“A Terrible Fright”: A Short History of Early Aviation in Oshawa, Ontario

"Plane Crash at the Four Corners," Thomas Bouckley Collection, Robert McLaughlin Gallery, 2107 2046, 1918.

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In Oshawa, as elsewhere, experiences with early aviation could be hazardous, particularly in the first few decades of flight technology. In recent memory, the city’s relationship with airborne transportation has come to be a highly contested site of debate, as runway expansion, noise abatement, and the fear of small plane crashes have all come to bear on the tone of conversations surrounding the skies above, and the ground below, as concerned residents have organized community action groups to protest proposed changes to the Oshawa Airport. This situation was created, in part, by the northward spread of suburbs in the post-World War Two era, and also by an increase in the significance of airport activities to commerce, recreation, and industry, particularly automobile manufacturing, in the past 60 years. Before the construction of the Oshawa Airport during the Second World War, discussions over the virtues of the airplane were far less political, but no less perilous. My current research examines the extent to which a heterogenous transportation matrix in the first few decades of the twentieth century was displaced by the creeping hegemony of the automobile leading up to the 1940s. In looking at multiple forms of mobility, my sources have led me to consider the ways in which early aviation played a part in mapping space in Oshawa, in the sky, but especially on the ground.

A number of facets of popular culture tapped into a fascination with the “aeroplane.” They reveal the links between diverse forms of transportation. Early McLaughlin Motor Car advertisements from Oshawa disseminated during the Great War show the layered relationship between various forms of mobility, and more than one of these drew on the high symbolism of flight to market early automobiles, especially in the context of the Great War. In addition to this, newspapers articles from the 1910s and 1920s capture this fascination by documenting the pursuits of local residents and their experiences with early flying machines, announcing nearby landing sites, mostly open fields, with great ceremony, and revealing a deep curiosity over airborne mobility.

"Plane Crash at the Four Corners," Thomas Bouckley Collection, Robert McLaughlin Gallery, 2107 2046, 1918.
Image 1: “Plane Crash at the Four Corners,” Thomas Bouckley Collection, Robert McLaughlin Gallery, 2107 2046, 1918.

Decades before the Oshawa Airport was established, codes of flying were far less standardized and regulated than they would eventually come to be in the aftermath of the Second World War. As such, and as part of the establishment of the Oshawa Regiment with the onset of the Great War, the Royal Air Force undertook a flying program. As the war approached the final push, the RAF endeavoured to train pilots, and get a handle on the potential of flight, which was still very much an emergent and avant-garde technology for the period. In the absence of an established airport, the recreational parklands directly to the north of Oshawa’s small downtown provided a viable place for landings, some of them crash landings. Local heritage identifies that Alexandra Park, with its open spaces, relatively balanced topography, and close proximity to the regimental buildings lent a suitable area for early RAF aviators to land. But these landings didn’t always go as smoothly as planned, and the result was a series of spectacular crashes. More than one of these planes overshot the parklands all together, and crashed on the grounds of a mansion, Parkwood Estate, and (more dangerously) directly into Oshawa’s burgeoning downtown. [1]

These crashes represented a futuristic novelty, and local residents engaged with the spectacle of falling airplanes with delight, awe, and an appropriate amount of apprehension, fear, and bravery. They did this by showing up, watching rescue and salvage efforts, taking pictures, and also collecting souvenirs from the small airplanes that fell from Oshawa’s skies between April and September 1918. In this way, historical photographs from this period reveal the multiple ways in which people interacted with the airplanes that crashed, at least six of them that I have noted during these months, and all within roughly a kilometre of Oshawa’s downtown.

Archive Caption: "...a crowd is gathered in the street below to watch the plane being lowered by ropes and slid down long poles to the ground. The west corner of Burns Shoes can be noted at the upper right, as well as the Oshawa Fire Department ladder truck in the upper middle of the photo. Another truck, possibly military or Oshawa Railway is at the right foreground picture edge." "Salvage Operations After the Plane Crash," Thomas Bouckley Collection, Robert McLaughlin Gallery, 2128 2067, 1918.
Image 2: Archive Caption: “…a crowd is gathered in the street below to watch the plane being lowered by ropes and slid down long poles to the ground. The west corner of Burns Shoes can be noted at the upper right, as well as the Oshawa Fire Department ladder truck in the upper middle of the photo. Another truck, possibly military or Oshawa Railway is at the right foreground picture edge.” “Salvage Operations After the Plane Crash,” Thomas Bouckley Collection, Robert McLaughlin Gallery, 2128 2067, 1918.

The first of these on record, and perhaps the most memorable, did just this, when Pilot Cadet Weiss crashed near the intersection of Simcoe Street and King Street, also known as the Four Corners, in early April 1918, during a training exercise that originated from nearby Leaside (Image 1). In a mess of hydro wires, buildings, and smoke, local soldiers attempted to deal with the aftermath and rescue the pilot, who escaped unharmed. They also attended to an injured woman, Mrs. Guy, who was hit by falling bricks on the ground below when unit C526 hit the third story of the W. Dickie Building, not far from the Dominion Bank. Emergent transportation technology and the growing ubiquity of the photograph collided to give a visual documentation of this event, and subsequent clean-up efforts (Image 2) identified by Thomas Bouckley, local heritage enthusiast, as “the most heavily photographed episode in the history of Oshawa,” at least up until this point. [2]

