Delivery Men

In the 1920s, photographer Nathaniel Dewell produced iconic portraits of daring airmail pilots.

Airmail pilots (from left) Jack Knight, Harvey Lange, Lawrence Garrison, “Wild Bill” Hopson, and Andrew Dunphy pose for photographer Nathaniel Dewell in 1922. NASM 89-7061

“He’s one of my favorite photographers, although I know less about him than I would like,” says Melissa Keiser, chief photo archivist at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. She’s talking about Nathaniel L. Dewell, a commercial photographer who worked almost exclusively in Omaha, Nebraska, during the mid- to late-1920s, and whose iconic shots of airmail pilots are instantly recognizable, even if Dewell’s own name is not.

“He was apparently contracted by the Post Office Department to go out and take pictures of the airmail activities at the airfield in Omaha,” she continues. “And he took pictures of everything. Not just the obvious things like the people, the pilots and the operations—he took pictures of the buildings and the administrators, field equipment like floodlights, and the dollies put under the aircraft.”

The pilots’ portraits—usually shot against the white clapboard hangar wall of the Fort Crook airfield in Omaha—can stand alone as works of fine art. There’s Tex Marshall, leaning against the clapboard and showing just a hint of a smile.

Nancy Pope, a museum program specialist with the Smithsonian Postal Museum, writes of airmail pilot Tex Marshall: “Marshall had a habit of making a brief landing in a specific Iowa pasture each day to stretch his legs and smoke a cigarette. One day, a bull in the field began to charge Marshall. The farmer ran into the field and drove his bull into a corner so Marshall could take off safely. Wanting revenge on the bull, Marshall carried a rock with him onto the airplane and circled back to toss it at the animal. However, his aim was off and instead of hitting the bull, Marshall hit the farmer, making that the last time that Tex landed to stretch his legs in that field.” Photograph by Nathaniel L. Dewell. NASM (83-8167)
Airmail pilot Harry G. Smith, as photographed by Nathaniel L. Dewell on June 3, 1927. Airmail pilots made a terrific salary, far more than other airmen. By 1924 the average annual pay was $2,000 to $2,800, plus mileage, at a time when the average yearly salary in the United States was $1,300. NASM (00175631)
Dewell’s portrait of airmail pilot Jack Webster, Fort Crook airfield, May 26, 1927. NASM (SI 89-12156)
Howard Brown’s DH-4 mailplane crashed on December 6, 1923, while carrying the mail between Cleveland and Chicago. Although Brown was severely injured, he managed to crawl clear of the smoldering wreck. He asked a friend to tell his wife he was “banged up a little”; Brown died later that same day. Photograph by Nathaniel L. Dewell. NASM (SI-89-12157)
James “Dinty” Moore was killed while flying the mail on Christmas Eve, 1923. This Nathaniel Dewell portrait was probably taken at Fort Crook airfield in Omaha. NASM (SI-89-12158)
James P. "Jimmy" Murray crashed in the Medicine Bow Range in Wyoming on October 18, 1920. As William Leary writes in his airmail history Aerial Pioneers, “Murray decided that he would have to walk to safety. With the aircraft’s compass smashed, he used the setting sun as a reference and trudged eastward for an hour through two feet of snow until he reached a frozen lake. With snow still coming down, and darkness approaching, Murray took refuge under a cedar tree for the night. The next morning he found an abandoned cabin but no food. Walking into the rising sun, he came across a road with a signpost pointing to Arlington, fourteen miles distant. ‘The first eight miles seemed endless,’ Murray wrote, ‘with not much perceptible thinning out of the snow.’ Eating occasional handfuls of snow, he continued on his way. The tired and hungry pilot reached Arlington at 2:45 P.M., having walked eight hours to cover the fourteen miles.” Photograph by Nathaniel L. Dewell, circa 1927. NASM (SI-89-12161)
Pilot ‘Wild Bill’ Hopson used to drop airborne love letters, weighted with bolts, from airfield clerk Charlie Gates to Gates' girlfriend on the ground. Hopson once kept a date in New York by climbing onto the wing of another mail pilot’s loaded aircraft, snuggling close to the fuselage, and holding onto the guy wires for the chilly two-hour ride. Photograph by Nathaniel L. Dewell. NASM (SI-89-12162)
Dewell’s portraits (here, of Fort Crook airfield mechanic Antony Gerhard) give a sense of “people sort of paused in the midst of their activities,” says Melissa Keiser, chief photo archivist at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. NASM (SI-95-2862)
“Nathaniel Dewell took pictures of everything,” says Melissa Keiser, chief photo archivist at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. “Not just the obvious things like the people, the pilots and the operations—he took pictures of the buildings and the administrators, field equipment like floodlights, and the dollies put under the aircraft.” Here, two mechanics work on an engine in a U.S. Air Mail hangar, probably in Omaha, circa 1928. NASM (SI-91-7030)
Col. Paul Henderson, shown here in a DH-4, replaced Otto Praeger as second assistant postmaster general in April 1922. Henderson was instrumental in setting up the world’s first “night airway,” an 885-mile illuminated route. Pilot Dean Smith would later recall “It felt empty and lonesome out there, even with the beacons flashing, four or five visible ahead; we felt the fear of the unknown, the excitement of pioneering, and the satisfaction of accomplishment.” NASM (SI-95-2860)
Pilot James “Jack” Knight conducts a field test of radio equipment for air-to-ground communications on November 21, 1922. Photograph by Nathaniel L. Dewell. NASM (SI-92-16282)
Historian William Leary notes that night operations required “a beacon visible for at least twenty-five miles, low-powered boundary lights, an illuminated weathervane, obstacle lights, building floodlights to give a daytime perspective, and powerful incandescent floodlights to illuminate the point of touchdown.” Pictured here is a field floodlight at Fort Crook, in Omaha, Nebraska, on October 17, 1924. Photograph by Nathaniel L. Dewell. NASM (SI-94-4084)

