Harriet Quimby Collection
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Harriet Quimby Collection

Harriet Quimbey

 

 

Converse College is the national location of an impressive collection of research papers, news articles, photographs, and other documents concerning Harriet Quimby’s life and accomplishments. Ed Y. Hall developed this collection, which provided the research material for his biography, Harriet Quimby: America’s First Lady of the Air (Honoribus Press, 1993).

Harriet Quimby was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, Ohio in 2004, and the Michigan Historic Society has designated Harriet’s childhood home as a State Historical Site.

Birthplace Controversy

Arcadia residents do not agree with many newspapers reports that Harriet Quimby was born in Arroyo Grande, Cal. They insist that she was born three miles from Arcadia. The image on the right is the schoolhouse where she received her early education. This photograph was taken by A. H. Stockman, an Arcadia photographer, and a man who was well acquainted with Miss Quimby’s father, William Quimby. Both the home she was raised in and the school have attracted much interest since the report that they were intimately connected with Miss Quimby’s childhood have spread around.Harriet Quimby's childhood home The old Quimby homestead has been visited by several parties of summer resorters, touring in their automobiles and has been the subject for many recent snapshots. According to Stockman- and the story is borne out by many other Arcadians- Miss Quimby was 8 years old when her father mortgaged the house shown in the picture and went to California with his family.

Where was Harriet really born?

by: Ed. Y. Hall

The objective of research is truth. There is, even now, eighty-three years after her death, great mystery surrounding the actual birthplace of Harriet Quimby. Was Harriet born in the state of California, Michigan, or New York? What is the date of her birth — May 1, 1875, May 11, 1875, or the same dates in 1884 or 1885? A researcher will find several different dates, years, and locations. There is some real confusion, not that it matters a great deal to the general public, but it is important to the state of Michigan and to the citizens of Coldwater, Michigan.

Early in my quest for knowledge about the origins of Harriet Quimby, I was lead to several different locations. Written material such as old newspaper and magazine articles, modem articles, and all of the usual data a researcher would eventually stumble upon was generally available. My first serious research stop was in the city of Coldwater, Michigan. I had been lead there by several magazine articles that stated she had been born there in 1875. I contacted the Mayor of Coldwater for assistance and was directed to Mrs. Alice Hughes of the Branch County Library. Mrs. Hughes and I exchanged several letters and phone calls. I planned a research trip to Coldwater to follow through with my idea to write a book about Harriet.

Alice assisted me with my research and gave me access to everything she had on Harriet. Alice informed me that she could not prove Harriet was born in the Coldwater area, but local lore placed Harriet’s parents, William and Ursula Quimby, as tenants on the Nelson farm in Ovid Township a few miles south of Coldwater. It was assumed that Harriet was born on this farm in 1875. Neither Alice nor I ever found any proof that Harriet was born there or that the Quimby’s were even in Coldwater in 1875. There was a section of land in the Ovid Township area owned by a “W. Quimby” initially thought to be Harriet’s father, William, but later detailed research found the section to be owned by a Wilsey Quimby. There is no evidence that William Quimby ever owned any land in Branch County.

In 1988, the local Branch County Airport was the site of a Michigan Historical Marker stating that Harriet Quimby was a native of Coldwater and that she had been born May I 1, 1875. Knowing that the State of Michigan does not lightly place historical markers without complete documentation, I made the natural assumption all was well and thoroughly checked out. Harriet’s birthplace and date of birth, data based upon the Michigan historical marker, were mentioned in my book. If the data supporting the marker was good enough for Michigan, it was certainly good enough for me.

I have always accepted from the very beginning of my research that Coldwater was Harriet’s birthplace. Wasn’t it mentioned in newspapers, magazine articles, and histories of aviation? However, there has been a nagging question in my mind as to there is no proof. Why can’t we find anything among Quimby relatives in the Coldwater area to give us the research thread we need to tie her to Coldwater/Ovid? All we really have are some newspaper articles reporting her early aviation exploits in August 191 1, that she was a relative of several residents of Coldwater and a claim by the Coldwater Courier that she was a “native of this city.”

Childhood Years

Harriet Quimby is believed to have spent her first twelve [eight] years on her parents’ homestead in northern Michigan. Although the homestead process was similar on frontiers across North America, details are different depending on time and place. This paper is intended to provide perspective regarding the early years of Harriet Quimby’s life.

William Quimby was one of thousands of Civil War veterans who took advantage of the recently passed Homestead Act to obtain 160 acres of land from the United States government for free if he could make a productive farm of it. Homesteaders would look over the available land and then journey (usually by walking) to a federal land office to register the property. They would then move onto the solid climax hardwood forest and start the farm. Since livestock, horses or oxen, cannot eat hardwood, the first year was usually spent without beasts of burden. Thus, trees were chopped down with axes; sawn into small for a person to move; collected in piles, and burned enough pieces. When sufficient land was cleared by this method to plant grass, oxen could be acquired to move the logs and then the process moved along at a faster pace. The first two decades all the fields had many stumps in them around which it was necessary to plow.

While the land was being cleared a log cabin was built. Since lumber was a scarce commodity, floors and roofs were often made from split logs. Lumber was unavailable in the first years because there were no roads and few beasts of burden to take the readily available logs to a sawmill or to haul the lumber from the mill to the home site. When lumber was necessary it was usually carried on a man’s back from the mill to the home site. The cabins usually only had a single window and door. Furniture was handmade and a stove would have to be shipped from the nearest hardware store and then carted several miles by some means.

