From Racetrack to Farmer’s Field – Early Aviation on Lulu Island

Richmond has had an association with flight since the first time an airplane took off under its own power in our province. Purpose-built airports did not exist in the early days. Aviators used existing facilities to operate their machines and farm fields, fair grounds and horse racing tracks served the purpose. The latter two were already equipped with grandstands to hold the crowds which gathered, each person paying to witness the fledgling technology of flight and perhaps the spectacle of a crash.

                                    Minoru Park – Brighouse Park Racetrack                                Exhibition Flying and Barnstorming

The place where most of the early milestones of flight in British Columbia took place was Minoru Park Racetrack. Opened in 1909, the mile-long oval occupied the property on which can now be found Richmond City Hall, the south part of Richmond Centre Mall, the Richmond Public Library and Cultural Centre, Richmond Arenas, Richmond Aquatic Centre and the present Minoru Park. On Friday, March 25, 1910, Charles K. Hamilton became the first person to fly an aeroplane in British Columbia when he lifted off in front of 3500 cheering spectators at Minoru Park.

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Charles K. Hamilton made the first airplane flight in British Columbia at Minoru Park Racetrack on March 25, 1910 in this Curtiss biplane. As can be seen in this photo, the aircraft had a hard landing on the infield of the track, bending one of the landing wheels, but was repaired and carried on with its demonstration. (City of Richmond Archives photograph 1978 15 18)

In those dawning days of aviation when the mere sight of a man flying in a machine was thrilling enough to attract thousands of onlookers, Hamilton’s Easter weekend exhibition did not disappoint the crowds. On Friday, after swooping around the grandstand for about ten minutes, the plane swerved suddenly to the centre of the field and landed hard, causing some damage to the undercarriage. Quickly making some repairs, he got the engine started and continued his display.

On Saturday, Hamilton took off again, this time disappearing from view for about twenty minutes, flying to New Westminster where streetcars stopped to let the passengers watch. On his return to Richmond he landed briefly for a refreshment, then took two more flights, one in which he lost a race with a car.

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Hamilton takes to the air in the Curtiss biplane at Minoru Park Racetrack. City of Richmond Archives photograph RCF 116.

On Monday, the exhibition continued, this time featuring a competition with the racehorse Prince Brutus who was given a 3/8 of a mile handicap. The horse took full advantage of its head start, passing the post before the aircraft.

The aircraft that Hamilton flew was historic in its own right. Known as the Rheims Racer, it was built by Glenn H. Curtiss, a central figure in the history of aviation, to compete in the Gordon Bennett Race at Rheims, France on August 29, 1909. The aircraft proved to be superior to the other entrants in the race, a timed closed circuit flight of twenty kilometres, beating his nearest rival, Louis Bleriot, by five seconds to win the Gordon Bennett Aviation Cup and a large cash prize. Curtiss took part in several other meets and races in Europe before shipping the aircraft back to North America where it was leased to Hamilton for use in exhibition flying.

Exhibition flying took place regularly at Minoru Park Racetrack after the flights by Hamilton. In April 1911 a disappointing show was put on by Jack DePries and the Manning Brothers. Widely derided by spectators and the local press, the three day exhibition featured several minor crashes and not much actual flying by the trio, who apparently displayed little skill or experience at operating their aircraft.

In May the same year came test flights at Minoru Park of the Templeton – McMullen biplane, the first aircraft to be designed and built in Vancouver. The aircraft managed several short hops, hampered by an under-powered engine.

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Built in Vancouver by William and Winston Templeton and their cousin William McMullen, the Templeton-McMullen aircraft managed to make a few short hops during trials at Minoru Park Racetrack, but was limited by its under-powered engine. City of Richmond Archives photograph 1985 166 20A.

In April 1912, Billy Stark, BC’s first licensed pilot, flew at Minoru in a Curtiss biplane. During his exhibition program he carried the first aircraft passengers in British Columbia. The first was James T. Hewitt, sports editor of the Daily Province newspaper. Seated on the wing of the aircraft, which was not equipped for passengers, the plane took off from a farmer’s field near the racetrack, long enough to allow the craft to take to the air with the extra load. Hewitt described the experience as “like riding on the cowcatcher of an express locomotive”. Stark’s wife Olive became the first woman to be carried in an airplane in the province the same day.

In August of 1912 aviator and inventor James V. Martin flew his self designed aircraft at Minoru. In July of 1913 a popular aviation show, the Bennett Aviation Company came to Minoru Park. The show featured pilot John Bryant and his wife Alys McKey Bryant who would be the first woman to pilot a plane in British Columbia.

