The ground under the tiny wooden Town Hall in Eliot, Maine shook twice on Wednesday, January 7, 1925. Shortly after 8 am the strongest earthquake residents could recall knocked pictures off the walls. Around 12:30 that afternoon a De Havilland bi-plane crashed into the corner of the 1 1/2 story municipal building.
Army pilot, Charles Benning Oldfield, not to be confused with the then famous racecar driver, Charles Barney Oldfield, had been making a run from Mineola, NY to Boston. Flying at an altitude of 2000 feet he suddenly encountered a thick fog that caused him to lose his bearings and drift further north than he had intended.
Aviators navigated by sight in 1925 and Oldfield couldn’t see a thing from his open cockpit situated just behind the wings. He was spotted flying alarmingly low over Portsmouth Navy Yard just after noon, having dipped below the fog in an attempt to find a place to land. By the time the experienced Army pilot aimed for Everett Hammond’s field in Eliot his engine was dead. He was out of gas.
Gliding in the rest of the way, Charles overshot the edge of the field barely missing a stone wall. He slammed into the corner of Town Hall piercing the Selectman’s Office. Luckily, nobody was in the building when wood, plaster and glass sprayed in all directions. A 300 pound safe was knocked clear across the room, remembered Ralph E. Dixon in the 1988 book A View of Eliot’s Past by Edward H. Vetter. Captain Oldfield was not seriously injured but the impact splintered the propeller and cracked the radiator of the U. S. Army airplane that had been entrusted to him.
Students at the high school 300 yards away heard the crash. Despite a stern warning from his teacher, Carleton Staples jumped out of his classroom window and ran over to get a closer look at the disabled bi-plane. He never regretted that particular defiance and proudly told the story for many years.
Word got around. Before long, people came from all over town and from across the Piscatiqua River to bear witness. One of them was the reporter for the Portsmouth Herald who chronicled the events that followed the crash. Guards were stationed around the plane to keep onlookers at bay while Charles Oldfield went to telephone Captain Louis R. Knight of the Army Air Service.
Arrangements were made for De Havilland expert and daredevil aviator Jimmy Doolittle to fly in from Boston the following day to assess the damage. Charles retired to Portsmouth for the night where he was greeted as a celebrity. “Captain Oldfield,” wrote the Herald reporter, “in his enforced stay in this vicinity created a good impression with those whom he met he being a genial type of man and an interesting conversationalist.”
Jimmy Doolittle flew to Eliot on Thursday morning. It took him just a few minutes to formulate a repair plan and he was back in Boston by noon to order the necessary parts. Two accomplished aviation mechanics were dispatched from Boston in a truck with a propeller, a radiator, several sturdy timbers and more than enough fuel to get the damaged plane back to Boston. Local people remarked on the impressive speed and skill with which these highly specialized mechanics installed the replacement parts but they were just finishing up when the January sun called it a day.
A crowd arrived at the Town House on Friday morning to watch Oldfield depart but there was still a major obstacle to overcome. The opening in Everett Hammond’s stone wall was way too small to squeeze an airplane through. All day Friday was spent trying to get the bi-plane back into the meadow for take off. The timbers brought from Boston were fashioned into a ramp of sorts but in the end the plane had to be hoisted over the wall with the help of Eliot men who had gathered to watch. Finally at 4 pm Captain Charles B. Oldfield boarded his plane and lifted off. He circled the field twice to make sure the engine was sound and with a tip of his wing to the good people of Eliot, he was gone.
When all the excitement died down attention turned to the damaged Town Hall. The little building that had once served as a school was in need of expensive repairs. Two weeks after the accident it was reported in the New York Times that the Town of Eliot was seeking compensation from the Federal Government. The War department forwarded the claim to Mineola, NY and Major Stillwell of the Fifth Infantry stationed at Portland, ME was ordered to Eliot to investigate. Evidence that the damage was caused by the Army bi-plane was irrefutable.
A special thanks to Peggy Elliott at the William Fogg Public Library in Eliot, Maine for her able assistance. She reports that the little Town Hall, which was located across State Road from where Eliot Elementary School now stands, was torn down in the 1970s.