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Tales from Buzzard Point - Chapter 4: Prof. Langley's Dive

The fourth in a series of Tales from Buzzard Point that explores the rich history and traditions of legendary Buzzard Point – a legacy that the current D.C. United ownership should honor in their plans for naming the new soccer specific stadium. 

Today’s entry was researched by “Tales from Buzzard Point” Series Editor David Rusk.

In reading David McCulloch’s The Wright Brothers, I ran across the fact that the failed launching of Prof. Samuel P. Langley’s experimental airplane on December 8, 1903 had occurred at “Arsenal Point.” I knew immediately that “Arsenal Point” was actually “Buzzard Point.” For a couple of decades at the turn of the last century official Washington had adopted the designation “Arsenal Point” in reference to its proximity to the Washington Arsenal (now Fort McNair). However, clearly the junction of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers was popularly known as “Buzzard Point,” as attested by the editorial cartoon The Evening Star ran on its front page the next day.

The Evening Star - via Library of Congress

Boston born and educated (Boston Latin School, English High School of Boston, Harvard College Observatory), Samuel Pierpont Langley was chosen in 1887 to be the third secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. He was one of the most famed scientists of his era and, in the words of The Evening Star, “Prof. Langley has spent the best part of his life working out the problem of aerial navigation, and has contributed many valuable papers to science on this subject. He is probably the foremost authority in the world on aerodromes and aeroplanes, and has been experimenting with machines for many years.”

His latest project was supported by a $50,000 appropriation from the federal government to which was added another $20,000 that Prof. Langley had raised privately (the two totaling almost $1,000,000 in today’s dollars).

Langley’s “aerodrome” (as he called his flying machine) was catapulted from a large, specially built houseboat (think of it as a miniature aircraft carrier) “in the center of a fleet of small boats and yachts, among which were the army engineers' boat Pontonier and The Evening Star's launch Olga. The hundreds of spectators were to be sent away deeply disappointed by the famed Bostonian’s spectacular failure.

The story (with photo) commanded two full-page columns (about 2,500 words) on page 11 of The Evening Star the next day. Here are the lead paragraphs.


Prof. Langley's Machine Goes to River Bottom.



Test of the Airship Off the Arsenal Point Yesterday Afternoon
Large Crowd Present.
The Evening Star - via Library of Congress

The test of the Langley aerodrome at the confluence of the Potomac River with the Eastern branch yesterday afternoon was a complete failure. The sixty-foot machine, a perfect bit of mechanism, was launched at exactly 4:45 o'clock. Within thirty seconds it had described a half somersault, doubled up like an athlete taking a hurdle, and had fallen into the river, broken and twisted into a mass of wood, steel and linen, with its nose in the mud on the river bottom. Prof. Charles M. Manly, who attempted to fly the machine, was buried under the mass of debris, but was quickly rescued by Fred Hewitt, one of the workmen on the houseboat, and Private Adelson of the Signal Corps, U. S. A. The airship was a complete wreck. Prof. Samuel Langley, inventor of the ill-fated machine, said the collapse was due to a defect in the launching mechanism. The conditions were said to be absolutely perfect for the test.

The long period of preparation and waiting put on edge the nerves of even the most sanguine of those connected with the airship. Everybody was under strong tension and excitement from the start, and the catastrophe which brought the test to a conclusion fell like a wet blanket on every one.

While there were many skeptics in the crowd of people who witnessed the test yesterday, one spectator, clad all in black, was overheard to forecast afterwards that “there will never be a celebration at Buzzard Point for any Revolution out of New England.”

Note from Series Editor David Rusk: “Tales from Buzzard Point” includes historical fiction and should be considered a work of homage or parody.

All members of the B&RU Commentariat are invited to submit manuscripts of their own researches into the history and traditions of Buzzard Point. All must a) involve Buzzard Point, b) have some relationship to football/ soccer, and c) demonstrate that Buzzard Point is hallowed ground for D.C. United and our MLS opponents are doomed to never come away from Buzzard Point with a result.