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South America sketch map showing the route of Prof. Hiram Bingham from Caracas to Bogota, 1907

Airmail Route, Argentina to United States, 1929

from: Around, Over, and Through the Americas

Less than a hundred years after the US post office contracted steamships to get mail from east to west coasts, the same bureaucracy contracted fledgling airlines to fly the mail north and south to and from Buenos Aires and points in between. From October 18 to October 28, 1929, Chicago newspaperman Junius B. Wood (University of Michigan ’03) was an invited passenger on the second run of a new eight-thousand-mile airmail route from Buenos Aires to Miami, reporting on his trip in Homewards Flies the Mail, a collection of articles in which he made the news and was the news, and which were originally printed in October in the Chicago Daily Tribune.

Wood’s text and the volume’s maps together make the case that this new, fastest, longest mail route is “extend[ing] friendly hands across the hemispheres.” (11) Wood’s account opened with a chart of the Panagra airlines route represented as a race starting in Montevideo and reaching Chicago. Panagra, which merged with Braniff International Airways in 1967, had been a joint venture of Pan American Airways and the W.R. Grace Shipping Company, whose 1933 cruise poster, Ye Olde Spanish Main, is discussed later. Wood’s chart echoed the style of the 1855 Panama Railway map, a practice common in air cartography’s early days, resembling the airlines’ own timetable maps. The map presented a route as a solid line with stops indicated on top of a map blank but for the dotted lines showing country borders, names of nations, stops, seas and oceans. A dotted line from Atlanta to Chicago breaks the pattern; bad weather forced Wood to complete this part of his journey by train.

This opening map is all business, surrounded by its own sea of statistics. The highest altitude reached (20,700 feet, over the Andes), lowest altitude (fifteen feet, between clouds and Pacific), planes used (ten), pilots and mechanics (fifteen), where Wood started (Montevideo, 4pm, October 18), where the mail came aboard (Buenos Aires, October 19, 8 am), the number of miles flown from Montevideo to Atlanta (8054), elapsed time (ten days, two hours, twenty minutes) and flying time (three days, nineteen minutes). The charts and tables here show how, once again, transportation moved people in the Americas faster and faster; a ten-day flight to Miami from Buenos Aires might seem cumbersome today, but took half the time of a steamer trip. Wood repeatedly emphasized the company’s precision—leaving at 8 o’clock exactly—and ethic of “neither rain, nor hail, nor snow…” Although the lonely passenger, who noted that he shared a spacious room designed for fourteen with the mail, was neither cartographer nor pilot, he did provide insight into the manner by which the pilot managed to follow his route. En route to Mendoza from Buenos Aires, he commented on how the pilot, who flew by compass to start, used railway station signs which “showed where we were” and then followed the railroad tracks, not only for locational purposes but because ”there was less chance of an Argentine windmill bobbing up as an unpleasant surprise.” Speed and comfort again were trip leitmotifs—as they landed in Mendoza, in the Andes of northern Argentina at 1:45pm, Woods noted that this “fastest trip from Buenos Aires” of 690 miles under five hours beat a “road which 100 years ago horsemen in relays, leaving their spent… and dying mounts along the trail, occasionally did in seven days.” (10)

But because this is a travel account drafted by a reporter, not a pilot or company executive, the little volume includes a second lively map to embellish the story. The second map is illustrated, or perhaps better said, is an illustration, signed by “Chisholm”; this was perhaps Christine L. Chisholm, a Chicago-based children’s book illustrator. This more fanciful route wends its way up a hemispheric map stripped down to its coastlines, with no country names or borders in sight. Neptune initiates passengers at the equator—a sea ceremony not celebrated in airships—while sea monsters, icebergs, flying fish, and a submarine populate relevant ocean segments. An airplane enters the picture from the southeast, and (like Martin Waldseemüller’s sparsely illustrated Americas map of 1507), offers choice vignettes: An arriero and his mules trekking across south America, a siesta-taking Mexican (complete with sombrero) under a palm, and a cowboy on a bucking bronco wooing a bashful señorita­. Outside the hemispheric circle, envelopes flutter and a single wind blows from the southeast, a galley ship with oars a-rowing floats curiously at the northwest, and a compass rose and cartouche title, with a cornucopia of plenty filling north east and southwest corners respectively.

Like Robert Tomes, who reported that the Panama Railway created a highway across Central America, Wood celebrated the new air route that would foster communication and commerce between north and south and “helping [to] extend friendly hands across the hemispheres” (11). Unlike Tomes, Wood was not entirely comfortable; while he wasn’t a complainer, he did note (repeatedly) moments of discomfort from needing earplugs to block the motor’s noise, hitting his head on the ceiling during an abrupt drop in altitude (no seatbelts, yet), lack of sleep, and eating food on the fly, literally, as they often picked up sandwiches and drinks during stops of less than half an hour, all in the name of speed and progress. And, also unlike Tomes, his was not a journey that thousands would immediately repeat. On October 29, the day after Tomes landed in Miami, Florida, the prosperity that supported the development of air travel was rocked. The US stock market crashed, ushering in the Great Depression; its consequences included slower growth in air travel.

Still, Wood’s mail tale really had legs (or wings). Not only did the Chicago Daily Tribune package it as a separate publication, but the National Geographic Magazine ran a separate story under Wood’s byline. That august periodical commissioned its own land-based photographs to complement Wood’s snapshots from the air and, of course, a new (and graticuled) route map drawn by James M. Darley. This map, superficially similar to the first map discussed, was in fact more informative. It distinguished between overnight stops and other landings, named peaks from Aconcagua to Chimborazo, and (not surprisingly) only showed the mail run from Montevideo to Miami, leaving the story of Wood’s arrival in Chicago before the air mail itself as a newspaper exclusive (Wood 1930, 264).