The Rising Tide, 1920-1941
CHAPTER FOUR: The Flush Years
The Roaring Twenties were approaching their height and the tide of movement was ever westward. The year was 1926 and the nation was enjoying an unprecedented prosperity. In California banks were being merged and giant financial institutions created. In Los Angeles more than 2,000,000 persons clustered in and around the city.
In San Diego Spreckels was erecting the massive structure that was to dominate the main business street of the city over which he had exerted so much influence for nearly forty years. He named it the John D. Spreckels Building.
The “geraniums vs. smokestacks” argument seemed to be largely academic. Prosperity was rising with a tourist business and the arrival of retired people who wanted to live out their days in warm comfort and of persons with regular incomes who merely wanted to enjoy themselves.
Only a year before Spreckels had opened his new resort at Mission Beach. A $4,000,000 amusement center was dedicated in May during celebrations of the 75th anniversary of California’s admission to the Union. There was a large bathhouse and dancing casino, and along the ocean front was an esplanade and seawall 1600 feet long.
The amusement center was to be just the beginning, and there were plans for a hotel, a stadium for water sports, an auditorium for conventions and theatrical productions and an ice skating rink. It was considered certain that Mission Beach would strengthen San Diego’s ambition to be the recreational capital of the West.
The Spreckels companies also had completed the extension of their electric street car line from Ocean Beach through Mission Beach to La Jolla and almost overnight opened up a scenic marine area for promotional developments which followed almost immediately. If perhaps San Diegans were misreading the signs of the times, and what they might mean to them, they were no different from the businessmen and land salesmen in any other section of the country.
After the death of his brother, Adolph B. Spreckels, in San Francisco in 1924, John D. Spreckels had spent more of his time with the financial affairs of the J. D. & A. B. Spreckels Securities Company, which controlled much of the family fortune, and left some of his interests in San Diego in charge of his son, Claus.
In a curiously impersonal letter dated June 11, 1925, the father suggested that his son surrender all of his connections with these companies and assume the chairmanship of an advisory committee to coordinate all of the expanding San Diego operations. William Clayton, who had been Spreckels principal manager in San Diego, assumed direct charge of the twelve companies.
While this was being carried out, word was received in San Diego of the death of E. W. Scripps aboard his yacht off the coast of Liberia, North Africa, on March 12, 1926. He was seventy-one years of age. For thirty-four years he had maintained a home at Miramar. Through his newspaper, the San Diego Sun, he had dabbled in San Diego politics, sometimes seriously and helpfully and at other times whimsically, but in the main he had spoken for the opposition to the plans of Spreckels. In his later years he had removed himself from the burdens of the operations of his newspapers and from the ambitions of politicians and statesmen, and died virtually alone and was buried at sea.
Spreckels became ill the same Spring. A brother, Rudolph, of San Francisco, with whom he had been estranged for many years, was refused permission to see him, according to notes in a family scrapbook. Death came on June 7, 1926. His son, Claus, was at his bedside. The great building, or monument, he was erecting on Broadway between Sixth and Seventh streets was only half finished.
In issuing a proclamation asking that public buildings and business houses be closed during funeral services, Mayor Bacon said that “this is little enough tribute at the passing of a great San Diegan.” Memorial services were held in Balboa Park in the Organ Pavilion which he had built and donated to the city for the Panama-California Exposition in 1915 and 1916. George Burnham, chairman, said:
“San Diego has no greater name than John D. Spreckels…he was the heart and life and nerve…of the city he loved and helped to build.”
His will disposed of shares valued at nearly $15,000,000 in the J. D. and A. B. Spreckels Securities Company. Most of it went to his son, two daughters, and the children of a deceased son. The largest bequest, for $300,000, went to Mercy Hospital. In a little more than one month Claus Spreckels announced he was resigning from the advisory board of the Spreckels interests, and later formed three companies of his own. He stated:
“I wasn’t much more than an office boy, and I felt that I did not need to work under such conditions. I believe my services will be more valuable to me elsewhere — where what I have to do or say will amount to something.”
