Pictou Island mail plane saves Christmas

Online First Pictou Island Memories

I was very fortunate recently to have met with and discussed past memories of Pictou Island with Don MacNeil from Little Harbour.

During 1946 –1951, Don MacNeil and Colin Cantley flew the Pictou Island mail delivery. They operated their own two planes from Trenton airport for this service. One plane was a two sealer powered by a 60 HP engine and the other was a three seater powered by a 100 HP engine. One plane was equipped with snow skis, the other plane was equipped with wheels and each was used as per weather conditions.

The Pictou Island mail contract during 1946 was up for grabs. Donnie and Colin considered this to be a fairly profitable adventure and applied for job. After all, it was only a small island and only a few passengers and a little mail would be required. They got a real surprise when the Simpson Sears and Eaton’s summer and winter catalogs arrived and had to be delivered. There were approximately 175 people residing on Pictou island during those years and each island resident received these catalogs. Most often each family received two or more of each and the catalogs were packed in three burlap mail bags for delivery. Don recollects the bags of catalogs being extra heavy and required extra trips. The catalogs however were only a forerunner of what was to come. Don laughs and says that the real surprise came when the orders from Simpson Sears and Eaton’s began to arrive. A lot of extra crossing were then required.

Don clearly recalls transporting passengers and named a few such as Punch, Pinky, Dougie, Spike, Long John, Anderson, Alvin, Lois, Elmar, Mae Rankin, Jack Duncan, Happy Jack, Margaret, Duncan, Vernie, Jack, Mary, Andrew, Bill, Elias, Vincent, Arnold, Charlie, John Angus, Howard, Campbell, Archie, Charlotte, the Munro’s, and MacFarlane’s.

Don chuckles during our conversation as he recalls one day just prior to Christmas in 1949. Some islanders had been over to the mainland doing Christmas shopping. He and Colin were transporting Pictou Islanders back from the mainland to their homes for the Christmas holidays.

A lot of snow had fallen on this day and the wind had created furrows of snow on the Trenton field. Don and Colin had been flying passengers to Pictou Island all day and now it was almost dark. Chester McCallum was to be their last passenger. The plane with snow skis was loaded when suddenly Ona Glover appears with two big parcels under each arm. Don explained to her that Chester was their last passenger for that day. It was almost dark, and she would have to wait for another time. Chester was already seated in the only passenger seat in the small plane-awaiting take off. Well Ona just flopped down in a snow bank and started to cry. Being sentimental, Colin says to Ona, well how much do you weight? Ona desperately wanting to get back to her island home, replies 60 pounds. Now Chester was a big man and he alone pretty well filled the passenger seat. Colin smiled at Don and motioned for Ona to get in the back with Chester. Donnie who was flying the plane knew that they could make the crossing if he could just get the plane into the air. They were able to compact Chester and Ona into the back seat with only one of Ona’s packages. They assured Ona that the other bag would be flown over as soon as possible.

Don opened the throttle and began the departure down the runway. The plane was heavy and it kept skimming off the drifted snow furrows when suddenly they became airborne. The rest of that flight is history.

Don tells me of yet another happy experience that he and his partner Colin endured. Pictou Island’s Ernie Rankin and Janet Macdonald’s were being married on March 3rd 1947. During the winter months many Islander’s had employment-cutting wood on the mainland. Colin and Donnie used both their planes the morning of the wedding flying Pictou Islanders home.

Ernie’s father George instructed both airmen to be sure to return that evening for the wedding celebrations. Both men agreed but they told George that they would require a lantern to be placed on a rock pile in the landing field. That light would be their guide on where to land after dark. Donnie says that there were lanterns lit up from one end of the field to the other when they returned that evening. He laughs and says it reminded him of the lights on Coney Island. He goes on to tell me that a gentleman picked them up at Howard MacCullum’s landing field and he was driving a Model T. Don could not remember the gentleman’s name but he remembers well the ride to the grooms home. The ride he says was like being on a train. There was no back seat in the model T and half the floor was missing. The driver put the car in low gear, revved the throttle with a linkage on the steering wheel, turned around and passed a bottle of rum and stayed in that position right to the Rankins. It was as if the car was on a rail. It knew exactly were it was going and how to get there. Don says that he and Colin had a magnificent meal with refreshments at the home of the groom. Then a few hours later they were driven to the home of the bride where an equivalent meal was served. Don says that it was like one big party all over Pictou Island and no finer people could have been found.

Don calls to mind how the wind picked up later that evening. He and Colin became concerned that the one plane they came over in would flip in the field. They needed something to tie the plane down with. Howard “BOOB” MacCullum lived directly across from the hall and he with others assured them that they would take care of it. The next morning was bright and sunny when the pair arrived at the landing field. Donnie says that it looked like a net was draped over the plane for rope was crisscrossing it everywhere. There was a coil of rope four feet high when they took it off the plane. Those Pictou Islanders of 1947 made sure that the wind was not going to cause any damage to their plane.