Part of a pursuit weekly series on Alaskan history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about the history of Anchorage or Alaska or an idea for a future story? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.
Anchor mechanic Charles “Ham” Hammontree awoke early on May 24, 1922. Most of the houses were dark as he carefully walked through the mud to the dock and the moored seaplane. At around 4 a.m., the engine roared and it skidded on the water for several minutes before taking off. He rode through the Knik Arm to Goose Bay and returned to town, where he landed safely. Simple as that, it had made history, the first powered flight in Anchorage. There was no hero’s welcome, no parade or prestige. The local newspaper printed a brief theft notice on the seventh page of the day’s edition. Ham flew then went to work like any other day.
In 1922, Charles Otis Hammontree (1893-1947), born in Colorado, had a decade 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 at Lake Washington in Seattle. Three years later, he dabbled in professionally built aircraft and purchased a Navy surplus Boeing C-11S seaplane, the same one he flew in Anchorage.
Hammontree’s new seaplane was an open two-seat biplane. Built in Seattle, the floats were mahogany and the wingspan measured 43 feet and 10 inches. It weighed approximately 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 in storage 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 in early 1922. The town was rather small for specialists, so Hammontree has repaired everything from cars to small appliances. , ran a taxi service, was a Buick automobile sales agent and taught ice skating.
Its motto was:
“From planes to shotguns,
Everything will explode.
If Hammontree can’t fix it,
Better let the damn thing rust.
An earlier version of the slogan began instead, “from planes to zithers”. He may have changed it after he got tired of explaining what a zither was, even to an old-time audience. Modern readers are smarter, but just for the latecomers, a zither is a flat-stringed instrument, like a guitar with a shallower soundbox and no neck.
He also had a reputation for his sense of humor. In one of his jokes, a student asked him, “What’s the hardest thing about skating when you’re learning?” Hammontree replied, “The ice cream.” Yes, it’s a pure dad joke, but it would have seemed much cooler a century ago.
Solidly installed in town, he had his plane delivered from Seattle. It arrived on April 24, 1922 and was placed on the old town quay. There he sat, unassembled, as he waited for the ice to dissipate in the Knik Arm. By May 22, it was ready, and an Alaska Engineering Commission crane lowered the seaplane into the water. The aircraft lacked its wind gauge and altimeter, which were lost during transport. Without these instruments, he chose to wait for perfect weather. Given its mooring beyond the mudflats, he jokingly suggested the plane be christened the “Mud Hen”.
Two days later, on May 24, time dictated, and Hammontree made its first flight to Alaska, the first to Anchorage. According to the brief description of the flight by the Anchorage Daily Times, “Ham said the aircraft was fully satisfactory and more than exceeded his expectations. It’s exceptionally well-balanced, responding to the slightest touch of the controls and the engine responded powerfully.
The Daily Times published only one paragraph on the seventh page of the newspaper – 18 lines of newsprint – about the theft. Lumber yard operator Ray Larson’s return from a business trip to Nenana took up more space in the same issue. The title of the banner was “New York Postoffice Found Hotbed of Criminals”. More than 10% of New York post office workers have been fired because of their criminal records. Other stories taking up space on the front page included an update on the Irish independence movement, baseball scores, a steamer from Seattle and the merger of two steel companies, among many other stories that haven’t exactly stood the test of time.
There are several possible reasons for this lack of coverage. First, due to its early morning departure, most locals waiting for the flight missed it. Thus, there were no witness interviews or photographs.
Second, Anchorage’s population at that time numbered fewer than 2,000 people, fewer full-time residents than Girdwood has today. In a small town like this, before the advent of radio and television, new gossip was like finding a vein of gold. By the time the story of the theft could be written and printed, most of the town probably already knew the few details. In such a context, the editor may have chosen to spend his energy elsewhere. As far removed as it was from local significance, the coming and going of the Irish independence movement would have been real news to the reader.
Third, when it comes to Alaskan aviation firsts, 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, but it failed to take off. James Martin’s 1913 Fairbanks exhibit marked the first flight to Alaska. This argument is far from convincing as the flight from Hammontree was unquestionably a milestone in Anchorage and an extreme novelty to the locals.
Or maybe the Daily Times editor resented the mechanic. All these years later, we’ll probably never know.
Hammontree designed the aircraft strictly for his entertainment, a continuation of his longtime hobby. At one point he considered trying to get a mail delivery contract, but he would have needed a bigger plane for the job than the Boeing C-11S. In fact, he made several thefts to amuse residents and visitors alike, including appearing oddly at special events or humming steamboats.
Yet while the seaplane was a landmark in Anchorage aviation, it did not directly lead to advancements in the industry. In fact, the aircraft’s most notorious incident occurred when it failed to fly. On or about June 29, 1922, boys in Anchorage made the seaplane their playground, breaking several plane ribs, tearing the canvas covering the body in several places, and destroying one of the wings. Hammontree was to drop a baseball from the sky to kick off a game at the upcoming 4th of July celebrations. With that rescinded, the organizing committee offered a $50 reward (approximately $900 after inflation) for “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 of his taxi service. The aircraft was stored with the intention of shipping it later. They returned to the greater Seattle area, where he alternately ran a club, worked as a mechanic, and after World War II started a small airline service. He was killed in a mid-air collision in 1947.
Before leaving Alaska, he may have helped clear what became Anchorage’s first airstrip. On March 25, 1923, residents worked together to clear the park strip, which became a combination golf course and airfield. Noel Wien made a remarkable exhibition there on July 4, 1924.
Hammontree’s seaplane remained in Anchorage and by 1924 was in the possession of Al Jones. Impressed by the 4th of July exhibit in Vienna, Jones had the old aircraft reassembled. As he was not a pilot, he brought in the railwayman Roy Trachsel who had received flight training during the First World War.
On July 10, 1924, just six days after the flight from Wien, Trachsel took off in the seaplane. Unfortunately, it crashed almost immediately after takeoff, rolling low and sliding in the water west of Sixth Avenue. He was uninjured and was quickly rescued by bystanders. The pontoons were ripped off and also recovered. The aircraft was abandoned on the rising tide and was last seen washed away, floating past the ocean dock.
There is a tragic final coda to this story. These same pontoons were left on the shore and local children used them as canoes. On September 1, 1925, three boys were rowing on one of the pontoons near the mouth of Ship Creek at high tide. Suddenly, the makeshift boat capsized and the boys accidentally pushed off the pontoon 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 at Anchorage Memorial Cemetery. Their tombstones are linked in a common memorial.
“Plane in the water.” Anchorage Daily Times, May 23, 1922, 8.
“Anchorage Aviation.” Anchorage Daily Times, May 11, 1922, 8.
“Boys are drowning!” Anchorage Daily Times, September 1, 1925, 1.
“Fifty dollar reward.” Anchorage Daily Times, June 30, 1922, 8.
“‘Ham’ hops.” 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.
“The seaplane is coming.” Anchorage Daily Times, April 24, 1922, p. 10.
“A solid fact.” Anchorage Daily Times, January 19, 1923, 6.
“The SS 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/