Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Flying Santa- Edward Rowe Snow

Last year I saw a TV newscast about the work of Edward Rowe Snow and the Flying Santa program in New England. It was a service provided by Wiggins Airways, and every time I pass by the Manchester Airport and see the Wiggins sign, I think of the Flying Santas – even in the heat of summer!

Since colonial times the New England lighthouses were manned by families, and in 1929 William Wincapaw started a tradition of dropping presents from Santa from planes to children of lighthouse keepers. In the footage I saw on the television special, most of these lighthouses were on isolated islands or other inaccessible points of land. Over the years the program was expanded to more lighthouses and Coast Guard stations. Edward Rowe Snow participated in the program for more than forty years as a pilot.

Edward Rowe Snow is a familiar name to New England Yankees. He attended Harvard, and studied under historian Samuel Eliot Morrison, who was a maritime expert. Snow wrote over 100 books on the maritime history of New England, with subjects as wide as pirates to ship wrecks. There is a boat named for him plying the waters of Boston Harbor, and providing ferry service to George’s Island and the state parks. He was a driving force behind saving Fort Warren, on George’s Island as part of the state park system. He led ghost story tours of the Civil War fort, and used to tell the story of the “Lady in Black”, which I think of every time we are in the dark tunnels there!

Snow served as a Flying Santa from 1936 to 1980, and some years he brought his little girl, Dolly, along for the rides to help drop the packages to the children waiting below. She loved to see the faces of the island children when her father buzzed the lighthouses. When a memorial to Snow was established in 2000, a granite marker was placed at the pavilion for tourists on George’s Island, and the plaque reads “Author, historian, and ‘Flying Santa’ to lighthouse keepers, Edward Rowe Snow was the president of the Society for the Preservation of Fort Warren and led the fight to preserve the fort as a public park. The presence of Edward and his wife, Anna-Myrle, will always be felt on George’s Island.” Dolly Snow Bicknell, his daughter, was part of the memorial committee.

At the dedication of the memorial marker Seamond Ponsart Roberts read a letter about how when she was little, Snow dropped a gift from Santa on Cuttyhunk Island, where her father was lighthouse keeper. Inside the package, the doll broke during the fall from the plane. The next year Snow personally rented a helicopter and handed her a new doll. She wrote, “He is my Flying Santa, a man I’ll love forever. I know this because I know he cared very much for people and gave of himself. I hope this will be a big part of what people remember him for when they see this monument to Edward Rowe Snow.”

Eventually, lighthouses became automated and children were no longer living on the isolated islands off New England. Now helicopters provide the flights as a tradition to Coast Guard stations as a gift of thanks for the work performed by these brave men and women. Edward Rowe Snow’s tradition is still alive, and being carried on by George Morgan and the Friends of the Flying Santa.

I learned about Edward Rowe Snow because I had a Civil War ancestor who served six months as a guard at Fort Warren on George’s Island, when it was a prisoner of war camp. We enjoyed several Civil War reenactments and encampments on George’s Island, and my daughter (she is now 22 years old!) used to love exploring the tunnels of Fort Warren and searching for the Lady in Black when she was little. Only later did I find out that one of my favorite historians was also the “Flying Santa!”

Also, when you visit the Boston Harbor islands, you are onboard a ferry named "The Edward Rowe Snow"!

A Mayflower Lineage:                 (Updated and corrected 19 September 2014)

Gen 1: Nicholas Snow, born 25 January 1598 in England, died 15 November 1676; married to Constance Hopkins, daughter of Mayflower Passenger Stephen Hopkins and Constance Dudley, born before 11 May 1606 and died October 1677.

Gen 2: John Snow, born about 1638 in Plymouth, Massachusetts, died 1692 in Eastham, Massachusetts; married 19 September 1667 to Mary Smalley, born 1647.

Gen. 3: John Snow, born 3 May 1678; married to Elizabeth Ridley

Gen 4: Isaac Snow, born 11 February 1713/4 in Eastham, died 15 February 1799; married to Apphia Atwood

Gen 5: Reverend Elisha Snow, born 26 March 1739, died 30 January 1832; married on 6 December 1759 at Cape Elizabeth, Maine to Betsey Jordan.

Gen. 6: Elisha Snow, born 29 May 1769, died 20 January 1843;  married Nancy McKown as his second wife.

Gen. 7: Larkin Snow, born 27 September 1799 in Maine, died on 19 October 1861; married Alice Small

Gen. 8: George L. Snow, born in 1828 in Rockland, Maine, died 1891 in Rockland; married to Lucy Ann Snow (also descended from Nicolas Snow, common line through Isaac Snow (above), she descended from Elisha's (1739 -1832) brother Robert- so they were 2nd cousins).

Gen. 9. Edward Sumpter Snow, born 26 April 1861 in Rockland, Maine  and Alice Rowe

Gen. 9: Edward Rowe Snow, born 22 August 1902 in Winthrop, Massachusetts, died 10 April 1982; married on 8 July 1932 to Anna-Myrl Haegg. One daughter, Dorothy (Dolly) Caroline Snow. He is buried in Marshfield, Plymouth County, Massachusetts and his grave can be seen at #7295384 Snow’s gravestone is beautifully engraved with a lighthouse!


For more information:
The History of the Flying Santa program (including a cute photo of little Seamond Ponsart and Santa Snow!)
This article from the archives of ‘Lighthouse Digest’ has the letter from Seamond Ponsart Roberts. 
Historic Nantucket Magazine, from the Nantucket Historical Association, Winter 2008, Volume 57, No. 1, page 18, an article entitled “Flying Santa: Edward Rowe Snow and the Romance of History”
Santa tells about the Flying Santa Program
A story written by Seamond Ponsart Roberts herself about her beloved Santa Snow

Copyright 2009, Heather Wilkinson Rojo


  1. I have several female relatives named "Apphia." Do you know the pronounciation of that? Is it "ah-fia" or "ap-fia" and is the accent on the first or second syllable? It's one of those curious names. Bill West and I are related to Nicholas & Constance (Hopkins) Snow through their daughter, Elizabeth.

    1. Pam, that is a good question about Apphia. I have lots of old fashioned names in my tree that I would love to know how to pronounce. Jabez is one (is it JAH-bez or JAY-bez or ja-BEZ?) And of course I'd love to hear how my ancestors prounounced these names in their Maine and North Shore accents!

  2. What a terrific way to be remembered, as "The Flying Santa." Especially if your last name is, happily, Snow. I wondered as I was reading whether any of the presents suffered damage, and then one did, and he replaced it! A super story.