Introduction: "Like a bird, the machine went into the air"
In the cold of February in 1910, a group of men assembled on the frozen surface of Chebacco Lake in Hamilton, Massachusetts, to see if they could make good on a deal, and perhaps make a little bit of history at the same time. Earlier that month W. Starling Burgess, a well-known yacht builder from Marblehead, had displayed his design for a pusher biplane at the Boston Aero Show held in Mechanics Hall. Burgess’s plane, noted by the media for its superb workmanship, stole the show.
Ironically, however, neither it nor any of the other planes at the show had yet completed a successful flight. Charles W. Parker, a wealthy carousel supplier from Kansas, promised Burgess $5,000 if he proved it could fly. Burgess had already planned a test run on the family estate of Norman Prince, a young Harvard law student who harbored a fellow fascination with flight. Burgess’s partner, Augustus Moore Herring, had helped design and was to pilot the plane. A little over six years after the Wright Brothers’ initial flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, at a time when still precious few had managed to get a heavier-than-air craft off the ground, Burgess and Herring would attempt to bring aviation to New England.
Bring it they did. On February 28, Herring made the first successful flight in New England, mounting to an altitude of six to thirty feet and covering a distance of forty to 120 yards (depending on the witness) before slamming back down on the ice. After this single flight, Burgess sold the plane to Parker, moved operations to the marshes of Plum Island in Newbury, Massachusetts (about two miles east-southeast of the current site of the airport), and began building a new and improved biplane at his factory in Marblehead. Over the next few months, Burgess performed flight tests at Plum Island, with some successes and just as many failures, and always to the delight of spectators who came in increasing numbers to see the airplanes – or “aeroplanes” as they were called in those early days.
Following these first efforts, Plum Island Airport grew and transformed over the course of the twentieth century. Beginning operations on the current site by the late 1920s, it served as a flight school, an emergency landing base for the Army, a training site for the Civil Air Patrol during World War II, grounds for circuses, fairs, and air shows, a tourist spot, and a transportation hub for many local pilots and businessmen. Through these many incarnations the airport remained an active part of the communities of Newbury and Newburyport, as well as that of New England aviation.
The airport resides on a parcel of land leased from Historic New England’s Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm. As part of the centennial celebrations of both Historic New England and Plum Island aviation, this collaborative exhibition documents the history of the airport and its role in pioneering flight in New England, its development throughout the twentieth century, and its continuous impact on local communities.