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History Hunter: Will Rogers and Wiley Post: Their historic visit to the Yukon

The story of the American pilot and the film star has a Yukon connection
Wiley Post inspecting his plane while in Dawson City. According to one account, cub reporter Harriet Malstrom accompanied Post back to his airplane one evening to retrieve some maps but Post failed to take his eye off his young companion and stepped right off the pontoon into the river up to his neck. (Gates Collection)

In 1935, renowned American pilot, Wiley Post, and famed film star and humorist, Will Rogers, visited the Yukon, just days before their tragic demise.

Wiley Post was widely recognizable because of the black eye patch he wore. He had suffered an injury while working on an oil rig and used the settlement money to buy his first airplane. In 1931, he established his flying reputation by breaking the time record for circumnavigating the globe by air: eight days and 15 hours and 51 minutes.

The book he and his navigator wrote included an introduction by famed humorist and fellow Oklahoman, Will Rogers. The two Oklahomans had first met when Post flew Rogers to a rodeo, and they soon became fast friends. Two years later, Post broke his own record by repeating the global trip solo in seven days, 18 hours, 49 minutes.

Will Rogers was an American cowboy, stage and film actor, vaudeville performer, humorist and newspaper columnist. During his lifetime, he appeared in more than 70 movies, becoming the highest paid film star in Hollywood. His syndicated column, “Will Rogers Says,” which poked fun at the rich and famous, was enjoyed daily by 40 million readers.

In 1935, Post decided to demonstrate the viability of establishing an airmail route between America and Russia. To do this, he created a “Frankenplane” consisting of the fuselage of a red Lockheed Orion monoplane, to which he had mounted the longer wings of a Lockheed Explorer, which extended the range of the hybrid aircraft. The wheels were removed from the fixed landing gear, and pontoons were attached in their place.

When Rogers heard of Post’s plans, he decided to tag along to visit exotic places and meet interesting people to gather material for his ever-popular column. The pair left Seattle August 6, and flew north to Juneau, where they were held up by bad weather. While there, they connected with visiting author Rex Beach. Rogers noted in a dispatch that the first movie that he ever appeared in was based upon a story written by Beach.

We can follow their route north by reading the articles wired to Outside by newspapers covering their travels, and by Rogers’ own dispatches. The duo planned to depart for Skagway on August 9, where they would spend a few days before flying on to Anchorage, but the sky was filled with rain and clouds, so they redirected their plane instead to Dawson City via the Taku valley, bypassing Skagway and Whitehorse completely. They arrived in Dawson that day at 4:15 in the afternoon after covering 760 kilometres in a flying time of three hours and five minutes.

They were greeted in Dawson by a huge crowd of adoring fans and eventually made their way to the Royal Alexandra Hotel to stay for the night. After enjoying a specially prepared meal of moose steak in the Arcade Café, Rogers mingled with the oldtimers, to hear their stories. Among them was “Apple” Jimmy Oglow, who ran a confectionary and novelty store on Front Street. It was reported that Rogers was so impressed by Oglow, that he invited the colourful Dawsonite to visit him in Hollywood after his tour of Alaska was finished.

When talking to Harold Malstrom, the proprietor of the Dawson News, Rogers offered to steer his son, a recent Stanford graduate, to work on the Dawson rag. But Post and Rogers were so overwhelmed by the throng of curious Dawsonites, they changed their plans to stay in Dawson for a few days. When the manager of the Family Theatre told Rogers that his movie, Doctor Bull, would be screened that evening, Rogers responded, “Well if that’s the case, guess I had better leave town.”

Rogers was tactful about their rapid departure: “The Dawson folks wanted Post and I to stay there longer, but I told them I had got such a fine impression of the town that I’s better leave town in a hurry before I lost it.”

They did leave, but in a final gesture before departing Dawson, they obliged local youngsters by signing numerous autograph books. They then climbed aboard the Lockheed aircraft and took off. Again, they were uncertain where they would go next. Different newspapers suggested Fairbanks or Nome as their destination. Instead, they flew to Aklavik at the mouth of the Mackenzie River in the Northwest Territories. In a dispatch sent from Aklavik, Rogers quipped that Post had to duck his head to keep from bumping the Arctic Circle as they flew under it.

From Aklavik, Rogers thought they might fly to Great Bear Lake, or over Herschel Island, headed for Nome. Instead, on August 12, they flew to Fairbanks, and landed unannounced on the Chena River. Rogers made the rounds of the Alaskan City. Many accounts later reported in typical American fashion that the pair of aeronauts had flown through Alaska, ignoring the fact that Dawson City was in the Yukon, and Aklavik was in the Northwest territories.

Trailed by an admiring crowd of young boys and girls, Rogers stopped in numerous Fairbanks businesses and visited the Fairbanks News-Miner newspaper, where he talked about many things, except for where the pair would fly to next. “It’s up to Wiley,” was Rogers’ standard reply. “He won’t tell me where’s the next place he’s going.”

Before heading farther north, the two flyers made a side trip to Anchorage with fellow pilot Joe Crosson, flying near Mount McKinley (today known as Denali), and visiting Matanuska, where Rogers mingled with colonists of a government-sponsored land settlement project.

Post and Rogers left Fairbanks on August 15, headed for Point Barrow, the most northerly settlement in Alaska. Due to fog and poor flying conditions, they were forced to land at dusk on a small lake only 25 kilometres from Barrow. The following morning, Post’s Frankenplane skimmed across the lake and took wing. They had gained a few hundred metres when the engine spluttered and died; it was out of fuel. The top-heavy aircraft stalled, then plummeted to the ground. According to a report in the Dawson News, Rogers was thrown from the aircraft, while Post was trapped in the cockpit when the motor was thrust backward upon impact. Both died instantly.

While news of the tragic accident flashed around the world, Joe Crosson flew his Lockheed Electra to Barrow to transport the bodies of his two friends to Fairbanks on their last journey together. Post’s dreams of opening transarctic airmail delivery were dashed with his death. How many more columns would Rogers have written, and how many more films he would have starred in had he not died that day? He had stated in a newspaper interview that he planned to come back for a lengthier visit; would he have done so?

In Dawson City, “Apple” Jimmy Oglow wondered what would have happened to his life if Rogers had kept his promise and invited him to Hollywood. Could it have been the beginning of a new career for the veteran Klondike sourdough?

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His book, From the Klondike to Berlin, was shortlisted for a national book award. You can contact him at