by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Previous posts in the “From Point A to Point B” series concerning greater Los Angeles transportation history through 1930 have discussed the incredible advances in regional aviation in the late Twenties, with one highlighting a pair of press photos of an accident involving a craft from Pickwick Airways, Inc., an Angel City firm that was part of a larger company tied to another transportation innovation when it was formed, the Pickwick Stages enterprise that was an early bus line in California.
We’ll save most of the history of Pickwick Stages for a subsequent post highlighting a schedule and photo we have for that side of the enterprise, but today’s post features a stock certificate for the airline company, which was short-lived, but a notable and interesting effort to expand Pickwick’s reach at a time when the stage company engineered a deal with merged it with other bus transport firms, including the newly renamed Greyhound line. The document, though dated “January 14, 1928,” was actually from that date a year later, because stock was not issued until then, besides the fact that registration dates for the instrument at the Bank of America in Los Angeles are from January and February 1929.
As with the case with so many businesses, Pickwick’s origins were humble. A single-vehicle operation undertaken by A.L. Hayes began at a hotel of that name in San Diego in 1912, while the following year, Charles F. Wren, who came to Los Angeles to join his father, who was a Civil War veteran living at the National Soldiers Home at Sawtelle, opened a “jitney” line from the Angel City to Venice, then an independent city, and then established a “union station” in downtown Los Angels for several lines including his own.
Hayes and Wren joined forces, with the former running the southern (San Diego-based) and the latter the northern (LA-headquartered) subsidiaries, and Pickwick Stages grew to be a major provider of passenger transport on the west coast, operating, by 1920, on a network nearly 1,360 miles—this said to be largest on the planet at the time. In 1922, a Pickwick holding company was established and, under Wren’s leadership, it grew dramatically and had its own coach building entity as well as branched out it into hotels and radio stations.
In its 13 September 1928 edition, the Los Angeles Times reported on Wren’s announcement of Pickwick Airways, calling the enterprise “the first attempt to link airplane and automobile transportation” for ferrying passengers. The piece continued that craft were to run between San Diego and San Francisco, but were also to be employed on the bus line between Los Angeles and Chicago in a notable tandem approach. This was to involve having the planes fly passengers during the day, while customers were to travel in the newly developed “Nite Coach,” a double-decker bus with seats convertible into beds.
The company planned to have ten craft built by the Bach Aircraft Company of Venice, founded the prior year by aviator L. Morton Bach, with the tri-motor “Air Yacht” (among the manufacturers of engines used by Bach was Kinner, a company based in Lynwood before it moved to the new Grand Central Air Terminal in Glendale.) It was expected that Bach would have the first airship, with 26 berths and a full kitchen, ready for delivery by the end of the year.
The Venice Vanguard of the 20th, in a lengthy feature, proudly noted Bach’s location in its burg and had great photo and map showing the vehicles and route, while the Los Angeles Express of the 13th also had images of the two craft. It was also observed that a display featuring the Nite Coach and plane was shown at the national air races at Mines Field (Los Angeles International Airport) that month and the Pacific Southwest Exposition at Long Beach in late July and early August. The Vanguard extensively described the plane’s motors, shock absorbers, baggage storage in the wing as well as the rear of the fuselage and its cabin appointments, including finished walnut woodwork, air-cushioned armchairs, heating system and lavatory.
As for the intended schedule, there were to be twice weekly excursions between San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco along with the daily Los Angeles to Chicago trips. Passengers flying north of San Francisco were to connect with the West Coast Air Transport Company’s service as far as Seattle, while Chicago-bound customers, after two nights and one day of travel including evening bus transport to Phoenix followed by an all-day flight to St. Louis and then a Nite Coach run to the Windy City, could connect with other carriers to points further east.
In early November, the state commissioner of corporations issued a permit for the new airline, whose officers included Wren and four others, which was allowed to issue 50,000 each of common and preferred stock, the latter having a par value of $10 and the former none, with authorized capital of a million dollars. The 15 December edition of the Express reported that the public offering of stock was to be such that certificates would be sold in two units of preferred and one of common stock, while a special offering for Pickwick Corporation shareholders for half of the 50,000 certificates was available for about two weeks. Advertising was pretty heavy in local newspapers from the office of the firm in the Van Nuys Building in downtown Los Angeles.
In its 21 February 1929 edition, a week after the certificate featured here, issued to N.M. McCormick, was registered, the Express reported that Pickwick Airways intended, according to Vice-President Thomas E. Morgan (who’d operated, with his brother Howard, United Stages, which merged with Pickwick in 1926 and also held that position with the latter), to begin operations at the start of April from the new Grand Central Air Terminal. The new Bach planes were in the testing phase with travel to Lindbergh Field at San Diego taking about an hour and fifteen minutes—this run was to be the first of what was slated to be a broad network as outlined above.
With some 2,500 offices along its 12,000 miles of highways, Pickwick was, the article went on, particularly well positioned to expand its transportation services with the combined Nite Coach and aircraft offerings. Heading its pilot corps was Captain William Frye, a veteran of the late world war and former commander of the Army’s 478th pursuit squadron. Morgan, meanwhile, told the paper that greater Los Angeles and southern California were ideal locations for aviation development “since this is a destination and starting point for thousands of transcontinental travelers” along with the idea climate and “full facilities of the great airplane construction center.” Lastly, the public was informed that it could see the new Bach craft at the official opening of the terminal the following day.
