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Remember This? The first Ottawa airmail

Here in Canada, Major-General Donald Cameron convinced the Department of Marine and Fisheries in 1890 to experiment with homing pigeons to carry messages between Halifax and Sable Island.
Airmail card
On Aug. 27, 1974, the National Postal Museum in Ottawa issued a colourized version of the above photograph as a postcard and eight cent stamp in honour of the first Toronto to Ottawa Airmail Service. It incorrectly stated that the first flight occurred Aug. 26/27, 1918.

CityNews, in partnership with the Historical Society of Ottawa, brings you this weekly feature by Director James Powell, highlighting a moment in Ottawa's history.

You may be surprised to learn that communication by air has a very long history, dating back thousands of years. Until the arrival of the telegraph in the mid-nineteenth century, the fastest way of sending messages was by air—via pigeon.

Historians believe that the ancient Greeks took advantage of pigeons’ innate ability to find their way home from distant locales to report news of the Olympic Games. In modern times, more specialized birds, commonly called messenger or homing pigeons, were used. To communicate via homing pigeon, the birds must first be sent to the distant location. When needed, a small message written on lightweight paper was strapped to the leg of a pigeon who, when released, would instinctively fly to its home roost, wherever it might be. Once back at its dovecote, the message could be retrieved by its keeper.

Homing pigeons flew combat missions in both world wars. In 1918, the pigeon 'Cher Ami' was awarded the Croix de Guerre with oak leaves for delivering messages in Verdun. Later working for the U.S. Signal Corps, the bird managed to fly through German lines in October of 1918, despite having been severely wounded, including losing a leg and eye, to deliver a message from a cut-off U.S. battalion.

She (notwithstanding her masculine name) was credited with saving many lives. After her death in 1919, her body was preserved and put on display at the Smithsonian Institute. In the United Kingdom, thirty-two messenger pigeons have been awarded the Dickin Medal, which was established in 1943 to honour animal heroism in wartime.

Here in Canada, Major-General Donald Cameron convinced the Department of Marine and Fisheries in 1890 to experiment with homing pigeons to carry messages between Halifax and Sable Island. However, high pigeon mortality led to the cancellation of the experiment after five years.

Balloons have also been used to carry mail. Reportedly, the first official U.S. air mail delivery occurred in August 1859 when more than 130 letters were delivered from Lafayette to Crawfordville, Indiana, a distance of 30 miles. Balloons were also used to carry mail and military dispatches out of besieged Paris in 1870-71 during the Franco-Prussian War.

The first airmail as we commonly know it, i.e., via airplane, occurred just seven years after Orville and Wilbur Wright took to the skies at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903, thereby ushering in the era of heavier-than-air flight. It occurred in February of 1911 in Allahabad, India in the context of the United Provinces Exposition and the Maha Kumbh festival.

Henri Pequet, a French aviator, carried more than 6,000 letters and cards five miles from Allahabad to Naini in a two-seater Humber biplane. The trip was an experiment conceived by Captain Walter Windham in co-operation with the Indian postal authorities to see what an airplane might be able to accomplish should a city come under siege. In addition to the regular postal fee was a six annas charge to help fund the construction of a youth hostel, the Oxford and Cambridge Hotel, in Allahabad.

Canada’s air mail service was inaugurated by Captain Bryan Peck on June 24, 1918, when he flew official correspondence from Montreal to Toronto with the consent of the Deputy Postmaster General in Ottawa. It was the first of several experimental flights to test the feasibility of an air mail service.

Peck, a Montrealer stationed at the Leaside aerodrome in Toronto, had arrived in Montreal a few days earlier from Toronto via Deseronto, Ontario in a Curtis JN-4 biplane, landing at the Bois Franc Polo Fields. Corporal W.C. Mathers accompanied him. While his flight to Montreal was mostly uneventful, the last part of it was completed in a full gale. His return flight to Toronto with Canada’s first official air mail was even more challenging.

He initially tried to leave on June 23, 1918, but was forced back to Montreal owing to heavy rain. Airplanes of this time had cockpits that were open to the elements. He finally left Montreal the next day. Reportedly, he flew at an altitude of only twelve metres owing to his airplane being over-loaded with whisky. At that time, Prohibition was still in force in Ontario. Letters carried on this inaugural flight were hand-franked with a special triangular post mark reading “Inaugural service by aerial, Montreal, 23-6-18.”

Two weeks letter, Katherine Stinson, an American pilot, made the second Canadian airmail flight, flying from Calgary to Edmonton. She carried 250 letters in a Royal Mail postal bag.

