Editor’s note: Jesse Ponce a former circulation manager for The Texas City Sun was an avid historian and past president of the Texas City Heritage Association and the Texas City Museum. He also authored several pieces on the city’s history that were used to get approval for state historical markers throughout the city. Ponce also was a member of the Texas City Centennial Committee until he died in 2010. After his death his family bequeathed much of his historical writings and photos to The Daily News. The following piece is one Ponce wrote on Texas City aviator Jimmy Wedell.
Wedell’s Corner was an early trail into Texas City from Virginia Point being the closest place to cross the bay to Galveston.
It also was the childhood home site of aviation pioneers Jimmy and Walter Wedell.
Their grandparents had immigrated to Texas from Germany. Their son Robert and his wife Ida were both born in Texas in 1877. They were owners of a saloon on the waterfront.
Their son James R. ”Jimmy” Wedell was born in Texas City on March 31 1900 followed by the birth of Walter on Nov. 14 1901 then later Elizabeth and Mary.
As they were both mechanically minded the boys liked working with gasoline engines. A lot of their time was spent talking about aviation and flying.
Jimmy left school in the ninth grade and opened the Black Star Garage behind the family home. Here he repaired cars and motorcycles.
In 1913 the first U.S. Army Air Field was established in Texas City. It was at this airfield that Jimmy learned to fly and he later taught Walter.
According to one story Jimmy would take the almost empty whiskey bottles from his father’s saloon and pour them into one bottle. Then he would go to the air field and trade them for flying lessons.
After buying two junked planes the boys constructed one race plane. This was the beginning of their barnstorming along the Gulf Coast. They went from one air show to another.
They began to build and design racing planes from the Black Star Garage.
During World War I Walter enlisted in the Navy. Jimmy tried to enlist but was turned down because of poor eyesight. He had lost sight in one eye in a motorcycle accident. For a while he did freelance flying in Mexico and the Gulf Coast. The Army seeing his talents being wasted hired Jimmy as a civilian instructor of cadet fliers.
After the war Jimmy came back to the Black Star Garage as a mechanic building racing planes and barnstorming the country.
Sometime after 1922 Jimmy left for New Orleans. He started an air service and a flying school. Here he met Harry P. Williams from Patterson La. Williams was a millionaire in the oil sugar and lumber businesses and was married to Marguerite Clark a former star of silent movies.
Together the WedellWilliams Air Service was formed in Patterson.
They started a passenger service from New Orleans to Houston — this was Louisiana’s first commercial airline.
They also opened a flying school and started a factory to design and build low-wing monoplanes. In addition they started their own postal air service.
Of all the planes he designed and built the two most famous were the ”92” and the ”44.” Jimmy called this plane the ”Miss Patterson” — hot as a .44 and twice as fast.
During his lifetime Jimmy held more speed records than anyone else alive. His best year for racing was 1933 when he won the free-for-all races of every important meet that year.
Due to lack of competition in1934 Jimmy had to settle for exhibition flying. He also set a new speed record for ”three flags speed” flying from Ottawa to Washington to Mexico City in 11 hours 53 minutes.
He was officially the first pilot to exceed 300 miles per hour in a land plane.
The low-wing monoplanes designed and built at the WedellWilliams factory dominated the air races in the early 1930s at times placing first second and third in the same race
In 1934 the ”44” was destroyed in a crash at the Thompson Trophy Race in Cleveland. Doug Davis who was trying to break Jimmy’s speed record was killed.
A picture of a WedellWilliams plane hangs at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C.
Jimmy’s most famous flight occurred on Dec. 26 1933. When he heard that Baby Sue Trammel was in need of a brain operation he flew the child from Houston to Baltimore in one of his racing planes for the operation.
The nation held its breath as people received progress reports on the radio. Jimmy and the baby flew through snow fog and rain stopping only to refuel. They landed in record time in 18 inches of snow.
When praised for his kindness and for his speed records by the press Jimmy smiled lit a cigarette and modestly walked away. He had a cup of coffee and then flew on to Washington to pick up two passengers and flew back to Houston. The child survived the operation and as of 1968 was still alive a housewife and mother.
As a greeting to his dad Jimmy roared the black and red racer ”44” over Texas City in April of 1934. He was on his way to a Houston air circus.
Instead of staying at the Rice Hotel that night Jimmy had his cousin Frank Anizan bring him home to Texas City.
On Sunday after the air show Jimmy returned to Texas City this time landing his plane on a field prepared by his friends and his father. After landing he stayed by his plane to greet old-timers schoolmates and strangers anxious to meet the ”Speed King of the Sky.”
He told them of a sister ship he was building to the ”44” the ”45” which was larger faster and would hold two people.
On Monday morning as Jimmy roared his plane over Texas City for the last time his father waved goodbye not knowing it would be the last time he would see his son alive.
His last appearance as a racer and air circus act was at New Orleans. He was a winner of all events he entered. This was on the day the new Shushan airport was dedicated.
On Sunday evening June 24 1934 Jimmy was giving a flying lesson when the plane crashed. The plane a small English Gypsy Moth had a smooth takeoff as it left the Patterson Air Field. A mile from the field as it climbed slowly southward it nose dived then for a moment it leveled off only to nose dive again back to earth.
The student flyer recovered from his injuries but Jimmy was killed. His body was found in the wreckage with his head lying against the instrument panel.
In a tribute to Texas City’s native son the Houston Post said ”at the age of 34 he was one of the most brilliant of that daring generation of fliers to whose courage and brains the aviation industry owe much of its advancement.”
In November 1968 Texas City and the state of Texas paid tribute to those ”young barnstorming kids from Texas” as they were known placing a Texas Historical Marker at their childhood home site at Ninth Street and Fourth Avenue South.