Quimby homesteadThe Quimby homestead was located three miles from Lake Michigan about 25 miles north of Manistee. In 1867 the immediate area contained about a dozen settlers who had each cleared several acres and were living in log cabins. There were few roads (none we would consider usable), and no stores, schools, or churches. Most people walked the Lake Michigan beach to Manistee unless they had an opportunity to hitch a ride on the rare boat visiting a pier three or ten miles away. Professional medical help was available to those who walked to Manistee although several local women were capable midwives. William Quimby filed his homestead papers on January 13, 1861 and it is difficult to imagine he moved onto the property immediately since there would have been several feet of snow on the ground. The federal land office at that time was in Traverse City 60 miles away and there was no public transportation available within 150 miles of any kind. Thus, he must have done a lot of walking through snow-covered forest trails to file the homestead papers.

We can speculate that William, Ursula and Jamie Quimby arrived by boat the following spring at a nearby primitive pier on Lake Michigan. Everything they brought with them was carried three miles through the wilderness to the homestead. They probably camped out through the summer as they cleared land and built their cabin. Lumber could have been purchased from a sawmill at the pier where they arrived but as there was no road the lumber would have been carried on their backs the three miles to the home site. Nails, hardware, and glass would have been purchased in Manistee, a 25-mile walk down the lake shore. The window and door would have been made by hand. A stove to cook on was always the biggest furniture problem as this had to be purchased in Manistee and somehow freighted to the cabin. The Quimbys may have been able to grow a few potatoes and some rutabagas their first year on the property. A limited number of food items perhaps ten) was occasionally available from another saw mill about ten miles away. The majority of food items were purchased at Manistee and somehow carried to the home site. A nearby family of the same size used 1600 pounds of flour in their first year along with 22 bushels of potatoes. They were able to purchase the potatoes locally and saved all the peelings to plant the following spring. This same family was able to grow about 60 bushels of potatoes on their homestead the second summer they were there.

For the first year, homesteaders were on their property they worked from sunrise to sunset seven days a week to survive and get started farming. There primary social interaction was through work bees where three to ten or more neighbors would get together to exchange labor to accomplish difficult tasks: build a cabin or barn; move logs, or even plow new ground. Although no records were kept these bees were actually labor exchanges where everyone helped each other. Often entire families went to the bees and there was lively social interaction, especially at meal times.

By the time Harriet Quimby was born her parent’s lifestyle on their homestead was somewhat improved. They should have had a frame house of several rooms and a good barn for the livestock. They should have had at least ten oxen, a cow or two for milk, pigs and chickens and perhaps 20 or 30 acres of the land would have been cleared and brought into production. Thus, they would have been able to provide almost all their own food.

Roads had been cleared and ran straight through the wilderness allowing ox carts or horse-drawn wagons to be used for transportation. A store with an adequate inventory had been built at Pierport just five miles away. Items not available in the store could be ordered and would arrive at the store the next day by boat from Manistee.

By 1875 the homesteaders had reached a point where they could enjoy their communities. People continued to socialize and share heavy work tasks with neighbors. Schools had been built throughout the area; there was one just over two miles from the Quimby home. Churches were just being built but there were already regularly scheduled services in several denominations. Transportation was still expensive or time-consuming. A journey to Manistee with oxen or a horse and wagon would require at least two days. Alternatively, a coastal ferry touched regularly at Pierport (five miles away) providing easy transportation to Manistee or Frankfort at a cost equal to a day’s wages; it still required two days but more time could be spent on the necessary business.

The Seymour Calkins family lived on the adjacent farm to the Quimbys and Judd Calkins, who was just ten years older than Harriet Quimby, carefully recorded memories of his childhood when he was 70 years old. He recalled: “The social life of our community was wholesome. People of that day craved pleasures and contacts as much as people do today — but not the hectic and exciting kind that it takes to satisfy the modern family. Our social life was confined to a radius of six or eight miles.” In the early 1870’s the National Grange, a secret organization intended for the mutual benefit of the farmer – socially, financially, and intellectually- was organized. The social features made it quite popular among the farmers, and the ritualistic work was quite interesting.”

Another simple pastime was visiting between neighbors. Mrs. Able would take her knitting, sewing, or what not, and go to spend the day with Mrs. Capers. Perhaps after supper, Mr. Able would come over for a couple of hours. But after all was said and done, there was not much idle time to indulge in gossip, and not much gossip to indulge in. “Days were long, and nights were short. I did not learn to hunt, fish, or go swimming, to dance, play cards, or to smoke. After I was older and got away from home I had lost all inclination to learn these various accomplishments.”

Judd Calkins also recalled his schooling and the social activities of children: “Our country schools ranked very high compared to the average rural school of today. The curriculum included everyone, from the kindergarten to high school, with one teacher to handle all the subjects. Our teacher had no time for frills, but if a child was so inclined, he could get a good practical education if he could manage to remain in school until he was fourteen or fifteen. “There was one diversion we really did enjoy, and that was the spelling school which was held once every two weeks. Each Friday afternoon the two best spellers would choose sides, stand on opposite sides of the room, and spell until no one was left standing, or until one person remaining was declared the champion. This was rehearsal. The regular spelling school was held in the evening, and representatives from neighboring schools within driving distance would come and take part. Parents and small brothers and sisters were the spectators. After exhausting our old Saunders Speller with all the foreign, French, and catch words we could find, we generally had to fall back on Webster to get down to the last contestants. “As for toys which every child enjoys and longs for had a little wooden cart and a small sled, both homemade. My books included a small copy of Mother Goose rhymes and a copy of Robinson Crusoe. Had there been any more books or toys I am positive I would remember them. There was always some small gift at Christmas, along with candy and nuts.”

