Imperial Beach’s Forgotten Aeronauts

Photo source public domain. Charles, Alice, Juanita Enola, and Kenneth Walsh.

Imperial Beach history is difficult to track. This is due to several factors. Among those are mother nature (in the form of flooding), boom-and-bust periods, changes in transportation modes, wars, and lack of a city preservation program. 

Some of the challenges caused city name and boundary changes that included Monument City, Oneonta, Palm City, Nestor, Tia Juana to San Ysidro, and more. Community memory has been blurred or lost. A great example of this is Otay City. It boomed in 1887 (near Palm and Beyer). It went bust by railroad changes and then washed away in a flood. There was a border war at Mexico Tia Juana in 1911, when Los Angeles communists wanted to take over Baja coupled with the Mexican Revolution that brought refugees to the safety of Imperial Beach’s Camp Hearn. Calvary camps came and went. In the 1920’s, the name of US Tia Juana was changed to San Ysidro by presidential order to lessen confusion. Then World War I brought the Army into what was the U.S. Experimental Airfield at Imperial Beach. Followed by the Navy through World War II, UDT Frogmen in Korea, Helo Air Angels and SEALs in Vietnam, that caused military families to come and go. The impact of automobile systems divided communities - causing demographic changes.

But let’s go back to the Experimental Airfield at Imperial Beach. That is a thread of history worth following. The name was buried by the changes, but it is a community pillar. That field is where aeronauts first built and flew planes in the early 1900s. After doing research on military bases and airmen for the Avenue of Heroes and designating the route a National Blue Star Highway in Coronado, I was curious about the history of flight in Imperial Beach. What I found was exciting. Early local aeronauts/aviators got their start at Imperial Beach’s windy field. The first mention with photographs to timestamp that Airfield are dated 1910. However, in 1908, as soon as San Diego newspapers began reporting the first documented successful flight in a heavier-than-air-craft by the Wright brothers, research suggests that San Diego aviation began at Imperial Beach that year. 

At that time, historians believe the U.S. Aviation Field would have been in Oneonta limits. But in 1908, the name of Imperial Beach was being used, though not formally named until almost 50-years later. So, some photographs and documents regarding the Airfield do state - Imperial Beach. Interestingly, Oneonta was named by New Yorkers who settled in part of today’s Tijuana Estuary. It is a Mohawk First People’s word that loosely means “City of the Hills.” That Aviation Field is believed to be what is now Ream Field at Imperial Beach Outlying Field, Naval Region Southwest. During World War I, the field became the Oneonta Gunnery School for use by the U.S. Army. In 1918, the name of the field was changed to honor Major Doctor Ream, the first flight surgeon in the U.S. In keeping with tradition of those days, almost all airfields of the US military were named for downed Pilots. Major Ream lost his life as a passenger on a flight that crashed in Descanso, California. Ream Field today is still honored with his name. There is a plaque on base commemorating that according to naval liaisons. There is no historic designation and appear to be no efforts to establish it.

The Aviation Field in Imperial Beach drew daring San Diegans who read about the Wright brother’s flight and with newspaper clipped pictures set out to build their own planes and teach themselves to fly. These flights in Imperial Beach were even before the flight event at the Coronado Polo Field that brought early aviators from other areas. This led to the San Diego Aero Club, Flying Leagues, and Glenn Curtiss, who set up his flying school on North Island, that later became Army Rockwell Field (a historic landmark) and is now NASNI. I hope this series is as enjoyable to read as it was to research and write. And that it sparks the will to designate and preserve more of Imperial Beach historical places, people, and events.

Next Feature: Charles Francis Walsh: Imperial Beach’s First and Forgotten Aviator. His wife, Alice, hand-sewed the linen covers for the wings of his planes. He was the first aeronaut to take his family up in a plane and more...

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