Part of a continuing weekly series on Alaska history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage or Alaska history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.
Anchorage mechanic Charles “Ham” Hammontree woke early on May 24, 1922. Most homes were dark as he carefully crossed the mud toward the dock and the moored seaplane. Around 4 a.m., the engine roared to life, and he skidded across the water for several minutes before lifting off. He flew across the Knik Arm to Goose Bay and back to town, where he safely landed. As simple as that, he had made history, the first powered flight in Anchorage. There was no hero’s welcome, no parade or prestige. The local newspaper printed a short notice of the flight on the seventh page of that day’s edition. Ham flew and then went to work like any other day.
By 1922, the Colorado-born Charles Otis Hammontree (1893-1947) had a decade’s worth of experience with airplanes. He built his first plane and learned to fly in 1912. Three years later, he built his second plane but crashed it during a test run at Seattle’s Lake Washington. Three years after that, he tried his hand with planes built by professionals and bought a Navy surplus Boeing C-11S seaplane, the same one he flew in Anchorage.
Hammontree’s new seaplane was a biplane with two open seats. Built in Seattle, the floats were made of mahogany, and the wingspan measured 43 feet and 10 inches. It weighed a reported 2,200 pounds with a cruising speed of 65 miles per hour.
When he and his wife, Lillian, moved to Anchorage in the summer of 1921, the plane remained stored in Seattle. Ham, as everyone in Anchorage, including the newspaper, called him, first worked as a mechanic for Arthur Shonbeck before opening his own business by early 1922. The town was on the small side for specialists, so Hammontree repaired everything from cars to small appliances, ran a taxi service, was a Buick automobile sales agent, and taught ice skating.
His motto was:
“Airplanes to shotguns,
Anything will bust.
If Hammontree can’t fix it,
Better let the darn thing rust.”
An earlier version of the slogan instead began, “airplanes to zithers.” He perhaps changed it after tiring of explaining what a zither was, even to an old-timey audience. Modern readers are more intelligent, but just for the stragglers, a zither is a flat, stringed instrument, like a guitar with a shallower sound box and no neck.
He also had a bit of a reputation for his sense of humor. In one of his jokes, a student asked him, “What is the hardest thing about skating when you are learning?” Hammontree responded, “The ice.” Yes, it is a pure dad joke, but it would have seemed much fresher a century ago.
Firmly established in town, he had his plane shipped up from Seattle. It arrived on April 24, 1922, and was placed on the older city dock. There it sat, unassembled, while he waited for the ice to clear in the Knik Arm. By May 22, it was ready, and an Alaskan Engineering Commission crane lowered the seaplane into the water. The plane lacked its wind gauge and altimeter, which were lost during shipping. Without those instruments, he chose to wait until perfect weather. Given its mooring past the mudflats, he jokily suggested that the plane should be christened the “Mud Hen.”
Two days later, on May 24, the weather obliged, and Hammontree made his first flight in Alaska, the first ever in Anchorage. Per the Anchorage Daily Times’ brief description of the flight, “Ham said the plane was entirely satisfactory and more than exceeded his expectations. It is unusually well balanced, answering to the slightest touch on the controls and the engine responded powerfully.”
The Daily Times ran only one paragraph on the newspaper’s seventh page — 18 lines of newsprint — about the flight. The return of lumber yard operator Ray Larson from a business trip to Nenana took up more space in the same issue. The banner headline story was “New York Postoffice Found Hotbed of Criminals.” More than 10 percent of New York post office workers were fired due to their criminal records. Other stories taking up space on the front page included an update on the Irish independence movement, baseball scores, a steamship departing Seattle, and the merger of two steel companies, among many other stories that have not exactly stood the test of time.
There are a few possible reasons for this lack of coverage. First, due to its early morning start, most of the locals who had been waiting for the flight missed out. Thus, there were no witness interviews or photographs.
Second, the Anchorage population around this time was less than 2,000 people, fewer full-time residents than in Girdwood today. In a small town like that, before the advent of radio and television, new gossip was like finding a vein of gold. By the time the story of the flight could be written and printed, most of the town likely already knew the scant details. Given such context, the editor may have chosen to spend his energy elsewhere. As removed as it was from local significance, the back and forth of the Irish independence movement would have been actual news to the reader.
