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Weldon Bagster Cooke (June 28, 1884 – September 16, 1914) was a pioneering aviator from Oakland. In 1911, he was the first to fly an airplane over Mt. Tamalpais, and in 1912 may have been the first in California to get a pilot's license. 18 Some sources Cooke was the first person to fly over Oakland in 1911, 7 but Feng Ru had done that 2 years earlier in 1909.

NB: Wikipedia previously listed Cooke's middle name as Baxter. His middle name hasn't been found in any official records, just the initial B. However, in newspaper articles that include his middle name, it is always Bagster. Some sources list the date of his death as September 6, 1914, but that is likely a transcription error from a verbal account. Finally, it's unknown whether he was born in Oakland or Lockeford. The family lived in Oakland in 1884 when he was born, but no official record of his birth location has been found yet.

Cooke was born in Oakland to Rev. William Henry Cooke, a pastor, and Ada Locke (Cooke), the daughter of Dr. Dean Jewett Locke, the founder of Lockeford, California. The Cookes had 5 children: Weldon, Winfred (who died in infancy), Alma, Robert, and Hester. In 1884, they lived at 925 - 36th Street, and William was pastor at the Golden Gate Congregational Church.

Weldon attended various schools, then graduated from the California School of Mechanical Arts (now Lick-Wilmerding High School) in San Francisco in 1902. Interestingly, the article about his graduation lists Sunol as his home town. 2 The 1900 census supports this, showing the family living in Murray Township, which included Sunol. By 1905, the family had moved back to Oakland at 3510 Magnolia Street (2244 before renumbering; the house was where I-580 now stands.) Cooke then attended the University of California, and got a scholarship his sophomore year. 3 He graduated in 1907.

About 1907, Cooke married Irene Cardoza (Cooke) (Farnkopf).

Flying career

Cooke built his own glider, then began powered flight. One source says his first flight was on Columbus Day in 1911, flying from Fruitvale to the University of California, 4 but he had previously flown at the Walnut Creek grape festival the week before 8 as well as warmup flights the previous month. After the successful Columbus Day flight, he crashed in Lake Merritt on his way home. He and the plane were relatively uninjured. 9

In 1911, Cooke tried to fly to the Big Game in Palo Alto, 10 but he was thwarted by gusty winds. 11 He then took part in several events at the Oakland Motordrome including French aviator Didier Masson. The meet involved motorcycle races on the ground, and even one motorcycle vs. airplane race. 12,13 Another event was to feature mock aerial combat. 14

Plans were made to fly to Berkeley to drop a letter for UC President Wheeler and for his brother, Robert, who was teaching at the university, then fly across to Mt. Tamalpais. But heavy fog, then engine troubles stopped his first attempts. 15 Finally, on December 19, 1911, Cooke was successful. His fame grew more rapidly after flying over Mt. Tamalpais.

November 1911 12December 1911 16December 1911December 1911

On January 13, 1912, under the auspices of the Pacific Aero Club, Cooke successfully obtained his pilot's license at Adams Point. He was required to perform a number of figure 8s around a prescribed course, and to land within 150 feet of a mark on the ground. Upon completion, Mayor Frank Mott presented him with a loving cup provided by the Oakland Chamber of Commerce. 17 One article says it was the first time a Californian flying a California built plane tried for a license, and that it was the first pilot's license won west of St. Louis. 18 Other articles of the time state simply that he was the first Californian to get a pilot's license.

