Flying Santa Starts a Tradition of Giving to Lighthouse Keepers and Their Families
Lighthouse keepers would risk their lives to rescue those stranded on merchant vessels or local mariners caught in New England’s unpredictable storms. Most of their time was spent performing the arduous and mundane tasks of maintaining the light stations they were assigned to manage. It was an extremely lonely and desolate life, not only for themselves, but for their families as well. Holidays were very difficult emotionally, especially for those stationed off the mainland, on islands or dangerous reefs as most lighthouses in New England were stationed. Sometimes they themselves needed an “emotional rescue”.
In the late 1920’s, the concept of a “flying Santa” to bring gifts and supplies to lighthouse keepers and their families was the brain child of a native of Friendship, Maine, Captain William Wincapaw. He was known in the region as an excellent pilot who was directly involved in saving lives of islanders of Penobscot Bay and would help transport those sick or injured to safety or to nearby hospitals even in inclement weather. In those days, he navigated the region using the lighthouse beacons all along the coastline and was always appreciative of the lighthouse keepers’ dedication to their duties in maintaining the lights, as they were appreciative of the Captain for his rescue efforts.
When time and weather allowed, Captain Wincapaw would land his plane at various light stations and spend some time with the keepers. With has admiration and respect for the keepers and their families, he decided in 1929, that on Christmas morning, he would load up his plane with a dozen packages of newspapers, magazines, coffee, candy and other small luxuries for his isolated friends in the Rockland region of Maine. He completed the task and spent the remainder of the day with his own family. Word got around rather quickly of this saintly gesture and he was so surprised of the outpouring of thanks from the keepers and the locals that he decided to make the venture each year, increasing his range to additional stations all along the coast.
Each year the flights of the “Flying Santa” as the locals called him continued and expanded to the rest of New England’s coastline. Captain Wincapaw decided to play the role of Santa in dressing up in costume, as he would deliver his gifts. Four years later, by 1933, they were delivering presents to 91 lighthouses and coast guard stations all along the New England coast. In 1934, his 16-year-old son Bill Jr., became one of the youngest licensed pilots in Massachusetts where they family had recently moved to, and also becoming an excellent pilot under the direction of his father. That Christmas he joined in helping his father continue the tradition, and in 1935 would fly solo to some of the stations.
As the tradition was growing, in 1936, Bill Jr., introduced his father to one of his teachers at Winthrop High School, Edward Rowe Snow, who was a lighthouse enthusiast and New England maritime historian. Captain Wincapaw immediately took a liking to Snow, who wanted to help in Wincapaw’s efforts. He arranged to have Snow assist his son in delivering the gifts to stations in southern New England. Snow proved a valuable asset for the Captain and his son, and would occasionally take over the duties in the late 1930′s when the duo were had to work in South America during the holiday season. Snow was not a pilot, but would spend his own money to hire one, while he would lean out and drop off the gifts.
On July 16, 1947, as Captain Wincapaw was taking off from Rockland harbor with a passenger Robert Muckenhirn, he suffered a heart attack in the air and the plane crashed in the ocean, killing both men. As the memorial service began on the afternoon of the 19th, keepers sounded foghorns and bells that would be heard across Penobscot Bay in respect for the original lighthouse flying Santa. Many keepers, their families, and islanders attended the service in gratitude for his services. That December, Snow would drop a memorial wreath in Rockland Harbor to honor of his close friend. He continued the tradition until his death. The tradition still continues today to remind communities of the sacrifices lighthouse keepers made and their families to protect mariners around the world.