Hammontree, Charles O.
1893-1947 | Aviator and Garage Owner
Charles Hammontree made the first powered flight in Anchorage, Alaska on May 24, 1922.
On Wednesday, May 24, 1922, at around 4:00 a.m., Anchorage garage owner and aviator Charles Hammontree took off from the waters of Cook Inlet, making the first powered flight in Anchorage, Alaska. Hammontree’s craft was a two cockpit Boeing C-11S biplane with a Hall-Scott A-7A motor of one hundred horsepower.1 It would carry the pilot in one cockpit and a passenger in the other. This was the first of several trial flights, at least some of which were described in the Anchorage Daily Times.
Description and Preparations for the First Flight
On or about Monday, May 22, 1922, a crane from the Alaskan Engineering Commission (AEC) gently lowered the 2,200 pound "hydroplane" from the Anchorage dock into Cook Inlet. The airship took to the water like a duck, with its pontoons drawing about eight inches of water. The airplane was ready except for two instruments, an altimeter and a wind-gauge, missing in shipment but apparently not crucial for the first flight. Hammontree had intended to “hop off” that day, but also needed to run the engine for several hours before going up to break it in. Due to windy weather on May 22 and 23, 1922, Hammontree postponed his first flight, waiting for the best weather conditions for the first Anchorage flight.2
Very early on the morning of May 24, Hammontree ran the motor for a few minutes, and then spun around in the water for a few minutes, before putting the plane in flight. He flew due north across Knik Arm to Goose Bay, and then returned to Anchorage. The entire flight was a short one in duration. The Anchorage Daily Times of May 24 briefly described the performance of the first flight: "Ham said the plane was entirely satisfactory and more than exceeded his expectations. It is unusually well balanced, answering to the slightest touch on the controls and the engine responded powerfully."3
The Anchorage Daily Times noted that because the flight was unannounced and had occurred at an early hour, most residents were unaware of it. This was the first of several more trial flights as Hammontree prepared his seaplane for the exhibition flights planned for the July 4th celebration.
More Trial Runs
On Friday evening, June 24, with Hammontree at the controls and Arthur Marsh, an employee of the Brown & Hawkins store as a passenger, the plane rose from the bay at the west end of Fourth Avenue. The men flew as far as the Frisco Café and circled three times over the western part of town before turning back.4 On Wednesday, June 28, Hammontree flew again, circling the town before flying over Cook Inlet to Knik and back.
The Anchorage Weekly Times for Saturday, July 1, 1922, reported on “Hammy’s” preparations for the July 3 and July 4 events: "Aviator Hammontree is busy this week getting his airplane in shape for the Fourth of July Exhibition. He has made several trial flights and pronounces the ‘bird’ full-fledged and capable of performing. Hammontree will give an aerial exhibition on July third and July fourth and his stunts will be one of the features of the celebration."5
Fourth of July Celebration, July 4, 1922
Celebration of the Fourth of July was a major public event in the United States, and Anchorage was no exception. A parade on Fourth Street with floats with representatives of organized groups, players from the town band, and spectators watching marchers going by, were popular activities. Hammontree planned to fly his airplane as part of the festivities. The Friday, June 30, Anchorage Daily Times advertised that he would provide “a liberal prize to any Anchorageite who would go up with him and perform a few stunts while flying—out on the wings—such as dropping from one wing to the other, standing on your head, etc.”6
On June 30, Hammontree visited his hangar and found that local youths had damaged his plane. Their attempts at “wing walking” had resulted in wrecking one of the wings, breaking six airplane ribs, tearing the canvass, and causing other damage. The Fourth of July Committee offered a $50 reward for “definite information” about the miscreants, and parents were “advised to take notice and govern themselves accordingly.”7 It had been arranged that Hammontre would fly over Anchorage on the afternoon of July 3 and drop a baseball to be used in starting the Elks-Masons baseball game. Repairing the damage took the next several days and Hammontree was unable to make repairs in time for the July 3 events and most of those on July 4. Sufficient repairs had been made to allow for a short flight over the west end of town on the afternoon of July 4.8
