The Lark of the Lake

Hugh McKenzie captured this image of the Lark of Duluth flying near the passenger steamer Columbia in either 1913 or 1914. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

The 1913 “Lark of the Lake” water carnival was an “extended version” of similar event hosted by the Duluth Boat Club from 1907 to 1916. What began as a one night “Venetian Fete” grew into an annual event that drew thousands. But the 1913 Lark was arguably the biggest ever held, with activities planned for every weekend from June 27 to August 2. Its biggest draw was that flying boat.

The Arrival of the Lark of Duluth

The boat was actually a Benoist Model XIV hydroaeroplane. A biplane whose front fuselage was designed as a boat’s hull, it was powered by a two-stroke, six-cylinder engine capable of 75 horsepower and speeds of 65 miles per hour. It weighed 1,250 pounds, stretched 26 feet in length and had a wingspan of 44 feet. The boat’s official name was Benoist No. 43, but it would become better known in the Zenith City as the Lark of Duluth.

On May 9 of that year local newspapers announced that William D. “Gasoline Bill” Jones, a Duluth auto enthusiast, had purchased a $5,000 Benoist plane designed to take of an land on the water. Jones had no flying experience, so the plane was shipped to Duluth (unassembled) along with mechanic James Smith and Tony Jannus, holder of many early flight records and perhaps the most well-known pilot in the U.S. at the time. Smith would assemble the plane; Jannus would teach Jones how to fly it.

But while Jones was said to be the plane’s owner, the first passenger Jannus took in the flying boat was Julius Barnes, a highly regarded local grain trader and then president of the Duluth Boat Club. Barnes dubbed the plane the Lark of Duluth and had its name painted underneath the top wing so that no matter where it flew, it would promote the Zenith City. On June 24, Jannus and Barnes took off from the Boat Club just south of the canal on Minnesota Point and flew to the Superior ore docks in Allouez and back, with Barnes exclaiming that flying was “the smoothest, fastest and most fascinating sport of them all.”

Why Barnes and not Jones? Because Jones was the owner in name only. Barnes regularly borrowed a great deal of money for his grain investments, and his bankers were not happy with the idea of him taking up a dangerous new hobby. In 1954 Barnes would tell interviewers that the morning after that first flight, officers of the American Exchange Bank told him they “did not care to have [his] judgment risked with this new-fangled fad of flying.”

Two days later prominent Duluthians were lining up to be passengers, including Duluth News Tribune cartoonist R. D. Handy, Oliver Mining attorney (and Lark chairman) Archie Banning, Barnes’ wife, and their daughter Gertrude. Jones took a turn as well, and during this flight Jannus piloted the plane below the top span of Duluth’s Aerial Transfer Bridge, becoming the first pilot to pass under the bridge.

Afterwards, hardly a day went by when local newspapers did not feature at least one story about the plane. Jannus became a local celebrity, and the papers featured stories of his previous record-setting flights and his future plans to fly across the Atlantic Ocean.

1913’s Lark o’ the Lake Festival

The festival itself was a great success, even though most weekend weather prevented some activities and grounded the Lark. Besides the flying boat the carnival featured included all sort of watercraft races, swimming races, log rolling, “water baseball,” “canoe wrestling,” life-saving exhibitions, and races between motor boats and the Lark. In case of foul weather, a vaudeville show would be held at the Commercial Club which, along with other civic groups, helped the Boat Club organizing the event. Fireworks would conclude the event each night.

Despite bad weather, the first weekend was a great success. On Friday the Lark was scheduled to race against motorboats, and Jannus insisted on flying even though the “wind at times reached the velocity of a gale.” Event officials would not allow it, fearing the plane would be damaged, costing the carnival its biggest draw. Instead, Jannus and Jones entered the motor boat race in Jones’ Buster and took first place with a “decisive victory.”

The flying was better the next day, and Jannus entertained crowds with stunt flying, performing figure eights and other acrobatic maneuvers with Jones as passenger. At one point the engine failed and Jannus had to set the plane down, but he and Jones were never in much danger: on that flight, and many others, the Lark rarely flew more than a few feet off the ground.

On July 1 the News Tribune announced that Jones and pilot Hugh Robinson—a principal designer of the Benoist Model XIV—would enter the Lark in a 900-mile flying boat race over Lake Michigan and Lake Huron from Chicago to Detroit that was scheduled to begin on July 8. While the Lark was away, William H. Bleakely would take over flying exhibitions during the Lark festival, flying a Benoit hydroaeroplane—a different model than the Lark—which Jannus had flown on his record-setting flight from Omaha to New Orleans.

The first night of the Independence Day weekend was a bust. “Storm Spoils Lark o’ Lake” cried the News Tribune. Festivities were forced inside the Boat Club’s headquarters—normally reserved for members only—where the Third Regiment Band played dance numbers. Because of driving rains, attempts to set of the fireworks were abandoned, and the Lark’s exhibition was cancelled.

The Lark Goes Down

On Saturday July 5, Hugh Robinson was behind the controls of the Lark on another windy day. Tony Jannus had left town for Chicago; he was at the stick of another Benoit flying boat in the same race Robinson would fly the Lark. Over 1,000 carnival goers watched from the Boat Club’s bleachers as Robinson and mechanic Wells Ingalls cruised back and forth across the bay, staying close to the water to avoid what Robinson described as a “treacherous wind.”