Cooke then took his plane to LA for exhibitions there. He set the endurance record for a meet at Dominguez field, 19 but the exhibition was marred by the death of aviator Rutherford Page. 20

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He returned to the Bay Area for an air meet at the Oakland Trotting Park in Emeryville, which was dubbed the Oakland Aviation Field. Much was made of Cooke's rivalry with famed aviator Lincoln Beachey. The meet was also to include 17-year-old Farnum Fish who had started flying at age 15 and was the youngest licensed pilot in the world,Blanche Scott, the "Tomboy of the Air", and Tom Gunn, the first Chinese American to graduate from the Curtiss School of Aviation. 21 Noted aviator Philip Parmalee was a late addition to the lineup. Postmaster Paul Schafer had a special cancellation stamp made for an airmail service that was to be part of the meet. 22

The air meet didn't go smoothly. William Hoff was badly injured when his plane crashed, and it was initially feared he would die. He was sent to the East Bay Sanitorium to recover. Blanche Scott didn't fly because of unfavorable conditions. 23 A few days later, Tom Gunn's plane crashed and hit a building, destroying the plane, but Gunn survived with relatively minor injuries. 24 Hillery Beachey, Lincoln's brother, broke the front wheels off his landing gear when he hit a fence. 25

1912wreckage of Tom Gunn's plane 241912

Cooke then performed at festivals up and down the state, as far away as Eureka and Alturas.

In September 1912, Cooke was flying a new plane in Chicago. He crashed and lost consciousness, and when he came to, he had to fight off a crowd of souvenir seekers who were taking parts of the plane. 26 In 1913, he was in Sandusky, Ohio, working with Harry Atwood on flying boats. 27 Flights with the flying boats were eventful, too; a flight near Cleveland ended with his plane sinking. 28

An air race of flying boats between Chicago and Detroit was planned in 1913, the Great Lakes Reliability Cruise, and Cooke was one of the starters. The 900-mile race was to fly up Lake Michigan and down Lake Huron with various planned stops along the way, and had a prize of $17,500. But while the race was under way, the race committee withdrew the prize, and the race was discontinued. 29,30,31

July 6, 1913 38July 6, 1913 38December 31, 1913 39

In 1914, Cooke returned to Oakland. He still had a manufacturing plant in Sandusky, Ohio, but said there wasn't yet much call for flying boats or airplanes in general. But that would change soon. 32 In February, Silas Christofferson flew across the Tehachapi Mountains after 5 tries, and set in motion plans for a California air race from San Francisco to Stockton, Modesto, Bakersfield, Los Angeles, and San Diego. Cooke was mentioned early on as a competitor. By the time the race was to start, it had been scaled back to Los Angeles, and then to Bakersfield. Silas Christofferson won the race, in under 5 hours of flight time. 33.34

Cooke was busy, but not making enough money, and in May 1914 he declared bankruptcy. 35 Around this same time, Cooke and Christofferson's names also appeared in regards to an air ferry service between Oakland and San Francisco. Christofferson piloted the inaugural flight, with San Francisco mayor James Rolph as his passenger.

1914 ad, Stockton Evening MailMay 15, 1914 San Francisco Examiner

Death, Burial, and Legacy

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Cooke's life and career were cut short when he died in a plane crash in Pueblo, Colorado, on September 16, 1914. 4 His father had died just a few weeks before.

Irene brought his remains back to California, and a funeral was held at the Fourth Congregational Church. He is buried in the Locke Family Cemetery in Lockeford, California, along with other family members. 5

Upon hearing a description of the plummet of Weldon's plane, Irene theorized that he must have fainted, and noted an earlier illness before he left for Colorado:

"Those who saw declare that the machine dropped straight from a height of 2500 feet," declared Mrs. Cooke. "Now if even half the control wires had broken and my husband had to right the machine It would have swerved. It did not. This shows that, there was absolutely no control and proves conclusively that he must have fainted while In the air." 36

Years later in 1933, his contributions were marked with a ceremony at the Oakland Airport. The plane he used in his flight over Mt. Tamalpais, the "Black Diamond," along with what was supposed to be the first California-built airplane to fly, the "Noonan" (the Wiseman-Cooke airplane now at the Smithsonian) were donated to the Port of Oakland. 6

The planes were displayed the airport for some time, then transferred to the Smithsonian in 1948 for their new Air Museum. 37 The "Black Diamond" now hangs in the Hiller Aviation Museum. 7

Cooke was not the first to fly over Oakland, but he may have been the first Oaklander to receive a pilot's license. 7,17 Regardless, he was an aviation pioneer who helped advance the field of flight in the early days.

