Tag Archives: Will Rogers

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.

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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.

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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.

CLICK HERE TO ORDER THE ISSUE OR SUBSCRIBE!  Jul-Aug cover

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!

Alaska Nellie

Screen Shot 2019-07-15 at 6.44.33 PMOn the editorial pages of the May-June issue of Alaskan History Magazine there is a small photo of an Alaskan legend whose spirit inspired the publication of the magazine. Nellie Neal Lawing, known as Alaska Nellie by generations of Alaskans, left a legacy of courage, service to others, and dauntless resilience which the publisher of Alaskan History Magazine aspires to with each issue. The following article, written by Alaskan author Helen Hegener, first appeared in Alaska Dispatch a few years ago, and then on the website for Northern Light Media, which publishes Alaskan History Magazine:

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“There were possibilities of an extensive business at this place for at least three years, as I saw it, and now I would be needing a dog team and dog kennels, a place for harnesses and a small building in which to cook dog food. On the mountain above the lodge I cut logs for the kennels and the cookhouse.”  ~Nellie Neal Lawing in her autobiography, Alaska Nellie

Nellie Trosper Neal Lawing, familiar to Alaskans as “Alaska Nellie,” lived a life much larger than most, even by Alaskan standards. She was a fisherman, a hunter, a trapper, a cook and a roadhouse keeper; she fed the crews building the Alaska Railroad, welcomed princes and presidents into her home, guided big game hunters and developed an impressive trophy collection of her own. She mushed a dog team, kept a pet bear cub, became famous for her strawberry pies, and saw a movie made about her adventures. She was one of a kind, an Alaskan original, and she lived life to the fullest.

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Grandview Roadhouse, Alaska Railroad mile 44.9, 1915

Nellie arrived in Seward on July 3, 1915, just as construction of the Alaska Railroad was getting underway. She wrote in her autobiography, Alaska Nellie, that she set out to seek a contract “to run the eating houses on the southern end of the Alaska Railroad,” and she described her effort: “On my first time out on an Alaskan trail, I had walked one hundred fifty miles and as usual was alone. This accomplishment, in itself, might have satisfied some, but I was out here in this great new country to contribute something to others, and I felt this means could best be served by becoming the ‘Fred Harvey’ of the government railroad in Alaska.”

Nellie’s early life is succinctly described in an article written by Lezlie Murray, Visitor Services Director, Chugach National Forest, and published in Fall 2011 issue of SourDough Notes:

“The oldest of 12 children, Nellie Trosper was born into a farm family in Saint Joseph, Mo., where she dreamed of coming to Alaska. As a young child she learned to trap and hunt in the countryside around her parent’s farm, becoming a good shot and capable woods woman. She left home in her late twenties after she had helped to raise her brothers and sisters and could be spared. A diminutive woman barely five feet tall, Nellie began to work her way to Alaska in 1901, stair-stepping her way through the west. She spent the most time in Cripple Creek, Colorado, where she worked at a variety of jobs, owned her own hotel and married a prominent assayer. Unhappy in her marriage due to abuse at home, she made the decision to divorce and moved on to California, where she booked steerage to Seward, Alaska.”

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Nellie Neal with a mannequin on porch of the Grandview Roadhouse, 1915

Likely due in part to her plucky approach, she was awarded a lucrative government contract to run a roadhouse at mile 44.9, a scenic location she promptly named Grandview. Her agreement with the Alaska Engineering Commission was to provide food and lodging for the government employees; her skill with a rifle filled out the menu, and her gifted storytelling kept her guests highly entertained. Nellie described the accommodations at Grandview in her book, ‘Alaska Nellie’:

“The house was small but comfortable. A large room with thirteen bunks, used as sleeping quarters for the men, was just above the dining room. A small room above the kitchen served as my quarters. To the rear of the building a stream of clear, cold water flowed down from the mountain and was piped into the kitchen. Nature was surely in a lavish mood when she created the beauty of the surroundings of this place. The timber-clad mountains, the flower-dotted valley, the irresistible charm of the continuous stretches of mountains and valleys was something in which to revel.”