In the two decades the two Spreckels brothers, John and Adolph, had doubled the $25,000,000 inherited from their father, Claus Spreckels, despite having had losses in San Diego. In addition to the holdings in San Diego, the company properties included half-interest in the Spreckels Sugar Company, full ownership of the gigantic Western Sugar Refinery, downtown San Francisco real estate, the Oceanic Steamship Company Line, and properties, plantations and business holdings at Coos Bay, Oregon, the Hawaiian Islands and the Philippines.
The death of John D. Spreckels also marked the last time that any Spreckels sat on the board of directors of the sugar companies. The Spreckels brothers were succeeded in the company management, not by sons but by in-laws. The securities company was changed from a partnership to a corporation and the estate of Adolph Spreckels was held in a trust which permitted the exercise of control. The investments in San Diego had never been popular with the other San Francisco members of the family.
The breakup of the large Spreckels holdings in San Diego was near at hand. When John D. Spreckels first saw San Diego it was a town of about 35,000. When the boom of the 1880’s ended, the population dropped to 16,000. Before his death he had seen it climb to at least 140,000. The final five years had been the most significant and could have produced the rewards for which Spreckels had spent so much and worked so long.
For three years San Diego had been a “white spot” on the nation’s business map. Between 1920 and 1926, the number of building permits issued annually increased from 2609, valued at $3,537,107, to 8320, valued at $18,198,200. The city building inspector, Oscar G. Knecht, said that just to keep pace with growth in the next year San Diego would have to have $3,500,000 in new homes and $6,500,000 in new hotels, schools, churches and business buildings.
The value of ocean shipping increased in five years from $19,000,000 to more than $35,000,000 annually. Five steamships arrived in a single day, bringing more than 2,000,000 feet of lumber. Congress appropriated $250,000 to begin work on a $1,000,000 naval pier and bids were opened for further federal dredging of the harbor. The ornate Commonwealth Building and its theater at Fifth and B streets opened a new world of entertainment. The Medico-Dental Arts announced a thirteen-story professional building would be erected at the corner of Second and A streets. Charles Holzwasser, who had opened a department store at Broadway and Fifth Street in 1920, announced plans for an adjoining fourteen-story structure. The membership campaign of the newly organized San Diego Athletic Club passed its goal and a $550,000 club building was to be erected at Sixth and A streets.
The tourist business for the winter of 1925-1926 was considered to be the best on record, and the Chamber of Commerce magazine reported that apartment houses had been filled:
“As a result of the rush the housing bureau of the San Diego-California Club has proved a friend in time of need to a number of winter visitors. Every day the services of the bureau have been called upon to solve a housing problem for people from other sections of the United States who have come to San Diego to dodge winter climate which prevails in their home towns.”
From Hollywood came the Talmadge sisters, the actresses Constance, Norma and Natalie, to open a subdivision they called Talmadge Park. Beach lots at La Jolla Shores were selling at prices from $4000 to $10,000. The newly organized Club La Jolla de la Playa was selling memberships for its club on La Jolla’s “whispering sands.” A real estate and oil lands speculator in Los Angeles, who had run a stake of $400 into $6,000,000 in four years, came to San Diego to look over the opportunities, at the suggestion of a local banker, Jesse Shreve. He was John P. Mills. Together, they walked through the sage brush on the ocean side of Point Loma and decided to subdivide it. Shortly afterward they were joined in the project by Alexander Pantages, the theater chain owner. In a statement Mills said:
“All great authorities agree that Southern California is, without doubt, to become the most densely populated center in the United States within a very short time. The reason, of course, primarily, is climatic conditions; San Diego has something that no other city in the United States has — that is, the most equable climate in all of this great country.”
The question was asked: what is the population of California going to be? The Los Angeles Examiner compared the size of the state with England and Italy. Great Britain had a population of more than 42,000,000 persons in an area of less than 90,000 square miles, and Italy a population of perhaps 39,000,000 in 118,000 square miles. In contrast, California with 158,000 square miles, in 1926 had a population of only 5,000,000.
