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.
Alaska history is thankfully rife with heroes, people whose selfless acts saved lives, made the world a better place, and inspired others. Some won acclaim, and some did not. Such is the life of a hero. However, 48 Alaskans were honored with Carnegie Medals for acts that run the gamut from movie set disasters to unprepared glacier crossings to airplane crashes. Of those 48 people, 14 were awarded for events in Anchorage and covered in an article earlier this year. This article offers the stories behind the rest of the Carnegie-acclaimed heroes of pre-statehood Alaska.
The idea for the Carnegie hero medals originated in the wake of one of the country’s most notorious mining catastrophes. On Jan. 25, 1904, a massive explosion rocked the Allegheny Coal Company’s Harwick Mine north of Pittsburgh, Penn. A planned detonation to expose a coal seam ignited methane and coal dust in the air. The blast was so massive it demolished a building above the mine shaft. A mule in the mine was launched up and out 300 feet from the mine. Of the 180 miners and staff in the mine at the time, only one survived, a badly burned 16-year-old boy. The poisoned air also killed two would-be rescuers, Daniel Lyle and Selwyn Taylor.
Lyle and Taylor’s sacrifice inspired industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. That same year he established the Carnegie Hero Fund to honor such civilian heroes. In their words, “The Carnegie Hero Fund awards the Carnegie Medal to individuals in the United States and Canada who risk their lives to an extraordinary degree saving or attempting to save the lives of others.”
The first Carnegie medal awarded for heroism in Alaska was bestowed upon a British sailor based out of Vancouver. On Nov. 26, 1909, John Magee was boarding a ship near Skagway when he slipped and fell into the frigid water. William Kerr rushed to the deck and slid down a line to the water 25 feet below. While maintaining his grip on the rope, Kerr collected Magee and swam him back to the ship, where they were both recovered.
There was no notice of the rescue in the Skagway newspaper, perhaps the most surprising aspect of the event. Then as now, readers eagerly consumed stories about extreme heroism and narrow escapes. Five years later, Kerr was awarded his Carnegie medal.
On June 28, 1927, the cast and crew of “The Trail of ‘98″ were filming scenes on the Abercrombie Rapids in the Copper River near Cordova. The silent film covered the tribulations and failures of a motley group of Klondike Gold Rush prospectors. By the late 1920s, movies about the gold rushes of Canada and Alaska were already a genre unto themselves. Charlie Chaplin had spoofed the concept two years earlier with his feature, “The Gold Rush.” Released in 1928, “The Trail of ‘98″ fell squarely within the transition period of silent movies to talkies, as movies with sound, and its cultural impact was relatively minimal.
If the film is remembered today, it is for its tragic stunts. On that June day, three crew members fell out of their boats while trying to navigate the turbulent water. One of the men managed to work his way against the stream and beach himself on a nearby sandbar. The current swept the other two men, Ray Thompson and F. Howard Daughters, farther downstream. Joseph Boutin, a World War I veteran and Juneau resident, was stationed on a platform 15 feet above the water. Fully clothed, he dove into the rapids after his fellow stuntmen. Unfortunately, he “survived only a few seconds in the terrific current.” Thompson, Daughters and Boutin all died.
Lee Rox, one of Boutin’s Juneau friends, had intended to join the production but changed his mind at the last second. Haunted by his choice and the selflessness of his friend, Rox initiated a campaign to honor Boutin for his sacrifice. With the assistance of the American Legion posts in Alaska, he collected the necessary affidavits and secured the Carnegie recognition in 1931.
Just over three months later, there was another drowning tragedy, this time in Seward. Early in the morning of Oct. 3, 1927, three sailors — George Slavin, Roy Byerly, and Carl Deetkin — realized they had missed the last regular boat back to their disparate ships. Despite an incoming storm, they headed out in a borrowed skiff. As they approached the side of their first stop, the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey steamer Surveyor, the rough seas poured over the sides and swamped the small skiff.
