In the midst of an arctic plain in Alaska, two lone monuments commemorate the place where Will Rogers and Wiley Post died in a fateful plane crash on August 15, 1935.
Barrow, Alaska, doesn’t sprawl. When it’s done, it’s done. One moment a clutch of houses and a gravel pit, and then a vast tundra hard against the Arctic Ocean, utter wilderness to all horizons.
For most of the year the open arctic plains are cast in endless white. With little relief on the horizon, people keep their bearings by studying which way the relentless wind has drifted the snow. In the brief and nightless summer, the snows recede enough to reveal a soggy permafrost dappled with potholes and vague river deltas. Both landscapes are deeply foreboding in their own way — or alluring, if you have a taste for adventure.
Eighty years ago, two men with an unquenchable thirst to see the world circled over the tundra around Barrow, searching for what was then a tiny speck of a whaling outpost and Eskimo village. If famous pilot Wiley Post and his more-famous passenger, Will Rogers, could see anything through the thick layer of fog that had settled down over the Arctic Coast that August day, it wasn’t offering them any clues, just riddles in the form of puddles melted into permafrost. Their flight from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Point Barrow — the northernmost point in the United States — was supposed to take four hours. But six hours after they departed, their growling seaplane would be heard up in the clouds by reindeer ranchers and traders. The whine of the aircraft would pass overhead, disappear, then come whining back. Three or four times it passed, they’d later say.
Rogers and Post were lost.
Reindeer ranchers aside, it would be hard to imagine a stranger place for two cowboys from either side of the Oklahoma-Texas border to be lost in. What were they doing up there, circling around trying to find the end of the world? Rogers and Post had been playing coy with that question throughout their heavily documented air trip around Alaska. With Rogers writing daily dispatches of his voyage for newspapers across the country, and reporters filing national wire stories from nearly every stop the men made in Alaska, little about the jaunt went unsaid, besides its reason for being. The predominant theory, one most reports went with, was that Post wanted to find a new air route to Russia.
However, every time someone asked the two what they were up to, Rogers would have no comment — uncharacteristic, to say the least, for the outspoken columnist.
After hours of circling over the tundra, Post spotted an opening in the clouds and an Eskimo encampment along a bay. He brought the plane down onto the water, and he and Rogers waded over to land and asked a man named Claire Okpeaha for directions to Barrow.
In broken English, Okpeaha told them they were close — just 15 miles away. The men thanked Okpeaha, offered him a cigarette, and returned to the plane. In Rogers’ front breast pocket was his latest column, to be wired to newspapers from Barrow when the duo finally landed. His typewriter — which he’d pound away at while Post flew — was tucked away behind him.
Post fired up the plane’s engine, taxied around, and then thrust forward, lifting off the water with a mighty roar in a steep ascent. The Eskimos then watched in horror as the plane flipped over and crashed back into the water.
After the initial shock, Okpeaha took off running, 15 miles to Barrow, to tell the world Will Rogers and Wiley Post were dead.
No modern equivalent exists today to compare with Rogers’ celebrity in 1935. At a time when print was king, he wrote a brief, daily column that was syndicated in more than 500 newspapers across the country, and he regularly wrote longer exclusives for the major dailies. He was the highest-paid actor in Hollywood and would appear in more than 70 movies, having just completed filming two before leaving for the Arctic expedition (as it happens, his first film was a silent picture called Laughing Bill Hyde, set in Alaska). Franklin D. Roosevelt wasn’t a president to him; he was a friend and contemporary. These were heady heights for the man born in 1879 in Indian Territory (before it was part of Oklahoma) to a prominent part-Cherokee family.
Rogers didn’t set out early in life to be famous. But he did set out to see the world. Rogers left Oklahoma as a young man and tried to make it as a rancher in Argentina. When that venture went bust, he did some work in South Africa, later making the tall claim that he broke horses for the British during the Boer War (fact checkers would say that the dates just don’t line up for that to be possible). But by 1902, barely into his 20s, Rogers began to see the glow of the limelight when he signed on to perform in Wild West shows, first in South Africa and then back in the United States.
Initially, his fame was largely a product of his being a ranch kid from Indian Country. He called himself the “Cherokee Kid,” riding broncs and roping steers for the entertainment of a public enraptured by the American West. He thrilled a crowd in New York City in 1905 when a bull got loose in the stands and he roped it into submission. Others say it was a cow and part of the act, but either way, the dramatic tie-down earned him the thanks of the urban spectators and the praise of major newspapers — his first real brush with fame.
Were Rogers simply a fancy cowboy, his star would have faded like so many others as World War I loomed and Wild West shows lost their allure. But promoters would soon learn the Cherokee Kid possessed a wit sharper than barbed wire, which he presented with no more pretense than a ranch hand talking about the weather while rubbing his sunburned neck. He was deeply political, but never raised his voice when joking about the issues of the day, and was as happy knocking his side as he was the other (concepts that must be entirely alien to today’s political commentators).
“I’m not a member of any organized political party,” went one of his famous quips. “I’m a Democrat.”
