A standing testament to Juneau aviation history

Posted: Sunday, April 24, 2005

Perhaps nobody knows the story of Merchants Wharf better than Juneau aviation historian Jim Ruotsala.

Calling himself a hangar rat, Ruotsala started treading the hangar's planks when he was 9. He has written books about Alaska's aviation history. His articles have appeared in "American Aviation Historical Journal," "Alaska Flying Magazine" and "Air Alaska."

"The building had a complete machine shop there," said Ruotsala, 71. "They repaired the planes and the engines right at the hangar. I would do different kinds of jobs to get free airplane rides."

Ruotsala said the first plane that landed at the wharf was a Lockheed Vega of Alaska-Washington Airways in 1929. "There were no buildings there but there was a dock," Ruotsala said.

Merchants Wharf was once called Alaska Air Transport Building. It was at the hangar where Juneau electrician Shell Simmons started his flight company with a damaged Stinson SM2A "Patco" he bought for $1. On Feb. 27, 1935, Simmons made five air trips in the Patco.

"That was recorded as one of the busiest days for air transportation in the Juneau area up to that time," according to Ruotsala's book, "Alaskan Wings: Aviation in Southeast Alaska."

Back then, almost all of the airplanes were covered with fabric and mechanics had to apply dope to tighten the fabric on the frames. A mechanic would give Ruotsala some dope in a cigar case so he could apply it on his model planes, as well.

The Alaska Air Transport Building burned down on June, 10, 1938. "The building caught fire when they were welding on a Bellanca Skyrocket," Ruotsala said.

Simmons, who lost the Bellanca Skyrocket seaplane in the fire, estimated the total damage at $30,000. But he rebuilt in 1939.

As flight demands increased, the hangar witnessed several mergers. Simmons first merged his business with Alex Holden's Marine Airways in 1939. In 1962, they merged their company, Alaska Coastal Airlines, with Bob Ellis' Ellis Air Transport. The seadrome operations at the hangar ended in 1968 when Alaska Coastal-Ellis Airline merged with Alaska Airlines.

The golden days of Juneau's waterfront aviation - estimated in Ruotsala's book as the years 1935-1946 - are gone. But the traces remain.

The building still is decorated with old pictures of Alaska's pioneer pilots. Ruotsala provided many of the reprints from his photo collection.

One picture is a portrait of Bob Ellis with his Waco bi-plane. During World War II, Ellis was called to active duty in the Navy. The Navy used his airplanes to look for submarines in Alaska.

Another picture shows Will Rogers and Wiley Post in Juneau on Aug. 7, 1935.

Post, who had made two successful around-the-world flights, planned to find an airmail passenger route between Alaska and Russia. Rogers, an entertainer and humorist, helped finance the trip. They died when their plane crashed just short of Barrow eight days later.

Ruotsala still goes to Merchants Wharf now and then. He sometimes rides on the floatplanes. He sometimes takes a walk along the dock.

"I will cry if they tear down the building," said Ruotsala, a veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars.

Trending this week:


© 2018. All Rights Reserved.  | Contact Us