Magnificent Flying Machines
Traveling by steamship and rail, a young pilot from Minnesota arrived in Anchorage in June 1924, bringing with him a disassembled World War I Standard J-1 airplane. Noel Wien, recently hired by James S. Rodebaugh of Fairbanks as a pilot for a new flying venture – Alaska Aerial Transportation Company – was eager to earn his $300 monthly paycheck flying over the Alaska wilderness.
The airplane, with its Hispano-Suiza 150-horsepower motor, was lifted from an Alaska Railroad flatcar by a huge crane and transported along with its propeller and wheels to the garage of MacDonald and Gill. The wings were taken to the new Anchorage Aviation Field.
Townspeople had turned out in force in the spring of 1923 to clear 16 acres of land between Ninth and 10th avenues and C and L streets. That strip of land had served as a firebreak between downtown Anchorage and the south.
The May 27 issue of the Anchorage Daily Times reported the event:
“Men whose hands had not been soiled by anything heavier than a pen for many years, grappled the mattock or the axe and shook the kinks out of their flabby muscles. Ladies with rakes and other implements cleared away the small debris while others piled it upon the small mountain of stumps ready for the torch.”
Excerpt from Aunt Phil’s Trunk, Volume 3, 1912 to 1935
This series keeps getting better and a real page-turner. The old photos are just fascinating! I could never imagine living like these folks did, but I admire them. Laurel is a gifted author and I’m glad I had the chance to read them.
Passengers of the streetcar (or bus) only paid 25¢ for two hours? Can you imagine that now? “The largest nugget in the world” and “Property of Skagway Streetcar” was written on the sourdough tour operator’s grave when he died in 1942 – and well deserved for that to happen, in my opinion.
Very easily read, but I’d suggest you take your time and enjoy all that Laurel has to offer in this book. So much to learn, and I’ve enjoyed every word of this awesome series so far. Still have book four to read, but I’d bet it’s going to be just as good as the rest of them. The flying machines are an awesome addition that will take you flying high. 🙂 It’s very entertaining and informative all the way through. You gotta buy this! Love it!
I usually am a fiction reader. The author has researched the material and written it so well, it reads like a novel.
“I’ve been touting these books since the first volume appeared two years ago. They combine clear writing and plenty of details without getting bogged down in minutia. They include both the big stories and many lesser-known incidents. And they are densely illustrated with photographs showing what life was like in Alaska’s earlier days. It’s a great package, and it hasn’t failed yet.”
Popular histories can be problematic things. They can shed light on certain periods and events and provide a human angle that often goes missing from more academically inclined works. But they also tend to focus on the romantic episodes of history while overlooking the many mundane but more influential happenings that provide the narrative of our past.
Alaska history books offer a good example of this tendency. Countless volumes have been published about the Gold Rush, and anyone who has read much about our state knows how Skagway, Nome and Fairbanks came into being. But what about Anchorage? Alaska’s largest city appears from nowhere in most accounts, because once many authors get past the Gold Rush, they go skipping off to World War II, statehood, and the pipeline, ignoring what came in between.
For this reason alone we can welcome Volume Three in the ongoing and exceptionally well-crafted “Aunt Phil’s Trunk” series. It covers the years 1912 to 1935 — a generally forgotten period when Alaska changed dramatically — in such an entertaining and informative fashion that readers will wonder why more hasn’t been written about this era.
For good reasons, I’ve been touting these books since the first volume appeared two years ago. They combine clear writing and plenty of details without getting bogged down in minutia. They include both the big stories and many lesser-known incidents. And they are densely illustrated with photographs showing what life was like in Alaska’s earlier days. It’s a great package, and it hasn’t failed yet.
The Aunt Phil who serves as the namesake of the series is the late Phyllis Downing Carlson, a pioneer Alaskan who moved north at the age of five in 1914, and who spent nearly the rest of her life here. A relentless history buff, she wrote stories about Alaska for numerous publications. Widely respected for her exhaustive knowledge, she received the Woman of Achievement Award from the Alaska Press Women in 1988.
After her death in 1993, her niece, Laurel Downing Bill, inherited her extensive files and began organizing them, adding additional details, tracking down photographs, and compiling this series, which began in 2006. This third of a planned four volumes is every bit as good as its predecessors.
The first section of this book tells how Anchorage came into being. While gold or other resource exploitation had driven the emergence of most other Alaska settlements up until 1915, Anchorage originated as a company town. The federal government had decided to build a railroad from Seward to Fairbanks in order to ease the transport of goods to and from the Interior. Ship Creek, which flowed into Cook Inlet, emerged as the logical midpoint for the stationing of supplies and work crews.
The Alaska Engineering Commission’s decision to headquarter the project in the then-undeveloped region caused much chagrin for Seward’s civic boosters, who had assumed their town would have served this purpose. The Ship Creek area, however, offered easy access for ships, a central location, and lots of available land.
Almost overnight a city started emerging as swarms of job seekers came north. Tents and shacks were quickly replaced by permanent structures, and before long lots were auctioned, schools were built, businesses were established, and the town site was growing into a metropolis.