It was 3:35 a.m., and the “man overboard” alarm sounded on the Surveyor. William Bowen was among the first to respond. While other crew members dropped a line and pulled Deetkin aboard, Bowen leaped off the deck into the dark, icy water to assist Slavin and Byerly. The captain ordered the lowering of the ship’s whale boat, but by that time, the three men had disappeared. In addition to his recognition from the Carnegie commission, the Bowen Anchorage near Seward was renamed in his honor.
In January 1935, John Roy “Slim” Tipton and three other men headed out for Valdez from the Ramsey-Rutherford Mine northwest of Prospector Peak. Their path took them across the Valdez Glacier where a blizzard overtook them. One of the men, George Martin, collapsed under the physical and mental strain. The other two men struck out into the storm, hoping to return with help. Meanwhile, Tipton pushed, dragged, and protected Martin for two days and nights, keeping him warm as best possible in the bitter cold.
When the storm finally passed, and without the arrival of any aid from Valdez, Tipton realized it was time to make the difficult choice. He built a snow cave for Martin and placed his own gloves on the exhausted miner’s hands. Then, Tipton removed his snowshoes and used them to mark the location. Through several miles of three-foot deep, unbroken snow, Tipton struggled back to Valdez, actually arriving well before his other two companions. They had been fortunate enough to happen upon a cabin where they spent several hours resting.
A rescue party found Martin, but he died on the way down to Valdez. As for Tipton, the extended, subzero exposure and resultant frostbite savagely wrecked his body. Half his left foot and all his right toes were amputated. He also never recovered the full use of his right hand. From his injuries, age, and a run of related bad luck, Tipton struggled in the years after his adventure on the icefield. He received his Carnegie medal in 1936, but as the Petersburg Press opined in 1941, “The medal is a fine testimonial but he can’t eat it.”
On July 27, 1937, 15-year-old Margie Jean Snyder and her three younger siblings were asleep in the second story of their Palmer home when it caught fire. The flames engulfed the stairway, blocking their escape and separating them from their parents. Their father, Thomas, climbed the exterior ladder to their window. Margie passed each of her siblings through to her father, who had to descend and re-ascend each time. By the rescue of the third sibling, the fire had reached them. When Thomas returned for the fourth time, he found Margie unconscious on the burning floor. Eighteen hours later, she succumbed to her wounds. She was posthumously honored by the Carnegie commission in 1938; her medal was given to her father.
On Sept. 21, 1942, a British bomber outbound from Canada crashed on Annette Island near Metlakatla. Of the three-person crew, John Wallace and William Gray were thrown clear of the plane upon impact. The third crew member, John Huggan, was left unconscious in the nose of the airplane. Fire spread across the wreck and ignited some of the munitions. Three nearby Civil Aeronautics Authority workers fought through the flames and bullets to the site. Jack Bassett and Loren Sasseen dragged Wallace and Gray to safety. Unable to open any of the doors, Charles Marchant climbed onto the fuselage and pulled Huggan out through a ragged hole. Fifteen minutes later, the bomber exploded.
All three crew members survived. Bassett, Sasseen, and Marchant were honored with Carnegie medals in 1943 and British Empire Medals in 1946.
On Nov. 15, 1950, Helvig Christensen, Fred Wetche and Fred Wetche Jr. were heading home to Pelican amid a nasty gale when their boat hit rocks north of Yakobi Island and broke up. Only Christensen survived, and narrowly so. He secured himself to a large rock and endured two more days of the storm, numb and passing in and out of consciousness.
Late on Nov. 17, fellow Pelican resident Thomas Allain was alerted to the disappearance and set out in his 32-foot boat to find his missing neighbors. He was accompanied by two young relatives, Betty and Marie Mork, aged 15 and 13, respectively. They blasted on a signal whistle, a slim hope in the wind and choppy seas, but, to their great relief, they heard Christensen call out. As Allain maneuvered closer, his boat also hit rocks, which punctured the hull in two places. Allain took off in a skiff for Christensen while the Mork sisters tried to keep the boat afloat, Betty at the wheel and Marie on the bilge pump. The four of them limped back to Pelican, arriving at daybreak.
