The Lakes That Launched Thousands of Seaplanes

by Rachel Obermoller
Aviation Representative MnDOT Office of Aeronautics

It should come as no surprise to pilots that the “Land of 10,000 Lakes” played a pivotal role in the early days of seaplane flying. The diversity of Minnesota’s lakes and the pristine beauty that surrounds some,  the access to urban centers afforded by others, and the freedom that a runway made entirely of water provides, sets Minnesota apart from many other states. The seaplane community and seaplane bases that exist in Minnesota evolved from years of necessity as seaplanes were used to reach otherwise inaccessible areas, transport people and goods routinely and during emergencies, and provided recreational and business opportunities for pilots and their passengers.

The role that seaplanes played in Minnesota during the early years of aviation surprises many people. With few seaplanes working in the state out of necessity today, many seaplane pilots exercise the privileges of their certificates for recreational purposes. Commercial seaplane flying is more closely identified today with Canadian fishing lodges, Alaskan bush pilots serving remote communities, and sightseeing tour operators. It is easy to picture using a seaplane to drop into a remote lake for a little fishing, pop into a seaplane base for some fuel and hangar flying, or stop in at a restaurant or resort for a bite to eat. Yet in the past 100 years, many seaplanes were also working planes and pioneered some of the earliest aerial firefighting techniques, delivered passengers and supplies to remote camps, rescued outdoorsmen from the vast Minnesota wilderness, and helped the early game wardens enforce laws and protect and monitor Minnesota’s natural resources.  Today, some of these activities are still heavily supported by seaplanes, and others have slowly faded away as other forms of transportation have improved, but the work of these pilots and planes has left a lasting impact.

Duluth, Minnesota Birthplace of Commercial Flying Boat Service

Most pilots in Minnesota and the Upper Midwest know about “Duluth Sky Harbor Airport.” Located on a spit of land in the Duluth Harbor, a few miles from Canal Park and adjacent to beautiful sandy beaches, it is unique in terms of its geography, but also its history.

In 1913, an entrepreneur named Julius Barnes purchased a flying boat and brought it to Duluth. Based at the Duluth Boat Club, this aircraft, known as “The Lark of Duluth,” was propelled by an engine and pusher prop located behind the cockpit and had a top speed of 64 miles per hour. This Benoist flying boat was the center of attention at six weekend festivals throughout the summer of 1913 and provided sightseeing flights to festival attendees.

That winter, the aircraft was transported by rail to St. Petersburg, Florida and on January 1, 1914, commercial service commenced between St. Petersburg and Tampa. The first service of its kind, The Lark of Duluth returned to Duluth in the summer of 1914 for another festival. Eventually, a seaplane base and then airport would be established on Park Point, which is now known as Duluth Sky Harbor Airport.

While the aircraft, which typically frequent this airport, have improved in performance and technology since this first flying boat to grace Duluth Harbor, when you visit you can see one of the oldest seaplane bases in Minnesota and a ramp and dock which have served many pilots over the years.

In 2013, the Duluth Aviation Institute hosted the Lark O’ the Lake Festival to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the first festivals, with a variety of activities for both youth and adults. The main excitement centered on a replica of The Lark of Duluth flying boat. Their website has photos, history, and other information about the organization’s activities, as well as the history of aviation in the Duluth region.

Pilots Who Left Their Mark

Minnesota was not only home to historic aircraft, but also to seaplane pilots who influenced the course of aviation in the state. Most pilots have heard the adage, “There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old and bold pilots” by the time they finish their primary training, and for the most part this rings true. The hangar flying stories of many of the pilots who left lasting impacts on the seaplane community, are filled with examples of calculated risk and ingenuity at a time when aircraft performance, especially on floats, left pilots wanting more.

The late Gordy Newstrom, known for his impact in the seaplane community, as well as founding Mesaba Airlines, told an interviewer about some of the flying he did, which resulted in lessons he hoped to never repeat.

