While the Wright Brothers get most of the acclaim when you think of the development of the airplane, they were far from the only pioneers in early aviation. One such competitor was Glenn H. Curtiss, a native of Hammondsport, New York, and the namesake for the Curtiss Museum in the same community.
The Glen H. Curtiss Museum is located on the outskirts of Hammondsport, only a few miles from the southern tip of Keuka Lake. This museum honors the life of Glen Curtiss and the rich legacy of the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company (now part of Curtiss-Wright Corporation).
At 60,000 square feet, this is quite a large museum, and while it only focuses on one man and his company, the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company made significant contributions in various modes of transit including bicycles, motorcycles, and, most notably, aviation. In fact, many consider Curtiss to have been the founder of the U.S. aviation industry, which he largely based in this corner of the Finger Lakes for the first few years of the company’s history.
The Curtiss Museum began as a small museum at a local high school in 1962 before moving to a massive warehouse on the outskirts of Hammondsport in 1992. Unsurprisingly, given the primary industries in the area, this building was once a winery.
Other than the gift shop area and a theater (which was closed during my visit), the museum is simply one giant room with displays sitting throughout the space. While it’s well organized and not cluttered, it can be a bit tricky to figure out exactly where to go first and to make sure you see everything in the space as there are few walls to direct you around the space.
That being said, the museum is laid out following the history of Curtiss’ company and his amazing exploits, so the first section you’ll encounter relates to his bicycle and motorcycle business.
Curtiss opened his first bicycle shop in 1901 after working for the Eastman Dry Plate and Film Company (later Kodak) in Rochester but quickly grew interested in both motorcycles and aviation. (Personally, I find it quite interesting how many early aviation pioneers got their start in bicycles.)
Amazingly, Curtiss’ and his custom-built motorcycles set several land-speed records, starting – unofficially – in 1903 before setting the official world record of 136.27 MPH in 1907.
Given that aviation was still in its infancy, this made him the fastest person ever on either land or in the air. Amazingly, Curtiss held the land-speed record until 1930.
While there is a small collection of early bicycles, the focus here is on the motorcycles that Curtiss made starting in 1902. There is also a nice collection of motorcycles from different brands dating from the period, which gives you a chance to see how the ones Curtiss made compared. (You can see even more motorcycles at the fabulous Motorcyclepedia in Newburgh, NY.)
Unsurprisingly, however, the focus of the museum is on Curtiss’ later work, both with airplanes and with engines that would be used in airplanes, cars, and boats.
Curtiss was fascinated with aviation, and while it took him five years after the Wright Brothers first flew to get into the air, he is credited with being the founder of the U.S. Aviation Industry.
However, Curtiss wasn’t just a company head. Interestingly, Curtiss flew the first pre-announced public flight in America on July 4, 1908, and he flew over 5,000 feet in his plane known as June Bug. This flight won Curtiss the Scientific America Cup, the first aeronautical prize in the United States.
Over the years, Curtiss personally had many other aviation triumphs including being issued US Pilots License #1, winning the race at the first international air meet in France, completing the first flight between two major U.S. cities (Albany to New York City), and flying the first seaplane in the United States.
These amazing accomplishments are woven into the museum, which does an excellent job telling both the story and the impact of both Curtiss and his company.
One of the major highlights of the museum is the replica of Curtiss’ June Bug. (The original was sunk in Keuka Lake while testing seaplanes and eventually rotted away.) To my untrained eye, the plane in many ways resembled the original Wright Flyer, and it was fascinating to see a replica of such an important piece of aviation history up close.
Throughout the rest of the space, you’ll see several other airplanes both on the floor and hanging from the ceiling. These offer great insight into the history of aviation and the impact of Curtiss’ company.
In addition to airplanes and motorcycles, there is also a nice collection of other types of transportation including some beautifully restored antique automobiles and boats. (If you want to see more antique boats, head to the nearby Finger Lakes Boating Museum which is also in Hammondsport.) These items offer a fascinating look into the history of motorized ground transportation, and many of these items sport Curtiss engines.
Speaking of engines, the museum also has a large collection of both small and large engines that were made by the company throughout the years. For those that love antique machinery, these pieces are sure to be fascinating.
Near the front corner of the museum, the space features a nice collection of information about the community of Hammondsport. The type of items on display here are the sort of things you’d normally see at a town’s historical society, and they do a good job telling about life in Hammondsport.
The museum was also able to salvage the cupola from Curtiss’ Hammondsport home to save it from destruction. He used this room as his home office, and the interior of the space has been recreated to look much like it would have during Curtiss’ life.
Overall, the Curtiss Museum is really a fantastic spot to check out. Going in, I was only vaguely aware of Glenn H. Curtiss and had no idea how amazing his story was and how much of an impact he had on early aviation.
However, it wasn’t great just because I was able to learn about this remarkable man. The museum was also noteworthy for its excellent collection of antique airplanes, automobiles, and motorcycles, which I’m sure anyone that appreciates historic machinery will quite enjoy.
So, the next time you’re exploring the Finger Lakes, make sure to swing by Hammondsport to check out this fantastic spot.
Looking for even more places to visit nearby? Check out the Keuka Lakes Outlet Trail, the National Soaring Museum, the Rockwell Museum, and Stony Brook State Park.
Hours: Daily 9am-5pm
Cost: Adults: $13.50, Kids: $10
Address: 8419 NY-54