Northwest and Arctic

1920-1945 THE AIR AGE

Alaska's Past - Regional Perspectives

In this section you will learn about:

  • Introduction of aviation
  • Revival of gold mining and reindeer industries
  • Reservations
  • World War II impact

Aviation breaks Northwest and Arctic Alaska's isolation

In 1920 four U.S. Army aircraft arrived in Nome on a 6,000 mile trip from New York. Their crews were investigating the requirements of long flight over remote areas. They were the first airplanes to land at Nome, but regularly scheduled commercial flights soon followed. Noel Wien made the first commercial flight from Fairbanks to Nome in 1925. In 1927, Wien and his brother Ralph started a commercial airline based in Nome. Charter planes broke the isolation of communities previously accessible only by boat in summer or by dog team in winter.

Adventurers pushed into arctic skies. In 1926 Ben Eielson, who had pioneered aviation in Interior Alaska, and Australian George Wilkins made the first landing at Barrow. The following year Eielson and Wilkins began exploring a route for a flight over the North Pole to Norway. Their airplane crash-landed on the sea ice north of Barrow. The men were not injured, but they had to walk across the ice for 13 days before they reached Beechey Point. There they met Eskimos who took them by dog team to Barrow.

In the summer of 1928 Wilkins and Eielson successfully flew from Barrow across the top of the world to Spitzbergen, Norway's northernmost island. One person praised the flight as the most significant event since Balboa stood on a peak in Darien and saw for the first time the broad Pacific." All there was to it, Eielson said, was "twenty and a half hours and two meals." Their flight was not the first aerial crossing of the pole, although it was the first in a fixed wing aircraft. In 1926 a dirigible, the Norge, crossed from Spitzbergen to Teller, which the crew mistook for Nome. This expedition was led by an international team: Norwegian Roald Amundsen, American Lincoln Ellsworth, and Italian Umberto Nobile.

The next year, on November 9, 1929, Eielson took off from Teller to pick up a load of furs from a trading ship, the Nanuk, that was ice-bound off Siberia's North Cape. Eielson and his mechanic did not return. Airplanes from the Soviet Union, Canada, and the United States searched for the two without success. Alaska pilot Joe Crosson spotted the wreckage of Eielson's airplane in late January, 1930. Both men had been killed in the crash. Although Soviet Union and United States relations were tense during this period, the joint search effort demonstrated the international nature of the Arctic.

Alaska flights make headlines

Two flights to Northwest and Arctic Alaska in the 1930s attracted national attention. The first took place in 1931 when Charles Lindbergh (the first pilot to fly non-stop across the Atlantic Ocean) and his wife Anne visited Alaska enroute from New York to China. They landed at Barrow, Shishmaref, and Nome before continuing their much publicized westward journey.

World-famous humorist Will Ropers and pilot Wiley Post flew to Alaska four years later. They had arranged to interview former whaler and trader Charles Grower at Barrow. After leaving Fairbanks the two ran into stormy weather. They were unable to locate Barrow. Post touched down on Walapka Lagoon 12 miles to the south. Claire Okpeha, who was camped nearby, gave Ropers and Post directions for reaching Barrow. But when they took off from the lagoon, the engine sputtered and died, apparently out of gas. Both men died in the crash. Okpeha raced on foot to Barrow with news of the tragedy, which made frontpage headlines around the world.

Gold and reindeer dominate Northwest and Arctic Alaska's economy

In the 1930s the price of gold was set at $35 an ounce. At the time this price made it worthwhile for Alaskan mines to operate. There was renewed interest in the gold deposits of the Seward Peninsula. Dredges profitably reworked the beds of many streams in the area until all mines not essential to the war effort were closed by federal order in 1942.

The reindeer population in Alaska totaled 640, 000 by 1930 . The Lomen brothers marketed an average of 3,000 carcasses a year. Beef producers, who saw reindeer as a threat to their product, blocked the Lomens' efforts to increase sales. The reindeer skins, however, brought good prices at auction in Seattle. Widespread slaughter of reindeer for their skins resulted.

The reindeer overgrazed parts of western Alaska. Frequently, reindeer strayed from their herd in search of better grazing. Some joined herds of wild caribou. Others fell victim to wolves. Many herd owners sold their reindeer to the Lomen Company. The Lomens in turn faced the loss of their large herd when Congress passed the reindeer Act in 1937. The act restricted reindeer ownership to Alaska Natives. The government began negotiating to buy the Lomen herd. By the time a settlement was reached in 1940, both the value of the reindeer and the size of the herd had dropped. The company sold its remaining animals for three dollars a head.

The Reindeer Service promoted individual ownership of herds. Joint stock companies had not been successful. Eventually the government reduced its involvement in the reindeer industry to protecting grazing lands. The number of reindeer in Alaska declined during the late 1930s and during World War II. By the end of the war the reindeer population totaled only 100,000 animals.

Executive orders create Native reserves

In 1936 when the federal Indian Reorganization Act was extended to Alaska, village residents of Ahungnak, Barrow, and Shishmaref voted down proposed reservations. Reservations were created at Diomede and Wales. These were not the first reservations in Northwestern and Arctic Alaska. A 114,000 acre reserve had been established by executive order when Noorvik was founded in 1914, and a 6,400 acre reserve had been established at Point Hope in 1930.

The proposals for reservations came as northern Natives were shifting away from traditional settlement patterns. Towns like Nome attracted Eskimo families who wanted access to schools, churches, and stores. Others gave up their traditional mobility to settle where they could earn cash wages.

World War II brings economic activity

In 1941, just before the United States entered World War II, Congress passed a Lend-Lease Act to help nations that were already fighting the Germans. Russia needed aircraft, and the Alaska-Siberia Ferrying Project was designed to provide them as part of the Lend-Lease Act. U.S. pilots flew airplanes from their manufacturing sites to Fairbanks. There, Russian pilots took over the controls to ferry the planes across Siberia to Europe. Nome was a refueling stop. Between 1942 and 1945 nearly 8,000 LendLease airplanes landed on new runways at Nome.

Building the runways brought workers and construction payrolls to Nome. More jobs were created when the Civil Aeronautics Administration (later the Federal Aviation Administration) built airstrips at Kotzebue, Shungnak, and Barrow.

The war affected Northwest and Arctic Alaska inhabitants in several ways. Many were employed on construction projects near their homes. The prices paid for furs rose. Also, Eskimo artists found a new market for their carvings and basketry among the military forces. In 1944 the Nome Skin Sewers Cooperative sold $200,000 worth of products to members of the military.

Muktuk Marston organizes the Tundra Army

Threatened by war, Eskimos on St. Lawrence Island felt especially vulnerable to enemy invasion. They asked the government for guns and ammunition for self-defense. Their request led to the formation of the Alaska Territorial Guard which enlisted Natives from throughout Alaska.

Major Marvin (Muktuk) Marston traveled by plane and dog team around Northwest and Arctic Alaska to recruit villagers for the "Tundra Army," as the Territorial Guard was often called. Marston organized units and arranged training. Members were equipped with surplus rifles and ammunition, but little else.

Four thousand Alaska Natives served in the Territorial Guard during World War II. Several hundred more joined branches of the armed services and served their country on foreign battlegrounds.

Summary questions

  1. What impact did aviation have on Northwest and Arctic Alaska communities?
  2. What influenced some Northwest and Arctic Alaska Eskimos to move near towns like Nome?
  3. What led to the formation of the Alaska Territorial Guard?

Inquiry question

  1. Make a flight time-line.

1897-1920 GOLD
1920-1945 THE AIR AGE
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