They were awarded Carnegie medals in 1951. Marie received hers at a school assembly. In true teenage fashion, she wanted to avoid the attention, wishing she could “slide under a table or desk.” Decades later, they also received the Coast Guard’s Meritorious Service Award. Said Marie at the time, “We went to help our neighbors. Who knew 60 years later someone would make such a fuss?”
On May 20, 1953, 16-year-old Frederick Stevens jumped into the water by Douglas after 10-year-old Dennis Rigby fell off the dock. Despite being a poor swimmer, Stevens kept Rigby above the water until recovered by some cannery workers.
On Feb. 17, 1954, 3-year-old Sherman Smith III and two girls were outside playing in subzero temperatures at Cooper Landing, and they wandered onto the edge of the Kenai River. Suddenly, the ice broke under Smith, and he fell into the 8-foot-deep water. Catherine Coppock was in her home when she heard the screams. She ran out, down a flight of stairs, and across several hundred feet to the river. There, she dropped to a prone position and crawled onto the ice. The ice broke under her, but she persevered and swam to Smith. By now, her arms were frozen stiff, but she managed to carry him back to the bank. Tragically, Smith did not survive.
On June 22, 1957, a small plane carrying Thomas Douglas, Stephen Herbert, and Herbert’s father crashed onto a mountain ledge near Kobuk. The pilot died on impact. Herbert dragged his father from the upside-down wreck, then returned to save Douglas, whose legs were trapped under a shattered instrument panel. Two-foot-tall flames circled them as Herbert cut Douglas from the restraints and pulled him free from the wreckage.
As this was a crash in remote Alaska, Herbert still had to make a fire, build a windbreak, administer first aid, and stomp “HELP” into some fresh snow. A search party found them 12 hours later. Despite some serious injuries — Douglas lost a leg — all three survived.
The last Carnegie medal earned in Alaska before statehood was awarded for a Dec. 14, 1958, incident on Shemya Island. The accident came during a cargo transfer from ship to shore during rough seas, as the vessel bobbed wildly in the water. David Wenger was on the pier when a pipe section swung loose and knocked him into the water. Richard G. McLeod slid down a line from the ship, swam to Wenger, and lifted his head above the water. Caught within a narrow gap along the ship and too numb to escape, McLeod could only watch as they were nearly crushed against the pier. The crew dropped another man on a rope who was able to pull Wenger out. McLeod was recovered shortly thereafter. Both men made full recoveries.
These award winners were certainly not the only heroes in Alaska history. However, their selfless acts were of such singular valor that they captured the attention of people across the nation and, as such, deserve another remembrance. The rest of the post-statehood Alaskan Carnegie medal winners will be covered in a future article.
“Alaska Praises Man Who Sacrificed Himself in Vain Effort to Save Miner’s Life.” Anchorage Daily Times, February 26, 1937, 7.
“Alaska Woman Wins Carnegie Hero Award.” Anchorage Daily Times, January 22, 1955, 1.
“Anchorage Man Eligible for British Medal.” Anchorage Daily Times, April 3, 1945, 6.
Broadt, Zach. “Harwick Mine Explosion.” University of Pittsburgh, Archives & Special Collections, 2007.
“Carnegie Fund Honors Juneau Youth as Hero.” Anchorage Daily Times, March 6, 1931, 3.
“Film Company is Held Blameless Canyon Tragedy.” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, July 23, 1927, 2.
Haugland, Shannon. “Sitka Woman Honored by Coast Guard.” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, September 26, 2011, B1, B2.
“Hero Medals for 3 Soldiers.” Anchorage Daily Times, October 30, 1943, 1.
“Honor Palmer Girl.” Anchorage Daily Times, October 28, 1938, 1.
“Mission of the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission.” Carnegie Hero Fund.
“Seward Shocked by Death Three Men, Drowning.” Seward Gateway, October 3, 1927, 1, 4.
“Student, 18, Gets Silver Hero Medal.” Anchorage Daily Times, November 3, 1958, 8.