracer for many years, 136 MPH on pavement with todays well handling motorcycles, with tires designed for these speeds will get your heart racing even today.

      I can only imagine what it must have been like for Glenn H. Curtiss all those years ago…

  10. m-fine
    m-fine says:

    Hang around Hammondsport and the folks at the Curtis museum and this is the type of thing you may see.

    We are truly blessed to live in an area that now only has such a rich history, but also has the people who keep it alive so you can experience it and not just see pictures in a display case. The local scenery is not to bad either, from the air, or from the water. Here is an inside view for a ride over the lake with the same pilot but in a “post war” flyabout.

    The danger of flying these rickety historical aircraft hit home real hard for us back in June 2010 when this pilot, Jim Poel, was seriously injured in a crash of a replica of the 1910 “Albany flyer”. Curtis flew the Albany from Albany NY to NYC, the first true cross country trip by air plane. The museum was going to try to recreate the flight for the 100th anniversary celebration, but the plane crashed during flight testing out of the Penn Yan airport. Jim passed away a little over a year ago, and is missed by many in the Curtis community, the seaplane community, the aviation community, as well as the communities he lived in in western NY and Florida.

  11. Tim
    Tim says:

    I get fascinated in this kinda stuff as well . . .More stories like this please.

    Especially the GearHead photos.

    • Texx
      Texx says:

      Thanks Tim – We are currently working on an update to the original Curtis V-4 restoration story, which we hope to have published in the next few days. Stay tuned – the photos are spectacular!

    NOTTOBAD ORG says:

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  13. Chris
    Chris says:

    I actually talked via email and phone calls with Mr. Muscatel, and some of the guys from Vintage race boat shop, like Mike Michaud and Bill John regarding the engine they had put in Miss Detroit III(R). I have a 1925 step hydro I am looking for a period engine for, or suitable alternative. If you go to the page and look, they put this amazing looking V-12 in it that boggled the mind, due to the lack of apparent valves on the cylinder jugs! Under further scrutiny, you can juuuust see that the engine for the replica was a complete work of art, and amazing illusion. It is 2 v-6 engines mated together with the coolest valve covers I’ve ever seen! It, and the whole page, has been an inspiration for the direction I plan on taking my “Miss Ginger” barn find/hand-me-down. Thanks for covering this, Texx

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