Building for Victory

The original Curtiss plant was a quirky place. Once new factories came on line, Hammondsport mostly made engines for export.

The Finger Lakes in the Great War

by Kirk House

Pioneer pilot Jack Vilas recalled that in 1913, when he handed Glenn Curtiss a $1,500 check as down payment on a seaplane, it was obvious that cash was in short supply around the Hammondsport plant. Glenn sold controlling interest for seven million dollars three years later.

The difference, of course, was the First World War, which started in mid-1914 and ran almost to the end of 1918. The British, Canadian, and American militaries suddenly demanded airplanes in thousands, with engines and components in tens of thousands. Curtiss bought, leased, or built factories in Buffalo, Canada, Russia, California, and Massachusetts. Some people hailed him as a hero who supplied the tools of victory. Others damned him and his colleagues as “merchants of death,” whose businesses grew so huge that America HAD to join in with the Allies or face national bankruptcy. (Both arguments had their points, but they both grossly oversimplified a very complex situation.)

Curtiss kept his Hammondsport plant going, employing well over a thousand people, exceeding the village population. You couldn’t find rooms in Bath or Hammondsport, and newspapers reported that eight Avoca men were driving every day by motorcar – sixteen miles each way! – to get to their jobs.

But the plant, which had spent a decade growing up haphazardly around Glenn’s grandmother’s place, had grapevines running right up to the walls and fuselages stacked between the rows of the vineyard. Hammondsporters lived 24-7 with airplane engines roaring away in test stands all over the hillside, and you could hear them four miles away, when you came over the hill from Bath. No wonder he needed bigger, more modern factories.

The same was true for the Thomas brothers, who made their own airplanes in Bath. Needing more capital and a bigger work force, they moved to Ithaca and merged with Morse Chain Company, forming Thomas-Morse and becoming one of America’s biggest airplane makers (though Curtiss still dwarfed everybody else combined).

Up in Rochester, Taylor Instruments made altimeters and other devices for aeronautical and other uses. Geneva boat makers Fay and Bowen put their skills to work under subcontract for Curtiss, building hulls for flying boats. A Bath outfit, the American Multiplane Company, spent the whole war working on a single over-large, too-complex airplane. Three years running they took it to Dayton to demonstrate for the army, and never got it off the ground.

Elmira’s Willys-Morrow plant made aeronautical engines (both Curtiss and Liberty) under license. Ingersoll-Rand in Painted Post shipped out two boxcar loads of shell casings every day, while Corning Glass Works got orders for precision lenses. Unaccustomed to such fine work, they bought art-glass makers Steuben Glass for their expertise.

A few people, like Curtiss, made fortunes. Others, like the Thomas brothers, did pretty well. For tens of thousands of ordinary people the war meant good-paying jobs for a few years, but peace put an end to all that. The war ended on November 11, and by December 31 the Curtiss Hammondsport plant had closed for good. The money was good while it lasted, and losing it was a jolt. But at least the boys came home.

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