The first aeroplanes in Skagway

When I started doing research on the first airplane (or aeroplane as they were called then) in Skagway I thought I would be writing about only one plane, but as luck would have it, the first plane to pass through Skagway, the first plane to fly over Skagway, and the first plane to land in Skagway were actually three different planes.

 

The first airplane to pass through Skagway did not make much news because it was boxed in a crate. Early aviator James Vernon Martin was a guest speaker at the Seattle Press Club on March 10, 1912. He so impressed some visiting Fairbanks businessmen that he was invited, along with his wife Lilly Irvine, England’s first woman aviatress, to come to Fairbanks to give Alaska its first flying demonstration in a heavier-than-air machine. The Martins shipped their crated airplane from Seattle to Skagway by steamer, from Skagway to Whitehorse by railroad, and from Whitehorse to Fairbanks by river boat. Once at Fairbanks, Martin and his wife reassembled their airplane. Then on the evening of July 3, 1913, Captain Martin took off from Exposition Park and flew the plane over Fairbanks at an altitude of 200 feet and speeds of up to 45 miles per hour. Later they lectured on flying at the Fairbanks opera house. The couple made five flights in three days at Fairbanks, the first airplane flights ever in Alaska. During the time they were in the city, they tried unsuccessfully to sell their airplane – a Gage-Martin Tractor bi-plane but since they could not sell it, they crated it up again and shipped it via St. Michael to their home in San Francisco.

The first time the good citizens of Skagway actually saw an airplane in flight was on Aug. 16, 1920 and it merited front page news in Skagway’s Daily Alaskan newspaper. The Aug. 17 edition of the paper exclaimed:

“There was surely some excitement in Skagway yesterday when the shout went up that the aeroplanes were coming. The first one arrived at three thirty in the afternoon and was seen by almost everyone in town and it was certainly a beautiful sight. The plane was sailing low and could be seen in detail as the birdman was evidently taking pictures.”

“As the plane went up the valley the pilot kept it down pretty low and passengers on the train coming down the mountain had to look down on it as it passed up Deadhorse Gulch above White Pass City. The plane landed in Whitehorse at four forty five… The flyer followed the White Pass and Yukon Route almost all the way as he flew over every station along the route.”

“At a little before five o’clock two more of the wonderful machines came along but were much higher and kept their speed up making the trip to Whitehorse in one hour and ten minutes. This was the first time for many of the Skagwayans to see an aeroplane and [to] say it was a treat is [putting] it mildly. The fourth plane went over Skagway at half past eleven this morning [the 17th] and was watched by an interested crowd until it was lost sight of in the clouds at [the] Summit.”

These four planes were de Havilland DH-4B bombers of the U. S. Army Air Service’s Alaska Flying Expedition. The Army’s “Black Wolf” squadron, as they were called, had started out from Long Island, New York and eventually reached the old parade ground at Nome’s Fort Davis and then turned around and returned to New York by an alternative route. An advance party had traveled through Skagway in June 1920 in order to scope out the route and in some cases, like Whitehorse, actually build rough airfields for the planes to land and refuel. The flight was the brainchild of Brigadier General William (Billy) Mitchell and the Daily Alaskan newspaper followed the flight to its successful conclusion.

The first person to actually land an airplane in Skagway was Clearance Oliver Prest otherwise known as Ollie. Born in 1896, Prest designed his first plane in 1909. He attempted to fly from Mexico to Siberia in 1921 but without the logistical support supplied to the Army in 1920. He started out from Venice, California, flew down to Tijuana, Mexico and then headed northward in a leisurely manner barnstorming as he went along to raise money to pay his expenses. This was not a problem until he crossed into Canada where his fundraising activity eventually led to his arrest in Prince Rupert, British Columbia. A few days later his Curtiss JN-4 Jenny named the “Polar Bear,” was wrecked at Prince Rupert, during an overnight wind storm. Quite popular with the town’s citizens, Prince Rupert officials quickly brought about his release and Prest vowed to try again next year.

In 1922, Prest bought a Standard J-1 bi-plane trainer repowered by a 90 horse power Curtiss OX-5 engine at the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company, Buffalo, New York. He then flew across country, barnstorming along the way, until he reached Seattle on June 23, 1922. Due to the problems the previous year, Canadian authorities refused to allow his flight into Canada so he loaded his aircraft on the Steamer Alameda and sailed to Juneau, arriving there on July 1. Prest then reassembled his machine at nearby Thane and gave an exhibition flight for the 4th of July celebrations. He took off for Skagway on July 6.