By 1887, the Quimby homestead should have been a productive farm and we can only speculate as to their reasons for abandoning it. The soil of northern Michigan is so thin it has a short period of productivity when the forest is cleared away. Consequently, the older fields of the Quimbys could have declined in productiveness to the point where the farm may not have supported the family of four. At the same time, the property seems to have reached the high point of a century in market value. The high value was undoubtedly related to the fact that the hardwood timber, perhaps 120 acres yet uncleared, was suddenly marketable as a large commercial sawmill along with a substantial village – Arcadia – had been built just six miles away. Further, this enterprise had announced the future construction of a standard gauge railroad, which would pass within a half mile of the Quimby farm solving the transportation difficulties.

For whatever reason William and Ursula Quimby secured a mortgage for $2000 on their property from an outside investor on June 22, 1887. History does not record or show us what they did after that. They may have already been gone two months later when their oldest daughter, Kittie, was married in a private residence ten miles away. In any case, the mortgage was foreclosed two years later with court records indicating the Quimby family had disappeared without a trace. By most standards, it can be said that Harriet Quimby’s first twelve [eight] years were sheltered. From the facts of the rest of her life, we know she had a good founding in the basics. She was obviously an intelligent woman who made the most of her one-room school education. Her parents gave her the basic moral and cultural values necessary to life. Finally, her mother was a strong, independent, liberated women, perhaps the subject of another paper who raised her daughter the same way. This was Harriet Quimby’s foundation for life.

-Researched by by Steve Harold

Where was Harriet really born?

The objective of research is truth. There is, even now, eighty-three years after her death, great mystery surrounding the actual birthplace of Harriet Quimby. Was Harriet born in the state of California, Michigan, or New York? What is the date of her birth — May 1, 1875, May 11, 1875, or the same dates in 1884 or 1885? A researcher will find several different dates, years, and locations. There is some real confusion, not that it matters a great deal to the general public, but it is important to the state of Michigan and to the citizens of Coldwater, Michigan.

Early in my quest for knowledge about the origins of Harriet Quimby, I was lead to several different locations. Written material such as old newspaper and magazine articles, modem articles, and all of the usual data a researcher would eventually stumble upon was generally available. My first serious research stop was in the city of Coldwater, Michigan. I had been lead there by several magazine articles that stated she had been born there in 1875. I contacted the Mayor of Coldwater for assistance and was directed to Mrs. Alice Hughes of the Branch County Library. Mrs. Hughes and I exchanged several letters and phone calls. I planned a research trip to Coldwater to follow through with my idea to write a book about Harriet.

Alice assisted me with my research and gave me access to everything she had on Harriet. Alice informed me that she could not prove Harriet was born in the Coldwater area, but local lore placed Harriet’s parents, William and Ursula Quimby, as tenants on the Nelson farm in Ovid Township a few miles south of Coldwater. It was assumed that Harriet was born on this farm in 1875. Neither Alice nor I ever found any proof that Harriet was born there or that the Quimby’s were even in Coldwater in 1875. There was a section of land in the Ovid Township area owned by a “W. Quimby” initially thought to be Harriet’s father, William, but later detailed research found the section to be owned by a Wilsey Quimby. There is no evidence that William Quimby ever owned any land in Branch County.

In 1988, the local Branch County Airport was the site of a Michigan Historical Marker stating that Harriet Quimby was a native of Coldwater and that she had been born May I 1, 1875. Knowing that the State of Michigan does not lightly place historical markers without complete documentation, I made the natural assumption all was well and thoroughly checked out. Harriet’s birthplace and date of birth, data based upon the Michigan historical marker, were mentioned in my book. If the data supporting the marker was good enough for Michigan, it was certainly good enough for me.

I have always accepted from the very beginning of my research that Coldwater was Harriet’s birthplace. Wasn’t it mentioned in newspapers, magazine articles, and histories of aviation? However, there has been a nagging question in my mind as to there is no proof. Why can’t we find anything among Quimby relatives in the Coldwater area to give us the research thread we need to tie her to Coldwater/Ovid? All we really have are some newspaper articles reporting her early aviation exploits in August 191 1, that she was a relative of several residents of Coldwater and a claim by the Coldwater Courier that she was a “native of this city.

Childhood Years

Harriet Quimby In Michigan by Steve Harold

Harriet Quimby is believed to have spent her first twelve [eight] years on her parents’ homestead in northern Michigan. Although the homestead process was similar on frontiers across North America, details are different depending on time and place. This paper is intended to provide perspective regarding the early years of Harriet Quimby’s life.

William Quimby was one of thousands of Civil War veterans who took advantage of the recently passed Homestead Act to obtain 160 acres of land from the United States government for free if he could make a productive farm of it. Homesteaders would look over the available land and then journey (usually by walking) to a federal land office to register the property. They would then move onto the solid climax hardwood forest and start the farm. Since livestock, horses or oxen, cannot eat hardwood, the first year was usually spent without beasts of burden. Thus, trees were chopped down with axes; sawn into small for a person to move; collected in piles, and burned enough pieces. When sufficient land was cleared by this method to plant grass, oxen could be acquired to move the logs and then the process moved along at a faster pace. The first two decades all the fields had many stumps in them around which it was necessary to plow.

While the land was being cleared a log cabin was built. Since lumber was a scarce commodity, floors and roofs were often made from split logs. Lumber was unavailable in the first years because there were no roads and few beasts of burden to take the readily available logs to a sawmill or to haul the lumber from the mill to the home site. When lumber was necessary it was usually carried on a man’s back from the mill to the home site. The cabins usually only had a single window and door. Furniture was handmade and a stove would have to be shipped from the nearest hardware store and then carted several miles by some means.

Quimby homesteadThe Quimby homestead was located three miles from Lake Michigan about 25 miles north of Manistee. In 1867 the immediate area contained about a dozen settlers who had each cleared several acres and were living in log cabins. There were few roads (none we would consider usable), and no stores, schools, or churches. Most people walked the Lake Michigan beach to Manistee unless they had an opportunity to hitch a ride on the rare boat visiting a pier three or ten miles away. Professional medical help was available to those who walked to Manistee although several local women were capable midwives. William Quimby filed his homestead papers on January 13, 1861 and it is difficult to imagine he moved onto the property immediately since there would have been several feet of snow on the ground. The federal land office at that time was in Traverse City 60 miles away and there was no public transportation available within 150 miles of any kind. Thus, he must have done a lot of walking through snow-covered forest trails to file the homestead papers.

