Alaska Life

‘Dunkle’s Ditch’: How digging a canal between two Spenard lakes launched Anchorage’s famously busy Lake Hood seaplane base

Part of a continuing weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.

It was a cool summer afternoon on June 12, 1936. Miner and geologist Wesley Earl Dunkle drove out to Lake Spenard for a little flight. His wife, Billie, waited along the shore. She planned to watch his takeoff before returning to town with the car. Billie, a couple of swimmers, and the resident of an adjacent cabin watched the Curtiss-Wright Travel Air floatplane gather speed and lift off from the water. Then, the engine suddenly sputtered and failed, perhaps as high as 150 feet. Dunkle quickly steered toward Lake Hood for a gentle, if emergency, landing.

He almost made it. One tree, taller than its surrounding brethren, knocked the craft toward the ground. The open-cockpit biplane sliced into the brush, spun, and crashed to a cacophonous stop about 15 to 20 feet from the lake. Billie jumped into the car and drove toward the wreck, only to meet Dunkle emerging from the woods unscathed. Though the plane was a loss, the pontoons and propeller were notable victims, witnesses reported Dunkle drove away with a smile.

By 1936, Merrill Field was well established, and Anchorage’s first airfield, the Park Strip, was only used in case of emergencies. However, many communities and locations within range of Anchorage lacked usable airstrips, so floatplanes were a crucial link for the sparsely populated territory. Today, one of the best-known bits of Anchorage trivia is that the Lake Hood Seaplane Base is the busiest such in the world.

Things were different in 1936. Despite an evidenced need, Anchorage at this time had made no progress toward a manmade floatplane base, and the natural options were underwhelming at best and dangerous at worst. Tides and waves made the Knik Arm unappealing for pilots. None of the lakes anywhere close to town were sufficiently long and clear for fully laden takeoffs. The canal connecting Lake Spenard and Lake Hood, the key element of this article, was still a few years away. The lengthy, public Campbell Lake did not exist until 1958 when adjacent homesteaders George McCullough and David Alm dammed Campbell Creek. The absence of suitable facilities through the 1930s contributed to numerous accidents, Dunkle’s 1936 wreck included.

Local pilots and air services worked with what the geography provided, but the results were awkward. Planes could not be left unattended in the Knik Arm, and they could not safely take off from lakes Spenard or Hood while heavy. So, planes typically launched empty from the lakes and landed in the Arm to take on cargo and passengers. That practice was further complicated by having to load and unload goods and people across the mudflats.

A 1936 film of a public health nurse touring Alaska includes footage of her boarding a floatplane in Anchorage. In a skirt and Oxford heels, she carefully and slowly made her way down a steep, rocky incline. Before she reached the bottom, two men lifted and carried her across the mud and water, directly onto the pontoon and into the plane. Suffice to say, this was not the basis for a thriving local floatplane industry.

Dunkle had a plan to fix all this, a runway canal connecting lakes Spenard and Hood. In fact, his plan predated the 1936 crash by several years. To be fair, plenty of other locals and interested parties had ideas on how to improve the situation. Creating a plan is easy, barely an inconvenience. Alaska history is lousy with plans and proposals and exploratory studies, some laughably disconnected from reality. Mathematician Charles Steinmetz (1865-1923) once suggested that the Alaska climate could be warmed by bombing the Seward Peninsula out of existence and widening the Bering Strait. The far majority of these proposals never come close to implementation. Otherwise, we would have harbors made with nuclear bombs or a physics-defying freshwater pipeline to California.

The canal plan was more grounded and based on a long admiration for the potential of aviation. Dunkle, also known as “Earl,” “Dunk,” or “Bill,” depending on how and how well a person knew him, was born in Clarendon, Pennsylvania, on March 4, 1887. Ambitions for Alaska were perhaps inspired by his high school principal, who led tours to Alaska every summer and frequently lectured on the experience.

Dunkle graduated from Yale University in 1908, having studied metallurgy, chemistry, economics and engineering. Following some on-the-job education in Minnesota and Nevada, he moved to Alaska in 1910, taking a surveying and assaying position at a Latouche Island copper mine. From 1910 to 1929, he worked and surveyed all over Alaska. After a year in Africa, he went into business for himself and opened the Lucky Shot Mine in the Willow Creek mining district northwest of Palmer. The Lucky Shot was one of the most productive gold mines in the country, and Dunkle amassed his first fortune. Mining remained his primary focus for the rest of his life; he died in 1957 of heart failure while investigating water sources for his latest project.

