Category Archives: history

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

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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.”


The S.S. Portland


S.S. Portland

On 17 July 1897, word spread like wildfire through the streets of Seattle over the cargo in the hold of the S.S. Portland. The S.S. Excelsior had already docked in San Francisco, bringing news from the Yukon.

“A ton of gold!” The arrival of the S.S. Portland was about to cause a mad rush to the Klondike.

68 miners and over a ton of gold had boarded the Portland in St Michael, Alaska. Fresh from the Klondike in Canada’s Yukon Territory, the gold was packed in anything the miners could find: coffee cans, socks, sacks, and boxes. Anything that could get the gold dust to Seattle. The estimates were off: The Portland carried two tons of gold in her hold that day.

At the time, the country was in a recession. Over 5000 people were waiting for the Portland at the dock, when she arrived. The streets were so crowded, the streetcars had to stop running. Reporters, longshoremen and others immediately quit their jobs and booked passage to Alaska. The mayor of Seattle was in San Francisco at the time; he wired his resignation via telegraph, and hopped on the first steamer heading north towards the Klondike. Seattle merchants sold out of mining gear and equipment within hours of the Portland’s arrival.

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Plaque dedicated to the S.S. Portland, Photo credit: CtoC

Today, there is a historical marker near the place where the S.S. Portland docked. The plaque is located between Piers 57 and 59, along the sidewalk that runs beside the road, Alaskan Way. The plaque is mounted on an anchor, and looks down on the boardwalk that runs along the water.

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The S.S. Portland served between 1885 and 1910. The above picture shows the Portland in the Bering Sea in 1901. Seamen are out cutting the ice in front of the ship.


The wreck of the Portland near the Katalla River, Alaska 1910

The Portland spent much of its life going from the west coast of the United States to the Alaska Territory. In 1910, the ship was caught on a shoal in rough seas. The waves pounded the old vessel, smashing her to pieces. The S.S. Portland remains at the mouth of the Katalla River. The ship was the subject of an episode of the PBS show History Detectives in 2004: Series 2, episode 9.

Historic photos come courtesy of the Alaska State Library Archives


The Titanic of the West Coast


The Princess Sophia

It was 100 years ago on 25 October 1918, when one of the worst shipwrecks on North America’s west coast occurred. The sinking of the Princess Sophia.

A Canadian Pacific Steamer, the Princess Sophia left Skagway, Alaska on 23 October, bound for Vancouver and Victoria, Canada. It was the ship’s final run of the season, and she left the dock three hours late. There were 353 people on board; an eclectic group from the Yukon and Alaska: miners, business men, government officials, their wives and children, along with the ship’s crew.


Princess Sophia on Vanderbilt Reef

The Sophia, traveling off course, crashed onto Vanderbilt Reef at 2am on the 24th. The ship was traveling 11 knots at the time of impact. It is not known why or how the ship ran off course, although weather was probably a factor. The ship was cruising through heavy snow and fog, with zero visibility. Procedure called for the speed to be reduced to 7 knots, but the captain kept the pace up, possibly to make up for the late departure. The Sophia’s log was never recovered to provide insight.

A stresscall was sent out to Juneau, and a fleet of rescue boats went out to the reef, and circled the Sophia for several hours.


Princess Sophia atop Vanderbilt Reef

Initial inspections showed that the Sophia was not taking on water, so the captain hoped that the ship could float off the reef at high tide. Passengers waited anxiously from October 24 to the 25th to be rescued.

The sea began to worsen. A light house tender, The Cedar, could only get to within 400 yards of the Princess Sophia, and was pushed back by the rough waves. By afternoon on the 25th, the storm had increased in severity to the point that rescue ships had to seek shelter themselves.


“Last trace of the Princess Sophia”

The winds picked up, the tide rose, and the Sophia’s stern was lifted upward, breaking the hull away when the ship came down. It was now taking on water, and an SOS was sent out from the ship.

The Princess Sophia sat on Vanderbilt Reef for 40 hours, yet sank between 5:30-6:00 pm on the 25th. There were no survivors from the frigid Alaska waters.


Walter Harper; Formal photo, 1916

There was one Alaskan celebrity on board. Walter Harper, a Koyukon Athabascan, was the first person to summit Denali in 1913, as a member of the Karstens-Stuck Expedition. Harper had just been married on 1 September, and was on board the Sophia with his wife, Frances Wells. The couple were on their honeymoon.


A plaque erected by Pioneers of Alaska-Juneau, at Eagle Beach, 9 miles from the wreck site

Photos courtesy of the Alaska Library and its Archives


USS Abner Read


USS Abner Read

The U.S. destroyer, Abner Read, struck a Japanese mine off the coast of Kiska Island on the 18 August 1943 during the Battle of Kiska. The explosion tore off the ship’s stern. There were over 300 men on board the Abner Read that day, many were in their bunks in the stern when the mine blew at approximately 1:50am. 71 sailors died, but 20 were hauled out of the frigid Bering Sea waters.


The Abner Read after the explosion off the coast of Kiska

The crew was able to keep the destroyer afloat. The ship was shored up as best they could, the main compartment was kept water tight, and a homemade rudder was attached. Two U.S. Navy ships then towed the Abner Read to port.


The Abner Read in floating dry dock

Within months, the Abner Read had its stern repaired, and the destroyer rejoined the war.

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In July of this year, a research team funded by NOAA, discovered the Abner Read’s stern off the coast of Kiska Island. It’s general location has been known, and the team of scientists from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego and the University of Delaware used multi beam sonar to locate the wreckage. They then sent a remote operated submersible down to the stern, which was in 290 feet of water.


Photo credit: NOAA

The stern section measures 75 feet long and 18 feet high, and is now covered in marine life.


Gun on Abner Read stern section; Photo credit: NOAA

Daryl Weathers was a 19 year old seaman on the Abner Read. He is the last known survivor from the destroyer on that August day in 1943. Weathers is 94 now, and lives in Seal Beach, California. When told that the stern section had been found, Weathers expressed surprise saying, “That’s the end of the world up there.”

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For its wartime service, the Abner Read received four battle stars from the Pacific Theater. In November of 1944, during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the Japanese launched a kamikaze attack. A Japanese dive bomber (VAL) made it through the anti aircraft fire, although it had been hit. The bomber was able to drop one of its bombs down the destroyer’s smokestack, blowing up the engine room. The VAL then crashed across the main deck, setting it in flames. The Abner Read sank within hours.


The Abner Read is struck by a kamikaze attack in November 1944