Mail service forever changed 100 years ago Monday. Its footprints remain in Utah today

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Mail service forever changed 100 years ago Monday. Its footprints remain in Utah today

By Carter Williams, KSL.com | Posted - Feb. 19, 2021 at 7:11 p.m.



Editor's note:This article is a part of a series reviewing Utah and U.S. history for KSL.com's Historic section.

SALT LAKE CITY — The speed of mail service forever changed 100 years ago this month when on Feb. 22, 1921, a group of pilots completed a relay trip that fascinated America at the time.

The pilots working for the Post Office Department would go on to complete what became the first ever transcontinental flight across the U.S. with night flying included. Their path across the country took a little over 33 hours — and Utah factored in the achievement.

Airmail's origin

The idea for using airplanes to help deliver mail first took off in 1910, when a Texas representative proposed a bill to allow the country's postmaster general to look into the feasibility of it, according to a history of airmail compiled by the U.S. Postal Service. The bill was introduced less than a decade after the Wright Brothers completed the first flight in history.

On Sept. 23, 1911, Earle Ovington became the first pilot to carry mail through flight, which was a path in Long Island, New York. Seven other pilots would be hired around the same time and would drop mailbags from planes where the local postmaster could bill them up.

More experimental air delivery flights became about as entertaining as they were purposeful. The Postal Service notes that experimental flights were showcased at fairs, carnivals and air meets in more than 20 states, which also helped department officials realize more potential for the use of planes for mail purposes.

After a few years of lobbying Congress, the Postal Service first received funding when lawmakers appropriated $50,000 for air service out of money that was designated for mail carrying through steamboats. The Post Office Department officially launched its new "airmail service" in 1918.

On May 15, 1918, pilots in Long Island and Washington, D.C., began the first airmail flights. Both flights were to Philadelphia. The first rates? Twenty-four cents per ounce, which equates to about $4.16 per ounce today when adjusting for inflation. The rate would be lowered to 6 cents by the end of the year.

"During the first three months of operation, the Post Office Department used Army pilots and six Army Curtiss JN-4H 'Jenny' training planes," the Postal Service wrote. "On Aug. 12, 1918, the Department took over all phases of airmail service, using newly hired civilian pilots and mechanics, and six specially built mail planes from the Standard Aircraft Corporation."

Eventually, the service expanded. The first transcontinental flight route was completed in 1920. The final segment linked Omaha, Nebraska, with San Francisco, with six stops in between, including Salt Lake City. It allowed pilots to expand service coast-to-coast with service 22 hours faster than the railroads.

Even then, there was a push to go faster. Since there were no radar systems and radio was just becoming valuable, no pilot was allowed to attempt the transcontinental journey at night. That would change in the 1920s.

On Feb. 22, 1921, the possibility of night flying was put to the test.

Anticipation in Utah and America

The historic flight was preceded by wonderment and by debates in Washington over cost — some debates that never change. On Jan. 16, 1921, the Salt Lake Telegram published an article written by a correspondent who wrote that he flew from New York to San Francisco himself to see if it could be done within two days as the Post Office Department promised at the time.

He wrote that his journey was 33 hours and 59 minutes of flying time. For comparison's sake, commercial flights between the two cities can now be completed in just over six hours after 100 years of innovation. There were dozens of stories — some front-page material — printed in Utah newspapers about the attempt.

There were a few pilots hired to attempt the feat in February 1921, according to aviation writer Roger Mola, who wrote about the journey compiling out newspaper reports from the time. Two planes left an airfield in Long Island while another two left San Francisco at close to the same time. Other pilots were waiting in spots in between, including Salt Lake City, to continue the relay.

Tragedy in Elko

William Lewis and Jack Eaton were the two pilots who were brought on to travel from California to Salt Lake City. Eaton's plane arrived in Utah for a pilot change; Lewis's didn't. He was killed when his plane crashed near Elko, Nevada, according to an article in a Feb. 22, 1921, edition of the Deseret News.