We can speculate that William, Ursula and Jamie Quimby arrived by boat the following spring at a nearby primitive pier on Lake Michigan. Everything they brought with them was carried three miles through the wilderness to the homestead. They probably camped out through the summer as they cleared land and built their cabin. Lumber could have been purchased from a sawmill at the pier where they arrived but as there was no road the lumber would have been carried on their backs the three miles to the home site. Nails, hardware, and glass would have been purchased in Manistee, a 25-mile walk down the lake shore. The window and door would have been made by hand. A stove to cook on was always the biggest furniture problem as this had to be purchased in Manistee and somehow freighted to the cabin. The Quimbys may have been able to grow a few potatoes and some rutabagas their first year on the property. A limited number of food items perhaps ten) was occasionally available from another saw mill about ten miles away. The majority of food items were purchased at Manistee and somehow carried to the home site. A nearby family of the same size used 1600 pounds of flour in their first year along with 22 bushels of potatoes. They were able to purchase the potatoes locally and saved all the peelings to plant the following spring. This same family was able to grow about 60 bushels of potatoes on their homestead the second summer they were there.

For the first year, homesteaders were on their property they worked from sunrise to sunset seven days a week to survive and get started farming. There primary social interaction was through work bees where three to ten or more neighbors would get together to exchange labor to accomplish difficult tasks: build a cabin or barn; move logs, or even plow new ground. Although no records were kept these bees were actually labor exchanges where everyone helped each other. Often entire families went to the bees and there was lively social interaction, especially at meal times.

By the time Harriet Quimby was born her parent’s lifestyle on their homestead was somewhat improved. They should have had a frame house of several rooms and a good barn for the livestock. They should have had at least ten oxen, a cow or two for milk, pigs and chickens and perhaps 20 or 30 acres of the land would have been cleared and brought into production. Thus, they would have been able to provide almost all their own food.

Roads had been cleared and ran straight through the wilderness allowing ox carts or horse-drawn wagons to be used for transportation. A store with an adequate inventory had been built at Pierport just five miles away. Items not available in the store could be ordered and would arrive at the store the next day by boat from Manistee.

By 1875 the homesteaders had reached a point where they could enjoy their communities. People continued to socialize and share heavy work tasks with neighbors. Schools had been built throughout the area; there was one just over two miles from the Quimby home. Churches were just being built but there were already regularly scheduled services in several denominations. Transportation was still expensive or time-consuming. A journey to Manistee with oxen or a horse and wagon would require at least two days. Alternatively, a coastal ferry touched regularly at Pierport (five miles away) providing easy transportation to Manistee or Frankfort at a cost equal to a day’s wages; it still required two days but more time could be spent on the necessary business.

The Seymour Calkins family lived on the adjacent farm to the Quimbys and Judd Calkins, who was just ten years older than Harriet Quimby, carefully recorded memories of his childhood when he was 70 years old. He recalled: “The social life of our community was wholesome. People of that day craved pleasures and contacts as much as people do today — but not the hectic and exciting kind that it takes to satisfy the modern family. Our social life was confined to a radius of six or eight miles.” In the early 1870’s the National Grange, a secret organization intended for the mutual benefit of the farmer – socially, financially, and intellectually- was organized. The social features made it quite popular among the farmers, and the ritualistic work was quite interesting.”

Another simple pastime was visiting between neighbors. Mrs. Able would take her knitting, sewing, or what not, and go to spend the day with Mrs. Capers. Perhaps after supper, Mr. Able would come over for a couple of hours. But after all was said and done, there was not much idle time to indulge in gossip, and not much gossip to indulge in. “Days were long, and nights were short. I did not learn to hunt, fish, or go swimming, to dance, play cards, or to smoke. After I was older and got away from home I had lost all inclination to learn these various accomplishments.”

Judd Calkins also recalled his schooling and the social activities of children: “Our country schools ranked very high compared to the average rural school of today. The curriculum included everyone, from the kindergarten to high school, with one teacher to handle all the subjects. Our teacher had no time for frills, but if a child was so inclined, he could get a good practical education if he could manage to remain in school until he was fourteen or fifteen. “There was one diversion we really did enjoy, and that was the spelling school which was held once every two weeks. Each Friday afternoon the two best spellers would choose sides, stand on opposite sides of the room, and spell until no one was left standing, or until one person remaining was declared the champion. This was rehearsal. The regular spelling school was held in the evening, and representatives from neighboring schools within driving distance would come and take part. Parents and small brothers and sisters were the spectators. After exhausting our old Saunders Speller with all the foreign, French, and catch words we could find, we generally had to fall back on Webster to get down to the last contestants. “As for toys which every child enjoys and longs for had a little wooden cart and a small sled, both homemade. My books included a small copy of Mother Goose rhymes and a copy of Robinson Crusoe. Had there been any more books or toys I am positive I would remember them. There was always some small gift at Christmas, along with candy and nuts.”

By 1887, the Quimby homestead should have been a productive farm and we can only speculate as to their reasons for abandoning it. The soil of northern Michigan is so thin it has a short period of productivity when the forest is cleared away. Consequently, the older fields of the Quimbys could have declined in productiveness to the point where the farm may not have supported the family of four. At the same time, the property seems to have reached the high point of a century in market value. The high value was undoubtedly related to the fact that the hardwood timber, perhaps 120 acres yet uncleared, was suddenly marketable as a large commercial sawmill along with a substantial village – Arcadia – had been built just six miles away. Further, this enterprise had announced the future construction of a standard gauge railroad, which would pass within a half mile of the Quimby farm solving the transportation difficulties.

