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The Early Birds Monument and Governors Island Aviation Pioneers

Early Birds Monument
A U.S. Army Bell-47 hovers over the Early Birds Monument to unveil it on Dec. 17, 1954, on Governors Island.

Governors Island played an important role in the history of aviation. Each week this month will be a historical look at one event in the island’s contribution to the history of manned flight.

The Early Birds Monument is the only tribute to the island’s part in the early days of aviation. It is located outside Liggett Hall (40.687967 N, -74.018033 E). The unique bronze monument is also the first public sculpture on Governors Island.

Early Birds Monument
The Early Birds Monument today, on King Avenue.
This rough-cut granite marker has a bronze propeller that was cast from a wooden one used by Wilbur Wright on the Island in 1909. The monument was dedicated on Dec. 17, 1954 to honor pioneering aviators called the Early Birds, an organization of pilots who flew solo before Dec. 17, 1916.

The monument was originally situated in front of Liggett Hall on what was named Early Birds Road. The monument faced what was the landing field for numerous early flights by the men (and two women) who were aviation pioneers. The field in front of the monument was the landing strip. There are two plaques with lists of names. The first are the Early Birds who were the Island’s first solo aviators:

Wilbur Wright
Glenn H. Curtiss
Charles K. Hamilton
Harry N. Atwood
Harry M. Jones
Harold Kantner
Steve Mac Gordon
Lincoln Beachey
Eugene Ely
Hugh A. Robinson
James J. Ward
Albert S. Heinrich
Victor Carlstrom
Raynal G. Bolling
Ruth Bancroft Law

This is a distinguished list of pioneers, many of whom died at the controls not long after they flew at the Fort Jay airfield:

  • Wright was the first to fly over New York in 1909.
  • The 1910 pioneering flight by Curtis was legendary; he was the Wright Brothers’ rival.
  • Hamilton survived 60 crashes and was the first to fly round-trip from Governors Island to Philadelphia in 1910.
  • Atwood set distance records and landed on the White House lawn in 1911.
  • The first U.S. airmail postal flight was made by Jones from Boston to Governors Island in 1913.
  • Kantner was a racer and flying boat pioneer who soon died in a crash.
  • A Curtiss test pilot and instructor, Mac Gordon also died, after his plane caught fire on the ground in 1916 and he suffered extensive burns.
  • Beachey, the first great stunt pilot, retired after seeing so many friends killed; when he went back to flying in 1915 his wings fell off over San Francisco Bay and he was fatally injured.
  • The first pilot to fly a plane off a Navy ship was Ely, in 1910. He was killed in a crash the following year at age 24.
  • The third man to build an airplane was Robinson, who survived 15 crashes and lived to be 80.
  • In 1911 Ward attempted to fly from Governors Island to California, but didn’t get far.
  • The Brooklyn-born Heinrich designed the first monoplane.
  • Another Curtiss test pilot, Carlstrom set altitude, speed, and endurance records. In 1917 he lost a wing at 3,500-feet and died.
  • One of the first Army aviators, Bolling was a civilian pilot who flew from the Island to Long Island. In World War I Bolling went to France to command American pilots, but was shot and killed by German troops while on the ground.
  • The name Ruth Bancroft Law is frequently mentioned with Amelia Earhart, but Law was a pioneer when the younger woman was in high school, and flew across the country and for the military. She died in 1970.
  • Aviator Katherine Stinson’s name is not on the plaque, having missed the cut-off date by six months.

    Early Birds Monument
    The monument in May 2009 when it was in front of Liggett Hall.

    Prior to the United States’ entrance into World War I in 1917, Governors Island was home to an aviation-training center organized by civilians to promote military aviation. There is a section of the Early Birds Monument that reads: “From May 1916 to March 1917 members of the Governors Island Training Corps trained here.” Capt. Philip A. Carroll, was the commanding officer, and Filip A. Bjorklund was the civilian instructor. Some of these men went on to be members of America’s first airplane combat squadron. The list of pilots:
    Hobart A.H. Baker
    Frederick T. Blakeman
    Albert B. Gaines, Jr.
    Stedman S. Hanks
    William A. Larned
    Howard G. Larsley
    Seth Low
    Cord Meyer
    James B. Miller
    Edwin M. Post, Jr.
    Charles Reed
    Lawrence Sperry
    J. Walter Struthers
    Al Sturtevant
    William Walton
    Charles D. Wiman

    Early Birds Monument
    The Early Birds Monument unveiled in 1954.
    It’s an impressive monument. The eight tons of granite for the monument was quarried on Deer Island in Penobscot Bay, Maine. Fasolino Monuments of Woodside, Queens, performed the stonework. The bronze propeller was cast directly from one of the two propellers used on the first United States military airplane, a 1909 Wright. Modern Art Foundry of Long Island City made the casting. Atlas Pattern and Model Works in Brooklyn cast the other bronze work on the monument.

    The monument was unveiled in a fitting manner: a U.S. Army Bell-47 helicopter hovered and lifted a parachute off it during a grand ceremony. For sixty years it stood a few hundred yards in front of Liggett Hall, roughly where Hammock Grove is today.

    Early Birds Monument
    The monument in September 2011 in its original spot.

    The sculpture was relocated in 2014 when Liggett Terrace was constructed and Early Birds Road was bulldozed. Today the monument stands on the shady corner of King Avenue and Division Road, a short walk from where Wilbur Wright and Glenn Curtiss had their hangers in 1909.

    Another aviation story will be posted next week. For more history stories, pick up The Governors Island Explorer’s Guide (Globe Pequot Press).

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