Part 4 Charley Walsh Gets Ready to Fly
The landscape was quite different in South San Diego in the early 1900’s. 1907 Mexico permitted gambling in Baja and “American John E. Russell built a greyhound racing track in Tia Juana.” Much of the region was filled with lemon trees. The Tia Juana river valley to the sea was windswept and barren.
By 1908 the Little Landers Utopian community sprung up with a co-operative farming philosophy; where if you gave a man a little land, he could make a living. Smythe road in today’s San Ysidro is named for its founder. It included remnants of the U.S. Township of Tia Juana that had been wiped out (along with Otay City) in 1891 flood.
The community was not far from where Charles Francis Walsh, the early Imperial Beach aeronaut would build his first plane. It was that same year, while Walsh worked in steam and mechanical engineering on the railroad in San Diego that news hit from the east of the Wright Brothers’ exploits in flight. He told his wife Alice to save anything she saw about flying. “She tried, but very little news of man‘s endeavors into aeronautics reached then remote San Diego.”
His father Walter saw the glint in his son’s eye as he watched him read everything he could get his hands on about flying. Walter expressed to Alice his dread that Charley would “take up with flying machines.“ Charley’s mother, who accepted her son’s adventurous spirit from the moment of his birth, had died. She was not there to calm the worried father. This caused tension in the home.
Charley was secretly approaching local businessmen to sponsor him building an aeroplane. According to Charley’s wife, “His father heard of this latest scheme--The boy‘s daft…I’ll have no part of it!” he muttered. Most people of the day thought in the same way. Except for State Senator Wright of San Diego. He had been to the east and saw a Wright demonstration for himself. He convinced J. W. O’Connell, a prominent real estate man, to invest in Walsh.
Wright provided Charley with pictures of the Wright propulsion system. By now, Walsh was working for an elevator company. In between up-and-down elevator rides, Walsh sketched his conceptual aeroplane. His drawings further convinced investors.
Charley and his friend, Bernard F. Roehrig, began building aeroplanes at Imperial Beach. Roehrig had been a San Diego resident since toddlerhood. By summer, Charley completed a Curtiss-type plane. His wife hand-sewed the fabric for the wings. Roehrig completed his Farman-type (according to Roehrig’s notes), where he and Charley “established a windy camp at Imperial Beach, adjoining Coronado Heights on the south…” They spent every evening and all their free time building planes and learning to fly at Imperial Beach. It became known as the U.S. Aviation Field, and that field where they experimented is believed to be where Ream Field (EST. 1918) is today—an Outlying Field of Naval Region Southwest.
By September, Charley’s ‘San Diego Aeroplane Manufacturing Company’ was incorporated. “Offices were opened in the Keating Building and the Honorable… (Senator)... L.A. Wright became president while Walsh was Vice President and General Manager.”
Charley produced a 50-foot wingspan monoplane after he was provided a 29-HP Cameron automobile engine by a local dealer. He “fitted it into a cradle just behind the pilot‘s seat where the drive shaft would turn twin propellers through the center section area.” The only pictures that Charley had showed the outer portion of the wings cut off. So, he tapered wings to a flat surface as they reached the tips. The greatest advance in his concept was hinged trailing edge ailerons near the outer portion of each wing.
According to the 1910 Census, Charley, Alice, and their two children, Kenneth, 4, and Enola, 2, lived in Otay Township/City (near Beyer and Palm today), ironically, near the memorial wing of flyer John J. Montgomery. That year also marked the beginning of the Mexican Revolution that would last until 1920. U.S. Calvary Troops were stationed in Imperial Beach at Camp Hearn as a precaution - and to assist the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the violence in central Mexico.
Next week, Part 5 - Charley Walsh Flies