Category Archives: history

Ben Eielson’s Curtiss JN-4D


Ben Eielson’s “Jenny 1”, on skis, in 1968

Ben Eielson was a school teacher in 1923. He convinced a group of Fairbanks businessmen to invest in a war surplus Curtiss JN-4D biplane for $2400. Within a week, Eielson had turned a profit giving demonstration flights over Fairbanks.


The Jenny today at Fairbanks International Airport

People were quickly convinced at how the airplane could benefit Alaskans. Eielson, his investors, and the Curtiss Jenny started the Farthest North Airplane Co. and air transport within the state was underway.

The Jenny was pretty beat up after only a few years of flying in Alaska and was retired. Somehow the University of Alaska received the biplane as a donation around 1945, but no one knows who donated it. It is now part of the Museum of the North’s collection.

The plane has hung from the ceiling of Fairbanks International since 1981, but for years it had the wrong wings. The University received the plane without wings, so wings from a Swallow were installed, which bugged the airplane savvy locals. A restoration was undertaken, complete with correct wings, in 2007. The Curtiss is only missing two engine pieces to fly again: a water pump and magneto. Parts which are almost impossible to find today. The restored aircraft returned to the airport in 2013; 90 years after Ben Eielson first flew it above Fairbanks.


Museum of the North

Located on the West Ridge of the University of Alaska campus in Fairbanks, is the Museum of the North. The museum takes on the daunting task of introducing visitors to the vastness and diversity, that is Alaska.


Otto the Brown Bear

“Otto” has been greeting visitors to the museum since its inception. He stands, all 8’9″ of him, at the opening of the Gallery of Alaska. The gallery is divided into the five main geographic regions of the state: Southeast, Southcentral, Interior, Western Arctic Coast and Southwest. Originally from Herendeen Bay on the Alaska Peninsula, Otto weighed 1250 pounds at the time of his death.


Woolly Mammoth skull, with mastodon and mammoth jaw

Locked in the permafrost, mammoth skulls have often been found by miners, as they worked the frozen ground for gold. Thirty-one, known, species of Pleistocene mammals roamed Alaska’s ancient grasslands with the mammoth.


Southeast Alaska totem pole


Petroglyph, Alaskan style


“Blue Babe”

Blue Babe is probably my favorite exhibit at the museum. An extinct, mummified, steppe bison, that was discovered in the permafrost by placer miners in 1979. The bison died around 36,000 years ago, killed by an American Lion. The claw and tooth marks can still be seen on the carcass. Shortly after the kill, just before winter, the bison was covered by silt. It was then entombed in cold earth and frozen until excavated.

There are only two other discoveries from the permafrost, that have been reconstructed and put on display like Blue Babe. One a juvenile mammoth and the other an adult mammoth, both are at the Zoological Museum in Leningrad.


Even today, Blue Babe has an American Lion looking over its shoulder


The skull of an American Lion, with one of a saber-toothed cat above and to the left

The American Lion, now extinct, was around 25% larger than the modern lion. They roamed North America in the Pleistocene epoch, 340,000 – 11,000 years ago.


The Antler Throne


Kayak and open boat

The museum is open every day in the summer, and slightly shorter hours M-Sat in the winter. Admission is $14 for adults.


Cannons from the Russian occupation. Included solely for The Curator


Tanana Valley Railroad Museum


The Tanana Valley Railroad Museum/Depot at Pioneer Park

I was surprised to hear that the TVRR Museum was open in the winter, so I thought I’d head over there and check it out before the tourist season. I’m glad that I did, because I ended up with what amounted to an incredibly well informed, guided tour. Kudos to the museum volunteers.


Engine No.1 at the Chena Depot, circa 1905

The museum owns and operates the only steam locomotive in Alaska. There is another locomotive in Wasilla, but it is not in operating condition. Engine No.1 was built in 1899 by the H.K. Porter Locomotive Works of Pittsburgh, PA. It was the first locomotive in the Yukon Territory, and when it arrived in Chena, Alaska on July 4, 1905, it became the first locomotive in Interior Alaska, as well.


Chena, Alaska circa 1910

Chena was located ten miles downstream of the rival town of Fairbanks, at the confluence of the Tanana and Chena Rivers. The larger riverboats had difficulty navigating the Chena River, which made the community of Chena a good option for the unloading of goods & supplies. The town had a lumber mill, hospital, school, city hall, dance hall and three newspapers. In fact, one paper, the Tanana Miner was bought by the Fairbanks Daily News to become the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, which is still the Fairbanks newspaper.