After the Wild West shows, he began doing vaudeville. That led to Hollywood and national syndicated press. Throughout the 1920s and into the ’30s there seemed to be little to stop the Cherokee Kid’s ascent to folk stardom.
Rogers contained multitudes, as Walt Whitman might have put it. While he mourned the loss of simpler times and the vanishing frontier, he also championed progress. This central contradiction was on full display during his trip to Alaska.
He was eager to visit Barrow to see a man named Charles Brower on account of Brower’s anachronistic life as a whaler in the 20th century — “I’d rather see him than Greta Garbo,” Rogers told a reporter — and in general feared what statehood would do to the Alaska territory.
“This Alaska is a great country. If they can just keep from being taken over by the U.S., they got a great future,” he wrote in a column published the day before he died.
At the same time, at least part of the purpose of the trip was to show Americans the possibilities that air travel allowed in hopes they’d adopt the new technology.
He took his first plane ride in 1915 in Atlantic City and was immediately enthralled by the technology. When pilot Wiley Post and navigator Harold Getty set a new time record for flying around the world, Rogers immediately championed Post’s cause: expanding commercial flight.
“Post and Getty ... are making this world of ours look the size of a watermelon,” he wrote shortly after the record-breaking flight in 1931.
Post was as much of an American original as Rogers. Born in 1898 in Grand Saline, Texas, just east of Dallas, Post lost his eye working on an oil rig in Oklahoma and used the settlement he got from the company to buy his first airplane. In other words, he wasn’t much interested in his limitations.
Rogers first flew with Post in 1931 following the pilot’s record-breaking flight, as Post was being feted in Oklahoma. In the first of what later seem like eerie premonitions of the accident, Post wrote in a column that, to the one-eyed pilot, “a little thing like fog looks like a clear day.”
To this day, life in Alaska is dominated by three factors: climate, distance, and remoteness. In 1935, before statehood, before WWII and later the Cold War prompted a major military buildup of the territory, and before billions of dollars worth of oil was discovered on the North Slope, the influence of all three on life in America’s last frontier was even more pronounced, which sent Rogers’ imagination churning.
By that time, Post had become the first person to fly around the world solo and was a good friend of his constant champion Rogers. Rogers himself was enjoying greater fame than ever before, as a nation badly beaten by the Great Depression turned to the modest cowboy for his calming wisdom. Rogers was a fierce advocate for Roosevelt’s New Deal policies, which he saw as a vital safety line for the farmers and ranchers he grew up with. Yet he never resorted to meanness to press his point — instead using his wry humor.
“The worse off we get the louder we laugh, which is a great thing,” he wrote in 1933. “And every American international banker ought to have printed on his office door, ‘Alive today by the grace of a nation that has a sense of humor.’ ”
Rogers had several times written that he hoped to accompany Post on one of his globe-spanning flights, and the opportunity came when Post invited him on a flight to scout out — and help fund — a new commercial and postal route to Russia (though, again, the men wouldn’t confirm that itinerary to the press).
Rogers rightly saw Alaska as an opportunity to meet, in the age of films and flight, the kind of men who tamed the American West before he was born — men like Brower and the farmers of Palmer, Alaska, who were living as homesteaders in a valley near Anchorage, trying to see if they could turn the land over to crop production (today, Anchorage grocery stores are full of produce from Palmer). In a column published the day before he died, Rogers called on the government to support “our emigrants” in Palmer, who he feared were under-prepared for the approaching Alaska winter.
Flying around the territory, with excursions into the Canadian Yukon, Rogers wrote about many of the same things he did in the Lower 48, among them horses and policies toward indigenous people. He praised a Canadian law that kept wide swaths of arctic land open only to Natives, which helped preserve their economy and way of life. (“We never thought of that,” he noted, surely thinking in part of the poverty he saw growing up with the Cherokee in Oklahoma.) He marveled that a horse lived in the Yukon, walked around on snowshoes, and lived off fish.
Rogers wasn’t ignorant of the dangers of flight — he’d written before about the crash landings Post himself had endured, including in the remote wilds of Siberia. But Rogers seemed to have full confidence in the famous pilot and his ability to find his way with his one good eye.
“Talk about navigating,” Rogers wrote as Post made his way up to Juneau, “there are millions of channels and islands and bays and all look alike (to me) but this old boy turns up the right alley all the time.”
In hindsight, Post and Rogers’ final flight may have been doomed from the beginning. Charles Brower, whom the men wanted to visit in Barrow, would later write that they had radioed up to Barrow for a weather report the morning of the crash. He wrote that they must not have waited for a reply, because, if they had, they would not have left Fairbanks to begin with.
“The weather was vile. No visibility and no ceiling — just dense fog that one had to shove aside to get through it,” Brower would recall.
That Post decided to fly to Barrow in spite of the weather report, or without any weather report at all, shows the cocksure attitude the Texan brought to the skies — and the trust Rogers had in him. And, indeed, that they were able to make a clean landing just 15 miles from their destination shows the almost unparalleled skill Post brought to his craft.
