Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Heritage: Toronto's First Aviation Meet

Carl Mills spoke to the Weston Historical Society on 3-June-2010 about Toronto's first aviation meet in 1910

TORONTO, ONTARIO - It seems hard to believe in an era in which aviation is usually not only the fastest but also cheapest form of long-distance travel, attracting nearly all economic classes, that one hundred years ago there were no commercial flights to or from Toronto. In fact, as enthusiasts look forward to this year's Canadian International Air Show during the Canadian National Exhibition over Labour Day, it was one hundred years ago that the first aviation meet ever held in Toronto took place.

In a meeting of the Weston Historical Society tonight, guest speaker Carl Mills did a careful job of placing that first meet in context. While much was later made of the first Wright Brothers flight and that of the Silver Dart in New Brunswick, aviation did not capture the public imagination until Louis Blériot made the first flight over the English Channel on 25-July-1909. The first aircraft flight in Toronto took place in that time of growing interest on 2-September-1909, when a single aircraft, the Golden Flyer piloted by Charles Willard, performed at Scarborough Beaches Amusement Park.

That event, though, served only to whet the public appetite for a much larger event in 1910. I found it amusing that it was organized in part by the Ontario Automobile Club. Not taking place at a site which would survive to become a modern airport, it occurred walking distance from where I now live, near the current intersection of Jane and Lawrence on the Tretheway Farm. Bleaches for the event were located at what is now Hearst Circle. Following a similar event in Montreal (technically, the first aircraft meet in the British Empire from 27-June-1910 to 5-July-1910), five aircraft traveled to the Toronto area for an aviation meet that lasted from 9-July-1910 to 16-July-1910.

While the Wright Brothers were in attendance with two aircraft and Canada had its domestic presence with the Baddeck No. 1 biplane (a descendant of the Silver Dart) and Hubbard monoplane, the star of the event would prove to be Count Jacques de Lesseps of France and the Blériot XI monoplane. Blériots of three ownerships would be on-hand for the event and would fly the longest distances around the meet, rivaling the Wright Brothers craft. de Lesseps, though, would fly the very aircraft he had flown over the English Channel--named Le Scarabée.

In the most remarkable incident of the meet, de Lesseps flew Le Scarabée from the meet site to downtown Toronto and back on 13-July-1910, a flight of about 20 miles, covered in 28 minutes, an astounding feat for the time (though not as impressive as similar feats performed in Montreal). This marked the first extended flight over Toronto in history. Yet, de Lesseps would capture the public imagination for more than his flying--after the meet, he met and started courting the daughter of a railway magnate, Grace Mackenzie, who he would later marry.

Other interesting events during the meet foreshadowed the future of air shows, with two aircraft flying "nearly wing-to-wing" (though probably quite far apart by modern standards), and a contest in which the fliers dropped sandbags on a target, detonating dynamite if they hit the target.

de Lesseps would ultimately separate from Mackenzie and settle in Quebec, doing geographic surveys from the air, dying in a tragic accident in 1927. The airfield at the Tretheway Farm would last until 1940, when all operations remaining there moved to Downsview.

In a time when aviation seems so commonplace and flights approaching the Island Airport (er, Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport) rarely draw a second glance, it was interesting to hear from Carl Mills about the first time an aircraft ever appeared above downtown Toronto.

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