Early Air Travel To The Northwoods

May 27, 2020

The summer tourist season has begun, but how summer visitors get to the Northwoods has always been an important part of the local economy. Air travel is a modern means of getting to a vacation destination, but air travel to the Northwoods started earlier than many people realize. Historian Gary Entz has the story:

The Northwoods has long been a desirable vacation destination for people seeking the solitude of the forest or the excitement of landing a prize fish. Even during the heyday of the logging era, vacation resorts were popular in the Northwoods. The remoteness of the Northwoods is what makes it attractive to vacationers, but it also presents the problem of getting here. Today, visitors may travel the four-lane U.S. 51 all the way to the Northwoods, or journey by air via connections to Minneapolis. In the past, however, it was not so simple.

In the early twentieth century travelling by automobile from places like Chicago to the Northwoods was possible, but the roads were narrow and poorly maintained. It was a task that was not done easily or quickly. Passenger rail service was available and the option that most people chose, but it still required a commitment of time. For example, in 1930 travel on the Soo Line between Rhinelander and Minneapolis required about eight hours and 45 minutes. One could also catch the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad south to Milwaukee then make a connection to Chicago in a similar amount of time. A full day in and a full day out meant that vacationers spent a week or more and that weekend travelers were few.

There were well-heeled people who wanted a relaxing fishing excursion to the Northwoods but were unwilling to commit a week or more for the opportunity. Before World War I people like this usually just did not come, but after the war things began to change. The war enabled a tremendous leap in aircraft design and technology. More powerful motors and better airframe design enabled aircraft to travel faster, farther, and carry more cargo. This helped expand commercial air service, and by the late 1920s air passenger service reached the Northwoods.

In the summer of 1929, Universal Airways of Chicago announced that it was going to start regularly scheduled passenger service between Chicago and Rhinelander. This was not intended to be a service for weekday business travelers. This was a service intended to take advantage of upper-middle class business managers who wanted to enjoy a weekend fishing at a Northwoods resort without taking a full week off from work to do so.

On Friday, June 21, a Fairchild Wasp cabin monoplane took off from Chicago at 3:40 p.m. and flew non-stop to Rhinelander. The plane, with a pilot and two passengers, circled over Rhinelander then landed at 6:25 p.m., less than three hours after departing Chicago. The average flying speed was 115 mph. This first flight was an experiment to see if it would work, and William F. Bliss, a passenger on the plane and the airline’s general manager, was well pleased with the results. Before departing the following Monday, he announced that regular weekend service would start on July 12 with roundtrip fares priced at $65.

Universal Airways served the Northwoods in the summer of 1929, but no more than that. The stock market crash of October 1929 ensured the service would not continue. Universal Airways ceased to exist in 1934.