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The First Bush Pilots

Rodebaugh and Wien Leachs 1924

The July-August issue of Alaskan History Magazine features an article on the early bush pilots of Alaska, spanning the years between 1911 and the 1930s, a time when the pioneer pilots, utterly fearless and a breed apart, totally dedicated to their work, soared over the Last Frontier. They crossed an incredibly immense and all-too-often hostile landscape which tried to kill them as frequently as it left them in awe of its towering mountains, endless rivers, and pristine lakes. And yet the fliers stayed the course, wresting information about the inhospitable landscape and the hostile weather at every turn, information which helped their fellow pilots adapt and learn and persevere, for while the hardships were many, there was magic in the air over Alaska.

The article opens with the somewhat amusing observation that the first airplane in Alaska never left the ground:

Professor Henry Peterson, an accomplished pianist, piano repairman, and music teacher in Nome, fabricated the first airplane ever built in Alaska. Intrigued by the idea of flying, he ordered an engine and a set of plans and constructed a biplane of muslin cloth, light wood, and – rather fittingly – piano wire. The “Flying Professor,” as he was fondly known, named his plane the Tingmayuk, Eskimo for bird, and scheduled its first flight for May 9, 1911, near Nome. Unfortunately, as the Nome Nugget later reported, the good professor was “unable to defy the laws of gravity,” and his carefully crafted Tingmayuk faded into obscurity.

Eielson Feb 21, 1924

Carl Ben Eielson, 1924

Two years later, in July, 1913, some businessmen in Fairbanks hired pioneer British aviator James Martin and his wife Lily to provide the first aerial exhibition in Alaska with their Gage-Martin tractor biplane, which they freighted to Alaska via the White Pass & Yukon Railway to Whitehorse, where it was loaded onto a barge for the trip down the Yukon River to Dawson City, Eagle, Circle City, Fort Yukon, Rampart, and finally up the Tanana River to Fairbanks, a trip of over 2,500 miles. They put on an impressive airshow, but once they re-crated their plane and headed south, it would be seven years before another airplane graced the northern horizons.

That was the famous Black Wolf Squadron in June, 1920, selected by U.S. Army Brigadier General William “Billy” Mitchell and tasked with making a historic flight to demonstrate how the East Coast could be linked to Siberia and the Far East via an airway crossing Alaska.


Black Wolf Squadron, 1920

The article tells of Charles Hammontree and his Boeing C-11S, dubbed the ‘Mudhen,’ the first model designed by W.H. Boeing himself and the first plane to soar over the skies of Anchorage; Roy F. Jones, of Ketchikan and his biplane ‘Northbird;’ Carl Ben Eielson, who learned to fly in the U.S. Army Air Corps; James S. “Jimmy” Rodebaugh, a senior conductor on the Alaska Railroad who saw the potential of aviation in Alaska earlier than most; and Noel Wien, who spent several decades building a pioneer airline with his brothers, Ralph, Fritz, and Sig, and watched it grow to provide flights to most of the world.

Joe Crosson and his sister Marvel, Russell Merrill, famed aviator Wiley Post – the first pilot to fly solo around the world – and the humorist Will Rogers, and even the legendary Charles Lindbergh and his equally legendary wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, all played roles in the early aviation history of Alaska. You can read the article, illustrated with over a dozen historic photographs, in the July-August issue of Alaskan History Magazine.


Other articles in this issue: Alaska’s first newspaper, The Esquimaux, which was published a little northwest of Nome; the Alaska Steamship Company, which became an Alaskan shipping monopoly; a 1916 horseback trip across the Kenai Peninsula by the dauntless world traveller Frank G. Carpenter; Alaska’s first commercially successful novelist, Barrett Willoughby, whose every book was about or set in Alaska, and two were made into movies; and an exciting childhood in the gold rush town of Nome by Irving Kenny, who saw it all first-hand!

The 1909 A-Y-P Expo

From the May-June, 2019 issue of Alaskan History Magazine, with additional content:

AYP Court and Mt Rainier.png

Postcard of The Ranier Vista, focal point of the Exposition.

The Alaska–Yukon–Pacific Exposition was a world’s fair held in Seattle in 1909, publicizing the development of the Pacific Northwest. It was originally planned for 1907, to mark the 10th anniversary of the Klondike Gold Rush, but the organizers found out about the Jamestown Exposition being held that year, and rescheduled their event for two years later. 


“Uncle Sam throws the searchlight on Alaska” – by W. J. Harris, of Juneau.

Originally intended to celebrate Washington’s growth and development resulting from the infusion of wealth created by the 1897 Klondike Gold Rush, the exposition was expanded to also include the importance of Pacific trade. The only foreign countries to erect entire buildings at the fair were Japan and Canada, but their presence was enough to validate the Pacific theme. Other countries were represented on a smaller scale. 

The Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition opened on June 1, 1909, on the largely undeveloped grounds of the University of Washington. During the official opening ceremony, from the White House in Washington, D.C., President William Howard Taft opened the Exposition by striking a special telegraph key which had been studded with gold nuggets from the mine of George Carmack, whose discovery had started the Klondike Gold Rush.

Screen Shot 2019-05-16 at 10.59.59 AMScreen Shot 2019-05-16 at 11.07.58 AMAs visitors passed through the fair they marveled at exhibits such as the desk where Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence, the first wireless telephone, an operational lighthouse, model locomotives, and a large exhibit documenting the history of photography. A popular display at the Alaska building was the more than $1 million in gold nuggets, dust, and ingots inside a heavily fortified case which was lowered through the floor to an underground vault at the end of each day.

Alaskan wildlife was on display, along with a fish-canning exhibit, and timber, whaling, and mining displays. There was the finale of a transcontinental auto race, a reenactment of the Civil War battle of the Monitor and the Merrimac, and displays showcasing the “Streets of Cairo,” “On the Yukon,” and the “Gold Camps of Alaska.” William Boeing, founder of the Boeing Aircraft Company, stated that it was during the Alaska–Yukon–Pacific Exposition when he saw a manned flying machine for the first time and became fascinated with aircraft.

Screen Shot 2019-05-16 at 10.58.55 AM “The Exposition,” by Mateel Howe, was a report published in the newspaper, The Independent, on June 24, 1909. She wrote: “I have said all expositions are alike, but the A-Y-P is unique in one particu­lar. It does not represent anything past, but stands for the Alaska and Pacific of today and of the future. It does not commemorate anything that has been done but things that are expected to be done. This makes a step forward in ex­positions and Seattle should be proud to be the pioneer. She has built a fair in every way creditable. It is a pretty little fair, certainly, and the country about, the mountains, the ocean and the mystery- brooding forests make it even a beautiful little fair.”

The Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition was a resounding success. Over eighty thousand people visited on opening day, and more than three million people visited the fair before its gates closed in October; it was the first World’s Fair to turn a profit.


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Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition opens in Seattle on June 1, 1909

• A slideshow of the A-Y-P at HistoryLink.org

• An extensive collection including A-Y-P videos at ExpoMuseum.com

• The Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition at Wikipedia