“The Weirs” on New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee, has been a popular summer resort since shortly after the last Ice Age, when the continental ice sheet melted away. It left the state’s largest lake, known as “The Smile of the Great Spirit,” in its wake. The Weirs attracted Native American fishermen, Civil War veterans and 20th century tourists looking for fun and adventure. They found both with Bob Fogg.
Fogg carried over 50,000 eager summer tourists over the lakes and mountains in the biplanes that first brought flying to the Granite State. He operated from the seaplane base, a fixture on the lakeside boardwalk from the early 1920s until shortly after World War II.
Bob Fogg had flying in his blood from the very beginning. He owned an early Bleriot monoplane by 1915, when aviation was just 12 years old and he was just 18. His father, though, took the engine from it before young Bob could get hurt with his new toy.
Bob also worked on cars and had his radio operator’s license, so clearly he had a fascination for the new technology of the new century.
Technology has come at us so fast during the 20th century that it’s hard for us now to imagine the excitement people felt in the early 20th century when the “flying machine” first appeared. Human beings had dreamed of flight since the dawn of time, and now, suddenly, anyone with the price of a ticket could do it.
Imagine the thrill if you had never seen an airplane fly, and suddenly one day, one landed in the cow pasture next door!
If you have never seen the surface of the earth from a small plane a few hundred feet above the ground, or maneuvered among the clouds, it’s hard to convey the joy and wonder of it. But once done you can’t forget it. No wonder the early “barnstormers” loved to fly.
Robert Stevens “Bob” Fogg was born in 1897 in Brookline, Mass., just a few years before the Wright brothers first flew in 1903. As a boy he avidly followed the adventures of the early birds of flight. So when the United States entered the Great War in 1917 and the aces of the Western Front began winning fame and glory, Bob was ready to go.
Enlisting in the U.S. Army Air Service, he learned to fly at a Texas Army flying field. But the war ended with an Allied victory before he could get to the fighting himself.
When the war to end all wars ended, the United States had hundreds of surplus airplanes, mostly trainers. Anyone with a few hundred dollars could buy one, no training, license, or registration required. Bob Fogg was one of them.
After an adventurous flight from Toronto, using the “I Follow Railroads” method of aerial navigation, he arrived in Concord, N.H., on the Fourth of July, 1920. He then set out to make his fortune hopping passengers.
Making a Living
New Hampshire as yet had no airports, so he flew from the National Guard training field in Concord, on Hampton Beach (at low tide), and various fields and fairgrounds around the state. Like many another wartime aviator, he wanted to use his new skills to keep on flying and also to make a living, if possible.
As the military downsized and no airlines existed, selling thrill rides to a population that had never flown before was the only way to go.
Barnstorming did not turn out to be a get rich quick scheme, but it was the most exciting career choice a young man could make in 1920. Like other early aviators, Bob Fogg said the greatest danger a pilot faced was starvation. Unless, of course, he sold enough rides to put gas in the tank for one more day.
How quickly things once new and exciting become merely ordinary. Bob had the first privately owned airplane in the state in 1920. But by 1922, as he later wrote, ‘crowds no longer flocked three miles to some hayfield to pay five dollars for a ride in my Hisso Standard.’
“I then decided that if the people would not come to my plane, the next step would be to take a plane to the people.”
The Weirs, the main tourist stop on Lake Winnipesaukee, fit the bill. Surplus aircraft were still cheap and available, and for $750 Bob purchased a Curtiss Model MF flying boat, known as the Seagull. Brand new, right from the Naval Aircraft Factory in Philadelphia, the Seagull came all in pieces on a freight car with some assembly required.
Despite New Hampshire’s lack of airports, its many lakes and ponds made ideal runways. And many had existing summer resorts where Bob could sell airplane rides.
Assembling the Seagull on an old barge near the Weirs Channel, Bob and mechanic Caleb Marston converted the two-seat trainer to a four-place passenger plane, and made their first flight on Aug. 14, 1923. Two men, names lost to history, who had been watching the proceedings, asked for a ride, and for $5.00 each they became the first to “Fly With Fogg.”