The Tanana Valley Railroad started out as the Tanana Mines Railway. Track was laid from Chena to Fairbanks, and through the Goldstream Valley to Fox. It was a narrow gauge railway. The TMR gave way to the TVRR and the track was extended out to the mining claims at Chatanika. At its peak, three trains made a roundtrip run from Chena to Chatanika every day.

By the end of 1917, the TVRR was in financial trouble. The gold in the Chena and Chatanika Rivers had played out quickly. The Alaska Engineering Commission, precursor to the Alaska Railroad, bought out the TVRR in December of 1917. Engine No.1 was retired in 1922, and by 1930, the Alaska Railroad had closed down the final TVRR line. Today, one would be hard pressed to find any evidence of the town of Chena. Anything left is buried under feet of river silt.


Old Engine No.1

Engine No.1 sat outside the International Hotel and Samson Hardware for years. The locomotive was then moved to Alaskaland when the park opened. In 1991, volunteers took on the daunting task of restoring the old steam locomotive. On July 27, 1999 the old engine was up and running, and in 2000 it was once again hauling passengers.

When I stopped by, Engine No.1 had just received its annual inspection, and they were in the process of putting her back together again for another season at Pioneer Park.


Steam power: Engine No.1

Engine No.1 runs the tracks at Pioneer Park a half-dozen times a year. The rest of the time, the duty is performed by it’s replica, No.67. Tickets cost $2 for adults and $1 for children.


Locomotives of the Interior

The museum is not a large building, but it is full of Alaska rail memorabilia and artifacts. Historic pictures line the walls, as do railroad lanterns and even an original TVRR time schedule.

The volunteer when I stopped by, a self described “train geek”, was incredibly generous with his time and info. Honestly, he was a wealth of information on the history of the Tanana Valley Railroad and the status of the railroad in Alaska today. Well worth the time to stop in while walking the paths of Pioneer Park. Admission is free, although I’m sure donations are needed & appreciated.


Chena, Alaska and Engine No.1 in miniature


Mears Memorial Bridge

The Mears Memorial Bridge was completed on 27 February 1923. The 700 foot long truss bridge spans the Tanana River at Nenana, Alaska. The bridge was the final link in the Alaska Railroad.

The bridge is named after Colonel Frederick Mears, the chief engineer and chairman of the Alaska Engineering Commission, the builder of the railroad and its original operator. In 1923, the Mears Bridge was the longest truss span in the United States and its territories. It spans the longest distance of any bridge in Alaska, and is still the third longest simple truss bridge in the U.S..


Alaska Air Mail


Map of the first air mail flight in Alaska

Fairbanks celebrated the anniversary of the first air mail flight to take place in Alaska last week. The flight, from Fairbanks to McGrath, took place on February 21, 1924. Famed bush pilot, Carl Ben Eielson was at the controls of the DeHaviland DH-4 open cockpit biplane.


A mail DH-4 fitted with skis on the Tanana River at Nenana, Alaska; March 12, 1924

Eielson left Fairbanks at 9am with 164 lbs of mail. The temperature was -5F, no wind, sky was two-thirds overcast, with clouds at 4500 feet. The 280 air mile flight to McGrath took 2 hours, 50 minutes. In the past, a dog team had to travel 371 miles on the ground, usually hauling 800 lbs of mail each way, plus 100 lbs of equipment and dog food. The trip with the dog team, in comparison, took an average of 18 days.


Carl Ben Eielson

“I carried 164 lb. of mail, a full set of tools, a mountain sheep sleeping bag, ten days provisions, 5 gal. oil (Mobile B), snow shoes, a gun, an axe, and some repairs. My clothing consisted of two pairs heavy woolen hose, a pair of caribou socks, a pair of moccasins reaching over the knees, one suit heavy underwear, a pair of khaki. breeches, a pair of heavy trousers of Hudson Bay duffle over that, a heavy shirt, a sweater, a marten skin cap, goggles, and over that a loose reindeer skin parka, which had a hood on it with wolverine skin around it. Wolverine skin is fine around the face because it does not frost. On my hands I wore a pair of light woolen gloves and a heavy fur mitt over that. I found I had too much clothing on even when I had the exhaust heater turned off. At five below zero I was too warm. I could fly in forty below weather in perfect comfort with this outfit and the engine heater. On my second trip I cut out the caribou socks, the duffle trousers, and the heavy fur mittens and was entirely comfortable.” — Ben Eielson

The return trip from McGrath started out at 2:45pm, late for February in Alaska. Due to the darkness, Eielson found himself 50 miles off coarse midway through the flight, he didn’t land in Fairbanks until 6:40pm. Eielson later reported that he thought the entire town of Fairbanks had been waiting over an hour at the air field for his return.

