Commemorating Airmail History

Story and photos by John Chalmers,
CAHS Membership Secretary

On July 9, 2018, history was repeated for the second time when western Canada’s first air mail flight of July 9, 1918, was re-enacted with a WestJet flight using a Bombardier Q400 aircraft. One hundred years ago, an American pilot, Katherine Stinson, flew a mailbag containing 259 specially stamped letters from Calgary to Edmonton. She landed on the infield at the racetrack of the Edmonton Exhibition grounds, welcomed by a huge crowd.

01 Stinson painting by Jim Bruce 545

This splendid painting by eminent aviation artist, Jim Bruce, depicts Katherine Stinson’s historic flight of July 9, 1918, as she followed the CPR line from Calgary to Edmonton. Jim donated the painting to the Alberta Aviation Museum. Jim has contributed his work to CAHS calendars, including images for May 2018 and September 2019.

An earlier re-enactment was done on June 9, 2006, when the Canadian Aerophilatelic Society (CAS), arranged to fly 259 letters to Edmonton in a Cessna 172. Upon arrival of the mail, the exact replica of Stinson’s one-of-a-kind Curtiss Special biplane was rolled out to meet a large crowd at the Alberta Aviation Museum. Pilot at that time was Audrey Kahovec, then a flying instructor with the Edmonton Flying Club.

02 Stinson display 545

The Curtiss Special display at the Alberta Aviation Museum. Backdrop for the display is a huge enlargement of the painting by Jim Bruce.

03 Waterhouse cover 545

The envelope of the 1918 “Waterhouse letter” that has now flown a second time from Calgary to Edmonton, exactly 100 years after its first flight.

On July 9, 2018, 259 “covers” or letters, specially stamped for the occasion, were carried in the same mailbag used in 2006. Added to the bag was an original letter in its original envelope that was carried on the 1918 flight, as shown above. The letter was acquired by CAS project organizer and CAHS member, Gordon Mallet of Kelowna BC. He acquired the letter from a man in Texas who is a grandson of Henry Waterhouse, who wrote it to his wife, Arabella, visiting a relative in Edmonton at the time.

04 Gordon and passenger 545

Gord Mallett, left, hands a special cover letter to a WestJet passenger as he leaves the departure gate to board the commemorative flight. All passengers were given a cover of the mail to be posted.

05 WestJet pilots 545

In 2018, two WestJet captains, Athenia Jansen, left, and Janna Breker Kettner, flew the mailbag in the Q400 cockpit. Upon landing in Edmonton, the mail was backstamped, then delivered to a Canada Post outlet for distribution.

The mailbag carried a personal letter from Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi to Edmonton mayor, Don Iveson. In 1918, acting mayor Frank Freeze in Calgary had mailed a letter to his counterpart, Harry Evans, in the capital city.

06 John and Don 545

I had the privilege of handing Mayor Nenshi’s letter to Mayor Iveson at his office. Presenting the letter provided a fine conclusion to recognizing the historic flight, both for its air mail delivery, and as the first flight between two major centres in western Canada. I didn’t fully realize how tall my mayor is until I saw the photo of us!

On Saturday, June 7, prior to the centennial re-enactment flight, the Alberta Aviation Museum presented a mini-drama recognizing the historic flight of 1918. University summer student employee, Viola Bolik, played the part of Katherine Stinson. She wore a tailor-made replica of the leather coat worn by Stinson when flying. The coat, made from simulated leather fabric, was created by Geri Dittrich, the Head of Wardrobe for Walterdale Theatre, an amateur theatre company in Edmonton. A pattern for the coat was made by studying photos of Katherine wearing the long coat.

07 Viola and Beckett 545

Viola Bolik, standing in for Katherine Stinson, is handed the mailbag by a mail clerk played by air cadet Beckett MacKay, in a dramatic presentation at the Alberta Aviation Museum.

In late 1918, Katherine Stinson went overseas, hoping to fly in the First World War. She wasn’t allowed to do that. Instead, she drove an ambulance for the Red Cross, for which she was a strong supporter and fund raiser. Sadly, in November 1918 she contracted influenza, which developed into tuberculosis. After returning to the United States, she spent six years in a sanitarium and never flew again.

08 Katherine Stinson 545

Born in Alabama in 1891, Katherine Stinson died in 1977 at 86 in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she and her husband, Miguel Otero, are buried. A pioneer pilot and heroine, Katherine Stinson still occupies a special chapter in Canadian aviation. To learn more about Katherine, see Tony Cashman’s cover story, “The Katherine Stinson Special,” in the Vol. 44, No. 1, Spring 2006 issue of the CAHS Journal.

To see the 1918 letter from Calgary to the Edmonton mayor, click here. To see the 2018 letter from Mayor Nenshi to Mayor Iveson, click here.