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Horace Kearney’s Attempted Crossing of Dunn Meadow

Blog by Rod Spaw

In Drawer 3, Unit N of Hallway Storage on the third floor of the Monroe County History Center is a scarred and scuffed piece of bamboo measuring 9 ¼ inches long by 1 ¼ inches in diameter. If not for the paper label glued to it, the hollow tube might be mistaken for scrap from someone’s do-it-yourself project.

Even the label doesn’t provide much context to the artifact. It reads: “From the first airplane that came to Bloomington: Fell near house on Dunn Place.” There’s no date given, but another item in the collection reveals the when.

It’s a postcard showing a truck pulling a fragile looking bi-wing airplane through a dense crowd of people on a Bloomington street. More people can be seen lining the rooftops of nearby commercial buildings. Writing on the postcard identifies the scene as “Our Avery truck towing Curtis (SIC) Biplane on Booster Day, Oct. 11, 1911.” Elsewhere on the card is written “compliments of Bloomington Milling Co.”

MCHC Collection #1980.025.0008

Yet, that still does not begin to tell the whole story. So, it falls to newspapers of the day, particularly the Bloomington Daily Telephone, to relate the tale of Horace Kearney’s attempted crossing of Dunn Meadow on the Indiana University campus in his Curtiss biplane during the pioneering days of aviation.

The occasion, indeed, was “Booster Day,” an annual promotion of local goods and services supported by the Bloomington Commercial Club. Many American communities had commercial clubs, which brought local leaders together to champion civic improvements. Only a few such clubs remain today, notably the Commercial Club of Chicago, which dates to 1872.

Few people in 1911 had seen an airplane in person, and Kearney’s flight was advertised throughout the area in order to draw a large number of potential customers for local businesses. It succeeded, if newspaper descriptions of a “huge crowd” of up to 10,000 people can be believed. Bloomington’s population in the 1910 Census was 8,838; Monroe County’s population was 23,426.

Kearney, originally from Kansas City, had been flying for about two years. In his mid-20s, the young aviator barnstormed the country for the Glenn Curtiss airplane company to demonstrate the capability of powered flight. The commercial club had agreed to pay Kearney $350 to make two flights in Bloomington, the equivalent of about $10,000 today.

Kearney arrived in town on crutches; he had broken his right leg in two places in a crash at St. Louis two months earlier. Still, he was anxious to give the Bloomington crowd a good show, telling a reporter that he hoped to reach a height of 3,000 feet during his first flight. As it turned out, he only made it off the ground between 40 and 75 feet, depending upon which newspaper account one read.

The reports all agreed on one fact: The airplane ran afoul of a barbed wire fence that Kearney had not noticed on his first survey of the field. The aviator later told a reporter that he spied the fence too late, forcing him to bring the airplane up at a sharp angle to clear it. He immediately lost control of the machine, and a wing clipped a tree, causing the airplane to spin and crash to the ground. Kearney was ejected; tree branches broke his fall, and he kerplunked head-first in a creek. The engine of his wrecked airplane landed mere feet from his prone body.

The Daily Telephone writer described the scene:

“The huge crowd in the field had been hard to control from the start, and the flight had been delayed almost an hour to get the rigs off the field and to clear a path for the machine to start. As it was released and rolled down the field the great crowd hardly moved. The aviator’s jump of the fence, his dip into the tree and his fall were watched breathlessly and hardly a person on the field spoke. Then as the aeroplane and man struck the ground, every one – men, women and children – started to run. They crawled through the wire fence with no regards for clothes and fought to get to the machine. The police were almost compelled to resort to the use of clubs to control the crowd.”

An automobile rushed across the field to reach Kearney, who never lost consciousness. He was taken to a doctor’s office, where he was found to be badly bruised but otherwise unhurt. Despite the damage to his airplane, Kearney regretted not delivering a better demonstration. “I cannot tell how much I hate the disappointment that was given the crowd,” Kearney told the Daily Telephone. “They were all wanting a flight, and I wanted to give them a flight that would show just what a ‘bird’ like that was built for.”

Kearney’s flight may have been a bust, but “Booster Day” was declared a huge success, so much so that business leaders talked about bringing Kearney back the next year. The Commercial Club decided to pay the aviator the full $350 he was promised.

Merchants reported increased sales in all areas, and the newspapers noted that “saloons also had a harvest.” In fact, the Daily Telephone reported, “As a result of Booster Day festivities, ten drunks slept in the jail overnight.”

Kearney’s story did not have a happy ending. In mid-December 1912, Kearney set off on a flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco in a hydro-aeroplane, an airplane capable of taking off and landing on water. He never arrived, and his body was pulled from the Pacific Ocean several days later by searchers.