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First Airplane Service in the Islands

All of us have purchased an item, took it home and then forgot where we put it. That happened to me recently when the brochure, pictured below, was misplaced and then turned up unexpectedly.

The cover got me thinking. Why were the Thousand Island House and The Crossmon House featured in a single brochure when they had been competitors for almost fifty years? There must be a story. Also of interest was the paper that dropped to the floor as the brochure was opened. The paper dealt with early airplane service in the Thousand Islands.

The story as to why both the two hotels were included in the same brochure has a simple explanation. Colonel O. G. Staples owned and operated the Thousand Island House from its beginning in 1873 to when he passed away In September 1918. Subsequently William H. Warburton negotiated a five year lease with the Staples’ estate plus “the privilege of purchase.” A year later he finalized the purchase with a payment of $100,000 funded by ”New York capital.” Concurrently he announced he had “secured” The Crossmon House. The two hotels owned by the same person would explain why they were featured in the same brochure.

Since Warburton had worked with Colonel Staples for seventeen years, he was well qualified for the job ahead. He was a visionary with some unusual ideas. Almost immediately he focused on building a one hundred room addition. His plan was to upgrade the Thousand Island House to be a newer, more modern hotel.

Of greater interest to me was the float plane venture  Warburton helped establish during the summer of 1919. The article accompanying the photograph below, details the success achieved that first year.

The float plane was a model HS-2 powered by a single engine of 200 horsepower. In addition to the pilot, it could carry five or six passengers and had a top speed of about 120 miles per hour. Only three of these planes were reported to have been made by the Huff, Daland & Company of Ogdensburg, New York.

Warburton’s decision to expand the float plane operation was probably made after the brochure was printed. So rather than print another brochure, an insert was prepared.

The insert claimed “United States Airways Inc.” had been incorporated under the laws of the State of New York with Warburton as its president. The first plane would be a model HS-2 float plane powered by a 400 horsepower Liberty engine. There would be room for six passengers. Regular flights would be scheduled between New York City and Alexandria Bay [during the summer season]. Other destinations, such as Toronto and Montreal, were under consideration. Service was due to begin the middle of June 1920.

The float plane, pictured below, is not a model HS-2. It’s a larger two engine float plane which Warburton envisioned as the design for his new fleet of float planes. Mahogany, silver, tapestries, wicker and other magnificent furnishings would permeate the luxurious cabins. These plans may have been a bit too ambitious as there’s no evidence any of this ever happening. My guess is that funding may have been the problem.

No matter, the original airline operation continued to flourish. Sightseeing flights over the islands were very popular. People loved to do the unusual, talk about it and maybe get their names in the paper. To keep a dinner engagement, Mr. Hoag flew the three miles from Alexandria Bay down river to Zavikon Island. A newspaper article wrote about Miss Green who was afraid she would miss her train connection in Clayton. So at a speed of 120 miles per hour, she flew the eleven miles from Alexandria Bay to Clayton arriving with twenty minutes to spare. There were races between the float plane and race boats. It was great spectator sport but the outcome was always the same. The float plane won.

The float plane was stationed at Casino Island  which was then owned by the Thousand Island House.

In 1922 the pilot of the float plane, Captain Claude DeVitalis, along with Miss Gertrude Warburton, were appointed master of ceremonies for both the Thousand Island House and The Crossmon House. Roughly a year or two later, a forty eight page brochure titled The Heart of the Thousand Islands, Alexandria Bay, New York [ca. 1923 /24] devoted just one sentence to the flying operation. It seemed the excitement had worn off but kudos to Warburton for what he had accomplished.

Note: The above brochure had extensive coverage on the Thousand Island House but made no reference to The Crossmon House, not one single word! But that’s another story for another time…

By Robert L. Matthews

TI Life welcomes Thousand Islands historian, Robert L. Matthews  back to our e-zine after the summer of 2010.  Robert presented five articles last winter.  He and his wife Prudence ( well known River artist whose work was presented in Hooked on Prudence in 2009) have one of the most extensive collections of  Thousand Islands memorabilia.   Robert is the author of two popular books:  Glimpses of St. Lawrence Summer Life: Souvenirs from the Thousand Islands: Robert and Prudence Matthews Collection, and in 2009 he published A History of the Thousand Islands Yacht Club.  When not at their beautiful River cottage at Fisher’s Landing, they live in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Posted in: History, Sports
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Dick Witihington
Comment by: Dick Witihington ( )
Left at: 6:16 PM Sunday, November 21, 2010
Great piece of history. Fascinating. By way of little-known fact, I ran into Tommy Files in St. Petersburg. His grandfather was mayor of St. Petersburg. The reason to mention this is that the mayor purchased the very first ticket for a scheduled airline flight in the U.S. I don't recall the year, but the flight went from St. Petersburg to Tampa. I doubt that he was x-rayed or had a pat-down. How things have changed in a hundred years. Dick
Mike Heberling
Comment by: Mike Heberling
Left at: 9:07 AM Saturday, October 21, 2017
Thank you Robert Mathews (and Susie) for this article. Who would have thought that Casino Island was a seaplane base? The Huff Daland (seaplane) Company of Ogdensburg moved its headquarters to PA and established the Huff Daland Duster division (manufacturer of the first purpose built crop-dusters) which was one of the companies that formed Delta Airlines. The executive secretary to the first president (Woolman) of Delta Airlines was from Ogdensburg: Catherine R. Fitzgerald.
Kellie Thomure
Comment by: Kellie Thomure
Left at: 12:55 PM Wednesday, January 2, 2019
I am the great niece of Captain Claude Devitalis. I am working on family history and was thrilled to come across this. Thank you!