Davenporters of Note: Eugene B. Ely

November is National Aviation Month, so it seems like the perfect time to honor one of Davenport’s foremost flyboys.

Eugene B. Ely, son of attorney N. D. Ely,was born in Williamsburg, Iowa, on October 21st, 1886. When Eugene was nine, his family moved to Davenport, where he attended grammar and high schools.  After graduation, he worked as a mechanic and salesman at P. C. Petersen garage and later moved to San Francisco, where he learned to fly.  He was hired by Glenn Curtiss to be a pilot.

On November 14th, 1910, Eugene Ely became the first person to fly an airplane off the deck of a war ship, successfully taking off from the USS Birmingham off Hampton Roads, Virginia. Two months later, on January 18th, 1911 he became the first person to land on a war ship, successfully landing on the USS Pennsylvania at San Francisco Bay.

 Back in Davenport, an Aviation Meet was planned for October 7 and 8, 1911, at Suburban Park (now Credit Island Park).  The event was to feature Curtiss aviators Charles Walsh  . . . and native son Eugene Ely.

Mr. Ely arrived by train to the Rock Island depot on Thursday, October 5th and was paraded through downtown Davenport with a brass band.  A reception was held in his honor at the Kimball House in Davenport and the next day a banquet at the Commercial Club arranged by P. C. Petersen.   Mr. Ely was presented with a gold watch inscribed: “From Friends at Home”.

It was a warm welcome for the aviator, and his display of flying skill earned him a lavish send-off in appreciation and hopes that Mr. Ely would soon return.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t to be: on October 19, 1911, just a week or so after the meet in Davenport, Eugene Ely died during an exhibition at the Georgia State Fair.  Davenport newspapers eulogized their favorite pilot and the world of aviation mourned the loss of one of its most talented young men.


Image courtesy of the Davenport Democrat and Leader, 10 October 1911,  page 11.

Sources Used:

“Davenporters Honor Native Son; Aviator Eugene Ely Remembered.” Davenport Democrat and Leader 8 October 1911: page 28.

“Eugene Ely “brass banded” to hotel.” Davenport Democrat and Leader 6 October 1911: page 15.

“Pictures Taken at the Aviation Meet in Davenport.” Davenport Democrat and Leader 10 October 1911: page 11.

Speer, Mary Louise. “Air of history: Daredevils of the past kept all eyes to the skies.” Quad-City Times 19 June 2001: page B1.

Willard, John. “Eugene Ely blazes a trail in the sky.” Quad-City Times 16 December 2003: page B1.

(posted by Cristina)

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