In addition to seeing the airplane as a form of mobility, historical photography also captures the extent to which multiple forms of mobility intersected with one another to characterize a shifting transportation matrix. For example, the collection of photographs that document these crashes reveal that the imprint of rail, bicycles, automobiles, and horse-drawn transportation all comprised a significant part of the mobility landscape. The crash of C526 in the first of week of April 1918 is especially reminiscent of this reality, as rail tracks on the street below, and what appears to be a high-wheeled emergency vehicle made the scene. Likewise, the nose dive of Ontario C1324 (Image 3) in September 1918 at the Oshawa Golf Links, near Alexandra Park, reveals that since the crash happened beyond the reach of a groomed road apparatus, many made the trek by bicycle to take in the sight of the crash and collect souvenirs. This sheds light on the flexibility of this particular mode of transportation in a time when the motor car and the carriage were far more dependant on good roads to lend ease of access, though the appearance of an military truck to assist in salvage efforts, and the deep ruts it left in the mud, highlight the increased role that automobility was playing in the changing transportation landscape during this transitional period. [3]

"Ontario C1324 Down at the Oshawa Golf Links," Thomas Bouckley Collection, Robert McLaughlin Gallery, 2143 2082, 1918.
Image 3: “Ontario C1324 Down at the Oshawa Golf Links,” Thomas Bouckley Collection, Robert McLaughlin Gallery, 2143 2082, 1918.

What is especially unsettling about this series of events is the relative frequency of these disasters over the course of a few months –two incidents even occurred within 24 hours of one another. Local resident Ruby Gould recounted these events, in a poem she penned about these most unusual circumstances. On 22 April 1918 she wrote,

Oshawa has just experienced a terrible fright,
Which happened around six, on Monday night.
After an airman, had the luck of missing a tank
Lost all control of his plane and lit on the bank.

It fell between the building and an entanglement of wire
Which as the plane fell showed signs of fire,
The airman himself managed to get out all right (sic),
But did not care how soon he got out of sight,
The bricks from the building did a great deal of harm
When they lit on Mrs. Guy and broke her arm,
She was carried to a store by the soldiers of the town
Which made their appearance as the plane came down.

The lights of Oshawa and Whitby were off til ten
And the streets were crowded with women and men
They were all excited and let their tongues fly
So you could hear all about it as you passed by.

The aviator himself was a well built man
But it wasn’t his head that hit a plan
It puzzled the soldiers about getting the plane down
But refused any help from the fireman of the town.

On Tuesday morning another airman came
And the way he landed came near being the same
He used his head and worked real hard,
While soldiers of the town were put on guard.

The wrecking gang came from Toronto Tuesday noon.
And expressed the plane as being a mass of ruin,
By six that evening it was in pieces in the truck,
And we hope the next aviator will have better luck. [4]

"Pilot (?) of Ontario C1324," Thomas Bouckley Collection, Robert McLaughlin Gallery,  2153, 2092, 1918.
Image 4: “Pilot (?) of Ontario C1324,” Thomas Bouckley Collection, Robert McLaughlin Gallery, 2153, 2092, 1918.

In addition to knocking out power on at least one occasion, and generating fears over the safety of local residents, these crashes clearly drew spectators, and crowds gathered to let their “tongues fly.” Unsurprisingly, the crash of Ontario C1324 elicited this exact reaction, as middle-class children and “groups of men” gathered to “collect pieces of the damaged wing,” and also take pictures of military personnel. [5] In addition to drawing crowds of onlookers, these crashes also provided an opportunity for adventure seekers to pose with the downed planes, and snap photographs of the airmen who fell from the sky (Image 4). In Image 5, reproduced from the Thomas Bouckley Collection, the staff of Miller’s Arcade, a popular downtown entertainment draw, posed in front of C375, which came to rest upside down in Alexandra Park. The pilot, who was far less engaged with the camera than the arcade staff, looks away, lost in thought, or perhaps contemplating his overturned bi-plane. [6] A group of working women stand proudly in front his crash, clearly chuffed to be in such close proximity to this incredible sight. This was in spite of the fact that by September of 1918, airplanes falling from the skies near Oshawa’s downtown were almost commonplace. But in the closing weeks of the summer, frequent crashes, and near misses, persisted in capturing the imagination of residents. With the end of the Great War not far off, it was an eventful year in Oshawa indeed.

"Miller's Staff At Overturned Plane," Thomas Bouckley Collection, Robert McLaughlin Gallery,  2162 2101, 1918.
Image 5: “Miller’s Staff At Overturned Plane,” Thomas Bouckley Collection, Robert McLaughlin Gallery, 2162 2101, 1918.

[1] “Plane Crash at Parkwood,” Thomas Bouckley Collection, Robert McLaughlin Gallery, 2156 2095, 1918.

[2] “Plane Crash on King Street West,” Thomas Bouckley Collection, Robert McLaughlin Gallery, 2102 2041, 1918.

[3] “Ontario C1324 Salvage Efforts,” Thomas Bouckley Collection, Robert McLaughlin Gallery, 2148 2087, 1918.

[4] Ruby Gould, “The Aeroplane Accident,” The Thomas Bouckley Collection, Robert McLaughlin Gallery, 2114 2053, 1918.

[5] “Salvage Souvenirs,” The Thomas Bouckley Collection, Robert McLaughlin Gallery, 2151 2090, 1918.

[6] “Miller’s Staff at Overturned Plane,” Thomas Bouckley Collection, Robert McLaughlin Gallery, 2162 2101, 1918.

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Amanda Robinson

PhD Candidate at York University
Amanda Robinson is a PhD Candidate at York University studying the shifting modes of transportation in modernizing Canada. Much of her work as a public historian is rooted in her ethnographic observations as a proud former auto and public transit worker in Oshawa, Ontario--also known as "Canada's Motor City" --where she was raised only few blocks from General Motors in the city's highly industrialized south end.

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