FAIRBANKS - On a smoky day 100 years ago this week, most of the people in Fairbanks looked up and saw an airplane for the first time.
While nearly a decade had passed since the Wright Brothers got off the ground at Kitty Hawk, flight exhibitions remained unusual in 1913 and there had been none in Alaska.
News-Miner editor W.F. Thompson said the town had more than its share of people who “do not believe that a machine can fly through the air.”
“Some of these non-believers are knocking the aeroplane exhibition which starts at the park today and they should quit it,” he said.
He rose to the defense of Arthur Williams, owner of the Arcade Cafe, and R.S. McDonald, an editor of the Alaska Citizen newspaper, who had formed an enterprise called the Fairbanks Amusement Co. to sponsor the first airplane flights in Alaska.
“Many are the people in the north who have not seen aeroplane flights and the exhibition, thoroughly up-to-date in every respect, will be awaited with keen interest on the part of all,” the Fairbanks Daily Times reported on April 16.
The amusement company hired pilot and inventor James V. Martin, a recent Harvard graduate, to travel to Fairbanks from Seattle with his biplane and put on a show.
Martin, 28, would go wherever he could find paying customers. His goal was to raise enough to build a plane and fly across the Atlantic Ocean.
Martin went on to invent a retractable landing gear and automatic stabilizer and gathered the most attention during his life with an unsuccessful lawsuit against dozens of airplane companies, individuals and the government, claiming a conspiracy to destroy his business. He also invented a variety of tiny cars, some with three wheels, but they did not catch on. He died in 1956.
During his barnstorming period, Fairbanks certainly was the most out-of-the-way location where he performed, with the amusement company wiring money to him in advance.
Since people had little understanding of airplanes and their movements, Martin stressed the need for security at the Fairbanks baseball park.
“I cannot emphasize too strongly the need for adequate policing in order to keep the crowds away from the machine and to insure an absolutely clear flying field,” Martin wrote to the Fairbanks promoters.
“The speed of my machine is about a mile a minute over the ground so that you will easily recognize how dangerous it would be to have any spectators in the way. If it is convenient for you to arrange a shed or tent as protection for my machine, I shall appreciate it very much.”
The sponsors agreed to plow and harrow the land beyond the town baseball park, east of Cowles Street, near where the Noel Wien Library is today, the southern edge of the town.
Martin and his wife Lily, also a pilot, arrived with their airplane on the first voyage of the steamer Alaska, which took seven days to make the trip from Whitehorse on the Yukon, Tanana and Chena rivers.
The Martins had traveled up the Inside Passage by steamship and to Whitehorse by the White Pass & Yukon Railroad.
Hundreds of people gathered in downtown Fairbanks on June 21 to get a look at the airplane on the top deck.
Martin said he had to make sure during the sternwheeler trip that sparks from the smokestack did not burn the plane. Several tarps had burned that way, the newspapers said.
Martin and local mechanics assembled the plane near the Pioneer dock over the next several days, attracting plenty of attention.
“There has been no end of speculation as to which end of the center portion of the aircraft was the bow and which the stern and several made bets on it,” a reporter said.
With all the bets settled, the plane turned out to be about 34 feet wide and 30 feet long, with the prop in the front.
Martin gave a lecture at the Orpheum Theater, complete with lantern slides, charging 50 cents admission, the same he had charged in Seattle.
He spoke about his dream of flying the Atlantic, how airplanes could transport passengers at 70 mph and one day be used by the military to drop bombs in war.
Martin believed that the only real threat to his Fairbanks flight was the fuel supply.
While the plane and the pilot had arrived on time, the fuel he had shipped to Fairbanks did not.
In a 1967 account, Fairbanksan Edby Davis wrote that Martin needed “72 proof” gasoline for the plane, but “40 proof” was the best that could be found.
Martin agreed to fly the plane, but said the low quality gas would make it “extremely risky,” Davis wrote.
On the evening of July 3, 1913, Martin and his wife started the plane for the 8 p.m. exhibition, but had trouble getting off the ground.
Davis, who was 12 years old at the time, remembered that “Someone way out in the woods yelled, ‘It’s a fake.’”
Martin didn’t give up, however, and he managed to get aloft on the second try and flew over the town.
“At this hour of writing,” Davis wrote on Aug. 7, 1967, “I often think of that man yelling, ‘It’s a fake.’ If he is alive, he must realize how mistaken he was.”