A daredevil pilot drove a rickety biplane off the roof of a ten-story hotel.
Yes, it’s as crazy as it sounds. Not only did it happen once in 1912, but the feat was replicated in 1995. I read about this while staying at the hotel – now the Embassy Suites in Portland, Oregon – and had to know more. There is a small replica of the airplane in the lobby and a brief description of the event. Like many great micro-histories, the more you dig, the more you find.
Here’s the amazing story.
First, the setting. In the early 20th century, the Multnomah Hotel was one of the finest on the Pacific Coast; it was affectionately known as “the Grand Lady of Fourth Avenue.” With 700 rooms and an elegant design, the hotel gave Portland a place where businessman and dignitaries could stay. Many presidents, including my favorite Teddy Roosevelt, stayed there (Teddy’s story is another tale in itself. The normally indefatigable dynamo was so wearied by making speeches that he merely said a few words to a gathered crowd before walking off the podium). The fireproof building was designed with three long rectangular wings that ran from southwest to northeast. It was located in the heart of downtown, just five blocks from the Willamette River.
Philip Gervutz opened the hotel on February 8, 1912. During the city’s annual Rose Festival in June, a local daredevil had an idea to help promote the new hotel and his field of work – aeroplanes. To do this, he would fly a plane off the roof of the building.
Silas Christofferson was a 24-year old pilot, mechanic, and builder of planes. He was born in Iowa and moved with his family to Portland. He found a passion in gasoline engines and developed a reputation as both a mechanic and driver of automobiles. When aviation pioneer X X performed a show in California, Christofferson found his calling. In 1911, he built a Bleriot-type plane powered by a 40 horsepower engine. After much experimentation, though, the plane never successfully got off the ground (I can’t help wonder how a 40hp engine, the kind I’m used to operating on a fishing boat, could power an airplane, but I digress).
In a nascent field, Christofferson began to set records for long-distance flight. If there was a new obstacle or challenge, he seemed to tackle it head on. No one had flown from the Central Valley to Los Angeles, so he made that his goal. The 4,000 foot Tehachpi Pass proved difficult. “Five times he was beaten back by the hurricane of cross-currents and treacherous air-pits that guard Tehachpi’s hoary head,” one contemporary magazine described the attempts. Nine thousands feet in the air, Christofferson sailed over the pass and into Los Angeles.
Keep in mind the design and structure of these early airplanes. Nothing more than an engineered combination of wood and metal that looked straight out of an Erector Set, they hardly seemed suited for flying thousands of feet in the air. In the Curtiss push biplane that Christofferson piloted, he sat toward the front, exposed to the elements, a wheel in front of him and two levers beside each shoulder that controlled movements of the plane. The engine roared directly behind his head, with a fan blowing backwards – hence the name “push plane.” The entire contraption weighed around 850 pounds.
And to further keep this in perspective, his flying came only nine years after the Wright Brothers put their controlled powered flight into the record books. Christofferson was truly a pioneer.
Tragedy nearly cut his career short on April 13, 1912. Christofferson flew a Curtiss biplane over a marsh, near an area a crowd was watching a intercollegiate rowing race. The right wind dipped down and he lost control, plummeting 50 feet. The plane’s front wheel crashed into the mud, causing the entire plane to flip over. The frame crumpled up and the force of the impact snapped the safety belt holding Christofferson in his car, throwing him out onto his left side. A friend arrived at the scene and pulled him out of the wreckage and took him to a hospital. Some newspapers reported him dead, but he survived his injuries and three weeks later was back at the same airstrip in Alameda, California. The damaged plane was rebuilt and Christofferson was flying it a month later.
The crash didn’t deter him. In June, 1912 he decided that a stunt would be a great way to co-opt publicity for the Multnomah Hotel, the Rose Parade, and also the burgeoning field of aviation. So days in advance, he flew his Curtiss pusher plane from Vancouver, Washington to a Portland golf course: (a) that was the first air crossing of the Columbia River, a feat any fan of Lewis and Clark has to admit is a big deal and (b) he landed on a golf course – there was no airport. He disassembled the plane, drove it in pieces to the hotel where it was hoisted up to the roof, and then he reassembled it. He next built a 170-foot runway out of wide wooden planks.
Reassembled plane that would be flown for the first time post-reassembly off the roof of a hotel; a 170 foot runway; a small engine powering him into the air, no protection from the elements and no guarantee he wouldn’t fall right off the building to crash in the street below; a pilot with 75 flight hours under his belt. Yeah, this guy was bold.
When asked by a reporter the question that was on everyone’s mind – why in hell would he choose to do something like this – Christofferson’s reply was epic:
“This is an age of ‘do it first.’ Be original; don’t copy. When a feat has been once performed the people bore of it and expect the next performer to give something entirely new. This is the only reason I have decided to make a flight from the top of the Multnomah Hotel Tuesday afternoon. It will be the first exhibition of its kind in the history of aviation.”
At 2:00pm, with crowds estimated at 50,000 people – including those who bought tickets and gathered on parts of the hotel roof for a first-hand glimpse – Christofferson fired up his engine. The plane lurched forward, gained speed, and then shot off the parapet edge. He generated enough lift to stay above the buildings to the north and began ascending to 1,500 feet. The crowds cheered wildly. He flew for 12 minutes before landing across the Columbia in Vancouver (not just satisfied with the stunt itself, Christofferson reportedly delivered a sack of mail, making his flight one of the first air mail delivery in U.S. history).
Sadly, Christofferson died four years later in a plane accident. It was his own error – by habit, he thought he was flying with the Curtiss’ shoulder controls instead of foot pedals. A few seconds delay cost him. The plane crashed into the ground. He was conscious as his wife ran over to the wreckage and he told her what happened. But he died in a hospital hours later from his injuries.
In 1995, the hotel underwent major renovations from government offices to a hotel. To commemorate it, a pilot named Tom Murphy replicated Christofferson’s flight using a similar type of aircraft. He successfully sailed off the roof and across the Columbia River.
History is all around us. When traveling (and when the kids aren’t climbing on me or running off into uncertain danger) I always try to spot these stories. Kudos to Embassy Suites for keeping this memory alive in their lobby.
Sunset, Vol 32. “The Birdman Who Mastered the Tehachpi.” January-June 1914.
Offbeat Oregon, August 31 2014. “Rooftop Stunt made local aero-daredevil famous.”
Popular Mechanics, January 1917.
Aerial Age, Volume 2.
Pearson Field:Pioneering Aviation in Vancouver and Portland.
 Oakland Tribune, April 13 1912. “Aviator falls on Alameda Marsh and is Injured.”
 The San Francisco Call, May 12, 1912. “Aviator Flies in Plane that Turned Turtle.”