The First Ottawa Airmail

15 August 1918

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.

Cher Ami, the pigeon credited with saving a U.S. battalion in 1918, Wikipedia.

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 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.

Cover of one of the letters carried by Henri Pequet between Allahabad and Naini, 1911, India, Wikipedia.

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 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 24 June 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 23 June 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 15 August 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 am, 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 pm. (This was before the construction of the Rockcliffe aerodrome.) His flying time was 3 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.

The Curtis biplane used to carry the first airmail between Ottawa and Toronto. The caption on the photograph is either incorrectly dated, or this is actually a photograph of the second flight between the two cities. The same aircraft was used for both flights. Department of National Defence, Library and Archives Canada, 4748717.

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 am. 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 3 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 26 August, 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.

On 27 August 1974, the National Postal Museum in Ottawa issued a colourized version of the above photograph as a postcard and 8 cent stamp in honour of the first Toronto to Ottawa Airmail Service. It incorrectly stated that the first flight occurred August 26/27, 1918.

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 pm 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 pm rather than 3:00 pm. 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 am, 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.

Sources:

Canadian Museum of History, 2021. A Chronology of Canadian Postal History.

Durr, Eric, 2021. How pigeon helped save lost battalion, Military.com.

Ottawa Citizen, 1918. “First Mail By Aeroplane From Toronto Arrives,” 16 August.

——————, 1918. “Thinks Air Will Be Recognize Routes,” 17 August.

——————, 1918. “Rockcliffe Camp Under Quarantine,” 27 August.

Ottawa Journal, 1918. “Aviator Tremper Longman Leaves Ottawa at 6:50 am With First Airplane Mail,” 17 August.

——————, 1918. “Flyer Is Off With First Aerial Mail Sent From Ottawa,” 17 August.

——————, 1918. “Brings 130 Letters By Airplane Post,” 27 August.

——————, 1918. “Arrives With Mail, Starts Right Back,” 4 September.

Times of India, 2013. “World’s First Air Mail started during Maha Kumbh in 1911,” 19 February.

Mass Transit

15 August 1866

Mass transit began in Ottawa almost a year before Confederation. On 15 August 1866, the legislature of the Province of Canada, granted a charter to the Ottawa Street Passenger Railway, also known as the Ottawa City Passenger Railway (OCPR), to provide a public transportation system for the city. As the name of the company suggests, the system was rail based. But, unlike trains, it was horse powered.  Horse-drawn carriages with wheels that fitted on steel tracks were an efficient, low-cost means of moving people in the days before electricity, or the invention of the car. They could pull a bigger load than non-railed vehicles, such as omnibuses, and provided a smoother ride owing to less rolling resistance, i.e., friction. Friction was something roads in the 19th century had lots of.  In those days before asphalt, Ottawa’s byways and highways were dusty and rutted in summer.  In winter, when they weren’t dangerously slippery, they were snow-bound, and rutted. In spring and fall, they were quagmires, thick with glutinous mud.  Crossing a street, let alone walking any distance, was fraught with perils to both body and clothing. But a railed, horse-drawn carriage was largely immune to these risks. The horses didn’t seem to mind the uneven or muddy terrain. Their hooves unerringly found sold ground, pulling their passengers in relative, though Spartan, comfort along the smooth rails. Mind you, it was hardly rapid transit. But this was a slower, more measured age than today.

In 1866, the government was keen to have a transit system in Ottawa. Already the capital of the Province of Canada, it was about to become the capital of the much larger Dominion of Canada. With all those politicians and civil servants having to get to work, it wouldn’t do for their daily commute to become bogged down in mud; a convenient, mass transit system was important for civic mobility as well as civic pride. But while Ottawa had great prospects, it was still a small town. At a stretch, it might have had 20,000 inhabitants at the time of Confederation. Montreal had a horse-drawn rail system, but its population was at least five times bigger. Even so, the Montreal service wasn’t profitable. Consequently, to have a similar service in Ottawa, the government was willing to offer major concessions. The charter it awarded to the OCPR was in perpetuity—a unique feature. As well, unlike in Montreal, the OCPR was neither required to maintain the roads on which the railway ran, nor to build anything but the main line, though the company could build branch lines if it desired. Furthermore, the OCPR did not have to provide a minimum number of hours of service per day, and its rates were unregulated. In 1867, The Ottawa Citizen commented that even if the company’s immediate prospects were limited, the charter would likely to prove very valuable in the long run. It noted that similar railways in American cities were “the most profitable of all investments,” and that “their value is yearly increasing, they are subject to no fluctuations, can have no competition, no risks of fire, and must endure as long as the population.” The newspaper also noted that the Ottawa service would run from one burgeoning suburb through the heart of the city to another flourishing suburb, unlike passenger railways in other cities which ran from city centres to sparsely populated outskirts.

