Pilot Spotlights

The Wrangell Mountain Skyboys

In a time before radio navigation, detailed charts, and reliable engines, the frontiersman of the sky helped blaze the way for aviation and exploration in Alaska. The following is a short overview of the characters from Katie Ringsmuth's new historical account Alaska’s Skyboys: Cowboy Pilot and the Myth of the Last Frontier.

Merle “Mudhole” Smith in front of his Stearman C2B biplane NC 5415 in McCarthy, circa 1937. Merle “Mudhole” Smith in front of his Stearman C2B biplane NC 5415 in McCarthy, circa 1937. Courtesy of the Cordova Historical Museum

About the book

I've added yet another fine piece to my bush flying bookshelf: This time it's Katie Ringsmuth's Alaska’s Skyboys: Cowboy Pilots and the Myth of the Last Frontier, a comprehensive story of the brave pilots who were the first to explore some of the region's most rugged lands by air. Familiar names like Mudhole Smith, Bob Reeve, and Harold Gillam are the bold characters in historian Ringsmuth's diligently curated chronicle, which likely hold hero status in the minds of those of us who seek to retrace their tracks through the Wrangells. The following is a special abridged excerpt from the 265-page book. Grab your copy on Amazon today. -Zane Jacobson, editor

The Copper Belt Line

During the 1930s, pilots such as Harold Gillam, Bob Reeve, "Kirk" Kirkpatrick and Merle "Mudhole" Smith soared over glaciers and mountains, followed winding rivers, and served the isolated communities of the Wrangell Mountain region in eastern Alaska. The increasing demand for faster transportation, and the ability to haul equipment, labor, mail, and ore to and from the remote mining districts of McCarthy-Nizina, Nabesna, Chisana, and Bremner, eventually formed the primarily stops along a regularly scheduled flight route, the Copper Belt Line. Bush pilots had replaced the sourdough as the face of the Last Frontier, and to a nation plagued by economic despair, Alaska and its aviators were thrust into a potent role—a symbol of opportunity, freedom, and hope.

Photo: Courtesy of the Cordova Historical MuseumHarold Gillam, circa 1930s

The strikingly handsome Harold Gillam probably most represented the Skyboy's image of the "unsung hero." Charles "Harold" Gillam is credited as the first aviator to establish a significant commercial operation that catered primarily to mining companies.1 Gillam's association with the Copper Belt region, however, predates the start of his flying business, Gillam Airways, in 1930. After four years of serving in the Navy as a deep-sea diver, Gillam joined several friends traveling to Alaska to work for the Alaska Road Commission (ARC) in 1923. The federal agency hired Harold Gillam as a heavy equipment operator, assigning him to the Nizina River bridge project, located ten miles southeast of McCarthy, Alaska. When the ARC shut down summer operations and the rivers froze in 1924, Gillam went to work. His job was to move needed bridge construction materials from the C.R. & N.W. Railway terminus in McCarthy to the bridge site using the ARC's Holt crawling tractor.2 During these early years at McCarthy, Gillam befriended ten-year-old Bud Seltenreich, whose family came to Alaska during the Chisana gold rush and ended up homesteading near the site of the Nizina Bridge. Gillam took the interested first grader under his wing, giving Bud his first lessons in mechanics at the McCarthy Garage. In later years, Gillam taught Bud and his two brothers to fly. He later trained, and then hired, Bud as his aviation mechanic.3

In 1925, Gillam moved to Fairbanks to start a freight business. While working on a job near Weeks Field, he fraternized with several Alaska pilots who introduced him to flying in 1927. By far, the most influential was pilot Joe Crosson. At Joe's encouragement, Gillam left Alaska in January 1928 to stay with Crosson's family in San Diego, the "Air Capital of the West," where Gillam took flight lessons. There, T. Claude Ryan, best known for building the plane that Charles Lindbergh flew in his famous 1927 transatlantic flight, had just started a flying school. Gillam returned to Fairbanks in May with a Curtiss JN-4D "Jenny" to start his own flight school. After only two weeks, Gillam's "Jenny" stalled after takeoff at Weeks Field and crashed. Instructor and former Navy pilot Marcel L. "Danny" Danforth was fatally wounded in the accident. Gillam, however, survived the first fatal aviation crash in Alaska.

