The Lark of the Lake

The Lark of Duluth photographed during its first flight between St. Petersburg and Tampa. (Image: tampapix)

The Lark as the First Commercial Airliner

Duluth newspapers make no mention of the Lark of Duluth after the festival ended. Meanwhile Tom Benoist, the plane’s designer and builder, made an agreement with Percy Fansler to start a commercial airline, a novel idea at the time. Fansler travelled to St. Petersburgh, Florida, in November to sell the idea to city officials. Twenty-five miles across Tampa Bay from St. Petersburgh stood the city of Tampa. At the time, travel between the two communities either took 12 hours by train—a 65-mile ride—or two hours by boat. The city and local businessmen agreed, and ponied up $2,400 to get the venture off the ground.

The agreement for the first commercial airline, signed in December, called for Benoist to supply three planes: two Model XIVs for the airline and one model XIII for flying lessons. The businesses would be known as the St. Petersburgh-Tampa Airboat Line and the Benoist School of Aviation.

Benoist recruited Jannus—who had a financial interest in Benoist’s company—and his brother Roger to be the pilots and J. D. Smith to maintain the planes. As the Lark of Duluth could do not take off or land on the icy Duluth harbor in the winter, Barnes reportedly agreed to let them use it in Florida. The plane was apparently already away from Duluth, as it was shipped to Florida from Paducah, Kentucky, by rail. Florida newspapers never once referred to the plane as the Lark of Duluth, and historians have all referred to the craft during this period as “No. 43.” The second Model XIV, No. 45, arrived later. It was larger than No. 43 and had a 75-HP engine and a redesigned hull meant to keep the pilot and passenger dry on takeoffs and landings. It was named the Florida and flown primarily by Roger Jannus.

Tony Jannus took No. 43 for test flights on December 30 and 31. The next day, January 1, 1914, nearly 3,000 people showed up to witness the first flight. Seated next to Jannus was former St. Petersburgh mayor Abram C. Pheil, who outbid other local officials to become the first passenger on a commercial flight. The plane took off shortly after 10 a.m., with the lettering “of DU” showing under its top port wing. Twenty-three minutes later in Tampa—after having to set down once to adjust the engine—another three thousand more spectators witnessed the landing of the first scheduled passenger flight on a commercial airline. Jannus referred to the historic trip as “just a routine flight.”

The airline went into full operation the next day, offering two flights a day six days a week on Benoist No. 43. It cost $5 for a person or freight up to 100 pounds, and flights were sold out for the first 16 weeks. After No. 45 arrived the airline was soon extended to three other nearby communities, including Sarasota. Over 50 days the Jannus brothers made 172 commercial flights carrying 1,205 passengers with only two forced landings. They also made over 100 charter flights. But interest declined after the winter residents (“snowbirds”) headed north, and when the airline ceased operation for the season, its profits were marginal at best.

Well over 100 articles about the Jannus brothers and their airplane appeared in the Tampa Tribune in the few months they were in Florida. Not once did it refer to one of the planes as the Lark of Duluth or the Lark of the Lake.

The last commercial flight was in early May, after which No. 43 was dismantled and crated. On May 9, the Jannus brothers, Smith, and No. 43 left town with newspapers promising they would be back the following January 1 to resume the airline. Benoist No. 45, the Florida, was said to have been purchased by Byrd M. Latham, who took it to Conneaut Lake, Pennsylvania, where he crashed in July 1914 with a 250-pound passenger aboard. Latham reportedly salvaged the engine and radiator, put them in a plane he built himself, and sent it to St. Petersburgh for storage.

The Summer of 1914

In June 1914, Tony Jannus, reportedly upset with Benoist’s business practices, cut ties with Benoist and set out to start his own aircraft company with his brother and Smith. But first, they had to make some money. The Jannus’ spent the summer making exhibition flights in several communities. Tony Jannus headed to Cedar Point, Ohio, a resort town along the shore of Lake Erie. There he took passengers on exhibition flights and provided a passenger service from Cedar Point to nearby Sandusky. One biography of Jannus states that “Tony also had another Benoist flying boat which he had bought after leaving St. Pete; he kept it moored at the dock of the hotel.”

Meanwhile, Roger Jannus spent some time flying in Duluth, but it is unclear whether he brought along a new plane or the Lark of Duluth. During that summer, Duluth newspaper reports refer to the plane as simply “the Lark” or “the Lark of the Lake.” Only one report mentioned the name Lark of Duluth, and that was on June 9, two weeks before Jannus arrived in the Zenith City.

Roger Jannus (left) and Tony Jannus (right) pose with a third, unknown man in front of a Benoist Model XIV, date unknown. (Image: Library of Congress)

That summer Duluth’s water carnival was again dubbed “Lark o’ the Lake,” but it was limited to the last weekends in July and the first two in August. Jannus and his hyrdoplane did not feature prominently in the 1914 event. He arrived on June 25 and was soon giving rides and demonstration flights. On the Fourth of July, he raced Bill Jones in his powerboat, Little Bob. Jones won. After being grounded for two weeks waiting for engine parts, Jannus and his plane made more exhibition flights and participated in the water carnival. He left town by August 10.

