The Flying Santas of Maine Who Rescued Lighthouse Keepers
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”.
Captain William Wincapaw, the Original Flying Santa
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 stationed 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.
The Flying Santa Tradition Continues
After the death of Captain Wincapaw, historian Edward Rowe Snow continued to carry on the tradition of delivering Christmas bundles to stations all along the Eastern Coastline then cross country. Over the years, during many of the flights Snow would still hire a pilot out of his own pay, and he and his wife would enjoy the satisfaction of their efforts as repayment, with help from their daughter in making it a family affair. Aircraft were provided by local agencies, and on a few excursions, the Coast Guard would provide Snow with one of their own aircraft to help him with his expanding deliveries. Packages would continue to be provided by the many sponsors, and Snow began to write books about New England stories and lighthouses, which he would also provide for the keepers and their families. Snow continued the tradition until his death in the early 1980’s. The Hull Lifesaving Museum in Massachusetts answered the call and continued the tradition of the Flying Santas. As years passed, other good Samaritans would follow Snow’s path and become Flying Santas. The tradition still continues today to remind communities of the sacrifices lighthouse keepers made and their families to protect mariners around the world.
The Establishment of the Friends of Flying Santa
By 1997, the Flying Santa program was transferred from the Hull Lifesaving Museum to a non-profit group of volunteers calling themselves the Friends of Flying Santa. This non-profit organization would help to ensure a stable financial future in keeping the program alive, and developed the official red logo to help with fundraising efforts on clothing and novelty items. The program continues today as a gesture of appreciation to the dedicated Coast Guard crews and their families. Now flying by helicopter, Santa’s route includes over 30 stops from Maine to New York.
Their Web site at www.flyingsanta.org keeps the public informed of events and helps in their efforts to raise funds for this wonderful program. All money raised by this campaign goes directly to purchase gifts for the children. There are no paid staff or administrative fees. If you want to help, or want to learn more about the organization, or upcoming events year-round, visit the Friends of Flying Santa website.
Today, the Flying Santa comes down in a helicopter and calls out the name of children in attendance and presents them with a little gift to continue the annual tradition. This annual event is used today as a simple expression of gratitude for the work performed by the Coast Guard.
My 300-page book, Lighthouses and Coastal Attractions of Southern New England: Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, provides special human interest stories from each of the 92 lighthouses, along with plenty of indoor and outdoor coastal attractions you can explore. These include whale watching excursions, lighthouse tours, windjammer sailing tours and adventures, special parks and museums, and lighthouses you can stay overnight. You’ll also find plenty of stories of haunted lighthouses. Lighthouses and their nearby attractions are divided into regions for all you weekly and weekend explorers.