The great love of his life was reportedly Marvel Crosson— Alaska's first female pilot and Joe Crosson's sister—whom he met while in Fairbanks. Supposedly, Marvel and Gillam were engaged and decided to start an air service company together in McCarthy.4 In 1929, Marvel set an altitude record for female pilots over San Diego, and that fall entered the National Women's Air Derby. The couple intended to use the prize money to stake their McCarthy flying business. The race featured some of the best female pilots of the day, including Amelia Earhart. On August 19, however, on the third leg of the derby, Marvel Crosson's plane crashed, killing the aviatrix.

Despite his loss of Marvel, Gillam had apparently decided to move forward on his business enterprise. That November the Fairbanks News-Miner claimed "Gillam Will Fly For His New Company." The paper announced that McCarthy and Chitina residents planned to back him.5 Yet those plans never materialized. That same November, world-famous pilot Carl Ben Eielson and his mechanic, Earl Borland went missing in Siberia. The fledging Gillam participated in the highly publicized search, and while flying with Joe Crosson, it was Gillam who spotted the crashed plane. The combined deaths of Eielson Marvel Crosson likely postponed Gillam's plan to return to the Wrangell Mountains.

Photo: Bertha Ramer Collection, McCarthy Kennicott Historical Museum.A dog team and a Swallow biplane support the Bremner Gold Mining Company operation in the Chugach Mountains, circa 1934.

Gillam returned to the Wrangell region in 1930 with a Swallow biplane and a newly acquired Zenith, which he based at the Copper Center airfield. His first significant contact was to fly supplies labor and ore to and from Cal Whitham's gold mine at Nabesna. Not only did Gillam pioneer reliable air service into the region, but he was famous for his pet polar bears, his "cat-like" vision, and his uncanny ability to fly in weather that kept most sane flyers grounded. Mostly, Gillam was known for using his remarkable flying skills to save people's lives, including Carl Whitham, who had fallen down a mine shaft. In December 1934, despite Gillam's emergency flight out of the mine in a 35-mile wind, the Valdez Miner reported Whitham had died from his injuries. A week later, the paper reported that Whitman had actually lived, and the report of death was "very much exaggerated." No wonder these pilots were considered "Angels in Fur" — apparently they could resurrect people from the dead!6

Courtesy of Johanna Bouker, Dillingham, AKAlaska bush pilots on the Nabesna job, summer 1942. Pictured: Merle Smith (Smitty), Rudy Billberg, John Walatka, Frank Barr, Don Emmons, Jack Scavenius, Frank Kammer, Herman Lerdahl.

Besides Harold Gillam, another sky cowboy who flew the Copper Belt Country was "Glacier Pilot" Bob Reeve. Reeve "drifted" into Valdez in 1932 with no money, no plane, and no job. Reeve was a sort of "scout of the sky," who made a name for himself flying miners to hard-to-reach claims located in the remote peaks surrounding Valdez. Reeve used Meal Owen's wrecked Eaglerock, and later his Fairchild aircrafts, to prospect for undeveloped mineral deposits, aptly naming his own claim, the Ruff & Tough Mine. Reeve quickly realized that although he was paid by the mine owners, in reality, he was working for the miners, whose consistent supply of mail, fresh food, and tobacco kept them connected and happy. "A bush pilot was expected to serve as mailman, message-carrier, and purchasing agent for the men who stayed the year round at the mine sites," recalled Reeve. "It was much more than a packet of needles or a can of snuff. It was their assurance that they were still apart of the outside world, and it was a tradition of Alaskan fellowship."7

