Regularly scheduled air mail service was inaugurated in Europe in March 1918, and in the United States, two months later, on May 15. While international operations didn’t get under way in the Western Hemisphere until 1920, the first officially recognized Canada-to-US mail flight took place on March 3, 1919. A notable feature of this flight was that it was a private operation — all other U.S. air mail was being flown by the Post Office Department at the time.
This one-time international mail flight was an extra attraction publicizing a Canadian Exposition of War Trophies to be held in the Horse Show Building in Vancouver, British Columbia. E.S. Knowlton, director of the Exposition, thought that it would be interesting to bring in an airplane (he spelled it “aeroplane” in his account) as an added attraction. The nearest one owned by a private individual was in Seattle, 150 miles south of Vancouver. It was the property of William E. Boeing, then president of the Boeing Airplane Co.
The idea of the international mail flight occurred to Knowlton as a result of his knowledge of the Seattle-based airplane. He asked the Vancouver Postmaster, Robert G. MacPherson, if Boeing could be authorized to carry some mail to Seattle on his return flight. The Postmaster gave his approval, and some special mail, 60 letters in all, including one from the Mayor of Vancouver to the Mayor of Seattle and another from MacPherson to the Seattle Postmaster, was rounded up. Such things were easy to arrange in those days — no extensive feasibility studies or environmental impact statements, and no involved international negotiations or treaties — just a simple request to someone with authority, obtain permission, and go!
Boeing readily agreed to fly his personal plane, then known as the Boeing CL-4S, to Vancouver. The CL-4S was practically identical to the Model C trainers that Boeing had built for the Navy during World War I. Although the mail flight was made in 1919, the plane was not war surplus — the surplus hadn’t come on the market yet. The plane had been built to Boeing’s personal order and made its first flight on Aug. 7, 1918. At the time, it was designated C-700 because it was a standard Boeing Model C and immediately followed the last 50 Cs built for the Navy with Navy serial numbers A-650 through A-699. Since the country was still at war and there was no recognized civil aviation, the C-700 was finished in the standard Navy gray coloring of the time and carried the current military markings. The designation became CL-4S after the war when the original and very cantankerous 100-hp Hall-Scott A-7A engine was replaced by a much more reliable 125-hp Hall-Scott L-4. The full designation meant a Model C with L-4 engine and a seaplane.
Wise in the ways of northwest weather, Boeing and his part-time test pilot Eddie Hubbard started a few days early. They ran into a blinding snowstorm and were forced to land at Anacortes, Wash., just beyond the halfway point, where wind and rough water nearly sank their plane. The tail was forced under water and the rudder was damaged. The expedition was delayed while replacement parts were sent from Seattle.
The first Canada-US airmail flight left from the moorings of the Royal Vancouver Yacht Club at Coal Harbor at 12:58 pm on March 3. While the CL-4S had the range to make Seattle non-stop, it was bucking a strong south wind so Boeing decided to land at Edmonds, Wash., some 20 miles north of Seattle, to refuel. Even with this delay, only two and a half hours had elapsed since takeoff from Coal Harbor until the CL-4S ran up on its ramp in Lake Union, a large lake in downtown Seattle.
The March 3 mail flight was admittedly a stunt and it did not result in the immediate inauguration of Canadian-US airmail service, although some latter-day historians seem to think so. It did, however, demonstrate the possibilities.
Since air service was impractical in direct competition with rail service over the short Seattle-Vancouver distance, Hubbard came up with an idea of real merit. Mail ships leaving Seattle for the Orient put in at the Canadian port of Victoria, on Vancouver Island. Hubbard proposed to fly late first-class mail from Seattle to catch the westbound boat to Victoria and also to pick up incoming mail and bring it to Seattle nearly a full day ahead of the time it would arrive on the boat.
This proposal was accepted by the authorities of both countries and Hubbard was in business with the first American airmail contract and the first private international airmail operation (the government was still flying the rest of the U.S. airmail, but was not crossing the border with it). He bought the CL-4S from Boeing and a new Boeing flying boat, the B-1, from the Boeing Airplane Co. Air mail service from Seattle to Vancouver Island was inaugurated on Oct. 15, 1920. This private operation continued under Hubbard’s ownership until 1928 and under a successor company until June 30, 1937.
The CL-4S was quickly replaced, but the B-1 lasted through 1927, wearing out six engines in almost daily operation and the accumulation of 350,000 air miles on the 84-mile route. The B-1 has since been restored and can be seen today in Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry.