Will Rogers and Wiley Post
Final flight of Will Rogers, Wiley Post
By ANN CHANDONNET
Juneau remembers a sad anniversary today - the final flight of humorist Will
Rogers and pilot Wiley Post. The pair died Aug. 15, 1935, as they flew to
Alaska's northernmost outpost, Point Barrow.
Post was an experienced pilot who had flown
around the world twice, setting a new record for that journey in 1931. The
short, stocky, one-eyed aviator had gone hunting with pilot Joe Crosson in
Alaska's interior in 1934. In 1935 he again flew north, this time accompanied by
fellow Oklahoman Will Rogers (1879-1935). Along their flight path, they paused
to chew the fat in Juneau, at the brand-new, experimental Matanuska agricultural
colony in Palmer, and again in Fairbanks.
The small red Lockheed seaplane arrived at Alaska's capital on the afternoon of
Aug. 7 and left just after noon on Aug. 9. Rogers planned to visit an old friend
in Barrow, whaler and trader Charles Brower.
Retired federal judge Tom Stewart was 16 when the
famous pair came to Juneau.
"I went down to the waterfront to see them. They
landed at what's now Merchants Wharf; there was an air terminal where
floatplanes moored,'' Stewart recalled.
"The thing I most especially remember was Will
Rogers standing on the corner by the Juneau drugstore handing out sticks of gum
to the kids. And he was just like he was on the radio and in movies. I had seen
his movies, so I knew what he looked like and what he talked like - and he was
just like that,'' Stewart marveled.
Juneau was a town of 5,000 in 1935. When Rogers appeared before an unprecedented
audience of 60 at a Juneau Chamber of Commerce luncheon on Aug. 8, he kept
everyone in stitches. Some of his comments boosted aviation:
"You know I want to pay you people a compliment.
You've got 40,000 alleged white folks up here (in Alaska), and 65 airplanes,''
said Rogers, who was part Cherokee Indian. "That's a darn good average. But it's
a national disgrace that you aren't connected with cuckoo land with an airplane
Speaking of pilots, Rogers added, "You've got a great bunch up here. They have
to be good ... in these tough channels. Just send a new pilot out. If he comes
back, he's OK.''
For readers for whom the name Will Rogers rings
no bells, consider: Before there was nationally known political satirist Mark
Russell playing the piano and writing knife-sharp lyrics, there was humorist
Russell pounds the ivories to punctuate his
delivery; Rogers spun a lariat.
Russell has public television for his soapbox;
Rogers had stage, screen and radio. Known as the "cowboy humorist'' and "the
cowboy philosopher,'' Rogers appeared in the Ziegfeld Follies and starred in 71
motion pictures. He also wrote his own column, syndicated in 630 newspapers - in
a time when newsprint was king.
Both Russell and Rogers had their fingers on the
pulse of public scorn and churned out a tide of riotous, often bittersweet
commentary on everything from government and the economy to the judgment of the
president to why people wind up in Juneau.
For example, preparing to leave Juneau, Rogers
bought two sets of raingear. "Why two?'' asked the clerk.
"Well, if I was going to stay in Juneau, I'd buy
three sets,'' Rogers replied.
And Wiley Post? Just consider him the Chuck
Yeager of the day.
Growing up in Juneau in the early '30s, Dean
Williams - later to found his own airline, Southeast Skyways (which became Wings
of Alaska) - was fascinated with anything related to aviation, particularly the
Pan American clippers that landed in Auke Bay. Williams was 17, a high school
junior, when he joined the crowd of perhaps 100 people at the floatplane dock
when the famous pilot and humorist landed.
"I shook hands with them,'' Williams recalled
Saturday as he worked in his yard. "They were colorful people, really fun to
Bob Thibodeau was 13 when the famous pair visited
"One of my young friends said they were in town.
`Why don't we go down and see the plane?' he asked. But I didn't go,'' said
Thibodeau. "I was busy doing something else. And then we heard the following day
that they crashed. Then I regretted I had not going down to see the
Juneau played host to many prominent folks in the
first decades of this century, Thibodeau said. A visit by novelist Rex Beach
overlapped Rogers' stay. Franklin Roosevelt fished here. And, more than once,
John Barrymore visited with his family on their private yacht. On a less
rarified note, "Every time a ship docked, it was a social event,'' Thibodeau
The deaths of Rogers and Post on Aug. 15, 1935,
prompted some of the most extensive coverage of a single story in the Daily
Alaska Empire to date. It included an extra edition on Aug. 16, as well as
nearly the entire front page two days in a row, plus editorials. The editorial
of Aug. 19 called the pair "two of the best known and best loved men in this
country, or in the world.''
Rogers and Post were instantly killed at 5 p.m.
Aug. 15 near Point Barrow, when their plane crashed nose-first into a river.
Natives camping on the river said Post landed and asked directions to town. As
the Lockheed took off, the engine misfired with the plane only about 50 feet in
the air, and the plane went out of control and crashed.
Eskimos chanted a funeral dirge as the Native
skin-boat carrying the bodies made its way into Barrow. Charles Brower helped
medical missionary Henry Oriest prepare the bodies for the flight south.
Gov. John W. Troy had been host to the pair at
the Governor's Mansion during their visit. Now Troy telegraphed messages of
condolence to both Mrs. Rogers and Mrs. Post.
Their new friends in Juneau - and old friends all
around the globe - mourned the loss.
Source: Juneau Empire, Sunday, August 15, 1999