Reeve specialized in the transport of freight, unlike his main competitor, Gillam, who began to concentrate on passengers and mail. Gillam preferred to fly people because passengers could, as he put it, "use their two legs" to walk off his plane. The cantankerous Reeve had a different view. He once told Gillam that he preferred freight because "it didn't ask questions."8 Gillam's supposed reply: "Reeve can have it!" By 1932, the bold pilot started competing with Gillam for Nabesna business, making his own arrangements with Whitman to fly gold out and supplies in to the mine.9 Reeve made use of local papers to conger up business in the Wrangells. When the local paper reported a daring feat by a rival—"Gillam came in the other night in the dark, and made a landing…but the field needs a floodlight to guard against accidents"—Reeve capitalized upon the readers' apprehension about flying in the dark with "Thrill'em, spill'em no kill'em Gillam" by strategically placing his add—"Always Use Reeve Airways"—near the report, just where the reader would see it.10

In 1933, Reeve realized that he couldn't just outsmart competition. As a result, Reeve famously pushed the aviation envelope in Wrangells by landing on glaciers in order to better serve the local mines. It turned out that Reeve started his air freight business at the perfect time. Even though the mining giant Kennecott Copper Corporation had temporarily closed its mines, prosperity in the gold mining industry came in the form of the Gold Reserves Act of 1934, which practically double the price of gold.11 The pilot, taking advantage of the newly opened lode mines, perfected a method of mudflat takes-offs and glacier landings that allowed service to the mines year-round. Tourists arriving on the steamship often gawked curiously at his mudflat "airport" that fronted Valdez.

Photo: Courtesy of Bob Leitzell, Mokelumne Hill, CA.“Kennecott Express,” circa 1954.

Writers, too, were intrigued by Reeve. The Valdez Miner captivated readers with the 1935 serial, "Caught in the Wild," in which fictional Skyboy Alan Grarth (who just happened to resemble exactly the Valdez pilot) saved the lives of three pampered easterners while "they plotted to take his!"12 Reeve became the focus of other writers as well. Rex Beach patterned his lead character, the "Flying Ptarmigan," on Reeve in his 1939 novel, Valley of Thunder. For his flying skills (and apparently his good looks), the soon-to be-famous war correspondent Ernie Pyle called Reeve the "Adonis of Alaskan Aviation." In 1937, Bradford Washburn sought a pilot to fly his climbing party and gear to the Walsh Glacier at the base of Mount Lucania in the St. Elias range, and at the time, the highest unclimbed peak in North America. Reeve replied to Washburn's request in typical Reeve fashion: "Anywhere you'll ride, I'll fly." In doing so, Reeve broke the world's record for the highest landing at 8,500 feet on skis.12 Each of these national figures touted Reeve as one of Alaska's great bush pilots, and contributed to his famed moniker, the "Glacier Pilot."

Photo: Courtesy of Charles “Buck” Wilson, Fairbanks, AK.“On Top of Wrangell at 14,000 ft,” circa 1954.

Federal regulation of the aviation industry in 1938 ended the so-called Wild West of Aviation, and made maverick Bob Reeve a local hero. Due to very bad luck, Reeve was without an airplane during the period of time that covered the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA)14, "Grandfather Clause." At the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) meetings held in Anchorage in 1939, Reeve famously testified against federal regulation, warning that in Alaska, it was only "the rustler who survived." Nevertheless, the defiant Bob Reeve was out of the Wrangells.

Merle Smith was probably the most "grounded" of eastern Alaska's early pilots. Born in Kansas, Smith, like Buffalo Bill Cody, mastered his profession as an entertainer, barnstorming throughout the Midwest with a group called the Flying Circus. In the 1920s, barnstorming was a popular form of entertainment, in which pilots like Smith performed stunts and tricks with airplanes. Barnstorming was a tough way to make a living, so Smith came to Alaska in 1937 to work for M.D. "Kirk" Kirkpatrick, who had recently started an air transport business called Cordova Air Service (CAS).

