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New Martinsville Air Mail Service

 

On November 12, 1940, a single engine Stinson Reliant aircraft descended from its “normal” 500 ft. flight altitude above the hilltops upriver to sweep low over the air mail pickup station in Steelton. The pickup apparatus had been prepared by the local “messenger” from the post office who attached the mailbag and stood aside to watch the operation. A good crowd of local residents who wanted to view the historical event joined him at the site between Rte. 2 and the river. A four-pronged hook was lowered from the plane, and the pilot flying just above the ground guided the plane between the goal post like pickup frame where the hook snatched the rope and its attached mail into the sky. It would snap as if it was fired from a giant slingshot. At about the same time the incoming mailbag was dropped to bounce along in the field near the pickup point. The pilot climbed back to cruising altitude over New Martinsville as his assistant, called a “flight mechanic”, cranked the rope and mailbag into the plane where he sorted its contents and prepared for the next southbound drop and pickup at Sistersville and on down the river.  

Two routes crossed West Virginia by All American Aviation Service in the 1940s. Both routes began in Pittsburgh and ended at Huntington where the planes landed for refueling before making the return flights to Pittsburgh. The eastern route passed down the center of the state through Morgantown, Clarksburg, Elkins, Spencer, Charleston, Huntington and other intermediate towns. The Ohio River route generally followed the river from Weirton to Ravenswood, and then detoured to Athens Ohio, back to Gallipolis and on to Huntington. Other planes continued with the mail to Cincinnati, and eventually the service extended to the east coast and New England.

Local people were employed by the airline and trained for the job of ground agent called “messengers”. They were paid $18 every two weeks, and later they received $34. They were housewives, schoolboys who could drive, and others interested in being part of this new experience. Mostly women held the jobs during WW-II. At one period, they were required to carry side arms to guard the mail.  

The messenger job wasn’t hazardous except when the incoming mailbag ended up in a briar patch or on occasion in a tree. There were times during floods when a pickup point was flooded, and men in rowboats held the poles aloft for the plane to make its pickup while the incoming bag was dropped on the nearest dry land-“The mail must go through.” During the first year of experimental service in 1939, the pickup rate was at 92%; not bad for flying by sight in all kinds of weather with little in the way of navigational aids. The planes and ground “messengers” did have radios which were a big help in getting the mail through.

The service became an important means to get correspondence across the country. The cost was 6 cents for an airmail stamp when regular letter postage was 3 cents. Reports of airmail reaching the west coast the next day after pickup were common. The Wetzel Republican reported that during 1943, the amount of mail handled increased from 864 pieces in January to 4310 pieces by year-end.

Some crashes occurred and several lives were lost over the course of the ten years of the service. It was very hazardous flying with ever changing air currents over the West Virginia hills and valleys. Some times the pickup area was fogged in and the pilot had to use his considerable experience to remember landmarks sticking above the fog to find his way to the mailbag awaiting his pass. Capt. John Russell Crow said, “It was fatiguing work, and very dangerous. Some of them were scared all the while they did it. That’s what real courage is, being scared and still going ahead.” That is about the best definition of courage I have heard.  

The service ended June 30, 1949. All American Aviation became Allegheny Airlines in 1953, and later US Air in 1979.
                                     
Background material from articles by Jake Forbes, “Goldenseal” magazine, and Jim Fitzsimmons from files of the Wetzel Co. Historical Society.

Two photographs accompany this story:

1. The airmail plane making a pickup.
Caption: The first batch of mail to leave New Martinsville by air is just about to be jerked into the air by an All American Aviation Inc. plane. The arm suspended from the plane hooked a rope (not visible against the sky) stretched between the station poles and the mail container shown on the ground was pulled into the air. The pickup man (flight mechanic) in the plane rapidly hauled the container to the plane’s belly. An instant before this (Wetzel) Republican photo was snapped the pilot released a container of mail for the local postoffice.

From the Wetzel Republican–November 15, 1940 and from a calendar of the Wetzel County Hist. Society.

Note: This was apparently a “staged” pickup for a photo op at the old County Poor Farm near where Lewis Wetzel Park is now located. The normal New Martinsville pickup station was between Rte. 2 and the Ohio River in Steelton.  

2. Jake Forbes' first day cover Caption: First Day Cover from the first experimental flight addressed to Jake Forbes and picked up at Morgantown May 12, 1939. Jake also has a first Day Cover for the first New Martinsville flight.

This article was written by Sam McColloch with research he found to the story.

Submitted by: Vicki (Riggenbach) Reed