Los Angeles had become one of the most important manufacturing centers of the country. In searching for reasons why San Diego had not kept relative pace, the managing secretary of the Chamber of Commerce, Orville McPherson, said he had become convinced the city had to determine what one big product it was best suited to manufacture and then concentrate on it. He suggested aviation:
“Commercial aviation is entering on an era of development that will equal the automobile industry and perhaps surpass it some day…San Diego is fortunate in having a very promising nucleus already in the Ryan monoplane factory.”
The airline that T. Claude Ryan had inaugurated between San Diego and Los Angeles had grown to fifteen airplanes, the largest a “twelve passenger air bus.” He became dissatisfied with the type of planes available and designed a high-wing monoplane. An article in Air Transportation magazine of 1928 recalled the pioneering period:
“Three men were gathered around a table covered with papers and drawings late one night in November, 1925. The place was San Diego, California, and the men were B. F. Mahoney, Hawley Bowlus and T. C. Ryan. The rough drawings of Bowlus showed three views of an unusual parasol type monoplane. The monoplane type was singular enough in those days for Fokker was the only manufacturer at that time who was using this design commercially in this country.
“None of those present was sufficiently schooled in engineering to figure a stress analysis of the new model, and consequently the services of Wm. Waterhouse, a Los Angeles engineer, were called in to complete this important detail.”
The new airplane was designated the M-1 and the first one was produced in a shed on Dutch Flats in less than ninety days and was tested on February 1, 1926. The M-1 made aviation history up and down the coast. It flew from Vancouver Field, Washington, to Los Angeles, more than 1100 miles, in nine hours and fifty minutes, non-stop. As a result the Pacific Air Transport Company, a forerunner of United Air Lines, was drawn to the sturdy little ship and ordered seven of them.
In September the increased production of the M-1 and of an improved model known as the M-2, required an expansion and operations were moved to an unused cannery on the waterfront at the foot of Juniper Street. About twenty-three M-1s and M-2s were turned out the first year of production.
When he started manufacturing planes, Ryan discontinued the San Diego-Los Angeles air service, after about a year of operation. It had carried passengers and some express but no airmail. By the end of 1926, Ryan disposed of his interest in the company to his partner and financial backer, B. Franklin Mahoney, although he remained as general manager.
The recommendation of the planner John Nolen that San Diego should have a major airport and that it should be on waterfront tidelands, was taken up by the aviation committee of the Chamber of Commerce. The site was within ten to fifteen minutes of the business district, the post office and all other transportation terminals. Major T. C. Macaulay, a former pioneer Army flier, was chairman of the aviation committee, and he urged a bond issue for its construction in the near future. He said:
“San Diego will occupy the unique position of being one of the few cities in the world, if not the only city, where the municipal airport allows both types of aircraft, one operating from the land, the other from the water.”
By resolution the Nolen Plan was the official development plan for San Diego, but there were many in the city who remembered how the original city plan submitted by Nolen in 1908 had been violated almost immediately and quickly buried. A test of the new Nolen Plan came in its first year in 1926. A new site was sought for San Diego State College, which had outgrown its buildings at Normal Street and Park Boulevard. It was proposed that it be placed in Balboa Park east of Park Boulevard, which would have absorbed all of the remaining undeveloped land in the park.
The park as well as the waterfront were central to Nolen’s conception of the kind of a city San Diego should become. In a re-study of the park he recommended appropriate landscaping, the location of new roads and that the disputed area be devoted to recreation. Nolen warned that the encroachments upon the park were serious, probably more so than in any other major American city, and urged San Diegans to preserve what remained of the park’s integrity. George Marston, who had recovered his health and again was active in civic affairs, Ellen Browning Scripps, and Lane D. Webber, president of the Chamber of Commerce, led the fight against a park site. The proposal was defeated by a two-to-one margin at a city election November 23, 1926.