“I think Dewell had a great way when he photographed people of really capturing the moment and their personalities,” says Keiser. “I always had the impression that Dewell just kind of grabbed people as they went past. Kind of like, ‘Oh, here, just give me a moment and stand here.’ So that sense of people sort of paused in the midst of their activities is evident in his photographs.”

There’s an image of a laconic Harold C. Brown, who, according to Nancy Pope, a museum specialist with the Smithsonian National Postal Museum, tore down two fences—nearly 250 feet of wire and posts—while making an emergency landing on February 26, 1923. “His aircraft then ran into a soft and muddy wheat field where it became stuck. Mr. Klenke, the owner of the property, helped Brown dig out his plane and get it back into shape, and even helped him take off again. The postal service received a bill from Klenke for $30.90 for the damage Brown’s landing made to the farm.”

There’s a nonchalant James Murray, posed with his helmet flaps askew. Murray would walk 14 miles through the snow after his airplane crashed near the Medicine Bow Range in 1920. “Trees kept getting closer,” he wrote in his report of the crash. “I gradually climbed the machine full engine, until it stalled. The treetops were 50 feet away. I cut switches and pancaked into treetops.”

Dewell’s photographs of handsome William “Wild Bill” Hopson are among his best known portraits. Pope notes that Hopson’s popularity with his fellow pilots and management helped him sail through dozens of forced landings without the reprimands and demerits other pilots would have earned.

“I know Dewell went up in an airplane at least once,” says Keiser, “because there are a few photos that are taken from the air looking out along the airmail route, looking down at one of the beacon towers somewhere between Omaha and Cheyenne. And it’s funny because the shots are very grainy—all of his other stuff is really sharp and clear, but obviously he was working under adverse conditions.”

After Dewell’s death in 1954, his widow gave his photographs and negatives to the Nebraska State Historical Society (NSHS). Those images associated with aviation and airmail—some 500 photographs in all—were transferred to the National Air and Space Museum in 1958. The NSHS, which holds the bulk of Dewell’s collection, lists hundreds and hundreds of images of the types of subjects that you’d expect a commercial photographer to make in the heartland: hogs, threshing wheat, images of soil erosion and corn fields, promotional shots of department stores, roofing companies and hotels. But there are also portraits of boxers (including Jack Dempsey), and movie stars (including Tom Mix).

In her office within the Archives Division of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Keiser is following up a research lead. Within the U.S. Army Signal Corps photograph collection she has discovered an image taken by a U.S. Army Signal Corps photographer during World War I. His name? Nathaniel Dewell. “I think it’s the same guy. The age would be about right for him to have been in World War I as a fairly young man, and then come back after the war and set up a business as a photographer. We’ll see.”

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