How Whitehorse was brought into the limelight in aviation circles and how the local air-port came into being and was from time to time, improved so as to make it today one of the finest on the North American continent, makes very interesting reading.
It was on June 18th 1920 that Capt. H. T. Douglas of the U. S. Air Force and Capt. H. A. LeRoyer of the Canadian Air Board, arrived in town to talk over a proposed international aeroplane flight from Mineola N. Y. to Nome Alaska. They both came, with full authority from their respective governments, to make all necessary arrangements for landing places, supplies, fuel, etc for the carrying out of what was, in the Whitehorse Star columns described as "an event that will go down in history as one of the most daring conceptions of the potentialities of aerial flight that has ever been conceived since the possibilities of a lighter-than-air craft as a means of transportation became, through the inventive genius of man, a certainty."
They arrived in town by train at 7:15 p.m. and were met by a delegation of the leading citizens headed by Lieut. Jack MacLennan, D.F.C., and escorted to the White Pass hotel. After dinner half a dozen automobiles, which had been in readiness, were pressed into service to take the visitors to the first bench west of the town which had previously been used as golf links. It was stated by the visitors that there would be four planes making the flight and that the space required for a landing field would be 600 yards in length and 200 yards in width.
The visitors, on the following day, accompanied by the late Robert Lowe, laid off 550 yards by 125 yards to be cleared of all obstructions, and expressed delight at the site which, in their opinion, was considered ideal for aviation purposes. Mr. Lowe secured the contract for the necessary clearing under the supervision of Lieut. MacLennan and Tony Cyr and eight or ten men commenced the work without delay. After completing arrangements here the visitors left on the steamer Selkirk for Dawson to make the necessary arrangements at that point on the proposed route of the aerial flight.
It should be pointed out that this flight was not in the nature of a contest between four competing planes but a try-out by the Canadian and United States governments to determine the feasibility of establishing aerial routes in the far northland.
The planes were scheduled to leave Mineola, N.Y. on July 5th 1920 but, as a matter of fact, their departure was delayed until July 15th. The distance to be covered was approximately ten thousand miles and sixteen stopovers were to be made en route including Erie, Pa.; Grand Rapids, Mich.; Winona, Minn.; Fargo, N.D.; Portal, N.D.; Saskatoon, Sask.; Edmonton, Alberta; Jasper House, Alta.; Prince George, B.C.; Hazelton, B.C.; Wrangell, Alaska; Whitehorse, Y.T.; Dawson, Y.T.; Fairbanks, Alaska and Ruby, Alaska. The return trip was to be made over the same course.
The following telegram sent from Washington, D. C. dated July 15th, 1920, signed by "Mencher" and addressed to the Mayor of Whitehorse gave Whitehorse residents the first official notification that the flight had actually started:
"Planes leave today. Difficult to estimate time of arrival in Whitehorse but you will be advised from Hazelton and Wrangell. Reach Whitehorse on or about July 22."
A map of the Whitehorse air field was prepared and forwarded to Wrangell for the use and benefit of the aviators and a similar map was received here from Dawson out-lining the landing field there. Plans for receptions were also arranged at different points en route and special instructions forwarded to safeguard not only the fliers but also the spectators on the various fields.
As far as Whitehorse was concerned the arrangements included a "right royal welcome" to the distinguished fliers, the presentation of a suitable address of welcome, a lecture by the airmen at the aerodrome out-lining the functions of the various parts of the planes, and the handing to the fliers for transmission to Dawson of a letter set forth as follows:
Whitehorse, Yukon, July, 1920
To the Hon. G. P. Mackenzie,
Commissioner of Yukon.
Dear Sir: -
We, the citizens of Whitehorse, send you greetings by the first aeroplane which has flown in the Yukon. On this historic occasion we wish to express a fervent hope that our government will keep pace with other countries in the establishment of a regular aeroplane service throughout our Dominion and especially in Yukon where it is so much needed.
