Stumbling Upon History

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The photos were tucked in the back of the gallery, almost hidden behind the colorful nautical scenes and seaside landscapes that typifies most of the commercial paintings sold in town. The photos also featured local landmarks of the harbor, the town and the North Shore coastline-but they stood out from the other artwork in two distinctive ways. For one thing, the only colors in the photos were the subtle shades of sepia-tone brown. And second, it was clear that this entire collection of photographs had been taken from the air.

Looking down on the distinctive New England harbor and headland of Marblehead, Massachusetts - where both my grandfather and my mother were born and raised, and where I'd spent time each summer ever since I was a very tiny little girl - it was also obvious that the moments captured by this particular photographer had occurred many years before I was born. A lot more open land, one-room cottages still perched on the rocky beachside dunes, and FAR fewer sailboats in the harbor.

And yet, even after I confirmed the era by finding dates of 1932, 1934 and 1938 written beneath a number of the photos, it still took me a few minutes to put the pieces together. It wasn't until I came across a delightfully imperfect image of the harbor framed by what appeared to be the shadow of a Piper Cub's door, with a slightly blurred fingerprint in the lower-right quarter of the photo, that the real significance of the prints struck me. These photos had been taken from the sky. In the 1930s. Apparently from a Piper Cub. By a very human photographer/pilot who'd left his mark, quite literally, on the artwork he'd created.

Suddenly, I wanted to find out more about this person who'd left his artistry and fingerprint for me to find. What was his name? How did he get into flying? How did he end up doing aerial photography? And how on earth did one manage a 9" x 9" negative camera while flying a Piper Cub anyway? I tracked down the owner of the Arnould Gallery, where I'd found the photos. Gene Arnould turned out to be a delightful, energetic and passionate history buff who cheerfully dug out his records and negatives for the images. Arnould had purchased them in 2002 from an aerial photographer named Mal Warnoff, who'd apparently spent a lifetime juggling cameras and control sticks. But the images predated Mal and, even on the negatives, there was no information on who the photographer had been. I was beginning to think of where else I could go for information when Arnould casually added, "You know, the first aerial photograph of this harbor was actually taken in 1912-or so they say."

"1912?"

Arnould nodded. "Yeah, by a local photographer named Fred Orne. Supposedly strapped to the wing of a Burgess biplane. Which, of course, you know were all built here."

It took a minute before that sunk in.

"What kind of biplane? Built where?"

With all the useless factoids about old airplanes I'd ever tucked away in my brain, I'd never heard of a Burgess biplane. Not to mention that Marblehead has never, to my knowledge, had an airport even vaguely within convenient reach. Who on earth would choose to build airplanes here?

"The Burgess aircraft company," Arnould said. "They built seaplanes. I'm told it was one of the first airplane factories in America. Matter of fact, I think Marblehead is even the birthplace of marine aviation, or something like that."

Surely he was mistaken. Oh, there's no doubt that Marblehead, Massachusetts is a very historic town. Houses here date back to the 1600s. The original Spirit of '76 painting of two drummers and a wounded fife player hangs in the town's Abbott Hall. General John Glover's famed marine regiment, which rescued the Continental Army from New York and rowed George Washington's troops across the Delaware, came from Marblehead, and Glover's ship Hannah became the very first ship of the American Navy.

But for all its links to history and pioneering accomplishments, Marblehead's character and civic pride has always been linked to the sea, not the air. There are no airplane memorabilia stores in town; no aeronautically-themed napkins or door knockers for sale. In truth, it's a place where I usually leave my aviation life and world behind for a little while. The thought that this sleepy little New England town might be a hotbed of aviation history was an incongruous, almost unbelievable, thought.

As if to answer my unspoken skepticism, Arnould went to the front of the gallery and brought back a book of historical town photographs. And there was the incontrovertible evidence-a photo of a fragile-looking pontoon biplane being lowered into Marblehead Harbor from a hangar/factory building that was, quite clearly, right next to the still-standing electric company headquarters in Redstone Cove.

Now I had another mystery to pursue. What was the story of this company? What had happened to it? And why hadn't I ever heard of it? There was also Arnould's comment about Marblehead being the birthplace of marine aviation. What was that all about?

A couple of phone calls to the Marblehead Historical Society and a bunch of internet research later, I at least had some answers about the Burgess aircraft factory. The factory was founded by a young aeronautical engineer and boat builder named W. Starling Burgess, who would later become far better known as the designer of several winning America's Cup racing sailboats. Burgess apparently began laying plans for a floatplane almost as soon as the Wright brothers got back from Kitty Hawk, and he and Augustus Herring-a young protégé of Octave Chanute-built and flew their first airplane design in February 1910. A year later, Burgess signed an agreement with the Wright brothers to build their biplane under license, making "Burgess Company and Curtis, Inc." (for a partner, Greely S. Curtis) the first licensed aircraft manufacturer in the United States.

