Every once in awhile, a historian comes along whose wonder at the mysteries of the past is so contagious that it creates new history buffs, young and old. Edward Rowe Snow was one such New England time traveler. From 1936-1981 he wasalso known as The Flying Santa.
Snow was a high school history teacher in Winthrop, MA when one of his students, Bill Wincapaw, Jr., introduced him to the original Flying Santa, his father Captain William Wincapaw. When Capt. Wincapaw was called away for business and unable to complete his Flying Santa duties, Bill Jr. recommended his history teacher as a substitute Santa.
A Friendship, Maine native, pilot Bill Wincapaw had started the program unceremoniously in 1929 as a way to thank the lighthouse keepers whose tireless efforts kept him safe. He was flying seaplanes in Penobscot Bay, transporting people to and from the islands in all kinds of conditions. Local lighthouse keepers knew him well and kept an eye out for his plane, relaying word of his whereabouts during heavy weather. The events of that first Christmas flight were recounted in an article written by Brian Tague, photographer and historian for the Flying Santa Organization.
“So it began on December 25, 1929, he loaded his plane with a dozen packages containing newspapers, magazines, coffee, candy and other items. They were small luxuries and common staples that could make living on an isolated island a little more bearable. Some of these same items continue to be a part of the tradition today. He flew to lights around the Rockland area and dropped these modest gifts to the lighthouse families. Never realizing just how well his gesture of Christmas goodwill would be received, he flew home to spend the rest of the day with his family.”
That first Christmas delivery spread such joy that Capt Wincapaw decided to make it an annual event. His delivery team was expanded to include Bill Wincapaw, Jr. and the flight plan was expanded to include lighthouses all along the northeast coast. Bill Sr. donned the fur-trimmed Santa suit only after grateful recipients of his annual gifts nicknamed him The Flying Santa. In 1933 Wincapaw moved his family to Winthrop, MA. where he met Snow, his Flying Santa successor.
Edward Rowe Snow performed substitute Santa duties starting in 1936. Already a published author, he kept his eyes peeled for story ideas while he was up in the air. During his 1940 Christmas flight over Massachusetts Bay, Snow spotted the hulk of the British Frigate Somerset wrecked off Cape Cod in 1778. It had been temporarily exposed by a rough winter storm a few days before Christmas.
Wartime security restrictions almost canceled the 1941 present drop but with some alteration to the flight plan and a conspicuous red Christmas banner affixed to the side of their hired plane, Snow and his wife were given the go-ahead for their Christmas flight at the 11th hour. All available Flying Santas, including Snow, served in World War II so Christmas flights were cancelled for a few years but were back in full swing by 1945.
Captain Bill Wincapaw, the original Flying Santa, suffered a heart attack while flying his plane over Rockland Harbor in July 1947. He and his passenger were killed. That Christmas, Edward Rowe Snow carried on his legacy as The Flying Santa, dropping a memorial wreath for his old friend over Rockland Harbor. Snow expanded the program to include U.S. Coastguard Stations and lighthouses all along the eastern seaboard. He continued the Christmas flights, often accompanied by his wife and daughter, until 1981 when his health failed. Mr. Snow’s Santa suit was presented to EdMcCabe of Hull Massachusetts and thanks to support from the Hull Lifesaving Museum and later the Friends of Flying Santa, the tradition continues.
Aside from his dedicated service as The Flying Santa, Edward Rowe Snow left a legacy of more than 40 books on the history of coastal New England. His interests ranged from pirate’s treasure to unidentified shipwrecks to women at sea. As a daily columnist for the Quincy, Massachusetts newspaper, The Patriot Ledger from 1957 until his death in 1982, and writer for various other publications throughout his adult life, he kept a rapt readership informed of his historical adventures.
In 1945, he found a treasure chest buried at Cape Cod’s Nauset Beach after decoding a message he found pinpricked on the pages of an ancient book. Also in 1945, Snow claimed to have identified a treasure-laden pirate ship 45 miles off Provincetown, MA.
1952 found the historian on the Canadian island of Isle Haut. By following an ancient chart he had located the buried treasure of pirate Edward Lowe. The Isle Haut lighthouse keeper watched his every move as he dug up a mysterious skeleton and a cache of Spanish Doubloons. Snow was then delivered directly to a Canadian Customs Agent who impounded his treasure.
Edward Rowe Snow came to Kennebunk in 1960 to investigate the shipwreck of the sloop Industry that was briefly uncovered that spring on Kennebunk Beach. A year later he wrote in his column that he believed he had found the long lost airplane of French pilot, Charles Nungesser in Casco Bay. Nungesser disappeared in 1927 on an attempted transatlantic flight from Paris to New York.
Though he has been gone now for 30 years, Edward Rowe Snow is still as fondly remembered for his inspiring books and his thrilling real life history adventures as he is for his longtime role as The Flying Santa.