By 1914, aircraft were becoming a more familiar sight in the skies of BC and spectators were less willing to pay to see them. The beginning of World War I in July of that year limited exhibition flying as aviation took on a more serious purpose. The wartime advances in aviation technology and the need to train pilots who would be able to join the Royal Flying Corps led to the formation of flying schools in Canada, the second of which was organized in the summer of 1915 by the newly chartered Aero Club of British Columbia, and began training aviators at Minoru Park. The racetrack soon proved to be too small for flight training purposes and the operation was moved to the Milligan Farm at Terra Nova where a larger field was available. A small hangar building was erected and the flight school operated there until 1916, when it moved to Pitt Meadows.

Horse racing had been discontinued for the duration of the war at Minoru Park but aircraft continued to fly sporadically there. Once the war was over large numbers of modern aircraft and trained airmen came on the scene. The Aerial League of Canada was formed by returned airmen who had developed a love of flying and wanted to promote aviation in Canada. Branches formed around the country, including ones in Vancouver and Victoria. By the summer of 1919 a small hangar had been built and at least five aircraft were based at Minoru Park, mostly war surplus Curtiss JN-4 (Canucks). Commonly known as the Jenny, it was a plane which was the workhorse of the barnstorming era and was used to take the first steps into commercial aviation.

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This aerial view of Minoru Park Racetrack was taken during the Aerial League of Canada’s meet on May 31, 1919. Cars line the track and several planes can be seen on the ground as the BC Electric Railway’s Interurban Tram drops off spectators at the racetrack’s tram stop. City of Richmond Archives photograph 2012 35.

The league’s promotion of aviation raised flying in the public attention by putting on “barnstorming” demonstrations and accomplishing “firsts”. The first flight across Georgia Strait took place on May 13, 1919 when two members of the League took off from Minoru Park, landed in Victoria, had dinner at the Empress Hotel and then flew home. The Aerial League put on several displays at Minoru in 1919 featuring wing walking, aerial acrobatics and races between planes as well as races between a plane and a race car.

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Races between aircraft and horses or cars were a regular feature of aviation displays at Minoru Park. Here’s an image of driver Harry Hooper in the “Vulcan Kewpie” Stutz, accompanied by silent film star Priscilla Dean. Hooper raced an airplane piloted by Lieut. G.K. Trim at Minoru in an event hosted by the Aerial League of Canada on Dominion Day, 1919. City of Richmond Archives photograph 1984 17 69

On August 7, 1919 Ernest C. Hoy, lifted off from Minoru Park and flew into history as the first person to fly across the Rockies. The plane was fitted with an extra 12 gallon fuel tank to allow it to stay in the air for at least four hours. As navigational aids, Hoy used a pocket watch and a railway contour map and he carried 45 officially marked letters as well as a bundle of special edition “Vancouver Daily World” newspapers, making this the first Air Mail flight over the Rockies as well. Hoy landed at Vernon, Grand Forks, Cranbrook and Lethbridge where he could eat, fuel up and have his aircraft adjusted by experienced “air machine men” before making his final landing at Bowness Park in Calgary.

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Ernest C. Hoy stands beside his Curtiss “Jenny” at Minoru Park Racetrack before his historic flight across the Rockies to Calgary, August 4, 1919. City of Richmond Archives photograph 1977 20 3.

Another first for Minoru Park came at 11:25, October 17, 1920, when a DeHavilland DH9A touched down on the field completing the Canadian Air Board – Canadian Air Force Trans-Canada Flight. This undertaking which involved several different aircraft and pilots, started in Halifax and took 247 hours, almost twice as long as taking the train, but still an important milestone in Canadian aviation history.

Lansdowne Field – The Start of Commercial Aviation

Aviation developed rapidly through the 1920s. Sea planes became more common, not requiring large open fields for landings or takeoffs, but the Lower Mainland still had no purpose built airport for land based aircraft. The crunch came in 1927 when Charles Lindbergh refused to land at Vancouver during his North American tour following his trans-Atlantic flight, saying there was no airport worth landing at.

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This 1928 plan shows the BC Electric Railway line and the cross over to the Vancouver airport on Lulu Island. City of Richmond Archives Airport Plan 1928 ser. 25 file 3411-1.

At the same time the Dominion Airways Company was looking for a suitable place for a small airport from which to run their business. They found a field owned by a farmer named Summerfield along the north side of Lansdowne Park Racetrack. The City of Vancouver, who also wanted an airport, became interested in the property and leased it from Mr. Summerfield for use as an airfield in 1928.