Although he spent several years flying supplies on scheduled flight to mines around the Copper Belt Line (during which time he also received from Bob Reeve his very unglamorous nickname "Mudhole" after crashing his Stearman biplane on the muddy airstrip at Bremner Mine), Smith fatefully became full-owner of Cordova Air Service. On April 10, 1939, Kirkpatrick left McCarthy with Con Miller and went missing is a spring snow storm. Five days later, their bodies were recovered from the Bellanca aircraft from Orca Bay. The CAS board elected Merle K. "Mudhole" Smith President & General Manager.

Courtesy of Alaska Airlines, Seattle, WA.Merle Smith and Kirk Kirkpatrick at the McCarthy Station, circa 1937

As head of the company, Smith was clearly aware of Alaska's booming tourist industry, and like Cody himself, recognized that Alaska, at first look, appeared exotic foreign to most tourists. By selling Alaska in terms of the Last Frontier Smith was able to link tourists' universal perception of Alaska as a "last frontier," eventually marketing fly-in tours to destinations such as Chisana and Kennicott by promoting the experience as an opportunity to travel back to the old frontier—an idea he got after a visit to Knots Berry Farm.

In the 1941, Reeve returned to the Wrangells, making the transition from cowboy to war hero. Government contractor Morrison-Knudsen (M-K) hired Reeve to fly supplies for the construction of the Northway Airfield, the vital midway point between Whitehorse and Fairbanks in the military's cross-continental Lend Lease Program. Reeve flew his Fairchild 71, and then M-K's newly purchased Boeing 80A, around the clock, from the Nabesna Landing Field, at the end of the Richardson Hwy road system, to the Northway site, sixty miles away. By summer 1941, Nabesna Landing Field had become one of the biggest in Alaska, shorter only than Elmendorf and Ladd fields. In spring 1942, Reeve left to assist the military in the Aleutians, so M-K hired Harold Gillam to take over the construction project. Gillam hired several well-known bush pilots to fly heavy loads to Northway, including Cordova's Merle Smith.

Courtesy of Alaska Airlines, Seattle, WAThe Morris-Knudsen's Electra," circa 1943.

Northway Airfield was the last link in the internationally important Lend-Lease program. With its completion, the military christened the old Nabesna field, "Reeve Field." Smith too was treated as a hero after he borrowed M-K's 80A to ferry supplies into Chisana to save starving miners, elderly men forgotten by war and time. At age 40, Harold Gillam died a tragically—albeit heroically—in January 1943. On a flight from Washington State, Gillam crashed M-K's Electra in the isolated coastal mountains near Sitka. With one passenger dead, Gillam decided to hike out to seek help. After several months his body was found wrapped in a parachute while his red long underwear hung in a tree in hopes of an SOS.

Five years later, another aviation tragedy struck the Wrangells. On March 12, 1948, Northwest Flight 4422, en route from Shanghai to La Guardia, stopped in Anchorage to refuel. After taking off from Anchorage the DC4 reported it position over Gulkana at 9:03 pm. Then it disappeared. The aurora was intense that night, and perhaps because of this, the pilot flew the plane directly into Mount Sanford. All thirty on board were killed. Although this was the worst crash in Alaska history, overshadowing the tragedy were rumors that the twenty-four U.S. merchant seamen killed were alleged to be carrying gold bullion as payment for delivering a taker ship to Taiwan. Rumors sparked numerous Sierra Madre-esque expeditions for buried treasure. In 1999 commercial pilots Kevin McGregor and Marc Millican located the crash site.15 Though they found no gold, their discovery did bring a modicum of closure for the families of the crash victims.

The postwar years changed aviation in Alaska in significant ways. Romantics say that it brought an end to the "Age of Frontier Flight," while realists point out that it brought safe, efficient, and reliable air transportation to the Territory, including the Wrangell Mountain region. Besides regulatory oversight in 1938, World War II produced modern airfields, and thanks to wartime industrial productivity, more powerful aircraft. With the exception of Bob Reeve, independent flying businesses began to merge their planes, pilots and prescribed routes after the war to make their services more efficient and, most importantly, more profitable. But even with the arrival of the "Age of the Airline" and President Kennedy's ensuing New Frontier, the ‘Skyboys of the Last Frontier' did not fly into sunset and simply fade away. The postwar generation of flyers pushed the envelope of aviation in eastern Alaska even further by adapting their businesses to niches unique to the Wrangells.

Even though a mountain top became his destination, Dr. Terris Moore, the University of Alaska's "Flying President," was more of a scientific explorer than mountain man. In the 1950s, Moore broke aviation barriers while establishing a research laboratory on the summit of Mount Wrangell, which studied everything from cosmic rays to the interactions of glaciers and active volcanoes. The science, supported entirely by aviation, was the impetus for UAF's Geophysical Institute, which established UAF as a world-class research facility. Adding to the scientific effort was the Copper River Survey in 1950. The survey was an effort by Alaska Road Commission to convert the CR & NW Railway to a highway. It also represented another scientific endeavor supported by pilots such a Cordova Airlines' Herb Healey, who landed and took off from the area's only usable airstrips—the Copper River's sandbars.

Photo: Courtesy of the Cordova Historical MuseumA Cordova Air Service plane takes off from one of the Copper River’s numerous sandbars.

Other Wrangell Mountain flyers, like Jack Wilson, personified the independent drifter image. After the war, he refused the tamer career path to airline pilot. Instead, he blazed his own trail as a fly-in hunting guide in wild country of the Wrangell Mountains, and by his own admission, adversely impacted the record-size Dall-sheep population there. "In the Old West men had exploited the riches of the new country...," Wilson lamented, "...and we were no different."16

At a time when planes were getting bigger and sleeker—they were also getting smaller and more agile. Moreover, by the 1960s, a revolution in outdoor equipment had made it easier for people to access wilderness; especially the mountaineers, who, just two decades prior, slept in heavy canvas tents and ate bulky canned foods. Technological breakthroughs initially intended for the U.S. fighting soldier improved climbing logistics exponentially, providing the wilderness traveler lightweight equipment, such as insulated clothing, durable tents, and freeze-dried foods. Bush pilots like Wilson began to fly bigger and more numerous expeditions even deeper into the wilderness of the Wrangell Mountains.

Photo: Courtesy of Alaska Airlines, Seattle, WA“Sheep Hunters,” circa 1960s.

While increasing modernization in America during the postwar years started to drive more and more wilderness seekers to eastern Alaska's Copper Belt region, a postwar generation's desire for modern electrical gadgets made copper one of the world's most essential metals. This attracted scores of geologists northward, hired by big development firms to prospect for the valuable ore. The revival of mineral exploration in the Wrangells created the need to continue bush service in the Copper Belt region, subsequently attracting a new generation of flyers. It also introduced a new aviation tool to the mining industry—the helicopter. By the 1970s, helicopters had replaced the prospector's horse and opened a new frontier in mineral exploration.

Photo: Merle Smith Collection, Alaska Airlines, Seattle, WA Cordova Air Service plane flies over a boundless sea of mountain and ice.

But just as aviation had made settlement and natural resource development increasingly easier in the Wrangell Mountains, an unprecedented surge in wilderness conservation had ignited an increasingly vocal sector of the nation. Wilderness advocates in Alaska began to worry that aviation made wild places like the Wrangell's Copper Belt vulnerable to overuse and exploitation. In his landmark study, Wilderness and the American Mind, Roderick Nash explained environmentalists' growing fear: "For a time in the history of the West, lack of technology held in check human desire to modify the land…When Alaska took its turn as the final American frontier…," reasoned Nash, "...technological progress [particularly aviation] had largely removed these restraints."17 When the U.S. Congress passed the historic Alaska National Interests Land Conservation Act, (ANILCA) in 1980, it created Wrangell Saint Elias National Park and Preserve. Because helicopters were not considered traditional and customary aircraft, their use was prohibited in what became, by far, the nation's largest national park.

