Culture

By land, air and sea

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A Curtiss C-46 Commando, a vintage cargo plane from World War II, sits at the entrance to the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport. - PHOTO BY ABBY QUATRO
  • PHOTO BY ABBY QUATRO
  • A Curtiss C-46 Commando, a vintage cargo plane from World War II, sits at the entrance to the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport.
The village of Hammondsport is a quintessential vacation town, better known for the ways in which one can slow down there — namely, relaxing by the Keuka Lake and enjoying a glass of wine at one of several vineyards — rather than speed up.
But its reputation as a scenic summer destination belies another crucial part of its lasting legacy and ongoing identity, as the home of not one but two distinct transportation museums that tell stories of American innovation and Finger Lakes leisure in the 20th century.

THE FASTEST MAN ON EARTH

Glenn H. Curtiss — the namesake of the museum with an impressive cache of vintage and restored bicycles, motorcycles and airplanes — was born in Hammondsport in 1878 before moving to Rochester and developing a reputation as a tinkerer of two-wheel conveyances. In 1907, Curtiss was auspiciously dubbed “the fastest man on earth” after riding his motorcycle, equipped with a V8 engine, at 136.4 miles per hour on Ormond Beach in Florida.

But Curtiss wasn’t just a thrill seeker and motorcycle enthusiast. He was an innovative engineer who was pivotal in advancing modern engine technology that drivers still benefit from today. What’s particularly remarkable is that Curtiss achieved this legacy after having to quit school as a child to support his family after his father and grandfather died.

“Everything that you see came out of eighth grade education, which just blows my mind,” the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum Executive Director Carol Anne Adams said of the vast collection on display. “Today, you're told you have to have a PhD to go do X, Y and Z.”
The Glenn H. Curtiss Museum has a collection of aircraft, vintage motorcycles and automobiles in its 60,000-square-foot facility. - PHOTO BY ABBY QUATRO
  • PHOTO BY ABBY QUATRO
  • The Glenn H. Curtiss Museum has a collection of aircraft, vintage motorcycles and automobiles in its 60,000-square-foot facility.
Curtiss’s ingenuity was exemplified in the single-cylinder engines he developed for the motorcycles he began manufacturing in 1902. The motorcycle’s carburetor was made using a tomato soup can. By 1906, his machines utilized a V-twin engine and a twist-grip throttle — both of which were new technologies he adapted for motorcycles.

By 1904, Curtiss had turned his attention to planes. Although he considered the pursuit of air travel to be frivolous, Curtiss’s work would eventually result in technological progress in this field as well. He was a trailblazer with the air-cooled engine, the concept of which he successfully used in the 1908 Model B-8 engine that powered the Curtiss June Bug in its inaugural sustained flight. It’s recognized as the first public flight announced in advance. Curtiss flew the plane more than 5,000 feet within one minute and 42 seconds, a feat which won him a Scientific American Trophy.



A replica of the plane, called the June Bug II, flew in 1976 and is currently on display at the Curtiss Museum; a 50th anniversary exhibition commemorating that flight is in the works.
The June Bug replica on display inside the Curtiss Museum. - PHOTO BY ABBY QUATRO
  • PHOTO BY ABBY QUATRO
  • The June Bug replica on display inside the Curtiss Museum.
In 1911, the Hammondsport native developed a seaplane for the U.S. Navy, and in 1919, Curtiss’s NC-4 flying boat became the first plane to fly over the Atlantic ocean when Navy and Coast Guard pilots flew it, with stops, from Rockaway Beach in New York to Lisbon, Portugal.

This successful foray into aviation led to a bitter rivalry and contentious battle over patents with the Wright Brothers, whose superior ability to market themselves contributed to their present-day notoriety — and Curtiss’s comparative obscurity. Ironically, a company that bore both last names was formed in 1962, following the merger of 12 companies affiliated with Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company out of Buffalo and Wright Aeronautical in Dayton, Ohio.

Adams began her tenure as director of education at the Curtiss Museum last year, before being promoted to the position of executive director. In this elevated role, she plans to make engaging people through education a priority.

“One of my goals in the next three to five years is to really turn us into a STEM-based learning lab where people can come here and see a dissected engine,” she said. “A place to inspire young inventors and tinkerers and enthusiasts to move forward, versus just having stagnant displays.”
PHOTO BY ABBY QUATRO
  • PHOTO BY ABBY QUATRO

FLOATING IN THE FINGER LAKES

If the Curtiss Museum didn’t already feature enough variety in its machines for prospective visitors to Hammondsport, the Finger Lakes Boating Museum fills in the gap with its display of more than 100 boats built either by regional manufacturers or those with local ties — plus 250 more boats in storage.

The models on display, which include those built by Penn Yan, Thompson, Morehouse and other Finger Lakes builders, date from the early 20th century to the 1960s. The Finger Lakes region was known for its luxury launch vessels and trout boats. The museum also has an impressive exhibition of 19th-century steamboat models on display, shining light on the significant role the boats’ north-south trips on the Finger Lakes played in connecting people and goods traveling via the Erie Canal to the region.There also plans to help commemorate the bicentennial of the Erie Canal in 2025.

Kara Calder, executive director at the museum, says maintaining the collection is about telling a story — not just about the Finger Lakes rich boating history, but also its ongoing culture, carried on by museum members who provide their vessels for the museum’s use and volunteer their time to actively work on boat restoration projects.

“We have a tremendous group from around the country and around the world, hobbyists and aficionados, that love what we're doing, because they already understand the story,” Calder said. “And then we have people that we want to draw into the story by making it relevant.”

An experienced professional in the worlds of education and nonprofits, Calder was drawn to her position at the boating museum in part due to the work and dedication of its volunteers — of which there are 100 who actively assist the museum. In addition to working on renovations, volunteers also help with tours and other guest services. The museum also operates cruises and chartered trips on Keuka Lake.

The Finger Lakes Boating Museum was created in 1996 by a group of antique boat aficionados, and a year later, the institution received a provisional museum charter from the New York State Board of Education. The museum had various locations in the Finger Lakes before eventually settling on the 14-acre Hammondsport campus where Taylor Wine Company was once headquartered. Mercury, the metal fabrication and manufacturing company responsible for the construction of the Curtiss June Bug replica, were the previous tenants before the museum moved there in 2014. Efforts to expand the museum’s exhibitions are ongoing, including a more short-term, 18-month project to renovate two of the museum’s buildings, and a longer five-year project for displaying sailboats.

Museums often act as time capsules, commemorating a distant past that may bear little resemblance to the present community served. But both the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum and the Finger Lakes Boating Museum strive to transcend historical preservation and reflect the Finger Lakes region back to itself — a community with a living legacy of both revolution and repose.

Daniel J. Kushner is an arts writer at CITY. He can be reached at [email protected].

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