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The Vancouver Airport building at Lansdowne Field, ca. 1929. With the buildings and tram wires at the east end of the runway and the poles and wires running down No.3 Road at the west end, pilots needed to take off and land as quickly as possible. City of Richmond Archives photograph 1984 4 52.

Lansdowne Field became British Columbia’s second licensed airport, opening officially in May 1929. While it was only intended to be a temporary facility until a permanent site could be designed and built on Sea Island, the airport became the hub of aviation in the Lower Mainland during its operation.

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Harry Smithson, Aviator and member of the  Aero Club of BC, stands next to a Dehavilland Moth at the Vancouver Airport near Lansdowne Park. In the background, the Alexandra Station of the BC Electric Railway can be seen, as well as a house which is still standing on the corner of Alexandra and Garden City Roads. City of Richmond Archives photograph 1984 4 49.

The field was home to several commercial aviation companies and flight schools run by the Aero Club of BC and Sprott Shaw College. In 1930, gliders were also used to teach elementary flight principles and give students practice at flight control. They were launched using an old Maxwell automobile and a four hundred foot towrope which could let them achieve an altitude of about 200 feet before cutting loose and landing at the airport.

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A primary glider is launched at the Vancouver Airport at Lansdowne. The grandstands of Lansdowne Park Racetrack can be seen in the background. City of Richmond Archives photograph 1989 19 8.

The Vancouver Airport on Lulu Island was not the ideal location for a centre of aviation, however it filled the requirements for the time it took to design and build the airport on Sea Island. None of the businesses which operated from Lansdowne Field survived the early years of the depression. Only the Aero Club of BC, subsidized by the government,  managed to make the move to the new facility.

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The Vancouver Airport on Lulu Island as it looked from the air. On the right, Lansdowne Park Racetrack can bee seen. Airport buildings and hangars can be seen at the east end of the runway. The track for the BC Electric Railway Tram and the intersection of Alexandra Road and North Railway Avenue (now Garden City Road) is visible at the top of the image, City of Richmond Archives photograph 1985 166 2.

By 1930 construction was well underway at the new airport on Sea Island and after its opening on July 22, 1931 aviation activity ceased on Lulu Island. Since the 1930s the Vancouver Airport has grown and expanded to the large International facility it is today, owing its existence to those first flimsy craft that struggled into the air across the Middle Arm from where jumbo jets land today.

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An aerial view of the Vancouver Airport on Sea Island during its construction in 1931 shows a small development on a rural landscape. The airport has expanded occupy almost all of the land on the island. City of Richmond Archives photograph 1985 166 15.

 

 

 

What’s in a Name – Lulu Island

The City of Richmond is an island city, built on islands formed over millennia by the action of the Fraser River. The largest of these islands is Lulu Island, home to the great majority of the city’s population, farmland and industry. Even though it has been part of the Corporation of the Township of Richmond since 1879, people who were born and raised on the island will tell you that they are from Lulu Island, not Richmond, the name appearing on birth certificates, in telephone books up into the 1960s, in business names and even as an official mailing address through the 1950s. Where did this likeable if somewhat whimsical name come from?

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This map was sent by Col. Moody to BC Governor James Douglas and was dated June 29, 1860. It shows trails that were existing at the time, trails that were under construction and trails and roads that Moody recommended be built. It also shows the names of Lulu and Sea Islands, added at a later date in different handwriting. (City of Richmond Archives digital files)

The person responsible for naming Lulu Island, and many other features of the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, was Colonel Richard Clement Moody, a pivotal figure in the history of British Columbia. Moody was made the Commander of the British Columbia detachment of the Royal Engineers in 1858 and was sworn in as the Chief Commissioner of Land and Works and Lieutenant-Governor of the Crown Colony of British Columbia in 1859. Under his command the Royal Engineers located and surveyed defendable town sites, surveyed country lands, built roads,  examined harbours, and reported on mineral deposits, fisheries and other resources. Although police work was not part of the detachment’s mandate, they also took on the task of ensuring that the rule of law was upheld in the fledgling colony.