His second passion was aviation. His interest in planes had the most obvious motivation. Without them, it simply took too long to travel around Alaska. His first flight was a revelation. In 1928, he left Fairbanks for the Kantishna district north of Denali. By train and dog sled, the trip south lasted five days. It took only two hours to fly back to Fairbanks. Biographer Charles Hawley wrote, “Gradually the romance or pride that had once attended a 60-mile hike paled, especially when an upward glance showed a possible competitor passing overhead at nearly 100 miles per hour.”

He began taking flying lessons during the 1931-1932 winter, and after only 34 hours of flight time, bought his first plane, a Curtiss-Wright Travel Air. He wrecked that one almost immediately and bought another; this iteration crashed at Lake Hood. His tales of Alaska opportunity inspired some of his flight instructors to relocate north and found Star Air Service, which later became Alaska Airlines. Dunkle was their primary financial backer.

Dunkle called himself the “instigator” of the canal proposal and remained its primary advocate through its construction. Regardless of his support, the plan had its drawbacks. Some local authorities opposed the canal since it would divide the city’s flight facilities. About 4 miles of rough road lay between Anchorage and Lake Spenard and 6 miles between Merrill Field and Lake Spenard. While there were some small, positive signs of growth in the mid-1930s, very few locals could have predicted Anchorage’s rapid development to and beyond Lake Spenard in the 1940s.

An alternative plan proposed the damming of Chester Creek to create an artificial lagoon near Merrill Field. The Chester Creek site was conveniently closer to town and would have geographically unified local flight operations. It also would have been more expensive, perhaps twice the cost of the canal. Dunkle further undermined his competition by suggesting the canal was more likely to maintain its water level.

By 1936, Dunkle’s canal plan had won the day, though it took three more years to obtain the necessary funding. By September 1939, the path between the two lakes had been cleared. The Alaska Road Commission began construction on the canal itself in the first week of November 1939. The initial design called for digging a 1,500-feet long, 150-feet wide, and 3-and-a-half feet deep route between the lakes.

The construction crew, overseen by A. F. Ghiglione, began with the canal itself, leaving it unconnected to the lakes until completed. On January 14, 1940, a sizable dynamite explosion opened the Lake Spenard end. Chunks of earth flew more than 600 feet, and the water rushed in, lowering the lake level by 3 inches. The extent of the explosion was perhaps excessive, as the crew did not use dynamite to open the Lake Hood end of the channel. In all, more than 80,000 cubic yards of earth were removed, and the canal was complete by the end of January.

On April 28, 1940, John Walatka (1909-1970) flew in from Bristol Bay and made what is believed to have been the first landing at the canal. Asked for a review, he declared it “O.K.,” an ebullient utterance duly recorded by the Anchorage Daily Times. Dunkle declared the canal should be named “Dunkle’s Ditch.” From such humble beginnings do great things evolve.

Special thanks to Ryan Quigley for his research assistance and to Adam McCullough and Stephen Sparks of NV5 Geospatial.

Key sources:

Anderson, Anton. Report on Connecting Channel Between Lake Hood and Lake Spenard for Airplane Landing Lake Improvement. Anchorage: Anderson & Geehan, 1934.

“Complete Canal Work.” Anchorage Daily Times, January 31, 1940, 4.

“Dunkle Unhurt in Plane Crash Near Spenard.” Anchorage Daily Times, June 12, 1936, 1.

Hawley, Charles Caldwell. “Wesley Earl Dunkle: Alaska’s Flying Miner.” Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2003.

“Lands on Canal, Finds It Convenient.” Anchorage Daily Times, April 29, 1940, 10.

“Open Canal at Spenard End of Project.” Anchorage Daily Times, January 15, 1940, 1.

“A Public Health Nurse in Alaska.” 1936, Elinor Delight Gregg Video, Archives and Special Collections, Consortium Library, University of Alaska Anchorage, youtube.com/watch?v=z1ZJJ42grGM.

“Spenard Canal Work to Start Next Week.” Anchorage Daily Times, September 28, 1939, 1.

Van Horn, Walter, and Bruce Parham. “Dunkle, Wesley Earl.” Cook Inlet Historical Society, Legends & Legacies, Anchorage, 1910-1940, alaskahistory.org/biographies/dunkle-wesley-earl/.


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