“I get to telling the students we have now some of the things that I did, but I kind of emphasize that maybe only by the grace of God, I survived some of those darn fool things I did years ago and maybe I was just lucky, see. I don’t have ego enough to think it was my flying ability that saved me on some of the fool things I did…and they weren’t anything too bad, as far as that goes, but I know this is true of all the rest of those pilots, too” (Gordy Newstrom, in an Air Museum of Minnesota interview).

He wasn’t alone in learning these lessons, and like any good hangar flying story, there’s a moral of the story, which everyone should learn from. These early seaplane pilots learned from one another, but also knew the flying they did came with risks. Some pilots instructed, carried passengers and supplies, and served remote communities, settlements, and lodges. Others worked to support the conservation efforts of Minnesota’s early game wardens.

In a 1965 interview with the Air Museum of Minnesota, Francis Johnson, Chief Game Warden of the Minnesota Department of Conservation, recounted the role these aviators played in helping to protect and preserve Minnesota’s natural resources. He describes using seaplanes to catch poachers and illegal hunters, monitor backcountry areas, and make best use of the wardens on the ground by keeping eyes in the air. Minnesota would come to pioneer aerial firefighting techniques on numerous types of aircraft, and to this day, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources employs many types of equipment, from flying boats and floated aircraft, to helicopters and airborne spotters during the fire season, as well as the remainder of the year doing other tasks.

Numerous other pilots worked throughout the state, and performed tasks as mundane as delivering the mail, but each played a role in the development of aviation in Minnesota. The Minnesota Historical Society has several interviews archived from the Air Museum of Minnesota Oral History Project, and many of these – as well as photographs and maps – can be found searching the digital archives online or by visiting the library. The book Bush Pilots: Legends of the Old & Bold by Bob Cary and Jack Hautala (2003, Adventure Publications), also contains stories of some of Minnesota’s most legendary, infamous, or recognized pilots.

Where Have All The Seaplane Bases Gone?

Given the abundance of water in Minnesota and the important role seaplanes have played in Minnesota’s history, one would expect to find numerous seaplane bases scattered throughout the state. Yet, the 2014 Minnesota Airport Directory and Travel Guide only lists 15 public seaplane bases, which begs the question, where have they all gone?

While many other private seaplane bases exist throughout the state, many public seaplane bases arose from the necessity for services and facilities for these aircraft.

One aspect, which has certainly impacted the need for seaplane bases, is the emergence of amphibious floats and boats. As the ability to reach paved runways improved, the need for water-based facilities decreased. The amount of work done by seaplanes in the state has also decreased due to improvements in other forms of transportation.

Some historic bases still remain open to the public, such as Duluth Sky Harbor, some have closed, and some have become private bases, but are still in operation. One such base, which is still in existence, but no longer a public base, is Shagawa Lake near Ely. Once the largest seaplane base in the world, it is currently the only U.S. Forest Service Seaplane Base outside of Alaska and is home to several U.S. Forest Service seaplanes, which do all manner of conservation work, including aerial firefighting. You can find out more about the work these pilots and aircraft still do in the YouTube video by Dave Quam called “U.S. Forest Service Seaplane Base in Ely, MN.”

While seaplanes may no longer be necessary means of transportation in Minnesota, the legacy remains and continues to this day.

Minnesota is home to one of the most recognized names in floats and seaplane maintenance in the world, as well as numerous other maintenance providers and facilities. Minnesota has also produced pilots, which have gone on to fly seaplanes everywhere from the Alaskan bush to island vacation destinations, and remains a stone’s throw away from Canadian fly-in lodges and camps. Seaplane pilots throughout the United States and the rest of the world envy our access to seaplane bases and the ability to land on many of the lakes throughout our state. Some seaplanes remain working planes in Minnesota, providing vital fire protection to our natural resources, training new pilots to fly, and transporting people, both for sightseeing, and also into the wilderness to experience the region’s natural beauty.

Even those who fly recreationally have stories to tell about the places they have been, renowned pilots they have known and learned from, and the amazing things one can do with a seaplane. It’s like the old joke goes: “How do you know when you’ve met a seaplane pilot? They will tell you.” But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Ask them – they are sure to have lots of great stories to tell and are part of a long lineage of Minnesota seaplane pilots with a rich history.

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