Airway to Heaven

You can find historic photos in the most surprising places. I scour online archives all over the country and occasionally get lucky. In particular, I look out for photo albums that belonged to wealthy turn-of-the-century travelers. Touring the Flagler route down Florida's east coast (and on to Nassau or Havana) was a popular Winter trip for the few people who could afford to do it. A stay in Palm Beach would have been one of the highlights of the trip.

I struck gold in California several times. My latest discoveries were buried deep in among the 158,000+ pictures archived online  (search "Palm Beach") by the San Diego Air & Space Museum.

The Big Fish passenger airliner is well known among local history circles. I've only seen a couple of pictures until now. The SDAS Museum has some particularly important pictures, rich in detail,  of this little slice of local history.

In the early part of the 19th century the west side of the intra-coastal waterway in West Palm Beach was the site of several seaplane ports stretching from the north bridge (to Palm Beach) to just south of Palm Beach Lakes Blvd.

 Original caption: "Co-pilot Baldwin with ""Big Fish"" flying boat (1921 or 1922.)" 
This 12-passenger Curtis flying boat, the Big Fish, offered round trip flights to Havana. With so much money and power concentrated in one time and place, Palm Beach was a magnet for fledgling aviators looking to show off their wares or sell round trip flights to Cuba- the world's first inter-continental commercial flight service.

The Big Fish prepares for flight. The dock was located just south of where the Palm Beach Yacht Club now stands. Historian Augustus Mayhew has the full story here.

Lost in the shuffle is a rare and pretty wonderful set of three pictures. It appears that the photographer's attention was pulled away from the planes and drawn to a group of people to the north of the seaplanes.

Original Caption: "Boat docks." 
 But look closer- across the water is the Hotel Palm Beach. We can confirm that it's a scene taken in early West Palm Beach next to the seaplane port. Neighboring photos in the San Diego collection confirm the picture was taken in 1921 or 1922. The hotel was lost in the Breakers fire of 1925. Now zoom in on the four figures standing waist deep in the water dressed in white.

We are witnessing a baptism.

Original caption: " Crowd of people on the shore." 
The photographer swiveled around and snapped a picture a picture of the well-dressed congregation standing along the seawall beneath a lush stand of swaying  coconut palms. Robed figures stand in the water.

 Click pictures to enlarge. The pictures are rich in details- a wonderful little slice of life in West Palm Beach in the early 1920's.


A mechanics-eye-view of the seaplane port.

Loening Air Yacht either taking off or landing just off the seaplane dock. The north bridge and Hotel Royal Poinciana Hotel are at the right. Amid the cluster of palm trees to the right of the water tower is Bradley's Beach club.

The Loening Air Yacht in flight. The Hotel Palm Beach is directly below. The hotel burned in the 1925 Breakers fire and was replaced by the Hotel Alba - later renamed Biltmore.

An aerial view of Palm Beach taken from the San Diego collection. Whitehall is at the 10 o'clock position just below the Hotel Royal Poinciana. The Breakers is at the 3 o'clock position. It would burn to the ground just a few years later.

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