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Nellie in her later years, with her treasured gold nugget necklace

Wiry and independent, Nellie was an excellent shot and a respected big game guide, and she rapidly accumulated an impressive array of wildlife trophies. She maintained a dog team in winter, and trapped along the corridor which would later become the Seward Highway. Once during a blizzard the local contract mail carrier, Henry Collman, didn’t arrive when he was expected, so Nellie hitched up her dog team and set out to find him. She located the mail carrier badly frozen in an area which had claimed several lives. Nellie took the young man back to her roadhouse to warm up, and then set off to finish delivering his mail sacks and pouches, which she later learned contained valuable goods, to the waiting train. For her courageous efforts the town of Seward declared her a hero and awarded her a gold nugget necklace, with a diamond set in its large pendant nugget. Nellie treasured her necklace to the end of her days.

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Nellie Neal

Nellie tells another dog team story in her book: “One cold winter day in December when the daylight was only a matter of minutes and the lamps were burning low, two U.S. marshals, Marshals Cavanaugh and Irwin, together with Jack Haley and Bob Griffiths, arrived at the roadhouse.

“The heavy wooden boxes they were removing from their sleds had been brought from the Iditarod mining district. They contained $750,000 in gold bullion.

“‘Where do you want to put this, Nellie?’ called the men, carrying their precious burden.

“‘Right here under the dining room table is as good a place as any,’ I answered.

And it was as simple as that. There it stayed until the men carried it back to the sleds, next day. They were able to go to sleep, for it was as safe right there in my dining room as it would have been in the United States Mint. No one would dare to touch it.”

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Nellie and her trophies in front of the Dead Horse Road House

As work on the government railroad progressed, Nellie moved north and operated a roadhouse near the Susitna River, at a railroad camp known as Dead Horse. Because Dead Horse Hill was such a key location in the construction of the Alaska Railroad, a large roadhouse was built at the site in 1917 to accommodate the construction workers, officials, and occasional visitors. Management of the new roadhouse was given to the intrepid roadhouse keeper who had proven herself at Grandview.

Nellie took on running the Dead Horse Roadhouse with all the pluck and dedication she’d shown at Grandview, cooking meals on two large ranges for the dining room which seated 125 hungry workers at a time, and filling 60 lunch-buckets each night for the construction crews to take on their jobs the following day. In her autobiography she wrote, “I dished out as many as 12,000 to 14,000 meals per month, having two cooks, two waitresses and several yard men as help.”

In his book about the era and the area, Lavish Silence, Kenneth Marsh described the roadhouse accommodations: “…spring-less wooden bunks, straw mattresses and oil- drum wood-burning stove, all in one large room at the top of a flight of rickety stairs, held together by a warped wooden shell (which, at times, put up an uneven fight against the elements).”

oie_7412486P3ZjB7PIn July, 1923, President Harding, his wife, and Secretary of State Herbert Hoover stayed at the Dead Horse Roadhouse on their way to the Golden Spike-driving ceremony at Nenana. The next morning Nellie served heaping plates of sourdough pancakes in her warm kitchen, commenting, “Presidents of the United States like to be comfortable when they eat, just like anyone else!”

“Before the Curry Hotel was built, Curry featured a famous old building called the Dead Horse Roadhouse. The proprietor was the famous Alaska Nellie, who was known for her incredible cooking abilities and extraordinary hunting skills. It is said she killed the largest grizzly bear ever seen at that time.” ~Steve Mahay, in The Legend of River Mahay

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Nellie’s last home, on Kenai Lake

Finally in 1923, Nellie used her life’s savings to purchase her final home, a roadhouse on Kenai Lake. The railroad stop along the blue-green waters was renamed Lawing when Nellie Neal married Bill Lawing, and together they built the roadhouse into a popular tourist stop on the Alaska Railroad. Vegetables from Nellie’s garden were served with fresh fish from the lake or with game from the nearby hills, and Nellie’s stories, often embellished with her rollicking tall tales, kept her audiences delighted. Celebrities, politicians, tourists and even locals came to enjoy the purely Alaskan hospitality at the Lawings’ roadhouse on Kenai Lake.