Links and References

  1. Weldon B. Cooke on Wikipedia
  2. Many Students Receive Diplomas San Francisco Chronicle June 4, 1902
  3. Will Aid Deserving Students Berkeley Daily Gazette July 2, 1904
  4. His Mother Here Gets News Oakland Tribune September 16, 1914
  5. Weldon Cooke on FindAGrave.com
  6. Air Pioneer Will Be Paid Honor Today Oakland Tribune November 13, 1933
  7. Pioneering flight over Mt. Tam made 100 years ago SFGate December 19, 2011
  8. Big Carnival Is Formally Opened San Francisco Chronicle October 7, 1911
  9. Columbus Day Closes With Brilliant Carnival On Lake Oakland Tribune October 13, 1911
  10. Aviator Flies To Big Game Sacramento Bee November 11, 1911
  11. Aviator Misses Fun at Stanford Field San Francisco Call November 12, 1911
  12. Self-Trained Birdman To Try for Records in Own Machine Oakland Tribune November 30, 1911
  13. Sky Pilots Prepare For Combat With Elements Oakland Tribune December 2, 1911
  14. Brilliant Military Spectacle Is Added Attraction for Boys and Girls Oakland Tribune December 14, 1911
  15. Cooke Snatches Crown From Tamalpais San Francisco Call December 20, 1911 (p2)
  16. Sails Around Tamalpais In Aeroplane San Francisco Examiner December 20, 1911 (p2)
  17. Cooke Wins His License To Clip Death's Beard San Francisco Call January 14, 1912
  18. Aviator Qualifies For Pilot's License San Francisco Examiner January 14, 1912
  19. Cooke Is Marathon Airman Of Meet Los Angeles Express January 23, 1912
  20. 200,000 Persons Saw Aerial Circus Los Angeles Record January 29, 1912
  21. Farnum Fish to Fly Here Oakland Tribune February 9, 1912
  22. Plan Aeroplan Postal Service San Francisco Chronicle February 12, 1912
  23. W.H. Hoff Probably Fatally Injured When His Airship Flips and Plunges to Earth Oakland Tribune February 18, 1912 (p2)
  24. Two Aviators Recover After Accidents Oakland Tribune February 23, 1912
  25. Beachey Wrecks Airship By Hitting Fence; Curtiss Warns Aviators Oakland Tribune February 22, 1912 (p2)
  26. Weldon Cooke Started Here Daily Gazette (Martinez) September 23, 1912
  27. Birdman Plans to Cross Ocean in "Flying Boat" Morning Union (Grass Valley) May 29, 1913
  28. Oakland Flier Saved As He Falls In Lake San Francisco Examiner June 20, 1913
  29. Great Race of "Flying Boats" Is On Over Big Lake Daily Telegram (San Luis Obispo) July 8, 1913
  30. World's Greatest Aeroboat Race Is Now On Detroit Times July 12, 1913
  31. Flying Boat Race Is Off Urbana Courier-Herald July 16, 1913
  32. Oakland Aviator Back Oakland Tribune February 25, 1914
  33. Trail Is Now Blazed For Race, Says Tehachapi's Conqueror San Francisco Examiner February 17, 1914 (p2)
  34. Sixteen Aviators Will Fly Down Valley Today Fresno Morning Republican April 20, 1914
  35. Aviation Does Not Spell Great Riches Daily Gazette (Martinez) May 15, 1914
  36. Fainting Spell Fatal To Cooke Oakland Tribune September 27, 1914
  37. Air Trophies Given Museum Oakland Tribune June 1, 1948
  38. LC-B2- 2738-5 [P&P] LC-B2- 2738-6 [P&P] Library of Congress, Bain Collection
  39. Cooke 1913 Tractor Biplane Wikipedia