Nevada City auto-stage driver set sights high
Iowa-born Eugene Ely was first to take off from, land on a Navy ship
yond the bend at the top of Boulder Street, just past the city limits sign, is the Pine Grove Cemetery. Among the many luminaries buried there is aviation pioneer Lyman Gilmore (1874-1951).
Gilmore is not the only aviation trailblazer, however, to have lived in Nevada City.
In the early part of the 20th century, Grissel & Co. operated three stage lines: Nevada City-Washington, Nevada City-North Bloomfield and Nevada City-Downieville. In 1909 they decided to try a new mode of transportation for the Nevada City-Downieville roundtrip: the automobile.
But finding a qualified driver was not easy. The ideal candidate had to have exceptional driving skills, a sense of adventure, be a master mechanic able to fix any problem that arose and possess exceptional physical stamina.
Fortunately, such a man arrived in the spring of 1909.
Eugene Ely, born in Iowa in 1886, moved to San Francisco in 1904 and became an automobile salesman, master mechanic, chauffeur and racing driver. He had an intense interest in engines, was a skilled driver/mechanic and had a total lack of fear –– requisite background to transport mail, gold and people across the rugged terrain that then separated Nevada City from Downieville.
Ely plied the auto-stage route for nearly a year, but he was an impatient wanderlust sort who needed a new adventure. Leaving Nevada City in early 1910, Eugene and his 19-year-old bride, Mabel, moved to Oregon, and it was there that he enthusiastically embraced the nascent world of aviation.
He became a self-taught pilot, managed to get a crashed biplane restored, and soon embarked on a series of flying exhibitions that took him eastward. In Minneapolis, Glenn Curtiss, a pioneering pilot and airplane manufacturer, was so impressed with Ely that he was invited to join the Curtiss flying team.
Ely, however, wanted to do more than perform barrel rolls at county fairs and compete in air races. Fortunately, he was introduced to Captain Washington Chambers, head of the Navy’s emerging aviation department. With Capt. Chambers’ support, the former Nevada City auto-stage driver accomplished two significant aeronautical feats –– both in a Curtiss-built biplane.
On Nov. 14, 1910, five miles off Norfolk, Virginia and utilizing a 57-foot planked “runway” extending over the bow of the Navy cruiser USS Birmingham, Ely became the first person to successfully take flight from a ship.
Then, two months later, he took aim at the Navy’s next objective.
On Jan. 18, 1911, taking off from the infield at Tanforan Racetrack south of San Francisco, Ely flew north and landed on a special platform erected on the deck of the USS Pennsylvania in San Francisco Bay –– the first successful shipboard landing and first use of a tailhook connecting with a restraining cable.
Those two remarkable achievements made Eugene Ely a national aviation hero and changed the course of naval warfare.
On Oct. 20, 1911, however, the Nevada City Transcript had bad news to report: “Eugene B. Ely, the noted California aviator, (has) met his death at Macon, Georgia. Less than two years ago he left Nevada City and was not heard from again until the newspapers contained the news of his feats as an aviator.”
The New York Times noted that although Ely jumped just as the plane was about to crash at the Georgia State Fairgrounds, “the force of the fall was too great. He died in a few minutes, regaining consciousness only long enough to whisper, ‘I lost control. I know I am going to die.’”
Twenty-two years later, in recognition of his contributions to naval aviation, President Herbert Hoover (himself a former Nevada City resident) awarded Eugene Ely a posthumous Distinguished Flying Cross.
Steve Cottrell is a historian, a former city councilman and mayor, and longtime Nevada City resident. He now lives in St. Augustine, Fla., and can be reached at email@example.com.