In August 1914, Tony Jannus reportedly purchased No. 43, the Lark of Duluth, from Julius Barnes—but that transaction could have occurred the previous August, during the plane’s first summer in Duluth. After August 1914, no newspapers refer to Barnes (nor Bill Jones) as the plane’s owner. In 1954, Barnes told a reporter that “I let [the] instructors take the ship and fly to develop an air-ferry,” but this was a recollection of a man then in his 80s. He also said that this air-ferry would operate between Miami and Cuba. In any case by October 1914, Tony and Roger Jannus, along with No.43 and another Benoist Model XIV, had moved to Baltimore with J. D. Smith to open Jannus Brothers to earn their living giving flying lessons and exhibitions while building and selling flying boats Tony Jannus would design.

In December 1914, Roger Jannus and J. D. Smith traveled to San Diego with one of the Benoist flying boats—most likely the craft known in Duluth the previous summer as the Lark of the Lake, but possibly No. 43, the Lark of Duluth. On February 15, 1915, the plane went down in the San Diego Bay. Most historians agree Smith was flying the plane (and lost seven teeth in the crash), but newspaper reports the following day give the pilot’s name as C. W. Webster. Either way, the hydroplane was not salvageable.

A Second Season in Florida

Back in Baltimore, Tony Jannus had nearly finished construction of the first Jannus flying boat, which he dubbed “The Lark” (adding to the confusion of researchers; that plane was later sold to W. E. Davidson of Detroit). Jannus returned to St. Petersburgh in late January, 1915, hired by L. E. Mclean, now the owner of the rebuilt Florida. There Jannus revived the commercial service. On February 27, Jannus, with passenger Ruth Crawford aboard, attempted to turn into a stiff breeze, and the Florida flipped. It was the first time Jannus had ever “dipped” a passenger.

Jannus returned to Baltimore to complete his new flying boat and bring it to Florida to finish the season. In the meantime, McLean and his mechanic set to work on the Florida, announcing on March 16 that the plane would be ready to fly by the 18th. The story also mentioned that the plane would be piloted by J. D. Smith, who was on his way from San Diego. Tony Jannus had apparently returned as well, as from March 21 to May 28 local newspapers advertised Sunday flights by “Tony Jannus and Aeroplane”. No other newspaper reports mentioned Jannus, Smith, nor the Florida. Historians believe that No. 45 was completely destroyed after the February crash and that Tony Jannus flew the hydroplane he built in Baltimore, the Lark, until he left in June.

Afterward, the Jannus Brothers went out of business, and Tony and Roger both took jobs as test pilots and trainers. Tony Jannus died in Russia in October, 1916, where he and Roger had gone to train military pilots to fly a Curtiss JN-3 airplanes. Roger met a similar fate. In September 1918, his Curtiss JDH-4 exploded in mid-air over Issoudon, France, while training another pilot in September 1918. In 1954, an aging Julius Barnes told a reporter that in the spring of 1915 “I let the boys take the plane to Russia to instruct flyers there. Both boys were killed in a few weeks.”

The Fate of the Lark of Duluth

So what became of No. 43, the Lark of Duluth? According to one of Tony Jannus’ biographers, it was sold to pilot and artist Knox Martin. No information on No. 43’s ultimate fate was included.

Wikipedia—whose reliability is often questionable—claims that No. 43 spent the summer of 1915 first in Duluth (the plane flown by Roger Jannus), then in Conneaut Lake, Pennsylvania, (where others claim No. 45 crashed), and then in San Diego, where “it was damaged in a hard landing and pronounced unsalvageable.” But as mentioned above, others say that No. 45 was the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania and was returned to Tampa, where Tony Jannus crashed it in February 1915.

C. V. Glines, writing in Aviation History Magazine, has a completely different take on the fate of both No. 43 and No. 45. Glines believes that No. 43 was the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania in July 1914, and that its engine ended up in an entirely new plane built by Byrd Latham, who named it the Florida and sent it to St. Petersburgh, where Tony Jannus crashed it in February 1915. He also writes that it was No. 45, the “original” Florida, that Smith and Roger Jannus took to San Diego, where Smith crashed it in December 1914. Both ideas conflict with Tampa newspaper reports of early 1915.

A 1948 article in the St. Petersburgh Times claims that the flying boat Byrd Latham purchased in the summer of 1914 was actually No. 43 and that it crashed it that summer in a lake in New York after a wing broke off in mid-air. That story conflicts with all other accounts, including Barnes’ 1954 recollections. So we may never know exactly what became of the Lark of Duluth—nor the Florida, for that matter.

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