Ottawa’s turn came on Aug. 15, 1918, when Lieutenant Tremper Longman of the Royal Air Force stationed at the Leaside aerodrome in Toronto carried official letters from Toronto to the capital. Again, it was an experimental flight aimed at demonstrating the feasibility of transporting letters by air. The idea of the flight had been proposed by Col. W. Hamilton Merritt, the President of the Aerial Club of Toronto. Like Captain Peck on his earlier flight to Montreal, Longman flew a JN-4 Curtis biplane.

He left Camp Leaside at 9:45 a.m., stopping at Camp Mohawk in Deseronto, Ontario to refuel and to have lunch. He arrived at the military encampment at the Rockcliffe Ranges outside of Ottawa at 3:09 p.m. (This was before the construction of the Rockcliffe aerodrome.) His flying time was three hours and 40 minutes.  He figured he could do it quicker once he had become familiar with the route. He had relied on maps and a compass to find his way to Ottawa. He said the capital was easy to locate, his route taking him over Smith’s Falls.

Longman, who was met by Ottawa postal officials, carried dispatches for the Governor General, Sir George Foster, who was the acting Premier at the time in the absence of Sir Robert Borden, the Postmaster, the Assistant Postmaster, and the Secretary-Treasurer of the Ottawa Motor Club.

Two days later, Lieutenant Longman left Ottawa to deliver the first airmail from Ottawa to Toronto. After checking his engine, he hopped into the cockpit. With a cheery wave, he was off, leaving ten minutes early at 6:50 a.m. Weather conditions were perfect—a clear sky and a slight wind. Before heading southwest towards his Deseronto stop, he circled the military encampment at Rockcliffe.

There were no witnesses to his departure other than the Assistant Postmaster and a Post Office inspector who had dropped off the mail bag containing one hundred letters, most of which were replies to letters he had brought to Ottawa two days earlier. The letters carried the usual three cent stamp with a postal mark reading 'By Aerial Mail.' The Ottawa Journal claimed to have sent the first letter to be carried from Ottawa by airplane. The newspaper’s letter was addressed to Mr. J.R. Atkinson, the president of the Toronto Star.

In honour of Lieutenant Longman’s airmail flights, the Journal published a short poem entitled 'The Airplane':

My engines throb, and propellers spin, for I yearn to caress the blue; if the mail’s in the sack, toss it up on my back—it’s my duty to see it through. Soon the earth drops away, and the towns in array, marks the rout I must wing, o’er the land, with His Majesty’s mail, through the heavens I sail, in response to young Longman’s command.

As this was a test flight, there was no promise of a repeat performance. However, less that two weeks later on Aug. 26, Lieutenant Arthur Dunstan, also of Leaside Camp, brought the second bag of airmail to Ottawa from Toronto in the same Curtis biplane that Longman flew. In his mail sack were roughly 130 letters, including registered mail, special delivery, and 100 ordinary letters, each of which bore a stamp of the Aero Club of Ottawa sold for the benefit of the RAF Fund for Prisoners of War.

Dunstan’s flight was described as “exciting” as he had to dodge several storms on his way to Ottawa. Just before landing, he ran into a rain squall. He also experienced a strong tail wind which fortuitously shortened his flight. Instead of travelling over Smith’s Falls, the route chosen by Longman, Dunstan’s flight path took him via the 1,000 Islands at an altitude of 2,000 feet. He flew directly to the Rockcliffe Ranges where huge canvas strips had been laid out to form the letter T. Dunstan brought his plane to a standstill almost directly on the canvas.

Touching down at 4:10 p.m. Dunstan was surprised to find out that he was almost an hour late. Owing to a mix-up in Toronto, Dunstan thought that his expected arrival time was 4:30 p.m. rather than 3:00 p.m. He left on the return flight to Toronto the following day.

In early September, Lieutenant Edward Burton of the RAF made the first same-day return trip between Toronto and Ottawa with the mail. Setting out from Leaside camp at 7:45 a.m., he arrived at the Rockcliffe Ranges at about 12:45 pm. Unlike for Dunstan’s flight, no landing strips were prepared for Burton as the neighbouring army camp was in quarantine owing to a case of smallpox.

He was met by the Postmaster, A.G. Acres and his assistant. After taking a quick but hearty lunch with the Postmaster, Burton left roughly an hour later with 136 letters. As with previous flights, he stopped over at Deseronto to refuel before proceeding with the rest of his journey. Low clouds forced him to fly at an altitude of only 1,000 feet.

Although these initial flights demonstrated the feasibility and speed of an air mail service, the Canadian postal authorities were slow to adopt the airplane. It wasn’t until 1928 that the Toronto-Montreal-Ottawa corridor received regular air mail service. A cross-Canada, Vancouver-to-Halifax service wasn’t inaugurated until 1939.

 

 

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