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'Wrangell Mountain Skyboys': New exhibit unearths untold aviation history

Colleen Mondor
For a century, Alaskans have sought to capitalize on aviation by using airplanes to improve their lives and work. A new supplement to the Anchorage Museum exhibition "Arctic Flight" explores the role pilots played in building a mining economy in the remote and difficult geography surrounding what's now Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. Courtesy: National Park Service

Last week, the Anchorage Art Museum opened a supplement to the Arctic Flight exhibition that focuses on aviation in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. "Wrangell Mountain Skyboys: Making History Above Alaska’s Copper Belt" is a photography exhibit curated by National Park Service (NPS) historian Katie Ringsmuth and includes some names familiar to many Alaskans such as Bob Reeve, Merle "Mudhole" Smith and Harold Gillam. The photos have been collected by Ringsmuth from a variety of largely untapped sources and are part of a project for the NPS in documenting the aviation sites in the park.

Ringsmuth's research into the park's aviation history led her deep into its mining and military history as well. She conducted a roundtable discussion with current pilots in McCarthy and also searched through numerous statewide archives finding photographs and news reports in places such as the Kennicott Historical Society in McCarthy, the Cordova Historical Society and the Russ Dow Collection in the UAA archives. Unexpectedly, however, as Ringsmuth mapped the airfields, cabins and other significant aviation locations within the park, a larger narrative began to form and as a historian, she could not let it go.

"From the first flight in 1913 there was a desire among Alaskans to immediately see how they could capitalize on this new invention; how it could improve their lives and work," she explains. Intrigued by this forward-thinking perspective, Ringsmuth sought to follow that idea of improvement in Wrangell-St. Elias and see just how aviation brought the future to what was then a very remote and difficult place to live and work.

Yet as she found more evidence of industry turning to aviation, specifically the mining industry in the park beginning in the early 1930s, the stories that continued to be told about pilots focused on their similarities to cowboys and other heroes of western myth. The technology had a big impact, but in the way people wrote about it, pilots were viewed more [romantically], as classic heroes, and less as key elements in the regional economy.

The relationship between Bremner Gold Mine, about 30 miles south of McCarthy, and Cordova Air Service, is a perfect example of this myth-based perspective. The railroad brought equipment and supplies north for the mines but restricted by tracks could get only so close; aircraft were necessary to bring everything out to the mines. In 1934, Merritt "Kirk" Kirkpatrick, who had come north initially to fly for Gillam, began flying almost exclusively for Bremner and then, with several Bremner stockholders, started Cordova Air Service. Simply put, the mine needed aviation to succeed and aviation needed the mine to exist and both, along with other interests in the area, would be served by airfields and airways developed by the federal government in the years that followed.

Distinguishing historical fact from narrative in Alaska aviation

The influence of the mining industry on aviation has been largely lost however for although such feats as Bob Reeve’s impressive trips to remote mining sites and Kirkpatrick’s flights with heavy cargos have been recorded, the economics of those flights, the "engine" that kept them in the air, has been lost in the romanticizing of the record. "You have to try and always look at the history," says Ringsmuth, "and remove the narrative." It was by following her own advice that she found so many previously unseen photographs of the aviators she sought, hidden in plain sight in mining scrapbooks and albums.

As the photos reveal, however, the history of Wrangell-St. Elias touches not only the general connection between Alaska's mining and aviation interests but some unexpected moments in the state’s past as well such as Bob Reeve's achievements operating in and out of the military airfield at Northway. "It's in the most inconvenient place for an airfield,” notes Ringsmuth, “but was one hundred miles from Fairbanks and one hundred miles from Whitehorse so that was where the military had to have it and that was where Reeve flew everything for them.” Reeve flew a Fairchild 51 hauling supplies to Northway but could not keep up with demand. Soon enough he was flying a Boeing 80A, purchased by his military contractor employer. Reeve found it was capable of hauling 3,000 pounds more than its official 4,000 pound cargo limit and he took advantage of that heavier payload whenever he needed to.

After the war, the park gradually became a place of tourism and research. UAF President Terris Moore’s success in helping to establishing the Wrangell Mountain Observatory in 1952 was a significant scientific achievement far beyond Alaska’s boundaries. “That station” points out Ringsmuth, who interviewed some of the scientists who were part of Moore’s team on the mountain, “was a key moment in the history of the Geophysical Institute at UAF.” Moore, who was known as the “flying president” and  personally flew in the men who established the observatory in his own Piper Cub, had previously made significant flights with mountaineer Bradford Washburn on Denali.

The connection between the Wrangell-St. Elias pilots and the state's economic success is felt even more powerfully in the "Arctic Flight" exhibit as the Stearman C2B, the only aircraft on display, was flown by Mudhole Smith for Bremner when he hit a low muddy spot on the runway and his nickname was born. Smith would run Cordova Air Service after Kirkpatrick’s death in 1938 and later purchase the company which would then be ultimately sold to the group who founded Alaska Airlines.

What began for Ringsmuth as an assignment to determine the significance of aviation-related properties in the park became a far more intensive and revealing task. The pilots in the photographs she gathered accomplished more than singular feats of glory; they brought the 20th century to Alaska.

"We need to do a better job at discussing the role Alaska plays in the world," Ringsmuth says. "And we need to do a better job at understanding the role aviation plays as bridge to the Pacific; as the vehicle to the larger world."

In places like McCarthy, in times like the 1930s, in the hands of men like Reeve, Smith, Gillam and Kirkpatrick, Alaska's economy was propelled forward to a new age. As Ringsmuth found, much of that story still lies in archives and museums across the state. Visitors to the Anchorage Museum will be able to benefit from all her hard work, and catch a glimpse in the “Wrangell Mountain Skyboys” exhibit of just what's been missing.

The “Wrangell Mountain Skyboys: Making History Above Alaska’s Copper Belt” will be on display in the Fourth Floor Gallery at the Anchorage Art Museum from May 6-Aug. 25 as part of the ongoing “Arctic Flight: A Century of Alaska Aviation” exhibition.

Contact Colleen Mondor at colleen(at)alaskadispatch.com