Under the headline “Siberian Aviator Lands Safely on Skagway Beach” the Daily Alaskan edition of July 6, 1922, describes the very first landing of an airplane in Skagway.

“Aviator C. O. Prest arrived in Skagway this afternoon at 3:25 and landed against the wind on the beach beside the Sylvester wharf in safety, just one hundred and twenty feet from where the wheels of the plane first touched the ground. A good crowd had gathered on the beach to welcome this pioneer of the air, and first sighted the plane at 3:15 as it sailed mountain high above the channel. The hop was taken from Juneau at two o’clock and in one hour and twenty-five minutes the distance of about 100 [miles] had been covered. After a spin around the town to get his bearing, the aviator descended rapidly to the north and in a graceful curve headed for the beach that had been cleared of stone and sticks, and lined with white flags, making a lane of fifty feet in width and several hundred feet long. It was the surprise of the onlookers to see such an excellent landing and the tourists present, who are used to seeing planes land, said it was accomplished in ‘a most unusual and graceful manner.’ Mr. Prest has the distinction of being the first airman to land in Skagway.”

“On the tail of the plane could be seen the words, “Prest, Polar Bear II, Las Vegas, Nevada.” Mr. Prest has made his home for the past two years at this place but began his present flight from Buffalo, N. Y.”

“The aviator will remain in the city until tomorrow afternoon when he will continue his air voyage landing at Whitehorse, Y. T., perhaps an hour later. The people of Skagway and those of the tourists wish him a successful trip to his destination in Asia.”

Mr. Prest actually stayed in Skagway for a couple of days and then he gave an exhibition flight on the day he left, July 8, 1922. The Daily Alaskan was once again fully on top of the story. Under the headline “Prest Exhibition Flight over City Great Success” the newspaper waxed elegantly that:

“The city siren summoned the people to the beach, and as soon as the engine could be warmed up, the plucky airman was off. After making a couple of circles around the city he was high enough to enter into the special entertainment planned. When the plane was directly over the crowd on the beach, the nose of the machine was directed downward, and when the increased momentum was obtained, the aviator looped-the-loop. After sliding around in the air on first one side, then the other, and turning a few more summersaults, he most gracefully glided down to the landing field and began preparations for the flight to Whitehorse, Y. T.”

“A motion picture camera is a part of the equipment of the machine together with several still cameras, and pictures of the country are obtained for exhibition in the States. On the side of the “Polar Bear II” can be seen the insignia “N-CACH” which represents the license number for permission to fly in Canadian Territory.”

“The considerate and sympathetic nature of Mr. Prest was manifest in his heeding a request made that he fly low over Haines on his way north … in order that an old lady there who could not be out of the house might easily see the machine. He usually flies at an altitude of 3,500 feet, but approached Skagway at 2,000 feet high. During the World War; Aviator Prest was an instructor in the art of aviation with headquarters at Los Angeles under the United States government. He is now entering into his thirteenth year of flying and enjoys the wonders of the experiences as much as ever.”

“At 3:15. Aviator Prest hopped off from Skagway and after circling the city to obtain the necessary altitude, which was acquired in twenty minutes, he departed for Whitehorse with the good wishes of the people for a successful and a safe trip on to the interior and his final destination in Siberia.”

“It will be easy to remember the date… for it is twenty-four years ago today almost to the hour that “Soapy” Smith was killed in this city. The gangs of the past are gone forever and we are in the light of a new day when civilization and world knowledge, together with the annihilation of distances, prevails.”

Prest left Skagway bound for Whitehorse and landed there on July 8, 1922 at 5 p.m. He was met by a crowd of well-wishers and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who had been warned about last year’s transgressions in Prince Rupert. Prest would be allowed to continue his flight, but in order to protect Yukon aviators he would not be allowed to give any exhibitions, carry any passenger, or sell any aerial photographs. On July 11 at 11:43 p..m, Prest took off from Whitehorse bound for Fort Selkirk and then Dawson.