Although Hammontree was unable to fully participate in the July 3-4 celebration, local residents continued to take short flights around Anchorage. On July 14, 1922, starting at 5:50 p.m., he flew several times around the city. Among those passengers he carried were J.S. DeLong, Winfield Ervin Jr., and M. Weaver. According to the July 15 Anchorage Weekly Times, everyone who participated was thrilled by the unusual experience and for “availing themselves of the opportunity to view Anchorage from the clouds.” All praised his ability in handling the airship.9 He made additional passenger flights on subsequent days and, on July 19, took up his wife Lillian.10
On July 16, 1922, aviator Clarence Priest departed from Eagle, Alaska on his attempt to fly from Buffalo, New York to Siberia by way of Alaska. He failed to arrive in Fairbanks, and U.S. Marshal G.B. Stevens contacted Hammontree for assistance. There were only three airplanes operating in Alaska at that time: Priest’s, Hammontree’s, and Roy Jones’s Northbird flying boat in southeastern Alaska. Hammontree dismantled his plane so it could be shipped on an Alaska Railroad flatcar to Fairbanks. News of Priest being found at a cabin on the Seventymile River trail reached Anchorage before the run by the special train carrying the plane north to Fairbanks had departed.11
Charles Otis Hammontree was born in Grand Junction, Colorado on July 8, 1893, the son of William H. Hammontree and Katie Hammontree. On April 24, 1913, he married Lillian Hammontree in Springfield, Missouri.
Fascinated by the first airplanes, and while still a teenager in 1912, Hammontree built an airplane in Colorado Springs and learned to fly. In 1914 he was in Seattle operating the East Lake Garage servicing automobiles, but his interest in flying and airplanes continued. In 1915, he built a flying boat in the garage, powered by a 144 horsepower water-cooled engine. Hammontree damaged the new plane in a test run on Lake Washington, and he did not rebuild it.
After World War I, Hammontree obtained a Boeing Model C-11S seaplane, a surplus U.S. Navy training biplane. It had two cockpits, one each for a pilot and a passenger, with a top speed of sixty-five miles an hour. The plane was equipped with mahogany pontoons. He kept the plane in Bremerton, where he lived in 1920, and later housed it in a floating hangar on Lake Union in Seattle. When Hammontree moved to Anchorage in 1921 to work for A.A. Shonbeck’s Ford dealership, he stored the plane in Seattle.
By April 1922, Hammontree was operating his own business in Anchorage, a combination automobile garage, machine shop, and taxi service at 808 Fourth Street (later Fourth Avenue) where the Hotel Captain Cook stands today. The seaplane was shipped north to Alaska on the Alaska Steamship Company’s Juneau and then assembled on the town’s dock. Hammontree built a shed and a platform at the mudflats adjacent to the shooting range of the Anchorage Gun Club as a base for the airplane.12
After the summer of 1922, Hammontree continued to operate his garage and machine shop. He had a fleet of three taxis. In April 1923, he worked for ten days at Bartlett Glacier at Mile 52 of the Alaska Railroad as a mechanic for Austin E. “Cap” Lathrop’s Alaska Moving Pictures Corporation. The first unit of the movie, The Chechakos, filmed a reenactment of the long lines of miners toiling up the Chilkoot Pass near Bartlett Glacier.13
In August 1923, Hammontree sold his garage and taxi business. He departed with his wife, Lillian, and three sons on the steamer Alameda on August 26, 1923. He dismantled and stored his airplane in Anchorage, apparently planning to have it shipped south. In 1924, ownership of airplane was transferred to former Anchorage grocer Al Jones.14
In the Puget Sound region, Hammontree operated a garage, lunch counter, and a dance hall, known as Ronald Hall, on the old brick highway between Seattle and Everett at 175th. During the Depression, he lost the business and moved his family to Bremerton in 1933, going to work as a machinist for the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. His wife, Lillian, died in February 1933. He married Ivy Schultte in February 1934. He began flying again in 1937. After World War II began, he started a small fixed-wing operation, Happy’s Flying Service, at the Kitsap County Airport.
