Specialist ‘digging up material’ on Canada’s airmail history

By Jesse Robitaille

Dr. Robert Galway, a prominent aerophilatelist from Toronto, recently presented a lecture on the formative years of aviation in Canada and early history of airmail as part of the West Toronto Stamp Club (WTSC) discussion group program.

Galway said he has spent the past four years “digging up material” on the topic of aviation and has learned a lot about the early history of Canadian airmail along the way.

“This man is an expert on Canadian airmail and Canadian semi-official airmail in particular, and I’m going to learn a whole lot because I just don’t know enough about airmail in the Canadian context,” said Garfield Portch, a director with the WTSC and a Fellow of The Royal Philatelic Society of Canada (RPSC).

This presentation – part of a two-part series with the finale coming next February – focused on civil aviation in Canada from 1909-24 while part two will detail Galway’s personal interest in aerophilatelic material.


Galway said aviation – what he calls the “marriage of thought and intellect to the dynamics of air” – led to combining the wheel and the wing, the “two most important inventions in transport history,” he said.

And it all began in 1903, in Kill Devil Hill, N.C., where the Wright brothers launched the world’s first successful sustained and powered flights in a heavier-than-air machine. However, it would be another four years before Canada took to the skies.

“Canada was brought into the march to the heavens by Alexander Graham Bell, who with the financial support of his wife formed the Aerial Experimental Association [AEA] in 1907.”

Galway said two young men, Casey Baldwin and J. A. D. McCurdy, both of the University of Toronto, joined the AEA.

“To this group he added two other individuals: one was Glen Curtiss, a motorcycle racer and a small-engine mechanic, and the appointee from the United States Army, Lieutenant [Thomas] Selfridge,” said Galway, who added most of the AEA’s work was done in Hammondsport, N.Y. (near the Finger Lakes) on Curtiss’ family estate, where they built four aircraft.

Each of the four individuals – Curtiss, Baldwin, McCurdy and Selfridge – designed their own aircraft, which included the Red Wing, the White Wing, the June Bug, and of course, the Silver Dart. The first of the four to escape gravity was Baldwin, who flew in Hammondsport in 1907.

However, it’s McCurdy who’s best remembered for his role in Canadian aviation history.

“The Silver Dart was built in the U.S., brought to Canada in 1909, and we all know that on Feb. 23, 1909, it was flown by J. A. D. McCurdy off the Bras d’Or Lake, bringing Canada into the ages of aviation,” said Galway, who added because of this event, Canada was at the forefront of aviation at this time.

“There’s a commemorative stamp (Scott #2317) and cover establishing the history of this event,” he said. “A wonderful man, but the first flight that we’re really interested in was here in Toronto.”


Charles Foster Willard was the first pilot trained by Curtiss, who left the AEA in 1909 after the Silver Dart’s initial flight and formed his own company.

“The first aircraft he built was the Golden Flyer, and they were invited to Toronto by the Scarborough Fair Company in 1909,” said Galway. “He took off over Lake Ontario on that aircraft. This was a memorial event on Sept. 7, 1909: the first public flight in Canadian history.”

Throughout the second decade of the 20th century, as aviation continued to evolve in Canada, Toronto’s Long Branch Aerodrome was established as the country’s first airport. By the start of the First World War, it had been taken over by the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) to help with Canada’s war efforts, although two satellite fields were also established to handle the increased air traffic.


Galway said there was “no government-run airmail” in Canada until 1928; however, the first mail carried by air came as a result of activity at the Leaside Aerodrome, another Toronto airport that was established in 1918.

Brian Peck, who had been stationed at Long Branch but was transferred to Leaside, quickly became bored after the war’s end and asked his commanding officer if he could fly to his hometown of Montreal to gather new recruits for the RFC.

“He was from a fairly wealthy Montreal family, and so he gained permission to fly to Montreal for the weekend to see if he could recruit some people to the RFC ledgers; however, the fact of the matter is he had an ulterior motive,” said Galway. “His best friend was getting married, and Ontario was a dry province, although Montreal was certainly not. What he really was after was whisky for the reception.”

Peck departed on the weekend of June 22, 1918, and was supposed to return on the Sunday; however, the weather didn’t co-operate.

“Two of his friends, who were with the Aero League, became interested in whether or not he could fly a packet of airmail back to Toronto,” said Galway. “One of their friends was the assistant to the postmaster general, so they got approval for this venture.”

And while some claim this is Canada’s first semi-official airmail, Galway said that’s not quite correct.

“The true semi-officials – the airlines that were given this blessing by the federal government – actually printed their own stamps,” he said, adding Peck and his friends did not.

Galway said Peck brought 121 envelopes, which were then turned over to the postmaster upon his arrival Toronto.

“That bag is now in the Canadian postal museum in Ottawa, but I don’t know what happened to the bottle of malt whisky he brought back.”

Galway said earlier in September, aerophilatelist and dealer Brian Wolfenden, of Nepean, Ont., sold one of these initial airmail covers for $1,600.

“This is why your grandchildren should perhaps collect stamps,” said Galway. “That’s a recent price.”

The final of this two-part airmail presentation, in which Galway will explore his personal interest in aerophilately, will take place on Feb. 16, 2016.

For more information, visit westtorontostampclub.org.

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