For whatever reason William and Ursula Quimby secured a mortgage for $2000 on their property from an outside investor on June 22, 1887. History does not record or show us what they did after that. They may have already been gone two months later when their oldest daughter, Kittie, was married in a private residence ten miles away. In any case, the mortgage was foreclosed two years later with court records indicating the Quimby family had disappeared without a trace. By most standards, it can be said that Harriet Quimby’s first twelve [eight] years were sheltered. From the facts of the rest of her life, we know she had a good founding in the basics. She was obviously an intelligent woman who made the most of her one-room school education. Her parents gave her the basic moral and cultural values necessary to life. Finally, her mother was a strong, independent, liberated women, perhaps the subject of another paper who raised her daughter the same way. This was Harriet Quimby’s foundation for life.

Learning to Fly

Harriet at Moisant Flight SchooHarriet received her flight instruction at Moisant Flight School. At aviation school on Long Island, Harriet and Matilde Moisant, another woman student, listen to instructor Andre Houpert. Quimby and Moisant were the first two women in the United States to receive a pilot’s license.

Harriet climbs aboard her planeHarriet climbs into a Moisant Aviation School Bleriot for her first flying lesson.

Harriet talks with her instructionHarriet’s flight instructor, Andre Houpert explained the operation of the Bleriot to her during her lessons.

Harriet smiling before a flightHarriet Quimby smiles for the camera while learning to fly in 1911.

Harriet and her classmates wait for the fog to liftHarriet, along with the rest of her flight class, wait for the fog to clear from the flying field at Hempstead Plains on Long Island during their flight instruction.

Harriet before a solo flightHarriet Quimby prepares for one of her first solo flights.

Obtaining Her Pilot’s License

Miss Harriet Quimby, alighting in triumph after having successfully passed the test of the Aero Club for her pilot’s license on August 1, 1911. Harriet Quimby, the first American woman to gain a pilot’s license, was described by her contemporaries as a “tomboy full of verve and spunk who was prepared to try anything.” The fact that she was a successful journalist at a time when very few women entered the professions is a pointer to her character.

Harriet sits in her plane after receiving her licenseIn 1910, Quimby went to Belmont Park in California to report on one of the earliest flying displays. She was, as she recorded, “completely seduced by flying” and immediately set about learning the skills of what was then a hazardous pastime. After she was issued Flying License No. 37, she toured the country giving exhibition flights.  Quimby was seen as an intrepid heroine who had struck a blow for women’s advancement in a man’s world of derring-do.  In 1912, she sailed for Europe and won bold headlines when she became the first woman to fly the English Channel piloting a machine built by French aviation pioneer Louis Bleriot.

Three months later, Harriet Quimby lost her life. She was flying at 2,000 feet over Boston harbor with a passenger aboard her aircraft when suddenly, and for no explained reason, she and her passenger were seen to hurtle from their cockpits. Both were dead when picked up.

America’s second woman aviator was Mathilde Moisant who gained Pilot’s License No. 44 in 1911. She, too, appeared at air meets, and for a time she held the altitude record of 5,000 feet. In 1912, when flying over Texas, her aircraft caught fire, but Moisant managed to land safely. Although she suffered only minor burns, the experience and the cautions of her friends persuaded her to give up flying.

Mathilde Moisant and Harriet Quimby often flew together on exhibition flights, and together they were the confessed inspiration of the most famous of all women flyers-Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly the Atlantic.

Famous Flights

Harriet’s preparation for flight included wearing her good luck charm necklace and tying a hot water bottle to her stomach to help keep her warm in her open cockpit Bleriot monoplane.

Boston to New York

From The New York Times JUNE 21, 1912

Arrangements have been made for an aeroplane flight by Miss Harriet Quimby from the Harvard aviation field, at Squanum, to New York, with United States Mail, on the last day of the third annual Boston aviation meet, which opens on June 29. The flight will be made by authority of the Postmaster General Hitchcock, who has granted Manager Willard permission for such a trip.

Letters or postcards deposited at the sub-station will be officially stamped and will be given to Miss Quimby to deliver. Miss Quimby will use her 75- horse power monoplane, and will endeavor to cover the distance of 235 miles without a stop. She will make a landing just outside New York City, where she will be met by a mail carrier, to whom she will turn over her pouch of letters.

Flying the English Channel

Early on the still, foggy morning of Tuesday, April 16, 1912, an American woman walked across the damp grass of the Dover Heights airfield in southeastern England to a waiting airplane. Weather conditions looked promising, and the young woman was eager to realize her dream – to become the first woman to fly alone across the English Channel. Less than a year after becoming the first American woman to gain a pilot’s license, Harriet Quimby was ready to make aviation history.

Her flying feats had already made Harriet Quimby a celebrity in the United States, where newspaper writers called her “the Dresden-China Aviatrix.” Tall, willowy, brown-haired, with a cameo-like face and dazzling green eyes, Harriet was a glamorous figure. She had designed her own distinctive flying costume of plum-colored, wool-backed satin, with a monkish hood. She also wore high-laced leather boots, uniquely styled goggles, and earrings.

Local fisherman roll Harriet's plane two miles to the hangar

In addition to being a pilot, Harriet Quimby was a drama critic and feature writer for Leslie’s Weeklymagazine in New York City. She understood the news- paper business, and she had persuaded the publishers of the London Daily Mirror to pay the expenses of her attempt to fly the English Channel.