Burgess ended up a bit sideways with the Wright brothers for modifying their original design with pontoons. But by that point, he was already building and flying his own designs and chalking up some impressive accomplishments. The very first tractor-style (engine in front) aircraft bought by the U.S. Army was a Burgess Model H biplane. And the very first aircraft bought by the Canadian military was a Burgess-Dunne biplane-a radical, pioneering design that featured a swept, flying wing configuration.

By 1916, Burgess was doing well enough that his company was acquired by Glenn Curtiss, and by 1917, when the U.S. entered World War I, the Burgess factory was producing up to eight airplanes a day. But in the records of all those accomplishments was also the answer to why, with all my links and time in Marblehead, I'd never heard of the company. A few days before the Armistice was signed in 1918, a fire broke out and burned the Burgess factory to the ground. Curtiss closed down the company, Burgess went back to designing sailboats and Marblehead's brief day in the aviation spotlight came to an end. And yet, I was still intrigued by Arnould's comment about Marblehead being the birthplace of marine aviation. Did he mean seaplanes in general? Or Marine as in U.S. Marine Corps? I went to a U.S. Navy website, and there was the answer. The first Marine Corps pilot was a Lt. Alfred A. Cunningham. On May 22, 1912, he reported to the aviation camp at Annapolis for "duty in connection with aviation." And sure enough, his flight training had taken place at the Burgess aircraft factory in Marblehead, Massachusetts.

I then found a short reference in a Marblehead history book to a plaque that supposedly commemorated the date and place of Lt. Cunningham's first solo. I asked my mom, who knows every street in town, if she'd ever seen or heard of it. She hadn't, but we set off to see if we could locate it together. It wasn't easy to find. But after a long and circuitous search of back yards and dead-end harbor streets, we finally hit pay dirt.

Right on the harbor, but almost completely hidden behind the old electric company building, we found a tiny but beautiful park, with a flagpole rising from a well-manicured flowerbed in one corner. And at the top of that flagpole, proudly snapping in the afternoon breeze, was not only an American flag, but also the flag of the United States Marine Corps. I felt a small chill go down my spine, as if I were an archeologist who'd just stumbled on King Tut's riches. Good Lord. It was true. We walked closer and read the confirming words on the neatly mounted plaque at the flagpole's base: "On 01 August 1912, Lt. Alfred A. Cunningham, USMC, received instruction and soloed in a Burgess/Curtis Hydroplane from this cove at Redstone Lane. This first flight by a Marine Corps aviator establishes this site as the birthplace of Marine Corps aviation." The plaque, officially sanctioned by the USMC, was dedicated "To Marine Corps aviators everywhere."

Amazing. I'd been fishing and kayaking and even sailing in the waters off Redstone Cove my whole life, with not the first clue, even after becoming a pilot, of the history lying right beneath my nose. Even now, I wouldn't have stumbled across it if it hadn't been for that lovely, haunting image in the gallery. But what of that photographer/pilot, the one whose fingerprint sent me looking for all this history in the first place? The details of that story, ironically enough, remain something of a mystery. I did manage to track down Mal Warnoff, owing to the fact that aviation is a very small world, with no more than two or three degrees of separation between any two of its members. I got a list of aerial photography businesses in Boston, and my first call, to a guy named Steve Dunwell, led me to Mike Peavey, a Norwood-based helicopter pilot and photographer who'd known Mal back when. Peavey asked folk at the local airport café if anyone knew where Mal was these days, found someone who knew Mal's brother … and within two days, I was on the phone to Mal himself, now retired down in Florida.

Mal's stories alone would fill a lengthy volume. He still has his commissioned aerial photographs of the construction of Disneyland and the World Trade Center, and he can tell tales of photographing everything from shipwrecks and Russian fishing fleets to Havana Harbor at the beginning of the Cuban missile crisis. Mal told me that he'd bought the Marblehead images from two older aerial photographers named Frank Hartley and Weld Arnold. But he wasn't sure if the men were pilots, or if not, who'd flown them, or even what exact airplanes they'd used to take their aerial photos, despite having spent a lot of time and money, over the years, trying to find those things out.

So, the story behind the mysterious fingerprint, the challenges of shooting with a 9" x 9" camera out of a Piper Cub, and the identity of the pilot tasked with making all that work in the air, will have to wait for another break, or another day. But perhaps I found the real story in that photo, after all. For to the left of the fingerprint, on the west side of the harbor that gave birth to the American Navy, I can now identify the little harbor cove that, 137 years after Glover's marine regiment first marched and sailed to the aid of the Continental Army, launched the United States Marine Corps into the sky.