The world is cognizant of the bravery, skill and ability displayed by the Canadian Air Force in handling their machines during the Great War, so there is no dearth of competent Canadian airmen; neither is there any difficulty in obtaining suitable spruce which will ably stand the stress put upon struts and wing-beams for we have in British Columbia over 13,700 million board feet of the finest spruce in the world.
Our Yukon climate is suitable, aerodromes can be easily established; Canada possesses up-to-date aeroplanes fitted with the most modern appliances; therefore we hope soon to see mail-bags substituted for bombs, and a regular service of aeroplanes plying between Dawson, Whitehorse and other parts of Yukon.
Our neighbors have just celebrated the second anniversary of their aerial mail-service, and have demonstrated beyond doubt that such a service is quicker and cheaper than train-service. Flying postmen in the U.S.A. last year carried 538,734 pounds weight of mail over a mileage of 498,664 at a saving of over $51,000.
In Great Britain passengers, mail and parcels are safely carried many times daily, and owing to the marvellous developments in wireless telephony pilots are no longer afraid of foggy weather.
We believe that steps should be taken immediately to inaugurate an air-service for Yukon which for the most part is without railways and other modes of rapid inter-communication.
We are, Dear Sir,
The airmen in the transcontinental flight between New York and Nome had apparently many difficulties to contend with. After three days spent in Edmonton making repairs they started out for Jasper and had covered 70 of the 200 miles when they were forced to return to Edmonton on account of another leaky tank. Capt. Streett said their return was partly due to heavy clouds and low visibility making rapid flight impossible. It is recognized that this stretch of mountain flight is considered the most hazardous of the whole air journey. The flight from Edmonton to Jasper, 200 miles, was made without mishap in 2 hrs 27 minutes.
On Monday, August 2 three of the planes reached Prince George but Streett was not with them. They made a good landing and reporting having made a fine trip. Capt. Streett arrived later but it was reported that on account of the damage done to Capt. Streett's machine in landing at Prince George the flight would have to be delayed for two weeks.
Speaking editorially of the delay in the issue of the Star of August 6th 1920 it was stated "That announcement sure sure punctured the bubble of our feelings and it is quite probable that when the airships get here (if they ever do) the visitors will find in the place of our original exuberance and joy only withered remains of a shattered hope."
It was perhaps only natural that the emotions of the local people were fluctuating like a crazy barometer under such suspense. However, it was not to last for long for on Saturday, August 14th, 1920, it became known at Whitehorse that the planes had safely arrived at Wrangell, Alaska. A large crowd gathered at the Whitehorse air-field on the the following day (Sunday) expecting to see the "bird-men" descend in their midst from out of the etherial blue of the cloudless sky. But this was not to be. However, on Monday a wire was received here to the effect that the planes had arrived at Skagway. Like a forest fire the news spread rapidly all over the town and a great stampede was made to the landing field. The spectators had not long to wait before they observed "a tiny speck like a little bird" coming rapidly nearer and apparently growing larger with surprising rapidity; then "a deep bass musical note was heard comparable to the rich sonorous fundamental sound emitted by a great organ pipe." So was the approach of the long-expected airplanes journalistically described in the columns of the Whitehorse Star at that time. And then it continues: "The deep hum almost before we could realize it was sounding directly above our heads, then the great dragon-fly as if in joyous exultation of having caused so much excitement among the earth-bound mortals, gracefully circled about as if to show its wonderful capabilities and mastery of the air. Then, as if satisfied, it gracefully flew closely to the ground and in a few seconds had come to rest amid clouds of dust."
So was graphically described the actual landing of the first airplane into the Yukon Territory. Very shortly afterwards two others appeared upon the horizon and were safely grounded. The pilots, we are told, looked tired and bore anxious faces characteristic of men who endure great mental strains. The fourth plane, piloted by Capt.
Streett and Observing Sergeant Honrignes, had met with difficulties in landing on muddy ground at Wrangell and did not arrive at Whitehorse until the following day, Tuesday August 17th, the memorable Discovery Day.
As Capt. Streett, smiling and happy, stepped from his cramped quarters he was met with rousing cheers from the excited assembly, and proceeded to shake hands with some of the old-timers. Unfortunately the fliers were not able to remain in town sufficiently long to partake of the hospitality which the townspeople had prepared for them. Weather conditions being favourable it was deemed advisable by Capt. Streett to continue the flight to Dawson. The good people of Whitehorse, who had gone to so much trouble and expense in making arrangements for celebrating the occasion, were not to allow the event to go by wholly unheralded. Changes were rapidly arranged by the reception committee in charge of the proceedings. Shortly after a hearty lunch tho whole of the townspeople en bloc assembled at the landing field and at 3 p.m. the late Councillor R. Lowe addressed the assembly. He contrasted the time taken in the early dates from Wrangell to Whitehorse with the three hours it had taken the planes to accomplish the trip. He also ventured to prophesy that the very men who had made this pioneer air flight to the Yukon would, in a very few years be engaged in making regular journeys to and from Whitehorse "Which would prove to be one of the richest copper producing districts of the world."
The late principal Galpin, of Whitehorse Public Schooljyfoad following address of "welcome to famous fliers:
Dear Friends and Neighbors:
We most heartily congratulate you in being the first airmen to fly in the Yukon Territory) ami especially so because you have accomplished a journey of some thousands of miles over a course traversed by no other aviators.
We are glad to know that your progressive country forsees the great future commercial usefulness of the aeroplane and that your government intends to spend $60,000,000 on aeroplanes during 1921.
We feel sure that aviation will further the comfort and convenience of the world at large and promote international good-will between your country and ours. Such a journey as yours will be the means of producing and fostering public belief in the resources of the air and give confidence to mankind that the aeroplane, can be safely employed either for pleasure or for business.
We wish you a safe journey to Nome and a speedy return and rest assured that we shall ever remember the brave and intrepid men who dared to be the pioneer air-men to Yukon.
We are, with congratulations, your admiring friends:
THE CITIZENS OF WHITEHORSE
Capt. Streett asked to be excused from mounting the platform and making a speech. He requested Mr. Galpin, on his behalf, to say how delighted he and his fellow air-men were with the heartiness shown them by the Whitehorse people and promised to stay longer on the return journey.
Mrs. I. Taylor then presented each flier with a souvenir which had been prepared by our local artist Mr. C. Atherton. Those consisted of handsome moose-skin book covers on which were painted in oils, each of a different design, emblems characteristic of the north. On the inside, on deep blue silk, the above address was printed in gold by A.M. Rousseau of the Whitehorse Weekly Star, who, by the way, was the American Consular Agent for the Territory at the time. And indeed there was pathos too injected into the scene when one of the air-men, in touching tones, requested that the gift be sent direct to his mother several thousand miles away.
Shortly after 3. p.m. the airmen prepared to leave for Dawson but only two were destined to reach their destination when the "Discovery Day" celebration was in full swing. A busted tire on the plane piloted by Lieut. Crumrine made it impossible for him to get away in time. Capt. Streett thereupon decided to wait also and the four airmen were entertained at a delightful ball held in the N.S.A.A. hall. Mrs. Cash and Messrs. G. Muirhead, Bruce Watson and W. Watson took charge of the musical part of the programme and Mesdames Rousseau, Walker, Elliott, Donnenworth, Rose, J. Wilson, F. Wilson, Puckett, Whittaker, McDugal and Richards were responsible for the delicious supper that was served during the evening.
When there was another blow-out the following morning on the same wheel a genius with rope, in the person of Bert Peterson, fixed up a rope substitute for the rubber tire and it worked like a charm! That's Pete all over! The two planes were, therefore, able to leave at 10:35 a.m. and arrived in Dawson at 1.35 p.m. The planes had flown just 2800 miles on their flight from New York to Whitehorse according to official calculations.