Before boarding her airplane, Harriet paused for a publicity photograph, powdering her nose while a woman friend held a hand mirror. Harriet Quimby’s aircraft for her cross-Channel flight was a monoplane she had borrowed from French pioneer Louis Bleriot, who had made the first flight across the English Channel on July 25, 1909. The open-cockpit airplane offered no protection aloft, so Harriet was wearing two sets of long underwear under her plum-colored silk flying suit. After the publicity photographs had been taken, she added more layers of clothing – a long woolen coat, an American raincoat, we must hasten, for it was almost certain that the wind would rise again with hour.”

Harriet was ready to take off when British aviator Gustav Hamel jumped onto the fuselage to give her some minute advice. Hamel had made headlines two weeks earlier by carrying the first woman across the English Channel by air as a passenger in his own airplane. He had secretly offered to make Harriet Quimby’s flight for her, disguised in her flying suit, he would land at on the French coast, they would meet, and would sneak off and leave Harriet in the cockpit, waiting to be discovered by curious French passersby. Harriet laughed at this offer, but she had allowed Hamel to test her plane and to act as a technical adviser.

Now, sprawling on the fuse behind her cockpit, Gustav Hamel warned Harriet Quimby to pay special attention to her compass if she ran into fog during her 21-mile flight across Channel. He reminded her that she should not stray north of her planned course else she would never reach France, she would run out of fuel over the sea coast of Belgium. “Be sure to keep, course, whatever you do,” Hamel said, “for if you get five miles out of the course you will be over the North Sea, and you know what that means.” Hamel also commanded her to warm. “At the last minute,” Harriet reported, “they handed me a large water bag, which Mr. Hamel insisted tying to my waist like an enormous locket.”

At 5:30 a.m., with its engine growl the Bleriot airplane lurched awkwardly along the grass, gained speed, and lifted into the air. Harriet climbed steadily in speed and within 30 seconds had reached altitude of 1,500 feet. Dover Castle was half obscured from her view, but aviatrix caught a brief glimpse of a tugboat in the Channel on which Daily Mirror had stationed several reporters and photographers. Harriet climbed to 2,000 feet and headed out across the Channel. She passed over the tug then flew into a fog bank.

Harriet is greeted in France“I could not see ahead of me at all, all I could I see was the water below,” she reported later. “There was only one thing for me to do, and that was to keep my eyes fixed on my compass.” Harriet had never use compass before.

She climbed through the fog bank to seek clear sky, but at 6,000 feet all she found was more fog and “bone-chilling cold.” Flying at the rate of a mile a minute, she peered anxiously through her misted goggles, eventually pushing them up on her forehead. She shivered despite her heavy clothing, and prayed that she was heading for France and not for the North Sea.

She knew that, if she was on course, the French coast would be in sight – if she could only get below the fog to see it. So she dropped from 6,000 to 2,000 feet, and then to 1,000 feet, searching for a break in the cold, gray fog. Then she dropped still further to an altitude of 500 feet.

Suddenly the fog began to disperse. “The sunlight struck upon my face, and my eyes lit upon the white and sandy shores of France,” Harriet reported. She was overjoyed, but could not see her objective, the port of Calais. She turned south and flew along the unfamiliar shore, looking for a place to land. The wind was rising and she was running low on fuel.

“It was all tilled land below me,” she wrote, “and, rather than tear up the farmers’ fields, I decided to drop down on the hard and sandy beach.” She did so without delay, making an easy touchdown on a firm beach near Hardelot. She was 25 miles south of Calais.

Harriet had achieved her goal, although she had strayed far off-course, and her flight had lasted much longer than she had planned. Triumphantly, Harriet jumped out of her cockpit, and found herself alone on the beach – for a few minutes. Then, locals digging sand worms on the beach, rushed toward the American woman from all directions. Two sturdy women hoisted the slender, smiling aviatrix on their shoulders, and the crowd paraded along the beach, cheering loudly and waving caps in the air.

Harriet did not speak French well, but she wrote, “I comprehended sufficiently to discover that they knew I had crossed the Channel.”

-From research by Michael Hull

Harriet's Flying CostumeHarriet’s “Flying Costume”

Harriet Quimby said this about her unique flying costume:

“Many have asked me about my flying costume. It may seem strange, but I could not find an aviation suit of any description in the great city of New York – and I tried hard. In my perplexity it occurred to me that the president of the American Tailors’ Association, Alexander M. Grean, might be a good adviser, and he was, for it did not take him long to design a suit which has no doubt established the aviation costume for women in this country, if not for all the world.

‘It is made of thick, wool-back satin, without lining. It is all In one piece, including the hood. By an ingenious combination, it can be converted instantly into a conventional appearing walking skirt when not in use in knickerbockers form.” (May 18, 1911)

-From the research of Helen L. Powers

Harriet’s last flight took place in Boston during the Boston Aviation Meet on July 1, 1912. She was to fly from Harvard Field to Boston Light and return. Flying with Harriet on her fateful flight was friend and manager of the Boston Aviation Meet, W.A.P. Willard. After Harriet Quimby’s fatal crash there was great speculation on what happened during her last flight.

There has always been a mystery about how and why Harriet Quimby died in such a tragic way at the 1912 Boston Air Meet. Most aviation people of the day cited everything from her sex to her lack of strength in controlling the aircraft as causing the accident. Ruth Law, who had witnessed the accident, began her flying career with a Wright biplane. She said they had the greatest success at the time, and she blamed the monoplane for Harriet’s death. It has taken 80 years to uncover the truth.

Before the Boston Air Meet, Harriet had tested the new Bleriot she had imported from England after her successful English Channel flight. She flew it three times (once with a passenger) and on her third flight, this time with sandbags for ballast, she was climbing to altitude when the machine shot up in the air, then dipped its nose. The craft stalled and began to fall uncontrollably at a steep angle, but Harriet had the presence of mind to neutralize the controls, and recovered the Bleriot from the spin. She mentioned the unusual behavior of the machine to her mechanic, but his inspection did not reveal anything out of the ordinary. The mechanic could not explain the incident and said that sometimes airplanes lose their balance in the air, especially when hit with a gust of wind.

