Baldwin mid-flight over the Eads Bridge, September 10, 1910. Missouri Historical Society Collections.
Daredevils on the Mississippi!
Missouri History Museum – St. Louis, MO
This post has been adapted from Great River City, an award-winning title from the Missouri Historical Society Press. Hear our podcast with the author, Andrew Wanko.
In the early 1900s, flight captivated the citizens of St. Louis, MO. They gathered in droves whenever an airplane took to the skies. In 1909, hundreds of thousands of St. Louisans waited more than three hours just to see pilot Glenn Curtiss fly in Forest Park. He covered 60 yards, managing to get his homemade plane 30 feet off the ground for just 4 seconds. Just that taste of flight—so short it could be missed in a yawn—was enough to be called “surpassingly beautiful and graceful by the St. Louis newspapers.”.
In 1910 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch upped the excitement, offering St. Louisans the chance to see a flight with the added danger of the Mississippi River. The paper offered up a $2,500 prize to the first pilot daring enough to fly a plane through one of the Eads Bridge’s arches.
Baldwin mid-flight over the McKinley Bridge, September 10, 1910. Missouri Historical Society Collections
Stunt Pilot Thomas Baldwin
Deciding his Red Devil biplane was up to the task, stunt pilot Thomas Baldwin announced that September 10, 1910, would be a day no St. Louisan would soon forget. Today—with planes constantly soaring high above the Mississippi—the danger involved is hard for us to truly imagine. A year earlier, Glenn Curtiss struggled to make it 60 yards before wobbling back to the ground. Now Baldwin was going to dive under a 50-foot opening while approaching the fastest speeds man had ever traveled (the airspeed record at the time was 66 miles per hour).
The city’s Citizens Committee cleared a makeshift airfield along the north riverfront near Bellefontaine Cemetery, where Baldwin would assemble his plane and take off. He arrived with two mechanics on September 8, and the field became a workshop and public curiosity, as Baldwin’s Red Devil was built.
Baldwin’s stunt inspired riverfront daredevils for years to come, including this unidentified biplane pilot, ca. 1930s. Missouri Historical Society Collections.
That morning, the streetcars downtown sported blue flags—the signal that winds were right, and the flight was on. Some 200,000 spectators flocked to the levee to see Baldwin attempt his stunt, and 40 rescue boats took their positions on the river. Five miles upriver, near Bellefontaine Cemetery, Baldwin readied the Red Devil. He took off heading south, facing an 18 mile-an-hour wind that rattled his fabric and steel tube biplane.
As he approached the St. Louis levee, he hit a calm spot that caused his plane to suddenly drop nearly 100 feet. Had he been trying to shoot the bridge at that moment, he would have plunged into the Mississippi River. Baldwin flew past the gathered crowds, landing near the Cahokia Ferry in Illinois to check and refuel the Red Devil, and then turned it around to take off for the stunt of his life.
Photo by Weston MacKinnon
Wind rattled the plane’s fabric wings as Baldwin dived toward the Eads Bridge. Shaking in his seat, Baldwin trained his focus on the easternmost arch, threading his plane into an opening less than 50 feet high. As Baldwin roared out the other side, the levee erupted into cheers. A smaller crowd watched an emboldened Baldwin repeat his feat upriver, coasting beneath the McKinley Bridge as an encore.
After the flight, Baldwin told the Post-Dispatch that he had only a blurry memory of the bridge’s piers and framework, and referred to the stunt as his “first flight of consequence.” Baldwin came back to a flood of admirers, including both everyday St. Louisans and experienced aviators like Albert Bond Lambert, who described Baldwin as “a modern DeSoto of the air” and claimed his flight was “the single biggest advertisement St. Louis has ever received.”
Photo by Joshua Ness
Despite shooting the Eads and McKinley Bridges, Baldwin couldn’t manage to avoid crashing into a telephone pole when landing the Red Devil the next day. Looking at his dented plane, he cheekily remarked to news reporters that he “better eat another quart of birdseed” to help his flying.
The St. Louis riverfront has never stopped attracting daredevils. Decades after the arches of the Eads Bridge tantalized Thomas Baldwin, a new, much more tempting Arch arose on the riverfront. The first of more than a dozen illegal fly-throughs of the Gateway Arch happened in June 1966, just eight months after the landmark was completed.
The Missouri Historical Society’s Mighty Mississippi exhibit and related content is sponsored by Bank of America.
The museum is free to the public and perfectly located for a full day exploring St. Louis. The Muny, the St. Louis Zoo, and the World Fair Pavilion are all nearby neighbors within Forest Park.
Missouri History Museum