Sometimes the most unexpected discoveries turn out to make for the most memorable experiences. Small towns like Hammondsport (population teeny-tiny) are notorious for being the location of just such unplanned wonderfulness. Of course, now that we’re letting you in on the secret, you may want to plan a visit. That’s okay. There’s plenty of awesomeness to be had.
We’ll admit, the town’s location at the southern end of the most unusual of all the Finger Lakes certainly doesn’t hurt. The views, after all, and the calm crystal waters, make for some spectacular water experiences: paddling, jet-skiing, tubing, dining lakeside, seaplane rides, and more.
But it’s more than the charm, more than the tranquility, more than the exhilaration that make Hammondsport so special. It was there, nearly 200 years ago that the first grapes in the region were planted. It was there, over 160 years ago that the first winery was founded. But it was also there that a down-to-earth, philanthropic tinkerer made an impact on the larger world through his innovations and his willingness to work with others to make his ideas even better.
Sure that tinkerer is long gone, now, yet he lives on very much in the local community and, especially, in the museum that bares his name: The Glenn H. Curtiss Museum!
If you have never heard of Glenn Curtiss, don’t feel bad. Most people haven’t. If you have, you probably know him as an aviation pioneer. You might even know that it was Curtiss who had the first successful public flight in America, or the first long distance flight, or that he received the first pilot’s license in the country. Or that he trained the first female pilot and developed the seaplane and flying boat (right on Keuka Lake) which eventually helped “turn the tide” during WWI.
Curtiss was a man of firsts, always pushing boundaries, seeking to go beyond what had been done, hurtling himself headlong into the future and bringing the world with him.
If you’re a motorcycle enthusiast, you might know him for his place in the annals of motorcycle manufacturing (tucked between Indian and Harley Davidson), and maybe even for that legendary ride on a beach in Florida in 1907 earning him the title “Fastest Man on Earth.” Curtiss went so fast on a bike he had made, with an engine he had quite literarily built to fly, that on the second run the bike split as he thundered along the shoreline at speeds faster than a locomotive, or a plane, or an automobile had ever gone.
Curtiss started out racing bicycles as a boy and eventually had his own bicycle shop in Hammondsport. It seems, however, that his proficiency at making engines (and of finding ways of going faster and faster than his legs would carry him) took him from self-powered cycling to motorcycling. And from there to the sky.
Some might use the phrase “sleepy little town” to convey the small size of his hometown, Hammondsport, and to intimate a laid-back pace of life, but it certainly doesn’t describe Curtiss nor just how much activity was going on in Pleasant Valley from the late 1890s until WWI because of him. Daredevil. Speed junkie. Pioneer. Innovator. Visionary. Those terms come closest to describing Glenn Curtiss.
While his fearlessness and need for speed influenced his decisions, it was his ingenuity and his ability to build exceptional engines that caused the top scientists, inventors, and adventurers from around the world to seek out Curtiss: men like Alexander Graham Bell, and Thomas Baldwin who in 1904 powered the first successful dirigible in America with a Curtiss engine. It was an engine originally designed for an aircraft that Curtiss temporarily repurposed for that historic motorcycle ride in 1907 catapulting him into the record books as the world’s fastest man. The following year, Curtiss himself would take to the skies and Hammondsport soon became the hotbed for aviation experimentation and development in the entire country.
You can learn about his many achievements—he holds over 90 patents after all—and see for yourself some of the incredible machines he had a hand in creating at the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum in his hometown. You can stroll around a village square that still maintains the charm and warmth of a bygone era and meet locals who are passionate about preserving and sharing the story of one of their own, a man who is still by-and-large relatively unknown.
The museum houses dozens of vintage aircraft, automobiles, motorcycles, bicycles and other historic memorabilia. Thanks to various acquisitions and donations, the tireless work of volunteers in the Restoration Shop (which you can visit and often observe the latest works-in-progress) as well as items on loan from various benefactors, like Mercury Aircraft, there are a number of original, restored, and reproduced aircraft on display.
For example according to Museum Curator Rick Leisenring, "The June Bug Replica was built by Mercury Aircraft in 1974-76 for the Bicentennial and flew here at Hammondsport on June 23, 1976. There were no blueprints so everything was reverse engineered by using photographs and other information gathered from various sources."
The museum hosts popular events, like the annual Wings & Wheels each fall celebrating Curtiss’s ingenuity and accomplishments. In addition to the various exhibits on display, you'll find wonderful temporary exhibits that you're unlikely to encounter elsewhere.