Today's skyboys

Although, in many ways, aviation began in Alaska as a modern, 20th century industry, the aviators became meaningful to Alaskans precisely because they reflected values and ideals of the Last Frontier. Bob Reeve's methodical preparation of his plane in temperatures reaching 40 and 50 below zero and Harold Gillam's acute understanding of weather patterns, not to the mention the Wrangell Mountain pilots' ability to commit to memory the natural landscape (as Mudhole Smith put it, every "lone, tough tree") represented a vast knowledge of the environment in which these pilots flew. Smitty's lone tree "was one of a thousand details of the [Copper] river he had observed during his flights," explained his biographer, Lone Janson.18 Like the the western cowboy, the Wrangell Mountain Skyboys came to know their environment through work.

Today's bush pilots continue to work in a wilderness landscape where technology still requires superb human know-how and skill. Instead of miners, it is now park rangers, biologists, archeologists, and historians who depend on these pilots to provide access the park's hard-to-reach places in order to study, manage, and preserve the park's natural and cultural resources. Rather than demanding access to new roads, many of the Copper Belt communities are content to remain connected by planes and their expert pilots. Just as Gillam, Reeve, and Smith had done in the 1930s, today's bush pilots continue to provide those communities access to economic systems, commodities, and medical care, while at the same time, they allow residents to hold on to their "frontier" identity and wilderness lifestyle.

What Alaska's Skyboys: Cowboy Pilots and the Myth and the Last Frontier (University of Washington Press, 2015) endeavors to reveal is how five decades of flying the Copper Belt route incorporated eastern Alaska into the New Frontier, while at the same time, exemplified Alaska's Last Frontier resourcefulness, innovation, and even defiance as expressed by two generations of aviators and the remarkable story they inspired.

Alaska’s Skyboys: Cowboy Pilot and the Myth of the Last Frontier features these excerpts and many more chapters like it..

Author Ringsmuth, en route from May Creek to McCarthy, Alaska, 2012.
1 Smith, WSEN March and April 2000. Carl Whitham, owner of Nabesna Mine, was an early investor in Gillam Airways.
2 See Arnold Griese’s Bush Pilot: Early Alaska Aviator Harold Gillam, Sr. Lucky or Legend? (Anchorage: Publication Consultants, 2005).
3 For more information on Bub Seltenriech see in interview in Kennecott Kids.
4 This information comes from Ken Smith and the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum, but the story that Gillam and Marvel were romantically linked has been questioned.
5 Fairbanks News Miner, November 22, 1929..
6 “Carl Whitham Dies from Recent Fall” Valdez Miner, December 1934; “Carl Whitham Still Alive and Improving Fast,” Valdez Miner, December 1934.
7 Day, 78-79
8 Day 55.
9 Stanley,
10 Valdez Miner, January 23, 1935.
11 Paul J. White, “Bremner Historic District, Cultural Landscape Report, “Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska, 27-28.
12 Valdez Miner, December 13, 1935.
13 The Valdez Miner, “Pilot Bob Reeve Holds World Record for Highest Landing: Local man Lands on Glacier 8500 feet up on Mt. Lucania.” June 25, 1937.
14 CAA was the predecessor to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
15 “Is chest of Chinese gold buried in remote mountain glacier?” Spartanburg Herald-Journal, 1999.
16 Jack Wilson, The Quest for Dall Sheep (Wasilla: Northern Publishing, 1997), 52.
17 Nash, 276.
18 Lone Janson, Mudhole Smith: Alaska Flier (Anchorage: Alaska Northwest Publishing Company, 1981), 57.

Katherine Ringsmuth

Katherine Ringsmuth teaches history at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, and is owner of the public history consulting business Tundra Vision.

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