Third, when it came to aviation firsts in Alaska, Anchorage was a little late to the party. The first unpowered flight in Alaska took place 23 years earlier. On July 4, 1899, John “Professor” Leonard made a hot air balloon ascent in Juneau. In 1911, Nome resident Henry Peterson built the first airplane in Alaska, though it failed to take off. James Martin’s 1913 exhibition in Fairbanks marked the first flight in Alaska. This argument is less than persuasive as Hammontree’s flight was inarguably an Anchorage milestone and an extreme novelty for the locals.
Or perhaps the Daily Times editor nursed a grudge against the mechanic. All these years later, we will likely never know.
Hammontree intended the plane strictly for his entertainment, a continuation of his longtime hobby. At one time, he considered trying for a contract to deliver mail, but he would have needed a larger plane for the job than the Boeing C-11S. As it was, he made several flights to amuse residents and visitors, including the odd appearance at special events or buzzing over steamships.
Still, while the seaplane was a landmark in Anchorage aviation, it did not directly lead to any advances in the industry. In fact, the plane’s most notorious incident came when it could not fly. On or about June 29, 1922, some Anchorage boys made the seaplane their playground, breaking several airplane ribs, tearing the canvas covering the body in several places, and wrecking one of the wings. Hammontree had been scheduled to drop a baseball from the sky to kick off a game during the upcoming Fourth of July celebrations. With that canceled, the organizing committee offered a $50 reward (about $900 after inflation) for the “miscreants.” The plane was eventually repaired, but the stunt was apparently never attempted.
Just over a year later, in August 1923, Charles and Lillian Hammontree left Anchorage for good. As for his business interests in town, he sold them all, including his garage and the three cars from his taxi service. The plane was stored with the intent to ship it later. They moved back to the greater Seattle area, where he alternately ran a club, worked as a mechanic, and, after World War II, started a small air service. He was killed in a 1947 midair collision.
Before he left Alaska, he might have helped clear what became Anchorage’s first airstrip. On March 25, 1923, residents worked together to clear out the park strip, which became a combination golf course and airfield. Noel Wien made a notable exhibition there on July 4, 1924.
Hammontree’s seaplane remained in Anchorage and, by 1924, was in the possession of Al Jones. Impressed by Wien’s Fourth of July exhibition, Jones had the older plane reassembled. As he was not a pilot, he brought on railroad worker Roy Trachsel who had received some flight training during World War I.
On July 10, 1924, just six days after Wien’s flight, Trachsel took off in the seaplane. Unfortunately, he crashed almost immediately after liftoff, banking at a low altitude and side slipping into the water west of Sixth Avenue. He was unharmed and quickly rescued by onlookers. The pontoons were ripped off and also recovered. The plane was abandoned to the rising tide and was last seen carried off by the water, floating past the ocean dock.
There is one last tragic coda to this story. Those same pontoons were left on the shore, and local children used them like canoes. On September 1, 1925, three boys were rowing one of the pontoons near the mouth of Ship Creek near high tide. Suddenly, the makeshift watercraft capsized, and the boys accidentally pushed the pontoon away as they struggled in the water. When they reached the surface, they were 30 feet from the pontoon and 50 feet from shore. Two of them, Robert “Bobbie” Patterson and Scheiber Elliott, drowned. Inseparable best friends in life, they were buried next to each other in the Anchorage Memorial Cemetery. Their gravestones are linked into a joint memorial.
“Airplane in the Water.” Anchorage Daily Times, May 23, 1922, 8.
“Anchorage Aviation.” Anchorage Daily Times, May 11, 1922, 8.
“Boys Drown!” Anchorage Daily Times, September 1, 1925, 1.
“Fifty Dollars’ Reward.” Anchorage Daily Times, June 30, 1922, 8.
“‘Ham’ Hops Off.” Anchorage Daily Times, May 24, 1922, 7.
“Happy’s Other Hop.” Anchorage Daily Times, May 16, 1922, 8.
“Jones Seaplane Crashes in Inlet.” Anchorage Daily Times, July 11, 1924, 2.
“Seaplane Arrives.” Anchorage Daily Times, April 24, 1922, 10.
“A Solid Fact.” Anchorage Daily Times, January 19, 1923, 6.
“S.S. Alameda Leaves.” Anchorage Daily Times, May 26, 1922, 3.
Stevens, Robert W. Alaska Aviation History, Volume One 1897-1928. Des Moines, WA: Polynyas Press, 1990.
Van Horn, Walter, and Bruce Parham. “Hammontree, Charles O.,” Cook Inlet Historical Society, Legends & Legacies, Anchorage, 1910-1940, https://www.alaskahistory.org/biographies/hammontree-charles-o/