The 18th amendment to the Constitution, which prohibited the sale of liquor, and the flow of tourists brought a simultaneous boom to Tijuana, the Mexican town across the border. It had been a tourist attraction since the inauguration of horse racing with betting, which was illegal in California, in 1916. By 1926 it had somewhere around seventy-five bars, with all of the accompaniments of sin and trouble. On February 6, a Mr. and Mrs. Thomas M. Peteet and their nineteen-year-old daughter were found dead in their small home in San Diego. Another daughter, twenty-six, was in a dying condition. Removed to a hospital, she succumbed three days later. The house had been closed tight and the gas turned on.
Their story soon came out. They had been to Tijuana, and the girls drugged and subjected to abuse. The parents evidently preferred death for all to disgrace for their daughters. The deaths caused a furor in two nations and the United States government ordered the international border closed each evening at 6 o’clock until 8:00 the next morning. In Baja California, Governor Abelardo Rodríguez closed fifty-two saloons, permitted only five restaurants to remain open, and drove undesirables out of town. The chief of police was among seven persons indicted for complicity in what had happened to the Peteets in Tijuana. The seven were eventually tried, but no convictions ever resulted. But slowly Tijuana began to assume an air of respectability that would make it one of the continent’s major tourist attractions in the number of annual visitors.
In the Julian mountain country of San Diego County gold again was being mined. Gold was discovered in 1870, but after several millions of dollars in metal had been taken out, the thin veins went too deep for practical recovery at that time.
The cultural side of a booming area was not to be neglected. The Fine Arts Gallery, the gift of Mr. and Mrs. Appleton S. Bridges, was dedicated in Balboa Park on February 27, 1926. One of the exposition’s most ornate buildings, on the north side of the central plaza, had been torn down to make way for the gallery. It was designed by William Templeton Johnson in keeping with the Spanish-Colonial period which had characterized the exposition. George Marston retained an associate of John Nolen to plan a park on land he owned around the old Spanish presidio above Old Town.
Though Ellen Browning Scripps was ninety years of age, her life was not yet at an end. The Scripps College for Women, which she had endowed as one of a group of colleges at Claremont, opened its doors in September of 1927. This was the third of her major contributions. The others were the Scripps Institution for Biological Research, which became part of the University of California in 1912, and the Scripps Hospital and Metabolic Clinic. As a result of her interest and her gifts of land, the Torrey Pines Park Preserve was formally established by the City Council.
The era was one of a good feeling and general business expansion. Republican Calvin Coolidge was President and in California Republicans were well into their long domination of the state government. A conservative Republican governor, Friend W. Richardson, encouraged business and industry and kept a tight rein on government costs and expansion, except in highway development. His program, calling for a bond issue and additional motor vehicle taxes, was approved by the voters, and 300 miles of roads were paved in the state during his regime.
In San Diego County, two routes had been taken into the state system: the highway from San Diego to Los Angeles and the highway from San Diego to Imperial Valley and Yuma. In 1927 the state graded and laid a twenty-foot pavement from the top of Mountain Springs grade to the floor of the desert, a distance of about eighty miles. Even with this improvement, the road had sharp curves and a gradient of seven percent. Accidents were numerous, as by this time many heavy, slow-moving trucks with trailers were transporting farm products into San Diego from Imperial Valley in competition with the San Diego & Arizona Railway.
Richardson’s successful highway program was not enough to save him from defeat. He lost his bid for renomination to Clement C. Young, who had the support of Senator Hiram Johnson and what was left of the progressive-liberal forces in the Republican Party, who resented Richardson’s vetoes of many of their legislative proposals. Young’s nomination was tantamount to election, and he took office in January of 1927. The radical novelist, Upton Sinclair, ran for governor on a Socialist ticket and received only a little more than 45,900 votes. But he was to be heard from again.
