Wednesday, December 23, 2020

In Their Footsteps: Edward Rowe Snow - The Flying Santa

    The Christmas holiday season is my favorite time of the year. When the Christmas spirit somehow is combined with a love of lighthouses you can bet I am all in. The story of Edward Rowe Snow combines all of the best of people during the Holidays with the history and majesty of the iconic beacons that watch over the waters of the world. Why is Edward Rowe Snow so fondly remembered? He was for more than four decades also known as the 'Flying Santa.' Here is his story.

    Edward Rowe Snow was born in Winthrop, Massachusetts on August 22, 1902. He was of above average intelligence from the start, graduating high school in Helena, Montana at the age of sixteen. However rather than pursue academics Snow decided to take a walk in his family's footsteps. He came from a line of sea captains all the way to the American Revolution. Snow's father had been a captain and his mother's colorful tales of life aboard the ships swayed him. Snow spent nine years traveling the world working on ships and even trying his hand as a Hollywood extra.

    Incredibly when he decided to go back and finish his education he did that with the same ease as in high school. Snow enrolled at Harvard University in 1929 and flew through a curriculum concentrating on history in three years of summer sessions. After graduating in the Class of 1932 Edward continued on eventually getting his Master's Degree in Arts from Boston University. He married Anna-Myrle Haegg in 1932 and it seemed as though Snow was settling down. He took a job as a history teacher at Winthrop High School in 1933 where he also coached track, football, and basketball.

    It was during this teaching tenure that Snow's greatest claim to fame was begun. His student Bill Wincapaw introduced Snow to his father Captain William Wincapaw. The father and son had been dropping off Christmas gifts via airplane to New England islands and lighthouses since 1929. They had been dubbed the 'Flying Santa.' The trips grew in size annually as more people heard of the generous venture and wanted to be involved. Eventually the Wincapaws needed help.


    In 1936 Snow did his first run alongside the younger Wincapaw. It was a perfect fit as Snow already enjoyed flying, though himself not a pilot, and taking aerial photos of lighthouses. Now he was able to spread Christmas cheer to those in remote areas at the same time. These trips usually included areas all over New England and would sometimes go as far as California, Florida, and easternmost Canada.

    Snow enlisted in the Air Force at the outbreak of World War II. Though he was wounded during the North African campaign in 1942. However his love of flying could not be curbed. When discharged from the service Snow took over the duties as 'Flying Santa' from the Wincapaws as they had other obligations which precluded them from doing it. Snow brought his wife Anna-Myrle along to help with the deliveries as by 1947 he was visiting as many as 176 lighthouses during the Holiday season.

Snow's first book published in 1935

    So how was this project accomplished? First off Snow flew in small planes like Cesnas, Pipers, Constellations, and Seabees. These were flown at altitudes that would be seen as illegal today. This was sacrificing the speed of flight for the accuracy of the delivery. The plane would typically make three passes around a lighthouse. Once to signal he was there, once to drop goods down (usually small things like a child's doll, candy, and perhaps a copy of his latest book), and a final time to make sure the drop had gone off well. The true measure of Edward Rowe Snow was that the gifts, as well as the cost to rent the plane, all came from his own pocket.

    The deliveries from the Flying Santa meant so much to the families of the lighthouse keepers. Being a major historian Snow would sometimes return to the lighthouses to record the stories of the keepers. His love of history, his lifetime of adventures, and his mastery of the written word melded together and made him an enthralling storyteller. This led Snow to leave teaching to become a full-time author and lecturer by the end of the 1940's.

    Edward Rowe Snow was no amateur. His first book, based on his college thesis, was released in 1935. He had great interest in Boston Harbor and its islands. It was on boating trips out on the water of the harbor that he found countless artifacts like coins and discovered shipwrecks. In his lifetime Snow wrote more than 90 books, many showcasing New England's bountiful history. He parlayed that experience into a job writing for the Patriot Ledger newspaper in Quincy from 1957-1982.

Snow in later years (

    As he grew older Snow's story and achievements were recognized and appreciated. In 1972 he received an honorary doctorate. The degree, from Nasson College in Springvale, Maine, was the Degree of Doctor of Humane Letters. His love of the islands of Boston Harbor led to Snow using his influence to save George's Island from becoming a hazardous waste dump. Today the 53-acre island, home to Civil War-era Fort Warren, along with the other 33 islands of Boston Harbor, is a National and State Park.

    Though it is hard to pin down one thing Edward Rowe Snow was mainly known for his years as the Flying Santa made him nationally known. He continued the tradition begun by Captain Wincapaw until a stroke on July 24, 1981 left him unable to perform his beloved duties. That Christmas the Flying Santa baton was passed to Hull, Massachusetts resident Ed McCabe. The Santa suit was formally presented to McCabe by Snow's wife and daughter as a symbolic passing of the torch. The tradition still continues to this day.

    Edward Rowe Snow battled illness in his remaining months and never fully recovered from his stroke. He died at University Hospital in Boston on April 10, 1982 at the age of 79He was buried on a knoll in the hills of Marshfield overlooking the ocean. In addition to being memorialized all across New England and beyond Snow is celebrated with a day in his honor every year in August on George's Island.

A memorial to Edward Rowe Snow on George's Island (Wikimedia)

    Though not the originator, and not the only one to do it, Snow's more than four decades as the Flying Santa helped give him almost a mythical quality when combined with his treasure hunting, writing, and storytelling. He helped keep the magic of Christmas alive for many over the years even if he never flew over their heads. Edward Rowe Snow captured the hearts and minds of those he came in contact with and his memory is still strong in these parts nearly 40 years after his passing.

Read more on the history of the Flying Santa here.


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