"According to brief accounts of the accident received via wireless at the Jordan landing field, Captain' Lewis' machine went into a tail-spin and crashed to the ground just after he had taken off at Elko," the newspaper reported at the time.

The outlet added that Lewis had served as a pilot in World War I and was hired weeks before the fatal crash. Eaton arrived in Salt Lake City, where he was informed what happened.

Eaton's plane proved to be the most pivotal in the attempt. As the Postal Service noted, one of the western flights was cut short due to icing in Pennsylvania. A big snowstorm stopped the second western flight in Chicago.

It left the lone remaining plane in the hand of a relief pilot named Jack Knight, who went on to become the most revered pilot of the post office's plan.

A will to complete the journey

It's a bit surprising Knight was even ready to participate in the historic attempt. As documented by local newspaper reports of the time, he had recently crashed a plane in Wyoming that left him with some facial injuries still visible at the time of the relay.

Still, he began his leg of the relay from North Platte, Nebraska, to Omaha. It was the first time he would attempt the flight at night, but he got help along the way.

"Residents of the towns below lit bonfires to help mark the route," the Postal Service wrote.

When he arrived in Omaha, he learned that the next pilot was stuck by the storm that halted another plane in Chicago.

That's when he volunteered to fly to Illinois in the dark on a path he had never flown before. Authorities actually didn't want Knight to continue eastward out of safety concerns.

A wire story published in the Salt Lake Telegram on Feb. 23, 1921, reported that by this point Knight knew what had happened in Elko. The pilot was saddened by the loss of his friend but reportedly said he also didn't "want to see this thing fall through." So, Knight essentially found a way to talk his way into continuing the journey.

"He was not permitted to proceed until after several minutes of argument and pleading," the article stated.

The report added that Knight tore an air map from the wall of an Omaha and Knight "declared he would make his way by its use," the report added. He took off from Omaha shortly before 2 a.m. local time on Feb. 23.

The winter storm made the journey difficult. The pilot told reporters at the time that he ran into fog near Des Moines, Iowa, before he made a quick stop in Iowa City. Strong winds also took him off course as he piloted the plane with the map and a compass as his guide.

He arrived in Chicago a bit later than anticipated. Reports stated that lights were turned on at the airfield he would land at just in case he arrived before sunrise, but the delays by the weather meant arrived after the sun rose.

He was greeted by a throng of reporters while the next pilot took over from there and flew to Cleveland. As noted by Mola, the mail from San Francisco arrived in New York 33 hours and 20 minutes after the plane first took off; about 26 of those hours were spent in the air.

While multiple pilots helped deliver the mail, Knight became "the hero who saved the airmail."

The rise and fall of airmail

Declaring the journey success, soon-to-be President Warren G. Harding promised more funding for the program quickly after the trip ended, Mola wrote. The regular use of night flying, however, wouldn't begin until 1924.

KSL.com previously looked back at the history of one aspect of airmail's goal for day-and-night flying. The U.S. government built hundreds of massive concrete arrows in the 1920s that were designed to instruct pilots who were flying at night where to go during this time in flight's primitive years.

Related:

Beacons and lighted sections to help night pilots were in place from New York to Salt Lake City by 1925, according to the Postal Service. The project was completed a year later. By that point, the Post Office Department began to contract out commercial companies to take over airmail.

The first bag of airmail flown into St. George, Utah. The photo was believed to have been taken in 1940.
The first bag of airmail flown into St. George, Utah. The photo was believed to have been taken in 1940. (Photo: Utah State History)

Airmail would go on to expand internationally years later, and the program lasted a few more decades altogether. The Postal Service officially dropped it as a "separate class of domestic mail" in 1977 as a result of first-class postage.

Though technological improvements would render the guiding arrows unnecessary over time, many of the massive arrows still exist in Utah today. They're a reminder of the push for faster mail service from the 1910s and 1920s that led to other major advancements in the speed we receive information.

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