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Colonel Richard Clement Moody, Royal Engineers, one of the most influential people in early BC history. (BC Archives photo A-01722)

Moody selected New Westminster as the site of the Colony’s capitol, mostly due to its strategic location on the north bank of the river, defendable from an attack from the United States and able to be resupplied from Burrard Inlet through North Road, which was also built by the Engineers. By 1858 the New Westminster town site had been cleared and the streets were not even finished being laid out before town lots were being sold. No frontier town would be complete if some enterprising individual did not open a saloon, and so Mr. J.T. Scott opened the Pioneer Saloon in New Westminster, to which he soon built an addition “in the shape of an extended wooden shack” and called it the Pioneer Theatre. Into this rough frontier town in 1860 came the Potter Dramatic Troupe, who were dropped off on Burrard Inlet and had to walk to New Westminster along the trail which would become North Road, carrying all their costumes and set materials with them. The company’s leader, John S. Potter, was a well-known figure in early American theatre, having opened theatres and managed dramatic companies in virtually every corner of the United States. From 1855 to 1865 he operated in the Northwest, from California to British Columbia, and from October 1860 to May 1863 he was the most important figure in theatre in Victoria.

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Moody’s capital, New Westminster, ca. 1864. A frontier town on the river. (City of Richmond Archives photo 1977 2 25)

 

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Travelling theatre troupes often had to operate on a shoestring budget. Potter was held in custody in Victoria for an unpaid bill of $250 he left in Sacramento. A benefit performance for the relief of his debt was held, featuring members of the Stark Theatrical Troupe as well as members of his own company, including Lulu Sweet, and her mother and father. (The British Colonist, Feb 11, 1861)

Travelling theatrical troupes in the frontier lived a rigorous and hazardous existence. They performed in some of the most primitive theatres one can imagine, in front of audiences consisting of pioneers who were starved for entertainment, often well lubricated at the saloon to which the theatre was often attached. The troupes lived temporarily in boarding houses and cheap hotels, often had to eat poor food and were subjected to the social prejudice that was associated with theatrical people, especially actresses, during that time period. Travel was usually difficult, time consuming, and all the equipment for the shows had to be carried with them, leading to standardization of sets and costumes. A company would carry several sets, painted on canvas, such as a landscape, a fancy interior, a plain interior or a street scene. Costumes would also be adapted to serve for many roles with little attention to historical accuracy. Even the actors would play stereotypical characters for which they had developed a talent for portraying, regardless of the age or gender of the person.

Potter’s troupe played in the Pacific Coast States and Washington Territory, appearing in Vancouver Washington, Portland Oregon and many small California towns. They also performed in theatres in San Francisco and in 1860 made the sea voyage to Victoria, where the troupe boasted about “Being composed of Fifteen Ladies and Gentlemen of acknowledged talent and respectability, they are enabled to present a better series of legitimate entertainments than ever yet attempted in this city.”

The star of Potter’s troupe was young Lulu Sweet, “The Beautiful Juvenile Actress, Songstress and Danseuse.” Lulu, who was born around 1844, was accompanied in her travels with the troupe by her mother, Mrs. E. Sweet who was also an actress, and her father, Dr. John D. Sweet, a physician. Starting around age 12 Lulu was a child actress in the San Francisco Theatre circuit, performing with a company of 27 “juvenile comedians.” She had joined the Potter troupe by 1860, traveling to the western states with them and then to Victoria, where they performed to good reviews for several weeks before taking the trip to New Westminster for a three week engagement. Music for the production was taken care of by the Royal Engineers Band and performances were attended by all the local dignitaries, including Colonel Moody, who was apparently quite a fan of Miss Sweet’s.

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Lulu Sweet, ca. 1865, actress, singer and dancer who gave her name to Lulu Island. (City of Richmond Archives photo RCF 21)

The Potter Troupe played in Victoria and made three trips to New Westminster during their stay in the colonies. It was on the trip back to Victoria on the steamer Otter in January 1861 that Lulu Sweet asked Colonel Moody the name of the large island they were passing. He told her that it had no name and then exclaimed that he would name it after her, and Lulu Island it has been ever since. It appears that Moody had second thoughts about the name he had chosen. A map he sent to the Colonial Office that same year had the name “Lulu” overwritten with the name “Palmer”, most likely hoping to rename the island after one of his officers, Lieutenant Henry Spencer Palmer but Lulu Island it remained.

 

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This photo of Lulu Sweet was taken in 1863 at a studio beside Maguires Opera House in San Francisco, a theatre in which she performed for many years. She never returned to BC after leaving Victoria, and never set foot on the Island that was named for her. (Image from the City of Richmond Biography Files)

Lulu Sweet and the Potter Dramatic Troupe left the colonies in 1863 and returned to San Francisco where she continued to act, sing and dance in venues such as Maguire’s Opera House. She was a successful actress whose name shows up in many playbills and newspaper ads for theatres in San Francisco through 1865 as well as later newspaper articles about the history of theatre in San Francisco. Around that year it appears that she married a Mr. Smith, had four children, later divorcing. She lived with her daughters in Burlingame, a suburb of San Francisco until her death in 1914.