When Robinson eventually attempted to get the plane higher in the air—“not wishing to disappoint the crowd,” he explained—the wind suddenly lifted the left wing. Robinson was not able to right it before the right wing hit the water and he, Ingalls, and the Lark were tossed into drink. Motorboats stationed for just such an event raced to their rescue, pulling the stunned men out of the water. Ingalls was bruised, Robinson nearly blinded by a snapped brace, and the Lark was wrecked.

Luckily for Lark festival, another plane was already on its way. But Robinson, Ingalls, and Jones could not get the Lark repaired in time for the race in Chicago. Jannus had qualified and won the top starting position, but ran into the same luck Robinson had suffered a few days earlier. He and mechanic Paul McCullough, along with crews from two other pilots, were caught in a squall before they could even get out of Chicago. Jannus and McCullough had to be rescued, and their plane abandoned.

This postcard, likely made in 1913, misidentifies the Lark of Duluth as the Lark of the Lake, and it is likely that Tony Jannus, not W. D. Jones—the Lark’s alleged owner—at the controls. (Image: Zenith City Press)

The Lark’s replacement arrived on July 8, but pilot William H. Bleakely did not. Instead, the hydroaeroplane was accompanied by pilot Earl Wymark (also spelled “Weymark”). The hydroaeroplane was much different than the Lark. The bulk of the Lark’s motor—and therefor its weight—was in the front, and it was pushed by a rear propellor; the hydroaeroplane’s motor was in the center and it was pulled by a front propellor. Weather prevented boat races and the new plane from flying on both Friday and Saturday, but the night’s main attraction—a parade celebrating Duluth’s industries—was reportedly well attended.

The following Tuesday festival organizers announced that the Boat Club set off the previous weekend’s unlaunched fireworks and the hydroaeroplane would make an exhibition flight.

A few days later the News Tribune reported that Jannus was back in town, repairing the Lark, and would give a demonstration flight on Saturday the 19th. Jannus also took the stick during the Friday evening flight of the hydroaeroplane. Newspapers called it the best flying exhibition so far. He flew for over an hour, at least once reaching an altitude of 1,000 feet as he “gave a demonstration of all the tricks of the airmen.” He circled the Boat Club, flew over the aerial bridge, cruised the harbor, and buzzed the business district before landing.

Newspapers did not mention if the Lark flew on Saturday the 19th as promised, but it was in the air by the following Monday. Because of repairs, the name under the wing now read simply “of DU.” Jannus accompanied W. D. Jones on several practice flights, and on Thursday, with Barnes in the passenger seat, the pilot lifted the Lark to an altitude of 300 feet and cruised from the Boat Club’s headquarters to its Spirit Lake branch and back. Jannus and the Lark made more exhibition flights July 25 and 26, the fifth “Lark” weekend of the summer.

Barnes likely took a few flying lessons himself that summer. Later in life he explained he had originally bought the plane so he and Jones could both learn how to fly. His family took plenty of trips as well. In fact, Barnes remembered that rides weren’t very popular with the general public. “The passenger patronage was largely me, Mrs. Barnes, son Robert and daughter Gertrude.”

While Jannus’s flights made the papers, Wymark didn’t stay grounded. On Sunday July 20 he took the hydroaeroplane for a cruise around the harbor before heading up the St. Louis River and returning. The fact that Wymark flew outside the confines of the festival delighted the Duluth News Tribune. “Unlike other airmen,” the newspaper wrote, “who fly only when someone writes a check, [Wymark] likes the sport for what there is in it.”

The Chisholm Elk’s Club was so impressed by Wymark—particularly because he had drawn “immense crowds” at the festival and flew his hydroaeroplane in conditions that safety-minded Jannus would not fly the Lark—they invited him to attempt the first flights on the Iron Range, taking off and landing on Longyear Lake. The event was scheduled for August 2, the final day of the Duluth festival. It did not go well. Engine trouble on the second flight of the day forced the plane down, and it ended up on the bottom of Longyear Lake in eight feet of water. It was later salvaged and sent back to St. Louis for repairs.

“Lark o’ the Lake” promoters promised that the last weekend would be the summer’s best, and they did not disappoint. The feature event was the Friday night “Venetian Fete,” reviving the 1907 event that started the summer carnivals. Patterned after water carnivals in Venice, Italy, the event was essentially a nighttime “parade” of hundreds of watercraft—small sailboats, rowboats, and canoes—lavishly festooned and illuminated with Japanese lanterns.

More than 5,000 Duluthians and visitors turned out to see the fete. Among the decorated boats were replicas of the aerial bridge and the Lark of Duluth. Despite “perfect weather conditions,” the newspaper did not report if the Lark made a flight that weekend, although it was scheduled to perform with Jannus and Jones aboard. The paper did mention two “aquaplane exhibitions” by Louis Ardouin, David Wisted, and Whitney Wall, Jr., but left out any details, including any information of the planes they flew. The Lark o’ the Lake festival came to a close with an automobile parade.

Next page: The Lark becomes the first commercial Airliner

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Story by Tony Dierckins. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Tony Dierckins.