Monday, December 30, 2013

Maritime Monday (December 30, 2013) : The "Flying Santa," An 84-Year New England Tradition

While "Christmastide" (the "Twelve Days of Christmas") is still with us, it is an appropriate time to recall an 84-year New England tradition of the "Flying Santa" for those who know about it (and to introduce the tradition to those who have never heard of it).

I first stumbled across the tradition of the Flying Santa while researching Benjamin W. Walker (1838 - aft. 1900), a younger brother of my great great grandmother, Susan A. (Walker) Tew, (1828 - 1893). Benjamin was born in Coventry, Rhode Island and for a time (circa 1862) served as an Assistant Keeper at the famed Beavertail Lighthouse at the tip of Conanicut Island in Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island.

Benjamin W. Walker, younger brother of Susan A. (Walker) Tew

Beavertail Lighthouse (1749) was the third lighthouse built in the American colonies after the lights at Boston Harbor and Brant Point on the island of Nantucket.  Its name comes from the shape of the southern end of Conanicut Island, which resembles a beaver's tail. The early settlers of Rhode Island recognized the strategic importance of the southern tip of Conanicut Island because it looked over the passages into Narragansett Bay.  As early as 1705 a "watch house" was erected at Beavertail Point. During the Revolutionary War, the British occupied Newport, Rhode Island for almost three years (December 1776 - October 1779), but when they evacuated one of the last things they did was to set fire to the original wooden lighthouse tower. 

Photographs of Beavertail Lighthouse at Beavertail Point, Conanicut Island

1846 map of "Connanicut" Island showing Beaver Tail Point and
the lighthouse location. Note also in the northwest section
 of the island just under the word "JAMES" the Tew family property. 

An early pioneer of aviation in New England was a Friendship, Maine pilot by the name of William H. Wincapaw. Since Capt. Wincapaw often had to rely on the light beacons from coastal lighthouses to guide his navigation, he came to greatly appreciate and admire the service that lighthouse keepers provided to maritime travelers on the sea and in the air. In many ways a symbiotic relationship developed between pilots such as Capt. Wincapaw and the lighthouse keepers. The pilots could provide quick visual contact and communication with keepers on isolated islands or peninsulas in case of emergency and the keepers would watch for pilots and their planes. When Capt. Wincapaw and other pilots were known to be on a mission, keepers would always try to relay information to airfields whenever planes safely passed their position. 

Capt. Wincapaw in particular developed close relationships with lighthouse keepers along routes he flew in maritime New England. On occasion Capt. Wincapaw would land at some of the lights and spend time visiting with the isolated keepers and their families (if they had them).  In time, William Wincapaw decided he should try to do something significant to recognize and show appreciation for lighthouse keepers and the important, often lonely and sometimes dangerous service they provided. On December 25, 1929 William Wincapaw determined that he would deliver some small holiday gifts of things such as coffee, candy, magazines and sundries.  He loaded his plane and on that Christmas Day he flew low over lights in the Rockland, Maine area and dropped surprise packages to the keepers and their families. These acts of kindness and holiday cheer were so appreciated that Capt. Wincapaw realized he would need to repeat the Christmas flights and so an 84-year tradition began and spread around maritime New England and eventually along the eastern coastline of North America.

In time William Wincapaw, his son and others -- like author Edward Rowe Snow -- came to be referred to as the "Flying Santa" and the pilots and their successors began to dress the part.  Various aircraft have been used over the decades including single and twin-engine airplanes and helicopters.

There is now an organization called "Friends of Flying Santa, Inc." and they maintain a website here. They can be contacted by mail at PO Box 80047, Stoneham, MA 02180-0001, or by phone at (781)438-4587, or via email at Their website has a detailed link to the origin and history of the Flying Santa tradition.  The site also has numerous photographs of Capt. William "Bill" Wincapaw and his family members, Edward Rowe Snow and his participating family members, the various aircraft that have been used over the decades, and some of the lighthouses that have been visited by the Flying Santas.  The photos are copyrighted and I do not have permission to share them  on The Prism, but you can easily view them here while learning all about William H. Wincapaw, the original "Flying Santa," and how what he started has continued and expanded into its ninth decade.

Merry Christmastide and a Happy New Year!
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Image of Santa and his bi-plane from Open Clip Art Library as obtained from The Washington Herald (1914).

Photograph of Benjamin W. Walker courtesy of Joshua Oehler from his Oehler Tree.

Photographs of Beavertail Lighthouse from the virtual archives of the State of Rhode Island  and from the U.S. Coast Guard respectively. Both images are believed to be in the public domain.

For more information on the history of the "Flying Santa" and to see copyrighted photogrsaphs and other images of the planes, pilots and supporters of the program go to The Origins and History of the Flying Santa.
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Copyright 2013, John D. Tew
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  1. Great post about William Wincapaw. One of my first blog posts was about Edward Rowe Snow and the Flying Santas. I was fascinated because I had found his Mayflower ancestors. It's very interesting that you found a light house keeper in your family tree!

  2. Hi Heather! Thank you for your nice comment on this post.

    I went back and read your 2009 post on Edward Rowe Snow. I had not seen it when it was originally published since it was before my introduction to genealogy blogs and Nutfield Genealogy in particular. A very nice post!

    As a Mayflower descendant myself, I am happy to learn of yet another connection to Edward R. Snow. He was, of course, a prolific and popular writer AND as I am sure you know (being of the Rhode Island Tews yourself) one of his most popular books was "Pirates and Buccaneers of the Atlantic Coast" wherein he devotes an entire chapter to The Rhode Island Pirate, Thomas Tew.

  3. I've tried to collect a few of Snow's books (they are long out of print, but I see them in used bookstores). I don't have the pirate book, but they are all fascinating.

  4. Happy Blogiversary!!

    Regards, Grant

  5. Happy Blogiversary!!

  6. Happy Blogiversary, John !

    I read every Edward Rowe Snow book I could get my hands on as a kid, and I own four that I bought a few years back when they were reprinted. Great reads!