Francis M. Higgins, President, Wisconsin Central Airlines - Submitted photo (1944)

Francis M. Higgins

Born: October 15, 1901
Died: December 18, 1974
Inducted: 2000

Higgins was born in Portage County to John and Bridget Higgins. He was stricken with polio at the age of seven. The disease left him with a limp that he joked about by telling people, "I just have a distinctive walk."

Employed as a printer as a young man he joined the Four Wheel Drive (FWD) Company in Clintonville, becoming the Advertising Manager. Higgins was highly regarded by company management and co-workers alike. Travel was becoming nearly impossible for the rapidly expanding company, local roads were poor and rail service was declining. Something had to be done. FWD President Walter Olen did two things – he traded a company truck for a used Waco aircraft and then told Higgins, “We got an airplane but Lindbergh himself couldn’t use that field. See if you can do something about it.” So began Francis Higgins’ air transportation career.

Do something about it he did. He worked with Waupaca County officials and using financial assistance from his employer he expanded the airport by 300 percent. The airport property went from 40 acres to 140 acres, two runways were developed and a hangar built. The Clintonville Chamber of Commerce Aviation Committee elected Higgins as their chairman.

The improved airport lead to increased air operations by FWD, so much so that another single-engine aircraft, this one a Howard DGA, purchased for $25,000, was added. Flying primarily to Chicago the two aircraft were kept busy in no small part to Higgins tireless efforts. Early in 1944 Olen decided that it was time to incorporate. On May 15, 1944 Wisconsin Central Airlines was created with Higgins elected as the airline’s president.

Higgins traveled to Washington DC in June 1944 to pursue an airline certificate. He found that 1600 other companies had similar ideas, 34 of those in direct competition with the proposed Wisconsin Central service area. Higgins persisted, using all of his skills of salesmanship, tact, patience and humor. It would pay off in the end.

During March 1946 the Civil Aeronautics Board examiner issued an interim report recommending Wisconsin Central not receive airline certification. Higgins worked even harder at raising capitol by personally selling stock and visiting area banks. He sold the Howard and purchased two Cessna T-50 Bobcats, a twin-engine, five-passenger airplane and began scheduled, intrastate operations serving Madison, Milwaukee, Clintonville, Wausau, Rhinelander and Superior.

Finally, on December 31, 1946, the Civil Aeronautics Board issued its final decision, selecting Wisconsin Central Airline to serve the area with 1400 route miles and 43 area cities. For Higgins and the newly minted airline there was one major drawback with the CAB decision, FWD could own no part of Wisconsin Central. Struggling now even more for financing Higgins found an able assistant in Hal N. Carr. Together they worked building an airline with little but their own effort.

The airline moved to Madison with its superior facilities in late 1947 just as it began purchasing its first aircraft – three Lockheed 10A, Electra's. After years of struggling, Wisconsin Central Airlines was born, starting operations in February 1948, with mostly Wisconsin cities on the route.

Higgins left the airline, which had become North Central Airlines, in 1952 during a low point in the company's financial history when it moved its headquarters from Madison to Minneapolis. He moved to St. Louis and formed a public relations consulting service to Ozark Airlines while continuing as a consultant to North Central.

North Central became one of the nation's aviation success stories and it was Francis Higgins' efforts and leadership that was instrumental in that success.

Historical marker located at Clintonville WI marking the birthplace of Wisconsin Central Airlines - Photo by Rose Dorcey
Interior of a North Central Airlines DC-3 cockpit - WAHF photo
North Central Airlines DC-3 at Madison WI - WAHF photo
Maintenance on a North Central Airlines DC-3 - WAHF photo
Marketing sign for North Central Airlines - Photo by Rose Dorcey
North Central Airlines DC-3 - WAHF photo
Inaugural flight of Wisconsin Central Airlines Minneapolis - Duluth service. Left to right are Willard Ario, EA Bodin, Francis Higgins and Les Schroeder. - Photo courtesy Clintonville History House (1948)
Higgins left with Karl Brocken, industrial designer that assisted with logo design of "Herman" - Submitted photo (1947)