The authors show that even though Anchorage wasn’t founded by prospectors and con men the way, say, Fairbanks was, its story is just as fascinating. Added to this are the numerous pictures. Not many large American cities came into being after the development of photography, but Anchorage did. Hence in these pages we see familiar landmarks like Government Hill and Lake Spenard when they were still wildernesses.
Transportation is the unifying theme of much of this volume. Moving people and goods around Alaska has always been a challenge, and here we read of the many ways this was done early in the 20th century. In addition to the new train, dogsleds, horse carriages, bicycles and cars careen through these pages.
(Not only do we get an account of the serum run to Nome that inspired the Iditarod, we also learn of an earlier life-saving dogsled scramble that influenced the later decision to use this means of getting diphtheria medicine to the beleaguered town on Alaska’s western edge.)
Ultimately, however, it was the arrival of airplanes that solved Alaska’s transportation woes. The authors devote separate chapters to such aviation pioneers as Carl Ben Eielson, Russell Hyde Merrill, and the Wien brothers, Noel and Ralph, who opened up the territory and changed Alaska forever.
Another big event covered nicely in this volume is the Depression-era creation of the Matanuska Colony by the federal government. Hundreds of displaced Midwestern farmers were moved north and settled in the fertile Matanuska Valley in a mostly successful effort at developing Alaska’s agricultural potential.
Other stories found here include profiles of influential Alaskans Z.J. Louscac, Capt. Austin Lathrop, and William Mulcahy; the arrival of a Norwegian dirigible in Teller; the death of Will Rogers in a plane crash; the 1918 flu epidemic, which decimated the Native population; and the emergence of a Native rights movement. Historic photos range from the futile efforts to rescue victims of the Princess Sophia sinking to the first flight over Juneau to a backwoods moonshine distillery near Anchorage.
Each chapter stands as an individual essay, but the interlinking themes pull them together into a cohesive whole. The tales are brought keenly to life by a pair of authors whose love for Alaskan history permeates every page. They show just how fascinating this often-overlooked time was. If you haven’t done so yet, take some time and open Aunt Phil’s Trunk; you’ll find plenty of treasures inside.
“The author wrote well and entertained me with historical stories and anecdotes of the country's development.”
Aunt Phil’s Trunk Volume Three by Laurel Downing Bill contains valuable historical information and interesting stories about the entrepreneurial expansion and technological modernization of Alaska during the years 1912-1935. Alaska grew in population, and so did opportunities for skilled and unskilled workers. Laborers were needed to build railroads that would link towns. Many people became trendsetters with ventures that would benefit the country. Motor vehicles were seen as replacements for horses and mushers with dogs. Another advancement was aviation, which significantly reduced hours spent traveling inland and delivered mail promptly. The main disadvantage of aviation and motor vehicles was poor weather that delayed travel, so mushers and dogs still played vital roles in transportation. Volume Three also shares how humorist Will Rogers and pilot Wiley Post died in 1935 when their plane crashed in a storm near Barrow. Bill also discusses how diseases traveled to Alaska with immigrants, including the “Great Sickness” of 1918 (Spanish flu) and a diphtheria outbreak that threatened to wipe out the village of Nome in 1925. Mushers and their dog teams raced vials of diphtheria serum north to save the people who lived there. Alaska offered a promising future, but one had to work under extremely hard conditions to claim it.
Aunt Phil’s Trunk Volume Three describes an exciting period that sees Alaska being transformed. There are authentic photos that depict Alaska’s people and environment. An interesting story was the Natives’ battle for equal rights. Another was the government’s poor planning and negligence to build schools. The author wrote well and entertained me with historical stories and anecdotes of the country’s development.
“Amazingly written, Laurel Bill has a way of grabbing the reader’s attention and holding on fast! Still loving those photographs and learning so much as I read. This is better than a history lesson in a classroom any day of the week and I can’t wait to get my hands on Volume 4.”
Aunt Phil’s Trunk Volume 3 continues the story of Alaska’s history, told by Laurel Downing Bill. This volume covers the period 1912 to 1935 and tells, amongst other things, how the railroad was continued to connect the north to the south, Fairbanks to Seward, and how Anchorage came into the story. It talks of how transportation changed the face of Alaska – from the train, dog sleds and horse carriages to cars and bicycles. And, let’s not forget the number of great aviators who turned the way we see Alaska on its head. The story of the dog sled run to get diphtheria serum to Nome is included, along with an earlier story of another dog sled run, which inspired this method of making sure the serum got where it was needed, and how it became the starting point for the Iditarod, which still runs as an annual event to this day. Many other stories and hundreds of photographs bring Alaska’s history alive in the third volume of Aunt Phil’s Trunk.
Once again, Laurel Downing Bill has brought Alaska to life with a stunning historical account. Aunt Phil’s Trunk Volume 3 is as good, if not better than the preceding two books as it brings earlier history into context. Amazingly written, Laurel Bill has a way of grabbing the reader’s attention and holding on fast! Still loving those photographs and learning so much as I read. This is better than a history lesson in a classroom any day of the week and I can’t wait to get my hands on Volume 4.
