When progress passes around its plums, Beaver Island has a long tradition of gracefully standing near the end of the line, but regular airplane mail service was an exception. Since the Mormon times winter mail had to come across the ice on a sled, and there are several stories of carriers finding themselves on an ice flow broken off from the pack, marooned in a blizzard so severe the horse or dog team out in front could not be seen, having their feet and fingers freeze and require amputation, or being chased by a pack of wolves that howled, perhaps in their imagination. The impossibility of maintaining this archaic tradition in modern times prompted the government to take action, and in 1926 the Post Office requisitioned a plane belonging to the National Airways Corporation in Chicago, making us one of the first communities to enjoy this service.
The first plane had come to Beaver Island a few years before to bring a doctor for the injured Jessie Cole, whose head had been plunked by a log when he was working for the Nomad mill. The treatment was a success, and Jessie lived to become a wealthy man. But airplanes were a rarity, partially because there was no landing strip. Thus the Post Office flights had to land on the ice in the harbor, which would be plowed by sled or by tractor before each scheduled landing. The plane would leave from the ice at Round Lake, and, afraid of the great unknown out in the lake where the St. James office was said to be located, would fly north along the recognizable shoreline to Cross Village before venturing out over the chain of islands leading to Beaver. It was a roundabout route taking 75 miles, and considered so hazardous that the federal government paid $100 for each trip. Even so, John McCann, owner of several Island businesses, was selected to accompany the pilot on the first few flights to show him the way, a kind of hostage to prove there really was a place to land out here.
When the plane passed overhead, it was such an exciting moment that everyone rushed to the harbor to greet it. One man galloped his horse all the way from Greene's Lake at such breakneck speed that when it finally gained the harbor ice and was allowed to stop, it fell over dead. "What happened?" the pilot asked. "Don't know, he must've been scared to death of your plane," came in reply.
One winter the only safe ice had broken free of the shore and was located outside the buoy. The plane landed, but Mike Cull's fishing tug had to be enlisted to bring it across the open water to a thin band of ice near shore, where Young James and his horse Fanny could take it the rest of the way.
About 1930 two barnstormers arrived at Willy Schmidt's field with a biplane and offered rides for $1. It was an amazing experience, except to one woman whose new dress was ruined by a torrential squirt of oil from the plane's engine. The flatter field to the west belonging to George Ricksgers gained some use when the ice melted. A transportation company was formed, and three airplanes purchased. Passengers were hauled as well as mail, and an occasional body needing a mainland burial, and the all-important cargo: fresh fish. One pilot couldn't say no to a few more boxes, because he charged by the pound. He took off overfilled, but couldn't gain altitude and smashed into the trees at the field's edge. He walked away, but the perch were prematurely fried. The semi-weekly run had begun in 1930, and finally, in 1936, an Island Airport was begun at the Pinery, on which the government spent $10,000.
Joe McPhillips took over the run, and occasionally landed on the ice in the winter. One spring, as the weather was warming, he made a late last run to the harbor. The ice looked solid, and, sure enough, it held fine as he taxied to a stop. As he started walking towards the shore the crew from the Post Office coming out to greet him seemed unusually animated, shouting and waving their hands. When he was closer he could make out their words: "Joe! Joe! Your plane's sinking through the slush ice!" By the time he turned around, it was only held up by its wings.
A channel was cut in the ice and the plane hauled up to Andy Gallagher's dock. The engine and body needed work, but three days later she was ready to fly. However, the owner came up and took charge, flying it off himself. That was one plane Joe never flew again.
At one time we welcomed every plane. We've had as many as 375 planes land at the Township Airport on a fall "Fly-in." Now the strip will be lengthened, and new navigation equipment will be purchased. Only time will tell if this is an unmitigated advantage.