With water problems off his hands, Ed Fletcher convinced the Chamber of Commerce to back him in a cross-country auto trip on behalf of a proposed national highway between the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans, from Savannah, Georgia, to San Diego. The Lee Highway was the only national cross-country route designated as ending at San Diego. It drew traffic from New York into Washington, D.C., and along a southern, all-weather route. He was expected to finance the trip himself, and did. Only five percent of the roads between the two points had been paved. The race against time began on October 20, 1926. With his son, Ed Fletcher Jr. and two companions, he followed the Borderland Highway to Phoenix and Tucson. At Phoenix Fletcher was quoted on the value of a paved road between Yuma and Phoenix:
“A golden stream of 10,000 people a month is the biggest asset you can get to help this town. It is worth your while to get cooperation on this national highway.”
From Tucson, the route led through Bisbee and Douglas, Arizona, through Lordsburg and Deming, in New Mexico, to El Paso. East of El Paso they picked up what was known as the Dixie Overland Highway and crossed Texas by way of Fort Worth and Dallas, and then it was almost straight east through Shreveport, Louisiana; Vicksburg, Mississippi; and Montgomery, Alabama. They entered Georgia near Columbus and terminated at Savannah on the coast. The trip of 2535 miles, with few stops, was made in seventy-one hours and fifteen minutes, breaking the transcontinental auto record by eleven hours and fifty-six minutes, and exceeding the best train time by twenty-eight hours. The trip was publicized nationally and within two months the route from Savannah to San Diego was officially designated U.S. Highway 80.
Phoenix, however, proved to be a thorn in San Diego’s tourist ambitions. At Phoenix auto traffic could be diverted onto Highway 60 and to Los Angeles. Business and political interests in Tucson, with the cooperation of San Diegans, laid out a bypass which made it easy to eliminate Phoenix in driving west over the southern route. This was the Casa Grande-Gila Bend cutoff. It left Highway 80 at Tucson and rejoined it west of Phoenix at Gila Bend, saving ninety miles on the route to San Diego.
There were only a few whitecaps in a sea of prosperity. In one of the strange occurrences of nature, albacore suddenly began to change their accustomed travels. Albacore, the “chicken of the sea,” was the choicest of tuna and had become in great demand as a result of its substitution for meat during World War I. This was to bring about a drastic change in the operations of the California fishing fleet.
So little was known of the sea and its possibilities for the enrichment of man. In 1925 the name of the Scripps Institution for Biological Research, which had become a part of the University of California, was changed to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and its program enlarged to embrace physical, chemical, geological and geophysical studies of the oceans, as well as biological studies.
At one time there had been eleven plants in Southern California for harvesting and processing kelp, but they had largely disappeared with the end of the war-time demand for potash for explosives and fertilizers. By 1927 interest in the by-products of kelp revived and two companies began large-scale harvesting. One of them was started by a can company to obtain algin to be used in sealing tin cans, and it became the Kelco Company. The company also began producing dried kelp meal as a vegetable-mineral supplement in animal feeds. Another firm harvested seaweed for use in health pills.
Some of the revenue from the state’s leasing of kelp beds went to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, to help in furthering research in the mysteries of the sea.
Sale of portions of the Spreckels empire, now controlled from San Francisco, was being discussed privately with prospective buyers. All that was known publicly, however, was that the J.D. & A.B. Spreckels Securities Company obtained authorization from the Board of Supervisors to build a low bridge between San Diego and Coronado, at a cost of $2,400,000, and would take the matter before Army engineers.
Most of the political influence of the Spreckels interests was gone, however, as a city election approached. The country assessor announced a sharp increase in assessed valuations and hence in taxes. Rumors spread that all was not going well with the water development program which had been sold to the public. A contract had been awarded for construction of a multiple arch type dam at the Sutherland site on the San Dieguito River system, but there were reports that costs were exceeding estimates and foundation difficulties were being encountered. No one seemed to know when, if ever, the city’s rights on the San Diego River finally would be determined. The water development program, so important to a community in a semi-arid country, sank into more controversy and error.
Confidence in the city administration was beginning to wane and in the primary election in March of 1927 there was a scramble for the office of mayor when John Bacon announced he would not seek re-election.