The Ottawa City Passenger Railway Company, Circa 1871
The Ottawa City Passenger Railway Company, Circa 1871, LAC

Under the company’s charter, the OCPR could begin operations once $30,000 of its capital had been subscribed by shareholders and twenty per cent paid up. But despite the Citizen’s endorsement, it was a hard task to persuade people to invest in the venture. It didn’t help that the company’s first president was G.B. Lyon-Fellowes, a dodgy lawyer who had been jailed for vote-stuffing after winning a seat in the Province of Canada’s legislature in 1857. He would later briefly become mayor of Ottawa in 1876 in another tainted election but died in office before an investigation into election fraud was completed. Matters improved once Thomas C. Keefer, one of Canada’s foremost engineers, became a director of the company in 1867 and later its president. In early 1868, Thomas Reynolds, managing director of the St. Lawrence and Ottawa Railway, provided the needed additional funds to get the OCPR “on track.” The government also waived its requirement that the Ottawa portion of the railway be completed by 15 August 1868, giving the company an additional year. The OCPR began operations on 20 July 1870. Horse cars ran every 15 to 20 minutes; the fare was six cents.

The line started on what was then known as Ottawa Street (now Sussex Drive) in the Village of New Edinburgh, roughly at the corner of John Street. Leaving the Village, it made its way down the length of Sussex Drive to Rideau Street. Turning onto Sappers’ Bridge, the railway went down Sparks Street to Bank Street. It then headed north for a block, turning left onto Wellington Street, to Duke Street in LeBreton Flats and, finally, to the Union Suspension Bridge, the location of the Chaudière Bridge today. When it commenced operations, the company had six carriages, drawn by a stable of thirty-six horses. In winter, the horses pulled sleighs. The rail service proved to be instant success, carrying 273,000 people during its first year of operation.

Although Ottawa residents welcomed the new transit system, there were problems. Merchants complained about the loss of street parking along the line, and the extent the railway would be double tracked. Others worried about the impact of the line on property values, and the safety of pedestrians. The latter was a real worry; the railway’s first fatality occurred in 1871 when an eight-year old boy was hit near New Edinburgh. City officials, resentful of the special privileges of the company, complained that railway workers were not grading the streets properly after laying the railway, and that the OCPR was using a different gauge from that used by other passenger railways which meant that vehicles couldn’t run inside its tracks. It later squabbled over the maintenance and cleaning of roads.

In August 1889, the railway added a Rockcliffe extension to its route to increase ridership on the New Edinburgh to Centre Town route. The extension, which cost $4,500, linked the railway to an existing ferry service to Pointe-Gatineau in Quebec, thereby providing a convenient method of transportation into Ottawa for people living along the Gatineau River. The new route also gave Ottawa’s citizens easy access to Rockcliffe Park. At the time, this was a remote area which many city residents had never visited. It quickly became a favourite picnicking area; more than 200 people visited on the second day the extension was open and “were charmed with the locality,” said the Ottawa Free Press.  The service ran from May through to December.

There was one hitch that marred early jaunts to the Park. The sometimes fraught relationship between the OCPR and the City of Ottawa had led to a four hundred foot gap in the line between the end of the main line and the new extension that started close to Rideau Hall, the residence of the Governor General. Unbeknownst to railway officials when they started construction on the extension, the City of Ottawa owned a small stretch of roadway which the company wanted to use. Unwilling to pay what President Keefer though to be excessive fees for the use of the road, a gap was left in the line.  Passengers heading for Rockcliffe Park were met at John Street by a wheeled carriage which took them to the start of the extension at no extra charge. The “missing link” was not closed until May 1891.

Notwithstanding The Citizen’s contention that the horse-drawn railway would endure as long as Ottawa had a population, the OCPR didn’t last long. The horse-drawn service was eclipsed by the Ottawa Electric Railway Company that, starting in 1891, offered a faster and more comfortable electric streetcar service. Later that same year, the Ottawa Electric Railway Company bought a controlling interest in the OCPR. By 1893, horse-drawn, public transit in Ottawa was no more.

Sources:

Burghardt, E., 2013. “Horses, streetcars, and light rail: A look at Ottawa’s transit systems,” Gazette, University of Ottawa, http://www.gazette.uottawa.ca/en/2013/05/horses-streetcars-and-light-rail-a-look-at-ottawas-transit-systems/.

Churcher, C., 2014. “Local Railway Items from Ottawa Papers, 1889,” Ottawa Free Press, 1889. “Ottawa City Passenger, Rockcliffe,” 2014, http://www.railways.incanada.net/Circle/Papers%20by%20Year/1889.pdf.

—————, 2014. “Local “Railway Items from Ottawa Papers, 1889,” Ottawa Journal, 1889. “Ottawa City Passenger, Rockcliffe,” 5 August, http://www.railways.incanada.net/Circle/Papers%20by%20Year/1889.pdf.

McKeown, B., 2006. Ottawa’s Streetcars, Railfare, DC Books, Pickering.

Mullington, D., 2005. Chain of Office: Biographical Sketches of the Early Mayors of Ottawa (1847-1948), General Store Publishing House, Renfrew.

The Citizen, 1910. “Ottawa Electric Railway Has Reached Its Twentieth Birthday,” 22 October.

——————–, 1986. “OC Transpo,” 25 April.

The Evening Citizen, 1933. “Horse Vehicles Couldn’t Run In Rails Of The Street Cars,” 7 January.

The Ottawa Citizen, 1867. “Ottawa Street Passenger Railway,” 27 February.

Trout, J. M & Trout, E. 1871. The Railways of Canada, 1870-71, The Montreal Times, Toronto.

Wyatt, D. 2014. All-Time List of Canadian Transit Systems, http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~wyatt/alltime/ottawa-on.html.

Wikipedia, 2014. Ottawa Electric Railway, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ottawa_Electric_Railway#CITEREFWetering1997.

Image: Library and Archives Canada