Getting used to the feel of the new airplane, Bob Fogg ‘yoyoed up the bay like an airborne porpoise.’ He then arrived safely at the Weirs with the compliments of the two passengers.
On August 15, Bob and Caleb started their first business day on the boardwalk alongside the Weirs Café and the Mount Washington dock. They then flew for over 12 hours, taking up 73 passengers for total receipts of $315.
Today small private aircraft are a fairly common sight, but in the 1920s and ‘30’s, seeing an airplane fly over was a highlight. Taking a flight was the experience of a lifetime. Bob continued to fly the Seagull at the Weirs through the summer of 1927, on one occasion even charging $50 to a passenger who wanted to fly one mile high. It was a slow process at a rate of climb of approximately 250 feet per minute.
In 1925 he operated the first aeromarine mail service in America. He picked up mail from the Weirs train station and delivered it to ten locations around the lake, all before 8:00 a.m. He dropped off most of the airmail at boy’s summer camps, where plenty of willing volunteers waded out and swapped mail bags. They also helped turned the plane back toward open water for the next takeoff.
In 1927 the government finally decided to regulate airplanes and pilots. And so the official inspector came to give Bob Fogg and the Seagull a check ride.
The wind blew offshore from the Weirs, so Bob and Inspector W.A. Brooks had to taxi a long way out in order to take off into the wind and clear Brickyard Mountain. After making a successful takeoff, with the engine roaring at full power to clear the pine trees atop the mountain, a startling bang came from the engine, and it quit cold.
Bob calmly guided the craft to a safe landing in Paugus Bay. Then he turned to the inspector and remarked, “Well! She never did that before!”
The inspector agreed that Bob had demonstrated excellent piloting skills, quickly licensed both plane and pilo, and left town on the next train.
Later, as technology advanced in during the 1920s and ’30s, Bob Fogg replaced the faithful Seagull with larger and more powerful Waco biplanes, a Travel Air 6000 cabin monoplane featuring cabin-enclosed comfort for six passengers. Later he bought a speedy Staggerwing Beechcraft capable of 200 mph, and a 10-passenger Sikorsky amphibian that could land on water or land. Quite an upgrade from the slow and steady old Seagull in just a few short years.
By the time he left the seaplane base in 1938, Bob had safely carried over 50,000 passengers, quite a feat considering that his airplanes only carried between two and eight passengers at a time.
Bob had other high-flying adventures, including one with the Charles Lindbergh. He hosted the world-famous aviator in Concord during his tour of the country in The Spirit of St. Louis, which followed his historic transatlantic flight.
After the disastrous Vermont flood in 1927, Bob Fogg flew the mail from Concord to the stricken state during November and December in his open-cockpit Waco. Then in the early spring of 1928, he flew to remote Greenly Island in northern Canada. He made the flight to bring back the first newsreel footage of the first plane to fly nonstop east-to-west from Europe to America. The Bremen had landed in Newfoundland.
Flying High With Eleanor
Bob went to work for the Civil Aeronautics Board in Washington, D.C., in 1939, building 300 seaplane bases around the country for national defense. On several occasions he flew with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to dedicate them.
The story goes that he let the First Lady take the controls once airborne, and that she did a pretty good job. Imagine the First Lady trying that nowadays! Bob Fogg, Jr., related that the First Lady could not drink alcoholic beverages in public because of concerns over its propriety. But after they finished their official duties for the day, Mrs. Roosevelt would call Bob’s hotel room and invite him down for a Manhattan.
Following service in World War I, Bob served his country again in the Army Air Corps reserves from 1923 until World War II. Then he flew on active duty through 1945.
He hung up his flying goggles in 1951, having seen aviation progress from wooden biplanes with linen-covered wings to jets breaking the sound barrier.
Bob Fogg passed away in 1976 after a long and adventurous life.
Jane Rice, who wrote this story, is the author of Bob Fogg and New Hampshire’s Golden Age of Aviation, available online or from the author at [email protected]