The Lark of Duluth

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.)

Duluthians have been hearing a lot about Duluth’s early contribution to aviation history this summer. A replica “flying boat” has made headlines since April, and news outlets have followed its development through its unfortunate crash in July, including its appearance at the revival of a 100-year-old festival that featured the original craft. 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.

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: X-comm)

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.

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