But the weather was just the first of their problems. For this flight, Post had abandoned “Winnie Mae,” the aircraft that he’d taken around the world twice, in favor of a new hybrid plane that investigators later determined was far too heavy in the front to be safe. To make matters worse, pilots in Alaska were disturbed when they watched Post take off in the strange plane, pointing the nose so steeply into the air that if the engine died on takeoff, the wings would have no ability to glide, and the plane would simply fall straight back down to the ground.
Which is precisely what seems to have happened on their final takeoff.
“Before they got high enough the plane turned upside down and fell into the water of the lagoon,” Okpeaha remembered years later.
Okpeaha said he called to the men, and no one answered. Fearful that the plane may hurt his family, he told them not to approach it and ran for Barrow to get help. The 15-mile run exhausted the 50-year-old, but he made it and a search party was soon on its way to go through the wreckage. Post’s wife would later give him $100 to thank him for his effort.
When, with heavy hearts, the people of Barrow radioed the tragic news to the rest of the world, a state of shock descended upon the nation. A floor debate in the House of Representatives was interrupted so that the members could be informed, and the day’s business was suspended. Shirley Temple, vacationing with her family in Hawaii, cried “I hate airplanes!” when she learned the news. Twelve thousand movie theaters darkened their lights for two minutes in honor of Rogers, and 1,000 people met the plane in Seattle that carried the men’s bodies back to their families in California.
Those were just the first of countless respects to be paid.
Four years after he died, a statue of Rogers was placed in the U.S. Capitol, his hands in his pockets and his head cocked down in thought. Another statue of him, this time on horseback, sits in front of the Will Rogers Memorial Center in Fort Worth, Texas. His official memorial is in his hometown of Claremont, Oklahoma, where a 20-acre plot holds his remains and a museum overlooks Rogers State University.
All of these memorials are grander than the two simple columns that stand at the crash site in an otherwise empty field against the Arctic Ocean. None are more haunting.
That there are not one but two memorials at the crash site speaks to the deep admiration many Americans had for Rogers.
The first memorial was built three years after the crash, using donations from thousands of Americans and a pink granite marker designed and quarried near Claremont. The dedication of the memorial was broadcast nationwide. The second memorial is a stranger tale — built in 1953 by a man named Jesse Stubbs, who claimed to be a childhood friend of Rogers. Stubbs flew to Anchorage and announced plans to walk to Barrow in honor of Rogers. He made it 445 miles to Fairbanks, but then took an airplane the rest of the way.
Curious to see the lonely place Will Rogers died, I flew there last October, touching down to find Barrow already very much in the clutches of the arctic winter.
Like everywhere else, the last 80 years have made their mark on Barrow. But perhaps less of a mark than most. The side of Rogers that urged the nation to embrace air travel would probably be thrilled to know that a Boeing 737 flies in and out of the town twice a day. The side of him that pined for the loss of traditional Native ways likely would approve of the fact that the indigenous Inupiat have retained many of their traditions, including the sacred whale hunts in the spring and fall. And the phone book is full of people named Brower.
At the time of my visit, there was enough snow on the ground to allow my guide to take me to the crash site by snowmobile — or “snow machine,” as they are universally known in Alaska. He made the trip with an AR-15 slung over his shoulder, the clip at the ready in case we needed to scare off any polar bears. As it was, arctic foxes, white with the season, were the only fauna about that day.
At the site, the bay in which Rogers and Post landed was frozen and covered in snow. A biting wind made the 15-degree weather feel much colder. My guide told me the monuments are not a popular site for visitors, most of whom are more interested in seeing polar bears or reaching the farthest north point of land in the United States — some 15 miles in the other direction. Which makes some sense: Apart from being at the far end of the earth, the monuments commemorate great men who’ve been largely forgotten. As The New York Times wrote a few years ago: “Will Rogers: That’s the guy who never met a man he didn’t like, right? Today, few people know more than that.”
The monuments themselves seem like artifacts of a lost time. All of the placards that once adorned them have been removed by vandals. Some of the granite on Stubbs’ monument has been broken off — though by man or the brutal elements it is exposed to is unclear. Locals told me that the ocean has been eating away at the bluff on which the monuments stand, putting the Stubbs obelisk in even greater peril.
After maybe 30 minutes at the crash site, I was too cold to remain any longer. We got back on the snowmobile and rode the 15 miles back to Barrow — likely following closely the route Okpeaha took 80 years ago.
It’s hard to imagine Rogers would be upset about the state of the monuments, at least publicly. He’d probably shrug it off with a wisecrack about their being in better shape than most things born before 1955.
He might also find humor in the fact that Barrow thought to name its airport the Wiley Post-Will Rogers Memorial Airport — noting that as a point of fact, the two never made it to that particular town during their Alaskan travels.
That was Rogers: finding humor in the hardest of times, and finding the human spirit in the most inhumane places — the cowboy who died when he was on top of the world.
Will Rogers Days celebrates the November 4, 1879, birth of Oklahoma’s Favorite Son at the Will Rogers Memorial Museum in Claremore, Oklahoma.You can also visit the ranch where Rogers grew up in nearby Oologah, Oklahoma.
From the August/September 2015 issue.