On the day of the Boston Air Meet, Harriet flew the Meet’s organizer, William Willard, as a passenger. While attempting to break the over-water speed record of 58 miles per hour, the plane’s tag rose sharply and Willard was thrown out of the craft.

Harriet was probably not immediately aware that Willard had fallen from the plane. She was, however, instantly aware that the balance of the plane had shifted. Quimby fought for control, pulling back on the stick to pull the nose up. The craft began to respond to her command. The nose was coming up and for a moment the monoplane seemed to slide back toward a normal attitude.

From the ground it appeared that Quimby had regained control of the craft. A spilt second later, the monoplane’s tail pitched up again. As the plane went perpendicular, Quimby’s body catapulted from the machine. The plane continued rolling over on its back and falling toward the bay. Willard and Quimby tumbled through the air and plunged into the harbor waters 200 feet from shore.

At the time, the tide was low and the water was only four feet deep where they landed. Later, autopsies revealed that Quimby died on impact, and Willard drowned. Ironically, the Bleriot monoplane flew itself out of the dive, and glided into the water nosed over but sustained little damage.

In August 1912, Aircraft magazine devoted four pages to the accident. One article by Waiter H. Phipps, “The Danger of the Lifting Tail and its Probable Bearing on the Death of Miss Quimby”, convincingly argued the dangerous instability of that monoplane design. Phipps pointed out that the fixed horizontal tail surface of the small two-seat plane was a small cambered wing set at a higher lifting angle (to help carry the weight of a passenger who sat well behind the plane’s center of gravity). “A machine of this type,” he wrote, “has not the slightest degree of automatic longitudinal stability and… is an extremely tricky and dangerous type to handle. The horizontal tag should act as a stabilizing damper, preventing the machine from either diving too steeply or stalling and not under any circumstances as a lifting plane … it must be either a flat or slightly negatively inclined surface.” He explained that in a certain nose- down angle, the tail gains in lift as the speed increases, until reaching the critical angle and speed. “Then,” he wrote, “it is impossible to get the tail down though the elevator stick is pulled back. The faster the machine dives, the more lift the tail provides until it has the plane in a vertical position hurling the pilot and passenger out (unless they are strapped in).” Phipps listed in his article almost a dozen pilots in Europe who died in Bleriot monoplanes under similar circumstances where the plane dove straight into the ground. He does not say if any of the victims fell from the craft as did Quimby and Willard.

Today with the science of aerodynamics clearly defined we know that what Walter H. Phipps speculated on, was in fact what happened.

-Research by Henry M. Holden

Harriet's Memorial in Valhalla, New YorkHarriet Quimby’s Memorial

Harriet’s burial site in Kensico Cemetery, Valhalla, New York. The inscription reads:

The first woman in America to receive a pilot’s license to fly. The first woman in the world to fly a monoplane alone across the English Channel April 16, 1912. the life of the heroic girl went out when she fell with her passenger aeroplane at Boston July 1st 1912. She was Dramatic Editor of Leslie’s Weekly. REST GENTLE SPIRIT.

Harriet Quimby ‘visits’ Spartanburg, SC

From the Spartanburg Herald Journal:

Harriet Quimby flew across the English Channel in a plane weighing just more than 700 pounds. Connie Tobias flies a jumbo jet that weighs nearly half a million pounds over the Atlantic Ocean. Tobias is a pilot with US Airways, making regular trips to London. It is the sort of career in aviation she says Quimby predicted in articles she wrote for Leslie’s Illustrated after becoming America’s first licensed female pilot. “In 2001, I’m doing what she envisioned in 1911,” Tobias said.Connie Tobias

Tuesday, Tobias, who lives outside Charlotte, NC, helped a group of Spartanburg area children envision the life and accomplishments of Quimby. Dressed in a replica she had made of the hooded purple flying outfit that Quimby wore, Tobias played the part of the aviation pioneer in a mock interview by Ed Hall, a Spartanburg resident and author of Harriet Quimby-America’s First Lady of the Air. Hall asked about the historic flight across the English Channel. Tobias, as Quimby, described weather conditions and meticulous preparations for the day’s flight.

The students from Jesse Boyd and Wellford elementary schools, the Spartanburg Day School, and the District Horizon program asked questions about the airplane Quimby flew an open-cockpit Blertiot, and how she felt in the air. Hall noted that Quimby’s historic flight was completed at the same time the Titanic was sinking. A flight in the air that would have be in front-page news in major papers worldwide was relegated to the back pages because of the tragedy, at sea.

Hall was happy with the students’ interest in a woman he said “missed out on the notoriety she deserved.”

Quimby died in 1912 when her passenger she took on a test fell and caused her plane to lose control. At that time, Amelia Earhart was 9 years old, and Charles Lindbergh was years away from making his first-ever international flight. As Hall put it, “The world of aviation was robbed of a bright star when Quimby perished.”

But he and Tobias, who wanted to fly planes since she was a youngster, believe Quimby’s life offers plenty of inspiration to children. “We want to convey that it takes desire, determination and discipline to do anything worthwhile,” Tobias said. “And I want to help give Harriet Quimby the place in history she deserves.”

Historical Marker Dedication Ceremony

Arcadia Township in Michigan, a bright, cloudless afternoon perfect for flying, the childhood home of Harriet Quimby, pioneer aviatrix and journalist, was officially designated a state Historical Site Thursday afternoon with the dedication of a historical marker near the still-standing Quimby home southeast of Arcadia.