“Bill’s strength from the very beginning of this collection has been in giving history a voice. Rather than dry accounts of historical fact, her collection brings historical moments to life. … Laurel Downing Bill has provided an enjoyable and exciting account of Alaskan history. I highly recommend Aunt Phil’s Trunk Volume 3 and the rest of her collection.”
Laurel Downing Bill opens her aunt’s trunk of historic notes once more in Aunt Phil’s Trunk Volume 3. This volume starts with the happenings in Alaska during the onset of World War I and the signing of the Alaska Railroad Act by Woodrow Wilson in 1914. This act caused the development of Anchorage and the continued settlement of Alaska. Bill, using the detailed notes and research of her late aunt, Phyllis Downing Carlson (Aunt Phil), recounts the events of the following decades, including the construction of the railroad, aviation exploration, Anchorage’s early development into a thriving city, and the tragedy of the influenza pandemic that struck in 1918.
Laurel Downing Bill’s third volume of Aunt Phil’s Trunk celebrates the resilience, ingenuity, and heroism of Alaskan residents in the early to mid-1900s. Bill’s strength from the very beginning of this collection has been in giving history a voice. Rather than dry accounts of historical fact, her collection brings historical moments to life. In this volume, many of the heroes of Alaska are allowed to tell their story, those that bring laughter, those that bring cheers, and even those that bring tears. Readers will learn about entrepreneurs Z.J. Loussac and Austin E. “Cap” Lathrop, the start of the Alaska baseball league by William F. Mulcahy, and the heroics of dog sled driver Leonhard Seppala and the other runners who braved the extreme conditions of Alaska’s winter in order to deliver diphtheria vaccine. These are just a few of the characters that are concisely and intriguingly explored in Aunt Phil’s Trunk Volume 3. Once again, Laurel Downing Bill has provided an enjoyable and exciting account of Alaskan history. I highly recommend Aunt Phil’s Trunk Volume 3 and the rest of her collection.
“I’ve had a grand time reading this series, and the armchair adventurer in me especially enjoyed this volume. It’s highly recommended.”
Aunt Phil’s Trunk: Volume Three of Bringing Alaska’s History Alive is part of the continuing historical nonfiction series co-written by Phyllis Downing Carlson and her niece, Laurel Downing Bill. Both authors grew up in Alaska and the result is a series of living history texts based on their own experiences and Carlson’s lifelong interest in, and historical research on, the state’s history and cultural development. Much of the third volume is concerned with the latter part of the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries and how previously inaccessible and remote areas of the state were brought together through the pioneering efforts of dog sledders, early automobile enthusiasts and aviators. Downing grew up in Cordova, Alaska, one of the last towns in the state to be reached by airplane. The descriptions of that town’s planned celebrations and later disappointments as each planned visit was cancelled due to extreme climate conditions is especially poignant.
Volume Three of Phyllis Downing Carlson and Laurel Downing Bill’s history series, Aunt Phil’s Trunk: Bringing Alaska’s History Alive is filled with tales of adventurers and explorers who loom larger than life. There’s the story of Dr. J.B. Beeson who traveled over 1,000 miles via a relay series of dog sleds from Anchorage to Iditarod to attend a gravely ill patient, and the follow-up account of how heroic mushers and their dogs averted a diphtheria outbreak by relaying serum through arctic conditions to Nome, Alaska. We also learn how the first cars were brought north and of the efforts of the first tour bus operator to recruit Mae West as an assistant. Then there are accounts of the visit of Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian explorer, and the story behind the first blimp to touch Alaskan soil, and the first Arctic crossings. And that’s just a very small portion of the marvelous trip through history you’ll experience within the pages of Aunt Phil’s Trunk: Volume Three of Bringing Alaska’s History Alive. I’ve had a grand time reading this series, and the armchair adventurer in me especially enjoyed this volume. It’s highly recommended.
“If you love history and Alaska or are even just curious about either topic, this book will interest you. The layout and format with the short and enjoyable stories make it easy to read and take in the information so you never get bored. I highly recommend this one.”
Aunt Phil’s Trunk: Volume Three Bringing Alaska’s History Alive by Laurel Downing Bill is another dive into the history of Alaska and this time we pick up from 1912 to 1935. Again we have an array of short stories combined with beautiful and historic photographs (almost 350). In this volume, we visit the great sickness of 1918 and the steamship sinking of the Princess Sophia. Lest we forget, we also visit the story of the great serum run to Nome in 1925. A lot of big things happened in this era and none of them should be forgotten.
This is the best volume yet in this series. I loved every page, story and picture. It really is written to appeal to people of all ages. While all the stories from this time period held my interest and were very informative, my favorite was the Nome serum run of 1925. I have been in love with the story since I saw the movie Balto as a kid and then researched the real story. It is amazing what the dogs and mushers did to save people at the time; can you imagine it? Laurel Downing Bill is onto something with the Aunt Phil’s Trunk series because the books just seem to get better and better. If you love history and Alaska or are even just curious about either topic, this book will interest you. The layout and format with the short and enjoyable stories make it easy to read and take in the information so you never get bored. I highly recommend this one.