Air Mail

Written by: Edie Muldrew


Air mail: Today when you send a letter, you don’t get to choose exactly how it gets to where it’s going. Sure, you choose the speed of delivery, but the decisions about whether your mail travels by land, water, or air happen almost entirely behind the scenes. However, throughout the 1920s and 1930s in Canada, you’d pay a premium to have your letter take flight!  

Envelop - Via Air Mail from Calgary to Winnipeg. Sent to H.L Sensman. Iron Mountain, Michigan U.S.A. This features many stamps on it

The first airmail flight in Canada happened in June 1918 when Captain Brian Peck and Corporal E.W. Mathers flew the mail from Montreal to Toronto. Quickly, air mail came to Edmonton when stunt pilot Katherine Stinson flew the mail from Calgary to Edmonton in July of the same year. She had run into issues early in her flight, forcing her to land near Airdrie to fix her plane. Almost four hours later, she took off again, following the train tracks north to Edmonton. These early exhibition air flights were very popular, but they did not lead to more regular air mail services in the country or in Alberta right away. Flight was still limited in Canada, and there wasn’t the infrastructure for a larger service. Between 1918 and 1927, most airmail flights were done as exhibitions, fundraising endeavors or by private companies. During this time, various semi-official airmail stamps were issued, but the Postal Service didn’t claim any liability for the mail nor did it help with the actual logistics of flying the letters.  

Envelop - Via Air Mail from Edmonton to Winnipeg. Sent to H.L Sensman. Iron Mountain, Michigan U.S.A. This features many stamps on it


In 1927, the Canadian Postal Service started granting airmail contracts in large numbers. For the prairies, this came to fruition in November 1928 when Western Canadian Airways was contracted to do a 3-week run of airmail flights in December of that year to link Winnipeg, Regina, Calgary, Saskatoon, and Edmonton. I came across the envelopes from these flights while looking through objects that had never been accessioned into the museum’s collection. They are recognizable because of their eight distinctive cachets which show familiar prairie scenes. 

Envelop - Via Air Mail from Saskatoon to Winnipeg. Sent to H.L Sensman. Iron Mountain, Michigan U.S.A. This features many stamps on it

All of the pilots on this route had been WWI pilots including C.H. “Punch” Dickins and P.B. Calder who flew the route between Edmonton and Regina. Records of this short-lived route show that it was plagued with problems, including inclement weather, problems with the aircraft, and insufficient infrastructure to support an air mail route of this length. The service was discontinued on December 29th, 1928 to make adjustments to the running, and a regular service was established March 3rd, 1930. This regular service added Moose Jaw, Medicine Hat and North Battleford to the existing stops. This new regular service got new cachets, which were more varied and detailed. These cachets also included several depictions of Indigenous peoples of the prairies, which was very common for cachets of the era. Some of these depictions were inaccurate or offensive. Each of these cachets included the phrase “First Regular Air Mail Flight” to indicate that this was the first time these routes had been flown at regular intervals. 

Most of these letters flown on these first regular airmail flights were sent to people far away who were interested in the novelty of having their mail flown rather than sent on the ground. The mail would be sent to the intended receiver after the airmail flight had been completed. Most people who lived in the cities on this route did not need to send their mail by air because these cities were accessible by train and road. In the north of Canada however, this access was not available. Really remote regions didn’t even have roads built to them, and so dog sleds were often used to carry mail and other needed supplies to and from these areas. It was here that airmail was most necessary and useful, and the first airmail flight in the area was a matter of chance! 

Mail had been piling up at the Fort McMurray Post Office in the winter of 1929 as poor weather had been preventing ground transport. Punch Dickins happened to be in the area flying for Commercial Airways, and it was suggested that Dickins fly the mail to various stops between Fort McMurray and Fort Simpson. With the success and efficiency of this flight, in 1929, the newly-formed Commercial Airways received a contract from the government to fly mail from Edmonton to the Arctic. From December 9th to 30th, 1929 Commercial Airways ran the first airmail service to the Northwest Territories. It was a 1,671 mile route that had 12 intermediate stops between Fort McMurray and Aklavik up the MacKenzie River. The first flight of this route was flown December 9th, 1929 by Wilfrid “Wop” May, Archie McMullen and four others, and arrived in Aklavik the following day. This was well advertised and anticipated, with the government creating 26 cachets for various envelopes flying between various stops. It was so popular that the Edmonton Post Office received over 100,000 envelopes from aviation lovers and collectors in the weeks leading up to the flight, which necessitated the route to be flown in relays. 

These early flights opened up the possibility of air mail in Canada, which still connects remote communities in the north to the country and the rest of the world, allowing us to communicate across long distances and to far places, in Canada and beyond. 

*Envelope Caption: All of these envelopes were sent along the Prairie route with Western Canadian Airways on December 10, 1928. Each route had a different cachet design.
They went on afterward to be sent to the addresses on the envelopes for the people who had paid to have their letters sent with this mail



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