Estranged from his New York family, he flew under an assumed name during the early years of aviation — perhaps coincidentally, the same name as a silent-film actor of the era, Walter Edwards.
Raised by wealthy parents on New York’s posh Riverside Drive, his father was a banker. They’d named their son Walter Edwards Kittel (1880-1922). Before turning to flying, he’d been vice president of the United States Exchange Bank of New York until its purchase in 1907.
Then he traveled west, demonstrating his aerial skill throughout California and the Pacific Northwest, and crashed so often he claimed to have fractured every bone in his body.
In 1912, the U.S. Post Office granted him a temporary postal route, No. 673001. This route became the first sanctioned airmail flight in the Pacific Northwest and the first interstate airmail flight in the nation. (Lincoln Beachey’s flight seven years earlier from the Lewis and Clark Exposition to Vancouver Barracks parade ground wasn’t post-office approved.) Rough signs at both ends declared the airplane mail service open for business. Special commemorative postmark stamps were created for the first messages traveling between Portland and Vancouver.
Flying the same airplane Silas Christofferson flew off Portland’s Multnomah Hotel, Edwards flew the mail route on Aug. 10 and 11, 1912. The latter might have been the first U.S. Sunday postal delivery ever. Last-minute postcards and letters swamped the Portland postal system. Some batches were addressed to President William Howard Taft and candidates Woodrow Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt. Although scheduled to leave Waverley Golf Links at 4 p.m., the flight was 30 minutes late.
Leaving late from the declared postal substation at the golf course, he made the first sanctioned interstate airmail flight carrying 5,000 letters to the barracks field. The Portland letters were stamped “Portland Aviation Station No. 1.” Upon their arrival, the Vancouver postal carriers finished the delivery. For his part, Edwards joked, “no dog will trouble me.”
One letter from Portland Mayor Allen Rushlight went to Vancouver Mayor C.S. Irwin. Irwin responded, “Through the courtesy of Walter Edwards, I return the compliment,” and offered best wishes to Irwin’s administration and mentioned the letter’s delivery only took 12 minutes.
Weeks later, Edwards was caught in his name ruse at a Seattle hotel when a man from New York called him “Kittel.” After some pressure late into the night, Edwards finally broke and admitted dropping his last name because he was done with high society and its shallowness and idleness. When a reporter went to the Kittels’ Riverside Drive home and asked if they had a son named Walter, the mother answered that their only son is Russell, which shows the extent of their split from Edwards.
Flying in Centralia, in January 1913, Edwards crashed before a crowd of 500. He failed to see a telephone wire, and pulling out too late, his plane’s wing clipped the wire, flipping it over. He tried to escape but fell 30 feet, entangled in wires, causing bruises and sprained ankles.
Edwards married Grace Wauchope in 1912. He died at 42 when a coronary dropped him against a railing in their Washington, D.C., home when he was headed to phone his wife, who was visiting Hammondsport, N.Y.
Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.