Charles Francis Walsh
Second in a Series
If locals of San Diego County were asked to list homegrown aviation pioneers, most might not name Charley Walsh.
They would likely say John Joseph Montgomery, who joined his family at their new farm, Fruitland, at the Otay River mouth during the boom in 1882, with his brothers James (a lawyer), Richard (a horticulturist), and father, Zachariah (Attorney General for the Department of the Interior). Of note, his maternal grandmother was the “celebrated Temescal pioneer Bridget Shannon Evoy, probably the only woman who led a covered wagon train across the plains in 1849-1850.”
While Montgomery was an inventor, physicist, and engineer, he was not a native to San Diego. He spent time here, but his life was up north. Montgomery took over a barn on the farm and worked on “his initial manned glider designs.” It is well accepted that he made the first successful flight from the mesa near Otay City. His brothers and neighbors, Ed Stokes, and Thomas Couts, helped him out. The Stokes and Couts families have significant histories in San Diego, and both lived in Monumentville in 1890. (Monument City is changed to Monumentville on records, so it may have been known by two names).
Montgomery was almost forgotten. He received little initial notoriety for two reasons. He had no independent witnesses and he did not get immediate patents. Montgomery stayed in Otay only three years, until 1885, the same year the Transcontinental railroad reached San Diego. He left to begin his career at Santa Clara University. It is not known if other flyers were inspired by his work or had access to documents he left at the farm.
It is known that in 1916, the Hatfield flood overtook Otay Dam and washed away the family farm and all Montgomery’s documents and planes, along with most south bay cities. His memory would have been erased were it not for devoted historians. Like Montgomery, another early aviator, Charles Francis Walsh, was also almost erased. He too, was drawn to San Diego’s windy southern flatlands - Imperial Beach.
It was 1908. Charley Walsh was filled with excitement when the Wright brothers made headlines in San Diego newspapers for the first mechanized fight. He, as Imperial Beach folks are known to do, set out as a shaper - of aeroplanes. In truth, he pioneered flight on our southwest coast. Walsh was building planes in Imperial Beach in 1909, long before Glenn Curtiss set up his flight-school at North Island, and before Mongomery was killed after a head injury in his glider - Evergreen. Both in 1911.
Walsh was crafting planes and teaching himself to fly at a windy field in Imperial Beach—the U.S. Experimental Airfield. It is supposed that site later became today’s Ream Field. In no time, aeronaut Walsh made headlines: “Walsh Flies Successfully;” “Walsh Makes Daring Flights;” “Walsh Tests Biplane at North Island;” “Famous Aviators Roehrig and Walsh;” “Walsh Covers Three Miles;” “Walsh First Californian to Make Double Circle;” “Walsh Wins All Trophies:” “Aviator Walsh Qualifies for License at Dominguez.”
Unlike Montgomery or Curtiss, Walsh was a native-born San Diegan. Walsh was born a “wiry” baby boy to Walter and Catharine (Ahern) Walsh, on Oct. 26, 1877. His father was an engineer turned grocery-man from Maine. His mother hailed from Ireland. They lived at 78 19th Street, dwelling 525, in Mission Valley.
Walsh, a “wailing, red-faced boy with matching bright hair…was a pride of the family…We’ve got to give him a good Irish Catholic name, mama,’ Walt Walsh said with a twinkle in his steel blue eyes.” Catherine Walsh had already chosen Charles Francis if the baby was a boy. His dad gleefully said, “he’ll be a fine broth of a lad to help me at the store.” Walt Walsh owned a chain for grocery stores. As if prophetically, Charley’s mother retorted, “’E may ‘ave your eyes, Love, but I doubt if ‘e ‘as the likes of you for the grocery business.”
She proved right. Soon after, his little brother Robert was born, Robert Walsh would go on to work with his father. Charley Walsh would reach for the sky.
Continued next edition…