Cordova Air Service hangar

Except for a little wear and tear, the old Cordova Air Service hangar looks much the same today as when it was constructed in 1934. It was erected by Alaska industrialist Austen "Cap" Lathrop, who was a stockholder in the air service. 

Merle “Smitty” Smith, who is now known by his more colorful nickname, “Mudhole,” became enamored of flying at an early age. According to Lone Janson’s 1981 biography of him, Smitty, who was born and raised in Kansas, taught himself to fly, and spent several years as a barnstormer and flying circus pilot.

He came to Cordova in 1937 to work as a Bush pilot at Cordova Air Service, which was operated by a flying-circus acquaintance, M.D. Kirkpatrick.

Cordova was the southern terminus for the Copper River and Northwestern Railway (CR&NW), which served the copper mines at Kennicott. The city was also home port for a growing fishing industry.

When Kirkpatrick started Cordova Air Service, Alaska industrialist Austen “Cap” Lathrop was heavily involved in Cordova’s business scene. Cap invested in Kirpatrick’s operation and built several hangars at Cordova’s airport, which he leased to Cordova Air. 

Cordova’s airport then was not the modern Merle K. “Mudhole” Smith airport, which was constructed in the 1940s, 13 miles southeast of Cordova along the Copper River Highway. The city airport (still in use and now called Cordova Municipal Airport) was built in the early 1930s just outside the city proper, along a narrow strip of beach between the steep slopes of Mount Eyak and Eyak Lake — its gravel strip just a few feet above the lake’s waters.

Cordova Air Service naturally provided flights up the Copper River. It was on one such flight, to a remote mining camp along a Copper River tributary, that Smitty earned his “Mudhole” moniker. 

Unbeknownst to Smitty, when he landed on the mine’s rough airstrip, his plane’s tail-skid dislodged a large stone, creating a hole. When attempting to take off, one of his plane wheels hit the hole, upending the plane, and the propeller — still spinning — burrowed the plane’s nose into a mudhole. Fortunately, the prop was undamaged and Smitty spent the night scraping mud out of the engine before taking off the next morning. The next time Smitty’s friend, Bush pilot Bob Reeves, met Smitty he greeted him as “Mudhole Smith.” The name stuck.

Smitty worked for Cordova Air when the Kennicott copper mines (and the railway) closed permanently in 1938. And he was instrumental in building the business back up by expanding air service into the Copper River Basin and the Chisana Mining District.

When Kirkpatrick died in a plane crash in April 1939, Smitty stepped in to run the business and was soon elevated to company president and general manager.

He left Cordova Air in 1942, after the outbreak of World War II, to work for Harold Gillam. Gillam was chief pilot for Morrison-Knudsen Company, the contractor building military air fields around Alaska. Smitty spent the next several years flying supply runs for Morrison-Knudsen, except for a short stint flying mail (and passengers) between Fairbanks and Bethel for Gillam.

In 1944, with war activities in Alaska winding down, Smitty resumed control of Cordova Air Service, buying out all the remaining stock holders. The company had seriously deteriorated during the war. Smitty reinvigorated the business, changing its name to Cordova Airlines, and gradually expanding operations to include service to Anchorage, Fairbanks and other points, including, eventually, Juneau. In 1968 Cordova Airlines merged with Alaska Airlines.

Smitty died in 1981. The hangar shown in the drawing, now used for storage, is one of the few remnants of his legacy. Nestled against Mount Eyak at the western end of the municipal airport, it has a 1/2-story 60-foot-by-48-foot gable-roofed front section, with a 60-foot-by-28-foot shed-roofed section at the rear. Slightly-the-worse-for-wear, it still stands as a reminder of Mudhole Smith and Cordova’s early aviation history.

Ray Bonnell is a freelance artist, writer and longtime Fairbanks resident. See more of his artwork at www.pingostudio.us.

Sources:

• “Cordova Air Service.” on History of Alaska Air Carriers website, <http://www.ruudleeuw.com/alaska-early-avtn-cordova.htm&gt;

• “Merle “Mudhole” Smith,” entry for Smitty’s induction into Alaska Business Hall of Fame. Gloria J. Maschmeyer. Alaska Business Publishing Company. 1993

• “Mudhole Smith, Alaska Flier.” Lone E. Janson. Alaska Northwest Publishing. 1981