It was at this election that the voters were asked to formally pass on the key point of the Nolen Plan, the grouping of public buildings on a tidelands site. The City Hall was on lower Fifth Street, no longer a principal business area, and the Courthouse on Broadway had been in use for more than half a century. An alternative proposal to the tidelands site was for an easily-accessible combined city-county “skyscraper” on the Courthouse site in the center of the city. Proponents of the Nolen Plan argued that San Diego no longer was a “one-street” town and the tidelands site offered an opportunity to dramatize the city and to avoid the crowded conditions of ugly eastern cities.
The opposition, however, was subdued and mostly confined to exhortations to defeat the plans of “tax eaters” who would saddle homeowners with millions of dollars of unnecessary expenditures. A Civic Center on the tidelands was approved by a narrow margin, 15,617 to 14,006.
The closeness of this vote perhaps reflected one of the costs of the advertising campaigns that had lured retired people and others of modest incomes to San Diego. They had little interest in the economic projects of the business community or the civic improvement programs of the politicians. A bigger city and higher taxes had no appeal for them.
Nominated at the primary to run-off for the office of mayor were a lawyer named Harry C. Clark and a businessman and mortician, Percy J. Benbough. A candidate for the City Council accused the existing Council of having made a “pork barrel” out of the need for water in its decision to build Sutherland Dam. He was S. P. McMullen, a former chief of police whom the San Diego Sun charged had been fired for permitting a wide open town.
As a result of the primary and general elections of 1927, Clark was elected mayor and a new Council majority went into office. Defeated were Fred Heilbron, who had led the effort to claim Colorado River water for the future, Don M. Stewart and John A. Held. Elected to the council were S. P. McMullen, Edward H. Dowell, a labor leader, and Frank W. Seifert, a materials dealer who as a pioneer Army flier had participated in the first aerial refueling.
Soon afterward, Fred Rhodes, who had directed the city’s water program after the discharge of Hiram Savage, was fired as manager of city operations. An investigation disclosed that the part of the foundation for Sutherland Dam was not safe and geologists recommended that the site be abandoned and the dam moved upstream about a thousand feet. Cost of the structure was expected to double.
Upon leaving office Bacon said that the dismissal of Savage had been a great mistake and had disrupted San Diego’s logical and steady program of development of its local water resources. He warned though that the city should proceed quickly to protect its rights on the Colorado River:
“Our future water supply must come from the Colorado River…were every drop of water that falls in this part of California to be conserved, it is hard to see how San Diego can satisfy her ever-increasing water demands for more than twenty years in the future.”
The winter of 1926-1927 brought almost disastrous storms and in February San Diego was isolated by the flooding of the San Diego River. The approaches to the highway bridge over the river were dynamited to ease the pressure of water that spread across the floor of the valley. With train service by the Santa Fe and San Diego & Arizona suspended for six days, mail was carried to and from Los Angeles in boats by the U.S. Naval Reserve.
In a single storm that lasted from February 13 to 17, six and a half inches of rain fell in the city and more than twenty-eight inches at Cuyamaca Lake. The city’s five reservoirs were filled to overflowing, and though the city now had a five to seven-year supply of water, the greatest in its history, billions of gallons had been lost to the sea by the failure to construct the dams that had been argued about for a decade. Sites for storage reservoirs that might have controlled the San Diego River flood were tied up in the seemingly endless litigation over water rights.
Even if he knew of San Diego, its problems could have been of no concern to a young pilot who had volunteered for the first experimental flying of mail. His name was Charles A. Lindbergh and he was twenty-five years old. Aviation had developed to a point where it was possible to deliver a letter from New York to San Francisco in thirty-six hours, as compared with a train time of four days.
While on a lonely night flight between St. Louis and Chicago in the Fall of 1926, Lindbergh thought of the $25,000 that had been offered as a prize for the first non-stop trans-Atlantic airplane crossing.
Dirigibles had made the ocean crossing and two civilian pilots had flown from Newfoundland to Ireland and one Navy flying boat out of a flight of three had managed to cross from Newfoundland to Portugal. But the attempt to span the Atlantic between New York and Paris in heavier-than-air craft already had claimed four lives and seriously injured three others fliers. But for the first time the possibility occurred to Lindbergh that he might be able to make such a crossing. In his book, We, he wrote:
“Several facts soon became outstanding. The foremost was that with the modern radial air-cooled motor, high lift airfoils, and lightened construction, it would not only be possible to reach Paris but, under normal conditions, to land with a large reserve of fuel and have a high factor of safety throughout the entire trip as well.”
In St. Louis, Lindbergh obtained the financial backing of business men, but negotiations with two companies for an airplane of the requirements and capabilities he desired were disappointing. They did not take the young, unknown pilot very seriously.
It was then that he noticed the advertisements of a small company on the West Coast whose planes had been making good records in flying the mail in all kinds of weather. The advertisement of Ryan Airlines read:
“Step into a parachute and take the Ryan M-1 to 10,000 feet. It will only take a few minutes — then try to turn it inside out.
“Loop it, barrel roll it, dive it a thousand feet and pull back quick on the stick. Try to whip-stall it; try to spin it, wind it up in a tight spiral, full throttle, kick top rudder, give it everything; then float it down and look it over.
“A biplane would probably need re-rigging. But the Ryan M-1 will be just as tight as the day it left the factory. Your little test ride will not even be a good work-out.”
The company was working at the time on an improved and larger version of the M-1 and M-2 which would become known as the Ryan Brougham. The first one was being specially built for a speed flier, Frank Hawks, and was referred to as the Gold Bug. After some figuring, Claude Ryan, who was still with the company as manager, and Donald A. Hall, the recently hired engineer, responded to Lindbergh’s inquiry with an assurance that within sixty days and at a cost of only $6000, plus the engine and instruments, they could deliver a plane capable of making a nonstop flight from New York to Paris.
Lindbergh visited the small plant and inspected the uncompleted Gold Bug. It was not a sight that might have inspired the confidence of rival pilots who were readying planes for the trans-Atlantic flight that were costing $100,000. But Lindbergh quickly realized that the Ryan plane was something different. He talked with Ryan, who at age twenty-nine already was an established designer and manufacturer of airplanes; the company president, B. Franklin Mahoney, who was only a year older than Lindbergh himself; and the factory manager, William Hawley Bowius, as well as Donald Hall, the engineer. It was decided that the Gold Bug being built for the speed flier could be adapted for the flight, and with the engine, the cost would be $10,580. Hawks agreed to let Lindbergh have the plane which he had ordered.
A contract was signed on February 28, 1927. Lindbergh told reporters confidentially, “I’ll get to Paris with this airplane.” This was important news in San Diego, and perhaps in St. Louis, but in New York, where other pilots with multiple-engine planes were preparing for the same flight in the hope of winning the race across the Atlantic, Lindbergh’s name received little, if any, attention. Lindbergh roomed in San Diego with the company’s sales manager, A. J. Edwards. In his own story he related:
“The personnel of Ryan Airlines at once caught the spirit of the undertaking, and during two months of construction the organization labored as it never had before. Day and night, seven days a week, the structure grew from a few lengths of steel tubing to one of the most efficient planes that has ever taken the air. During this time it was not unusual for the men to work twenty-four hours without rest, and on one occasion, Donald Hall, the chief engineer, was over his drafting table for thirty-six hours.”
Near the end of April the fuselage of the Ryan plane was rolled out of the hangar, and its forty-six foot wing, four feet longer than the projected version of the Ryan Brougham, was lifted by crane out of the loft. One of the plant foremen who watched the roll-out was Fred H. Rohr. The fuselage and wing were trucked to the Ryan field north of Barnett Avenue, on Dutch Flats. Assembled, the plane stood nine feet, eight inches high and had an overall length of twenty-seven feet, eight inches. It had five fuel tanks and weighed 2150 pounds. Fully loaded and with its pilot it would weigh 5180 pounds.