Upon hearing the news from the Post Master General of the U.S., President Coolidge sent Eielson a telegram that read, in part: “I congratulate you on the conspicuous success of your undertaking. Your experience provides a unique and interesting chapter in the rapid developing science of aerial navigation.”.

Photos come courtesy of the University of Alaska Archives


Apollo 8 and Beyond

It was the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 8 Mission on December 21. The 21st was also the Winter Solstice, and when you live in the Far North, that observance takes precedence over most anniversaries. We did gain just over 4 minutes of daylight today from yesterday, in case anyone was wondering.

Still, Apollo 8 was a big deal, no offense to Steph Curry. It was the first manned spacecraft to leave the Earth’s orbit, travel to the moon, orbit the moon, and then safely return. Without this mission, the moon landing could never have occurred.


The Apollo 8 crew: Frank Borman, William Anders and James Lovell

It was the first crew launched on the Saturn V rocket, for a mission that would take just over 6 days. In fact, it took 68 hours just to travel the distance to the moon, before orbiting our celestial companion 10 times.


Earthrising: the famous photo from the Apollo 8 mission. Photo credit: William Anders

With everything that Apollo 8 accomplished, I think William Anders’ photo of the Earth rising above the surface of the moon, was the mission’s greatest gift to mankind. The photo was taken on Christmas Eve, 1968. For the first time, one of our own, had taken a picture looking back at our home. There, against the blackness of space, was our blue-marbled planet, looking beautiful and fragile. National Geographic photographer, Brian Skerry compared the image to “humanity seeing itself in the mirror for the first time”.


The Apollo 8 patch

——————————————————————————————
New Horizons does flyby of Kuiper Belt Snowman:


Artist rendition of New Horizons and Ultima Thule; Credit: NASA

The New Horizons spacecraft recently observed the most distant object yet from Earth. Launched on 19 January 2006, New Horizons has explored a lot of our solar system, raising the stakes with a flyby of Pluto in July 2015. Now, just over three years later, the spacecraft, that is about the size of a minivan, did a flyby of Ultima Thule over New Years.


Ultima Thule; Photo credit: New Horizons/NASA

Ultima Thule, which is Latin for “beyond the borders of the known world”, is a trans-Neptunian object in The Kuiper Belt. It is a contact binary, which is two small bodies stuck together. The larger body of Ultima is three times the volume of Thule. It was discovered in 2014 by astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope. Ultima is 1.5 billion kms further out than Pluto, and takes just under 300 years to orbit the sun.

As of January 1, New Horizons was 6.5 billion kms from Earth and passed within 3500 kms of Ultima Thule during the flyby. It takes six hours for radio signals to reach Earth from the spacecraft, and it will take 20 months for all data from the flyby to make it back to Earth.


Armistice Day Centenary

November 11th is the 100th Anniversary of the end of WWI. Dignitaries from around the globe, are in France this weekend to commemorate this event.


Scars from the Battle of the Somme

Scars of the First World War can still be seen across Europe.


Photo credit: Frank Hurley/Getty Images

70 million military personnel were mobilized during WWI. Some 9 million combatants, and 7 million civilians died as a direct result of the war. The 1918 influenza epidemic was exasperated by the mass movement of troops. Between 50 and 100 million people died due to the epidemic world wide.


A British soldier stands knee deep in spent shell casings, Front Lines, France


The WWI Cemetery, Verdun, France

The Battle of Verdun took place between 21 February – 18 December 1916. It was the longest and largest battle on the Western Front. French casualties were estimated at between 336,000 – 434,000 men, with 143,000 killed. German casualties were at 379,000, with 163,000 soldiers killed. The battle became known as Die Hölle von Verdun in Germany; The Hell of Verdun.


From: The National Museum of the USAF

Bulgaria was the first to sign an armistice on 29 September 1918. The Ottoman Empire did the same a month later on October 30. Germany signed the armistice at 5am on 11 November, on a railcar at Compiègne. A cease fire was declared at 11am on the 11th of November: the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.”