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Eugene Ely

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

On Thursday morning, October 19th, 1911, Davenport native Eugene Ely had a premonition that something might go wrong. He was in Macon, Georgia, preparing for the eighth day of an aerial exhibition in his Curtis biplane

Ely had come a long way in just two short year. In Davenport, he had given up a promising career racing automobiles in order to take up flying. He had learned to fly by flying, without instructions, and had become one of the best-known of the birdman flying for the Curtis Aeroplane Company. In the fall of 1910, he had given Rock Islanders their first close-up view of flying with a demonstration at Exposition Park.

Since then, he had set a number of records. He was the first man to fly an airplane for the Emperor in Japan. Following that, he had become the first man to land and take off from a ship, the cruiser Pennsylvania, anchored in San Francisco Bay. In North Carolina, he had been the first to drop a bomb from an airplane.

But he had learned that the public was never satisfied. They expected aeronauts to try harder, to do ever more daring feats, as he discovered when he returned to Davenport in early October of 1911 to give another exhibition. The smooth flights of a year earlier were no longer enough. Now, he had to put on a much more dangerous show, including combat against troops from the Arsenal. "More," the public always cried.

Now, at Macon, what new could he do that would satisfy the crowd of 10,000? He had performed ever more daring feats for seven days. He offered to paint his plane with phosphorus to glow as a grand finale, but officials were not impressed.

What finally pleased the crowd was not planned. Ely took off, and at 3,000 feet suddenly nose-dived to the ground. At the last second, he jumped free, but he knew what would happen. "I am going to die," he said.

Hundreds of spectators raced each other to the crash site, not to help Ely, but for souvenirs. One man unbuttoned Ely's collar, and took it. His gloves disappeared, as did his tie and cap, and nearly all the pieces of the airplane. By the time the ambulance arrived, Eugene Ely was dead, a victim not of the airplane or his own mistake, but of an unsafe public, whose demands had already helped kill 70 aeronauts in 1911. Ely was number 71.

Rock Island Lines is supported by grants from the Illinois Humanities Council, the Illinois Arts Council—a state agency—and by Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.