The first test flight was set for April 28. The deadline of sixty days had been met. Painted on the tail of the plane was Spirit of St. Louis. With Lindbergh at the controls, the plane took to the air after a run of only 165 feet and though some stability had been sacrificed for range and load capacity, the first flight was considered highly successful. Load test flights were conducted from the parade ground of the Army’s World War I camp on Kearny Mesa north of the city, where rocks were cleared from a surface that stretched for 12,000 feet. Speed tests were conducted on May 4 over the south bay on a course laid out by the Army Air Service.
When all of the scheduled tests had been completed, the Spirit of St. Louis had exceeded its theoretical design performance. It was determined that it could fly at economic speeds non-stop for 4210 miles, and thus could reach Paris, 3610 miles from New York by the Great Circle Route, in a little more than forty hours. With the completion of the tests came the end of Claude Ryan’s association with the original company he had founded.
While Lindbergh was preparing to leave San Diego, two French fliers, who had hoped to be the first to span the Atlantic on a non-stop flight, disappeared at sea. Lindbergh’s departure for St. Louis was delayed by a storm which blanketed the Southwest. On the afternoon of May 9, the chief of the U.S. Weather Bureau at San Diego, Dean Blake, predicted favorable flying conditions would begin on the following day. In the morning Lindbergh flew the Spirit of St. Louis across the bay to Rockwell Field on North Island, to take advantage of its long runway, and took off at 3:55 in the afternoon, escorted by two Army observation planes and a Ryan monoplane with Hall as a passenger. As Lindbergh told his own story:
“The ship passed over the first ridge of mountains, about 4000 feet, very easily with reduced throttle. The escorting planes turned back at the mountains and I passed on over the desert and the Salton Sea alone. And at sunset I was over the deserts and mountains of western Arizona.
“The moon was well above the horizon and with the exception of a short period before dawn I was able to distinguish the contour of the country the entire night. I flew a compass course, passing alternately over snow-capped ridges, deserts and fertile valleys. One of the mountain ranges was over 12,000 feet high and completely snow-covered. I cleared this range by about 500 feet and went over the plains beyond.”
He touched down on Lambert Field, St. Louis, at 8:20 in the morning, and at 8:13 o’clock the next morning, May 12, he left for New York, arriving at Curtiss Field on Long Island at 5:33 in the evening. Overnight the reticent figure in the small plane captured the imagination of the country. He was the “Lone Eagle.” As soon as weather conditions were favorable, the plane was trucked to the adjoining Roosevelt Field and at 7:52 in the morning of May 20 he took off for Paris. Thirty-three hours and twenty-nine minutes later he saw the lights of Paris, circled the Eiffel Tower and landed at Le Bourget Field. Nothing since the end of World War I caused such reaction throughout the world. He had become a living legend of American youth.
At the moment of the triumph of the plane that was the product of his imagination and enterprise, Claude Ryan was returning to San Diego from New York where he had obtained a manufacturing license and distribution contract for the Siemens aircraft engines of Germany. These engines, known as Ryan-Siemens, became standard equipment on most makes of American private type aircraft.
In autographing the book of his flight, Lindbergh wrote, “To Claude Ryan, who built the company that built the Spirit of St. Louis.” As with the pioneers of flight on Rockwell Field, who later became commanders of vast war fleets of the air, Ryan and Fred Rohr, who had worked as a foreman on the Spirit of St. Louis, would later help to guide an industry from hand work to assembly lines and then into the space age.
Return to Books.
THE RISING TIDE
Ch. 1 Envy of Cities
Ch. 2 Charting a Way
Ch. 3 Water is King
Ch. 4 The Flush Years
Ch. 5 The Long Chase
Ch. 6 The Boom Fades
Ch. 7 The Quiet Years
Ch. 8 Creating a Fair
Ch. 9 Making a River
Ch. 10 Changes of War