On 29 March 1929, a couple days ahead of schedule, Pickwick launched its air service, noting that there would be two daily flights round-trip from Grand Central to Lindbergh and daily service to San Francisco as well as to Texas via Phoenix “as rapidly as necessary planes can be delivered.” The Los Angeles Record of 18 May reported on the $50 million merger of Pickwick’s stage operations with those of Southern Pacific Motor Transport, Yelloway and Greyhound, with Morgan saying “that practically every bus line west of Chicago, is affected in the transaction.” Not involve were Pickwick’s hotels, radio stations, Nite Coach division or Pickwick Airways. Wren, however, transferred out to head the region from Chicago to Denver.
At the end of May, the Express published a Pickwick Airways traffic department statement that the period from the inauguration of service to 24 May included 1,478 passengers, including some on the newly launched route to San Francisco, which began on the 12th. It was anticipated that flights to Dallas through Phoenix were to begin by the first of July. A major setback, however, occurred when, on 20 June, a fire tore through the Bach Aircraft plant next to Metropolitan Airport, now Van Nuys Airport, and destroyed everything, including three of the ten-passenger planes, valued at $50,000 each, just finished for Pickwick, while a fourth was nearing completion.
In late July, Pickwick Airways took on another major expansion effort when it engineered a $3 million deal to acquire the Latin American Air Line Transport Company of México City, with air mail, express and passenger service to be initiated three times weekly within several days from Los Angeles to the capital city of México and then to Guatemala City and, later, San Salvador—the first flight actually left on 18 August. Shortly afterwards, on 7 August, a Pickwick craft bound for San Diego crashed shortly after takeoff from Grand Central and ended up totaled in the dry bed of the Los Angeles River—an incident featured in a previous post on this blog.
While Morgan emphasized to the press that this was the first accident from more than 1,000 flights over 100,000 air miles, a passenger noted that the flight was an hour late because of work conducted on the engines. Still, the push for the Latin American aspect of Pickwick’s operations continued and, at the end of September, the Express reported that the eleventh craft for that area of service was introduced, it being the ninth delivered by Ryan Aircraft of St. Louis (builder of Charles Lindbergh’s famous Spirit of St. Louis that completed the trans-Atlantic flight of 1928) with two others acquired from Fairchild of Farmingdale, New York. Obviously, Pickwick had to find another manufacturer after the Bach conflagration.
Yet, under a month later, the crash of the stock market occurred that brought in the Great Depression. On 11 October, the Express issued another summary of a report from Pickwick, which stated that about 2,500 persons flew on company craft from 1 July to 1 October and that this demonstrated that “Southern Californians are becoming increasingly air-minded.” Yet, it was also noted that the Los Angeles to San Francisco route was temporarily suspended, though no reason was given.
Early in 1930, the company announced that the single daily flight from Los Angeles to San Diego was being suspended through spring “to concentrate resources on its Latin-American operations.” While the Times of 21 March trumpeted the fact that its editions were being transported by Pickwick to México and Central America, with pilot Charles W. Gilpin shown with officials of the newspaper as issues were being loaded on a plane, two days later an ominous sign was revealed about the fate of the firm.
The Times of 19 March, in addition to reporting that Transcontinental Air Transport, including Maddux Airlines, reported an operating loss of nearly a million dollars over the last five months of 1929, Wren told stockholders at the Pickwick annual meeting that “commercial aviation in the United States requires Federal co-operation in the form of air-mail contracts to attain a sound financial footing.” Early aviation included many such examples as new industries often feature financial hardships among pioneering firms putting in large amounts of capital with not enough profit to continue operations.
The executive added that the company expected to soon receive a contract for U.S. mail delivered to México and Latin America, which was badly needed apparently because “the company’s balance sheet shows a deficit of $145,000.” Putting a brave face on, Wren was quoted as saying, “our mail, express and passenger business is gaining steadily and we need only a United States foreign air-mail contract to place us in position to show an operating profit.”
Naturally, continuing losses would not bode well for investor confidence, either for those with stock, like McCormick, or those who’d contemplated investing and, so, it is not surprising that, in short order, Pickwick went out of business, though it did so quietly, with no media accounts located in the form of announcements. An auction was held at the end of March 1931 at the firm’s plant at Grand Central and Gilpin took over operations under his own firm, which included Isabella Greenway, the first woman member of the House of Representatives from Arizona, as a key owner, though he died in a plane crash in México in 1932.
Wren, meanwhile, continued his work with bus lines and as president of the All-American system when he died in Chicago in 1944 at age 59. As for Morgan, who lived in a $40,000 house in Benedict Canyon in Beverly Hills when the 1930 census was taken, he wound up divorced and living in Tucson, Arizona working for a stage line. As noted above, we’ll discuss more of the Pickwick Stages side of the enterprise in a future post, so be sure to check back for that entry in the “From Point A to Point B” series.
My father’s paternal uncle, Harry Hauck, bought 200 shares of Pickwick Airways in 1930. Two certificates of 100 each. Much prettier than your image :).
Hi Terri, thanks for the comment about your uncle’s certificates and it’s interesting that you have those. We hope you enjoyed the post!