September 17, 1914
It spawned plenty of international intrigue and at least one political conspiracy theory … Ernest Lloyd Janney was anything but a tourist when he journeyed from his native Canada to visit Marblehead, Massachusetts, on September 17, 1914. He visited that town on the northeastern Massachusetts coast that Friday on behalf of his country’s government for another purpose, and that was to make a purchase – and a historic one at that.
World War I had just broken out across the Atlantic Ocean in Europe and, while the United States remained officially neutral at that time, Canada was very much involved in the conflict on the side of the Allied Powers. The 21-year-old Janney, who was a mechanic operating an automobile garage in the Ontario city of Galt (now part of Cambridge), saw an unprecedented opportunity to get involved in the war effort.
Canada did not have any military aircraft at that time, and while lacking any expertise in aviation, Janney somehow managed to persuade Canadian Minister of Militia and Defense Samuel Hughes to authorize him to obtain a plane to be used in combat.
While traveling through the U.S. in search of a plane, Janney stopped at several major aircraft factories and ended up on September 12 at the Marblehead plant for the plane manufacturer Burgess Company. One of the planes that had been built at that plant earlier in the year was a Burgess-Dunne AH-7 seaplane. Janney saw a demonstration flight of that plane and was very impressed by it. He returned to Canada, presumably to share information on his airborne discovery and make arrangements for having it transported north of the border. He returned to Marblehead five days later with an offer that was tough to refuse: $5,000 on the spot for that plane, provided that his identity remained secret and that he would be given the aircraft right away.
The Burgess Company urgently needed money, and the amount offered by Janney was tempting anyway, but there was one significant catch: that plane was already under contract to Abram Piatt Andrew, Jr., a Gloucester resident and former U.S. assistant secretary of the treasury who was running in the local congressional race for the Republican nomination against incumbent Augustus P. Gardner. Andrew’s grand plan was to pick up the plane the following day for what the Boston Post newspaper characterized as “his much-advertised campaign flight” in the skies above to help dazzle voters and win the election.
The Burgess Company officials decided to go with Janney’s financial ultimatum, however, and Andrew found himself without a plane and with unanswered questions about what happened to it. The Post likewise tried to figure out the whereabouts of the plane as of September 17 and reported at one point, “It is believed to have been shipped since to Canada, presumably to be sent at once to Europe for use by the British navy in the European war.”
Andrew’s own theory was perhaps his opponent was behind the sudden disappearance of the plane, but Gardner claimed in a statement put out on September 18 that it was also his understanding that the plane had been shipped to Canada.
In trying to clarify the plane’s fate, a Post reporter called the Burgess Company’s treasurer Greely S. Curtis for details. The telephone conversation, as summarized in the Post, went like this after Curtis was asked who bought the plane:
CURTIS: “He doesn’t want to have his identity known . . . It was the machine Mr. Andrew was to have made his flight in on Saturday, but our customer wanted the plane at once on Friday, and we sold it to him.”
REPORTER: “Did he represent any foreign government?”
CURTIS: “I can’t answer that.”
REPORTER: “Have you sold any planes to any government to any government other than the United States?”
CURTIS: “I’m sorry, but I can’t answer. I cannot discuss company business.”
REPORTER: “Would you say that you haven’t sold any to the Canadian government?”
CURTIS: “I shall have to hang up. Good-bye.”
As it turns out, the plane was shipped via rail from Marblehead to the town of North Hero in northwestern Vermont. The plane was then flown from Lake Champlain there to the Canadian province of Quebec by a 23-year-old Burgess pilot named Clifford L. Webster. Janney was likewise on board the plane, and those men stopped in the Quebec community of Descaillons-sur-Saint-Laurent for three days for engine repairs. The plane was then flown to Quebec City, and from there it was transported overseas to England via a ship.
That plane earned a place in transportation history as the first aircraft purchased by Canada for military use, but its own fate was considerably less auspicious than that distinction might suggest. That plane never saw military action, or for that matter took to the skies ever again. The aircraft was disassembled for its transatlantic voyage as deck cargo, but damaged beyond use by the time the ship reached England. The plane that had caused so much controversy and puzzlement in and around Marblehead was scrapped.
Andrew didn’t fare so well either – at least in the short term. He lost not only the chance to fly that plane over the congressional district that he hoped to represent, but also the Republican nomination for Congress. Fortunately for him, however, he did win that congressional seat in a special election seven years later.