By Dalton Campbell
On December 25, 1927, a Fairchild aircraft flew along the north shore of the St. Lawrence from La Malbaie to Sept-Îles, Quebec. As the plane approached each town, the pilot lowered the altitude of the aircraft and threw out a packet of mail attached to a parachute. The postmaster retrieved the parachute and mail as the pilot flew to the next town.
This was the first official Post Office air mail delivery for the communities along the north shore of Quebec. In the winter, these communities—like many others throughout Canada—had been isolated with irregular mail delivery arriving after slow transport by boat or dogsled.
At the time, mail was the primary means of receiving personal and commercial correspondence, newspapers, money transfers, parcels, and holiday presents. Canada was an ideal place to begin air mail with its large land area, small population, lack of communication links, and long winters.
The first official airmail flight in Canada had been in 1918. However, from 1918 to 1927 the majority of airmail delivered was aboard unofficial flights—either stunts, exhibitions, or private corporations (generally mining companies) delivering mail to their own operations. In 1927, the Post Office started to grant airmail contracts in larger numbers and began to create what would become a network of airmail routes. The end of 1927—Vachon’s run included—could be said to mark the end of the first year of official airmail in Canada.
These early official airmail contracts were granted by the Post Office to private airlines. By the spring of 1930, air routes were serving northern regions (e.g. Chibougamau, Quebec; Red Lake, Ontario), islands (e.g. Prince Edward Island; Pelee Island, Ontario; Îles-de-la-Madeleine, Quebec) and cities and towns throughout Canada.
Edmonton, “the gateway to the north,” was the starting point for postal delivery to the Northwest Territories. Previously, the post had been carried by boat in summer and by dogsled in winter to the communities along the Mackenzie River. Airmail cut the delivery time from weeks to days. After C.H. “Punch” Dickins of Western Canada Airways made the first airmail flights into the Arctic in January 1929, the Post Office contract was granted to Commercial Airways. The first official Arctic airmail was delivered by Wilfrid “Wop” May and Idris Glyn-Roberts in late December 1930.
Most of the early pilots were veterans of the First World War. In Canada they flew hundreds of miles without charts, radio, or heated cabins, through snowstorms and fog, landing and taking off from water, ice, and other improvised airfields. The engineers and mechanics were equally heroic and now largely forgotten. They maintained the planes in extreme winter cold, often heating the engine oil each morning on a burner so the engine could start again. Library and Archives Canada’s Post Office Department fonds contains a report that an engineer climbed from an aircraft cabin in mid-flight to adjust a landing ski.
By the early 1930s, the value of airmail was evident. The service provided faster and more economical delivery, improved communication and commerce, and helped outlying regions and communities feel more closely tied to the rest of the country.
- Wilfrid Reid May fonds
- Romeo and Georgette Vachon fonds
- Richard Kenneth Malott fonds
- Emil J. Fiala collection
- Stanley Ransom McMillan fonds
- Post Office Department fonds
- Air Services Division sub-series, Post Office Department fonds
Dalton Campbell is an archivist in the Science, Environment and Economy Section of the Private Archives Division.