Queen of Diamonds

Mabel Boll was elegance personified. A Broadway actress, she indulged in exquisite fashions and was considered strikingly beautiful. According to those who encountered her at high-society gatherings, she was short, vividly blonde with dark eyes, and wore impeccable jewelry. Thus, her nickname, the “Queen of Diamonds” fit like a glove. It seems strange then that her legacy is centered on an activity as rugged, laborious, and treacherous as early aviation. Yet, Boll was transfixed by the prospect of being the first woman to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a non-stop, transatlantic flight. Her ambitions reflected a growing sentiment among women that traditional barriers to daring endeavours could be broken down, and the societal roles of women could be imbued with newfound independence. So, in early June 1928, Mabel Boll arrived in Harbour Grace in the American monoplane “Columbia.”

Mabel Boll

Mabel Boll

The “Columbia” landed at the Harbour Grace Airport on July 12, 1928 with a gusting wind threatening its descent, experienced pilots Captain Oliver LeBoutillier and Captain Arthur Argles guided the plane to safety. Mabel Boll emerged from the aircraft visibly weary, as one observer recalled, she explained that she had slept through part of the journey from New York and was quite nervous gazing down at the Harbour Grace Airport. However, Boll encountered enormously energetic enthusiasm from the locals, who praised her amicable ambitions. It is easy to imagine the women of Harbour Grace beaming with inspiration as a woman known for her affluently curated persona broke the shackles of delicacy and embraced the role of trailblazing adventurer. She dropped her diamond earrings, silk clothing, and meticulously styled hair for a leather aviator’s helmet and a button-up wool sweater, which she wore at the Harbour Grace Airport that day. The crew of the “Columbia” sought to explore the quaint town on the sea after arriving, as the mighty mega-metropolis of New York was clearly the opposite of Harbour Grace. Thus, they retired to Cochrane House, now famous in the town for hosting past aviators, for dinner.

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“Columbia” over Harbour Grace

2009939 - Columbia

“Columbia” at the Harbour Grace Airport, June 1928

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Mabel Boll and the “Columbia” Crew

Following dinner, Boll and the “Columbia” crew strolled through the historic areas of Harbour Grace, not knowing they would become part of it in the distant future. St. Paul’s Anglican Church would have been the first structure they came across due to its proximity to the Cochrane House. An imposing stone cathedral, it was built in 1835, making it the oldest stone Gothic Revival style church in Newfoundland and Labrador. The Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador describes it this way:

“The exterior of St. Paul’s has simple Gothic Revival decoration including pointed arched windows, a pointed arched door, and Gothic stained glass. The lay-out of the church is of the Latin-cross plan, a lay-out which can also be seen in other churches across Newfoundland. Due to the loss of two previous Anglican churches occupying this site to fire, the congregation decided that they would construct a new church using locally quarried stone. The stone used is still largely intact, as are the original windows and doors. The interior of the building continues to reflect the Gothic Revival style through its decoration and woodworking.”

Two dimensions must have collided during that walk-through Harbour Grace, the unambiguously modern crew of the “Columbia” delving into the time-honoured traditions of a small community. St. Paul’s Anglican Church could not have been a better site for this contemplation, a site representing the community’s faith, cultural leaders, educators, and in some cases, hardships. In the Great Fire of 1832, the Church was razed along with a large portion of Harbour Grace, this was the first of three Great Fires, all of which forced the resilient residents of the community to rebuild. Each time, St. Paul’s was rebuilt alongside the rest of the community, in 1835 it was completed as the rock-solid structure it is today. Mabel Boll and the crew of the “Columbia”’ were so impressed by the unique story of Harbour Grace that they decided to stay an extra five days, as LeBoutillier wanted to ensure the transatlantic flight was flawless, and needed time to prepare, it was a win-win, so they thought.

St. Paul's

St. Paul’s Anglican Church Today

Over the next few days, Boll attended lavish receptions resembling those she frequented in New York, specifically an event hosted by the Knights of Columbus on June 13, and a cocktail party in St. John’s on June 15, 1928. This nonchalant attitude spelled disaster for Boll, as on June 18, 1928, Amelia Earhart, a woman who would later become a household name in Harbour Grace, landed safely at Burry Port, Wales, after crossing the Atlantic Ocean in her hydroplane “Friendship.” Amelia Earhart thus became the first woman to cross the Atlantic in a non-stop flight. Mabel Boll was heartbroken over the news.

NYT Amelia

NYT “Amelia Earhart Flies Atlantic,” 1928

On the cool, misty morning of June 20, 1928, with the sun rising behind their backs, LeBoutillier and Argles trudged up the dirt path to the Harbour Grace Airport, intent on returning to New York after their now-disappointing week vacation. Mabel Boll, with her dreams dashed by Amelia Earhart, begrudgingly made her way to the Airport hours later than the crew. However, Boll, in a display of her kindness and desire to see aviation in Harbour Grace grow, gave a $500 cheque to President of the Harbour Grace Airport Trust, Magistrate John Casey, before the “Columbia” departed. She remarked that Harbour Grace had provided a thoroughly efficient service. While Boll may not have been the first woman to cross the Atlantic, it is undeniable that her desire to soar above the boundaries set for women at the time motivated many like her, as she remains a symbol of women’s advancement in Harbour Grace. This time though, it was the ace airwoman Amelia Earhart who held the winning card, and the “Queen of Diamonds” did not take the trick.

Authored By: Francis Finlayson

Sources:

https://www.cnn.com/travel/article/women-pilots-history-forgotten-trnd/index.html

https://www.historicplaces.ca/en/rep-reg/place-lieu.aspx?id=2144

St. Paul’s Anglican Church

Memorial University – Digital Archives Initiative http://collections.mun.ca/cdm/compoundobject/collection/cns_enl/id/2677/rec/1

Parsons, B. and B. Bowman
1983 The Challenge of the Atlantic: A Photo-Illustrated History of Early Aviation in Harbour Grace, Newfoundland. Robinson-Blackmore Book Publishers: Newfoundland.

 

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