Here’s an excerpt from my new book “A Grizzly in the Mail and Other Adventures in American History.”
One evening a few days ago I left work, turned into the setting sun, and walked west toward the Jefferson Memorial. More and more people crowded the sidewalk, all heading the same direction. The swarm was headed toward the cherry trees at peak bloom, an annual rite of spring in Washington for those residents who can withstand the tens of thousands of tourists that throng West Potomac Park. Anyone who has ever witnessed the massive puffs of pink in the warm air never forgets the sight. Cherry blossoms, July 4th fireworks and perhaps an Inauguration are the three Washington events that everyone should experience at least once in his life, if he can deal with crowds.
The cherry trees ring the Tidal Basin and I planned to walk the loop around the basin, something I’d done many times, but this year my goal was different. I’d just heard about an obscure stone marker sitting along the Potomac River several hundred yards from the basin and the FDR Memorial.
“I’m such a history geek,” I muttered to myself. “Hundreds of thousands of people are headed this direction to exalt in the beauty of nature and I’m excited to see a historic marker.”
I veered away from the pink trees and headed toward the river. Eventually I found the stone marker and its metal plaque, erected in 1958 by the Aero Club of Washington to mark an auspicious 40th anniversary. It read: “The world’s first airplane mail to be operated as a continuously scheduled public service started from this field May 15, 1918.” Six years after the first cherry trees were planted nearby, President Wilson and other dignitaries had stood in West Potomac Park providing the official send-off for a lone army pilot in his Curtiss Jenny bi-plane. This was the inauguration of the Post Office’s regular service between Washington and New York, a three-hour flight. Unfortunately, the pilot Lt. George Boyle, had a little problem along the way. He got lost. Using a road map and a faulty compass to navigate, he ended up in Waldorf, Maryland, south of Washington, and flipped his plane upon landing. He could not continue in the damaged plane. The flight from New York did arrive, however, and the Post Office’s Air Mail Service had begun.
More info at this page from the National Air and Space Museum: http://www.nasm.si.edu/americabyair/early_years/early_years04.cfm