The flight had not been accomplished so far without some difficulties arising. Soon after leaving New York, one machine had an axle broken. At Fort George a bad landing was made in a violent wind and rain storm resulting in smashed parts, new ones for which had to be secured from San Francisco.
Each plane was over-hauled every thirty hours. Each was capable of a speed of 135 miles per hour. The last plane to arrive in Whitehorse averaged 100 miles per hour.
The squadron of airplanes arrived back from Nome in Whitehorse at 3:05 p.m. Sunday, September 5, 1920. With them on their return trip, the fliers brought back several malamute pups which had been presented to them at Nome and Ruby together with fur robes and fur parkas.
Capt. Streett also brought the following letter which was read to those present on the field at the landing of the planes:
Dawson, Y.T., Sept. 3, 1920
To the Citizens of Whitehorse: -
Through the courtesy of Capt. St. Clair Streett, in command of the U. S. Army New York to Nome Flying expedition, I was in receipt of your kind letter of the 18th instant, three hours and ten minutes after it was despatched, a convincing argument in itself in support of your proposal that the time is now ripe for the inauguration of aerial mail communications in the Yukon.
I beg to assure you that I am in hearty accord with the view so well expressed in your communication and will do all in my power to advance the matter.
I wish also to take advantage of this opportunity to congratulate you on the unique reception given the airmen on the occasion of their first landing in the Yukon. It was quite up to your best traditions and Whitehorse has an enviable record in regard to such matters. The flyers were delighted with your kind, courteous reception and treasure very highly the souvenirs presented to them on that occasion.
Your obedient servant
G. P. Mackenzie
The flyers were made honorary members of the Alaska Order of Pioneers at Nome; honorary members of the Yukon Order of Pioneers at Dawson and at Whitehorse were presented by Grand Sachem and Keeper of the Wampum of Whitehorse Wigwam No. 1, with life membership cards in the Squawmen's Union, each member of the expedition receiving a card enclosed in a handpainted moosehide case.
In May 1927 the Yukon Airways and Exploration Co. Ltd. was incorporated with a capital of $50,000 and head office at Whitehorse. James F. Finnegan of Wernecke was president; Clyde G. Wann of Keno, Vice-President; Andrew D. Cruickshanks of Whitehorse, general manager and C. A. K. Innes-Taylor of Whitehorse, advisory director, The two planes to be used were of the monoplane type, known as the "Ryan Brougham," and built by the Ryan Air Lines of San Diego, Calif. The engines were of 200 h.p. air-cooled Wright Whirl-wind type, similar to those used by Byrd on his flight to the North Pole in 1926. They were to carry a pilot and three passengers or a pilot and 1200 lb of pay load. They were to be flown from San Diego to Whitehorse
Writing to the Whitehorse Star in September 1927, Mr. Finnegan stated that "The latest news from Cruickshank and Wann is that they expect to make a non-stop flight from Seattle to Whitehorse early in Sept."
Under date October 19th 1927 it was reported that the "Queen of the Yukon," with her fuselage safely lashed to the upper deck of the C.P.R. steamer "Princess Alice," and wings and engine stowed nearby, was en route to Skagway in charge of Lieut. A. D. Cruikshank as pilot; J. E. Smith, mechanician and Clyde G. Wann, Vice-President of the company. A further interesting notice was to the effect that just prior to the boat leaving Vancouver Lieut. Cruickshank was married to Miss Essnee Buckley of Vancouver, who accompanied him on his trip north. The boat was due in Skagway on October 21, 1927 and the airplane arrived in Whitehorse on Tuesday, October 25, 1927 at 9:35 a.m. taking 1 hour and 10 minutes in her flight from Skagway. The following day at 1 p.m. sharp she left on her first trip to Mayo and Keno.