More than 100 people attended the ceremony which featured speeches by State Historical Preservation Officer Brian Conway, Col. Edward Hall author of a Quimby biography, and the reading of a letter from Michigan’s first lady, Michelle Engler.   The Onekama High School Orchestra also performed, and Onekama sixth grader, Kayla Peabody, dressed in a bright replica of Quimby’s trademark purple aviatrix outfit, closed the ceremony with a solo performance of the song, “I Believe I Can Fly.”

Michigan Historical Society markerQuimby became the first woman to pilot an airplane alone across the English Channel on April 16, 1912. Flying a single-seat Bleriot XI, she completed the one- hour flight through a heavy fog only minutes after being introduced to the use of a compass.

A year before the channel crossing, the Wright brothers turn down her request for pilot instruction because she was a woman.  Quimby disguised herself as a man and completed her training elsewhere becoming in 1911 the first woman in the United States to earn a pilot’s license. She was a well known journalists at the time, writing regularly for Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly, the predecessor to Life Magazine. She was killed just three months after the channel crossing when she was thrown from her plane while performing at a Boston-area air show at the age of 37.  Her crossing of the English Channel coincided with the sinking of the ocean liner Titanic and received little media attention at the time, perhaps permanently obscuring her place in history.

Speakers at the ceremony praised Quimby for her adventurous spirit and her willingness to overcome limits placed on woman at the turn of the century.  Each speaker also thanked Arcadia historian Bonnie Hughes in establishing northwest Manistee County as Quimby’s childhood home. Hughes, using census data, land plot maps, and store ledgers from the 1870s convinced the state historical preservation officials last year that the Quimby family lived in the Arcadia area in 1875 when Quimby was born.  Hughes spearheaded the effort to receive approval from the state for placement of the historical marker.

Prior to Hughes research, it was widely accepted that Quimby was born downstate in Coldwater.  Coldwater officials initially resisted efforts to establish Arcadia as Quimby’s birthplace.  Conway in presenting the marker alluded to the controversy and confusion regarding Quimby’s birthplace saying, “In 12 years no other marker as stirred as much commotion as Harriet Quimby’s.”  Calling Quimby, “talent, glamorous, and adventurous,” Conway thanked Bonnie Hughes for her research efforts.  “Bonnie is the person who made the connections that bring us here today.”

He also emphasized Quimby’s role in opening career options for women today. “As we gather today, there are women right now on board the space shuttle,” he said. “A young woman today can dream of what she wants to do and go for it, because of women like Harriet Quimby.”

A letter from Michelle Engler, read by retired Arcadia school superintendent Albin Hughes, praised Quimby’s “commitment to making all paths open to women,” encouraged area residents to “remember and, celebrate” the pioneer aviatrix and thanked area residents for the research and work needed to bring the historical marker to the area.

Bonnie Hughes, in a short speech presenting the marker to the Arcadia Historical Society, dedicated the marker to the area’s women and children. She also thanked the John Milarch family, who own the Quimby house site, for their cooperation in allowing the marker to be placed at the site.

The seven-foot-by-four-foot metal marker carries approximately 250 words of text outlining Quimby’s childhood in the area and her accomplishments as a pilot and journalist. The marker was paid for by the Arcadia Women’s Club and Arcadia Township. Although the state designates historic sites and officially presents markers, state funds are not used to pay for historical markers. The home is on private property and is in disrepair. It is not open to the public due to safety concerns. There are no immediate plans to restore the home or otherwise develop the site beyond placement of the marker on the public roadway easement near the house.

All mail leaving the Arcadia office Thursday was cancelled with a special stamp commemorating the Quimby dedication. The stamp was designed by Onekama Elementary sixth grader Cody Brandt. The cancellation stamp was also available at a reception at Arcadia Elementary School, following the dedication ceremony.

Thursday’s ceremony capped nine years of work by Bonnie Hughes, a retired school secretary and long-time Arcadia resident. She has long been interested in local history and did much of the research, writing and editing for a book detailing Arcadia’s history, published in 1980 as part of the village’s centennial celebration. Hughes first became interested in Quimby in 1991 when the diary of a man who grew up in the Arcadia area in the 1870s was given to her by an elderly Traverse City woman. The diarist mentioned his neighbor, Harriet Quimby, who grew up in Arcadia and later became a famous writer and pilot.

Hughes early research however, indicated that Coldwater, south of Kalamazoo claimed to be Quimby’s birthplace.  The discrepancy between the diarist’s recollections and the claims of Coldwater historians drew Hughes’ attention.  “I love mysteries and history,” she said, “and when I find out something is going on that people don’t have the correct answer for, I have to find out more.”

The research proved to be problematic. Because Manistee County did not record births in the 1870s, Quimby’s birth certificate could not be located. And the issue was further confused by Quimby herself. She routinely shaved years from her age by claiming inaccurate birth dates and often claimed California as her birthplace.

Harriet on the cover of Michigan History magazineBut Hughes persisted. She gathered information from the National Archives in Washington, D.C., census data and land plat records from the state archives, and nineteenth-century store ledgers from the Arcadia area. These documents clearly showed that Quimby’s family owned land, bought groceries and lived in the Arcadia area in 1875 when Quimby was born and stayed in the area through the mid-1880s. Hughes presented her evidence to state historic preservation officials, who agreed last year the home on Erdman Road near Arcadia should be dedicated as a state historic site. Because no birth certificate has been found, however, the state recognizes the Arcadia site as Quimby’s “childhood home.” A marker in Coldwater declare that city as Quimby’s birthplace was recently replaced with a indicating that local tradition maintains Coldwater to Quimby’s birthplace.

Hughes believes Quimby’s life as an aviatrix and her ground breaking accomplishments for woman will help bring people interested in both aviation and women’s history to the area.  “She was daring enough to do the things she wanted to do at time when women were not doing them,” Hughes said.