He touched down at Fort Selkirk at 2:53 p.m. and stayed the night. Early the next morning at 6:43 a.m., he took off and flew to Dawson City arriving there at 9:12 a.m., July 12. Incredulous that Prest was prevented from giving an exhibition of his flying skills in Canada, Dawson City fathers persuaded the local Customs official to telegraph the authorities in Ottawa requesting that Prest be given permission to give an exhibition at Dawson City. After all Prest was the only aviator in the Yukon at the time so who was Ottawa trying to protect? The Canadian Air Board authorities wired back approval so long as no passengers were carried. Dawson went all out celebrating Prest’s flight. There was a gala dance at the Arctic Brotherhood Hall and the Arcade Café even printed up a special “Aviation Menu” in Prest’s honor after his exhibition flight on July 14. On Saturday, July 15, 1922, Prest departed Dawson with $480 raised by the good citizens of the city, a cake for his journey, and a 32 caliber automatic pistol for possible survival use. He headed off to Eagle, planning to travel from there to Fairbanks and then onto Nome and eventually Siberia.

Prest landed at Eagle on July 15 to much acclaim by the citizens there. The next morning, after refueling with low octane boat gas, he took off for Fairbanks. He had some engine trouble about a half hour out of Eagle, and was forced to crash land on an isolated patch of flat land in the vicinity of the Seventy Mile River. The Daily Alaskan takes up the story in its July 20, 1922 edition.

“All Alaska has been held in suspense over the intrepid aviator C. O. Prest, who landed in Skagway some time ago on his trip to Siberia… News came from the interior this morning that he had encountered many hardships, including engine trouble, the latter prompting him to make a forced landing in the … tundra of the Tanana Valley.”

“While making his landing, he was reported as having descended on a herd of Caribou, which at the time were crossing over the divide. In this spectacular landing, he dropped down upon one of the herd and killed the animal instantly. [After the rough landing] a high wind turned his machine turtle and broke the wings.”

“After feeding upon Caribou steak and preparing himself for a long mush over wooded country, he turned his steps toward Eagle, and after walking 30 miles met the searching party, which had been sent out from Eagle when news came that he had not been reported there.”

“It is the intention of Mr. Prest … [to] again light out next summer in quest of the Arctic regions, and whereby he intends to benefit [from] it by writing articles of his experiences in the Northland and Siberia.”

“Upon Prest’s arrival in Eagle he will board a boat and proceed to Nenana, thence to the coast via the Government railway, and by boat again to the States, where he will return and prepare himself for his third flight to Siberia.”

The true story of Prest’s crash landing is perhaps not quite as spectacular as was made out by the newspaper but it is still an interesting one. Prest did experience engine trouble, probably because of the poor quality of the fuel he had received in Eagle. He was forced to make an emergency landing 30 minutes out of Eagle but that went well. After working on the engine, Prest tried to take off but the machine turned on its nose in the soft ground, destroying the wooden propeller. Then a gust of wind turned the plane on its back breaking its radiator and wings. Prest gave up on his plane, shot a caribou with his new pistol and butchered it with his pocket knife. Then, without a compass, he spent several days in an incessant rain walking in circles until he finally came upon a trail and shortly thereafter the search party from Eagle found him.

Officially, Prest never gave up his goal of flying to Siberia and immediately made plans for a return flight in 1923. This time he would have the plane shipped to Fairbanks and continue on from there but he was seriously injured in a crash in Las Vegas that winter and never flew north again. He continued to be involved in aviation all the rest of his life. He developed new types of aircraft and acquired several patents; he built the first airplane hangar at what would become the Orange County Airport. In 1930 one of his planes set a new speed record. He also ran a huge airplane surplus depot in California, but lost it during the Depression. During World War II, he developed a new photo process for making templates for aircraft parts which speeded up the construction process significantly. Prest died in California in 1954, at the age of 58.

Information for this article was found in several Daily Alaskan newspapers published on July 2, 1913, Aug. 17, 1920, and during the month of July 1922. A New York Times article dated July 23, 1922 provides important information on Prest’s crash and rescue in the aviator’s own words. The book Air Route to the Klondike: An Aviation History by Chris Weicht (2006) was also used. Several web pages were also of use: www.akhistorycourse.org/articles/article.php?artID=177, www.earlyaviators.com/eprest.htm> and www.sitnews.us/Kiffer/Prest/122309_prest.html.

I would also like to thank fellow History Hunters, Michael Gates and Chris Allen for their help.

Aerial photographs of Skagway taken by the U. S Army’s “Black Wolf” squadron in 1920 and by Mr. Prest in 1922 have not yet surfaced and the earliest aerial photograph of Skagway known to exist was taken in 1926. If you have aerial photographs of Skagway taken earlier, please let me know. I can be contacted at karl_gurcke@nps.gov. An earlier version of this article was read over the air on KHNS, the Haines public radio station.

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