oie_7409DnmPhc24Alaska Nellie became known far and wide, and the foreword to a 2010 reprinting of her autobiographical book, “Alaska Nellie,” by Patricia A. Heim, sums up her legendary status:

“Nellie Neal Lawing was one of Alaska’s most charismatic, admired and famous pioneers. She was the first woman ever hired by the U.S. Government in Alaska in 1916. She was contracted to feed the hungry crews on the long awaited Alaska railroad connecting Seward to Anchorage. The conditions were harsh and supplies were limited. She delivered many of her meals by dogsled, fighting off moose attacks and hazards of the trail, often during below-zero blizzards. She always brought with her a great tale to tell of her adventures along the trail, how she had wrestled grizzlies, fought off wolves and moose, and caught the worlds largest salmon for their dinner, always in the old sourdough tradition. The workers listened and laughed with every bite. 

“Nellie was an excellent cook, big game hunter, river guide, trail blazer, gold miner, and a great story-teller! It wasn’t long before Nellie became legendary and was known far and wide as the female ‘Davy Crockett’ of Alaska, her wilderness adventures and stories of survival on the trail spread like wildfire. Letters addressed simply ‘Nellie, Alaska’ were always delivered. 

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Nellie at her Kenai Lake cabin

“Nellie finally established herself at “Lawing, Alaska” on Kenai Lake, and converted an old roadhouse into a museum for her multitude of big game trophies. It was a great railroad stop and the highlight of any Alaskan visit. Her guest register of over 15,000 read like the Who’s Who of the early twentieth century: two U.S. Presidents, the Prince of Bulgaria, Will Rogers, authors, generals and many silent-screen movie stars. 

“Nellie would entertain them all. Colt pistol on her hip and a baby black bear by her side, Nellie was always ready with one of her outrageous tales of adventure. ‘I was just minding my own business on Kenai Lake when a huge grizzly showed up, I fired my Colt, but as luck would have it, somehow, it misfired, I then had to kick the heck out of the brute and he ran off, but before he ran off he bit me good, right on the wrist, see here.’ She would then fold back her sleeve to show a scarred arm. 

“Nellie was so popular and loved that she was honored with an “Alaska Nellie Day” on January 21, 1956.”

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Bill and Nellie Lawing at their cabin beside Kenai Lake.

Nellie’s happiest days were spent with the love of her life, Bill Lawing, in their log cabin on the shores of beautiful Kenai Lake. She fondly mentions it in the opening paragraph of her autobiography, ‘Alaska Nellie’:

“Glancing out through an open window of a large log home on the shores of Kenai Lake at Lawing, Alaska, the rippling waves had become glittering jewels in the full moonlight of a summer’s night.

Mountains covered with evergreen trees and crowned with snow were reflected in the mirror-like water of Kenai Lake. Was I dreaming, or was the curtain of the past rolling up, so that I might glance back over twenty-four years spent in the great North-land and say, ‘No regrets.'”

In 1939 a short movie clip, ‘The Land of Alaska Nellie,’ was produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios:

 

oie_7433fQBZmUW8Alaska Nellie’s grave is in the city cemetery in Seward, Alaska, a pretty place at the base of the mountains, guarded by towering Sitka spruce trees. Her gravestone bears the image of a pineapple, a symbol of hospitality which began with the sea captains of New England, who sailed among the Caribbean Islands and returned bearing cargos of fruits, spices and rum.

According to tradition in the Caribbean, the pineapple symbolized hospitality, and sea captains learned they were welcome if a pineapple was placed by the entrance to a village. At home, the captain would impale a pineapple on a post near his home to signal friends he’d returned safely from the sea, and would receive visits. As the tradition grew popular, innkeepers added the pineapple to their signs and advertisements, and the symbol for hospitality was further secured as needle-workers preserved the image in family heirlooms such as tablecloths, doilies, potholders, door knockers, curtain finials and more. It seems a fitting final tribute to a legendary hostess of the north.

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Nellie Lawing’s property on Kenai Lake, 1938.

For more information about Alaska Nellie, including resources for further reading and research and photos of her homesite in Lawing taken in recent years, visit the Northern Light Media website: Alaska Nellie | The Story of Nellie Neal Lawing

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