Charles Otis Hammontree died on November 1, 1947. Hammontree, in a Taylorcraft with a teenage boy, was involved in a mid-air collision with an Aeronca flown by an older student, during an approach to Kitsap County Airport. He was fifty-four years of age.15
1. Robert W. Stevens, Alaskan Aviation History, Volume One, 1897-1928 (Des Moines, WA: Polynyas Press, 1990), 63.
2. Robert Stevens, in Alaskan Aviation History, Volume One, 1897-1928, 63, gives the date that the airplane was lifted off the dock and placed into the water as May 16, 1922. However, the Anchorage Daily Times, in “Airplane in the Water,” May 23, 1922, 8, records the date as May 22, 1922. Stevens lists the weight of the airplane as 2,400 pounds; the Anchorage Daily Times, May 23, 1922, 8, gives the weight as 2,200 pounds.
3. “ ‘Ham’ Hops Off,” Anchorage Daily Times, May 24, 1922, 7. The first airplane flight in Anchorage warranted about four inches of print in the newspaper, compared to nearly two full columns describing the previous night’s baseball game, nearly play-by-play.
4. “Anchorage Aviator Makes Initial Flight over Town,” Anchorage Weekly Times, July 1, 1922, 4; and Robert Stevens, Alaskan Aviation History, Volume One, 1897-1928, 62-63.
5. “Aerial Flight a Feature” and “Hammy Flies Over Town,” Anchorage Weekly Times, July 1, 1922, 2; and “Aerial Flight a Feature,” Anchorage Daily Times, June 29, 1922, 5.
6. “Fourth of July Dope,” Anchorage Daily Times, June 30, 1922, 5.
7. “Fifty Dollar Reward,” Anchorage Daily Times, June 30, 1922, 8; and Robert Stevens, Alaskan Aviation History, Volume One, 1897-1928, 64.
8. Robert Stevens, Alaskan Aviation History, Volume One, 1897-1928, 64.
9. “Aviator Hammontree Takes Local Citizens for Flight,” Anchorage Daily Times, July 15, 1922, 4; and Robert Stevens, Alaskan Aviation History, Volume One, 1897-1928, 65.
10. Robert Stevens, Alaskan Aviation History, Volume One, 1897-1928, 65.
12. Ibid., 61-62.
13. Robert Stevens, Alaskan Aviation History, Volume One, 1897-1928, 65; and Elizabeth A. Tower, Cap Lathrop’s Keys for Alaska Riches: Mining Media Movies (Anchorage: Elizabeth A. Tower, 1991), 43.
14. In 1924, Hammontree’s former Boeing C-11S airplane again made the news. The new owner, Al Jones, was impressed with the interest shown by Anchorage residents when pioneer pilot Noel Wien of the Alaska Aerial Transportation Company flew for several days in Anchorage around the Fourth of July, 1924. Jones was particularly impressed by the number of people who paid to have a short ride with Wien. Jones had Hammontree’s seaplane re-assembled, and found a railroad worker, Roy Trachsel, who had some training as a pilot in the U.S military during World War I. Trachsel got the plane into the air on July 10, 1924, but the airplane stalled almost immediately after takeoff and crashed into Cook Inlet. Trachsel was unhurt but the plane was a total loss, with the wreckage carried away by high tide. However, the airplane’s mahogany pontoons broke free in the crash and were retrieved. The pontoons were left on the shore, where a year later three teenage boys used one as a boat. The pontoons overturned near the mouth of Cook Inlet and two of the boys drowned. Trachsel Family history, 2005.035 accessions file, Collections Department, Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, Anchorage, AK.
15. Robert Stevens, Alaskan Aviation History, Volume One, 1897-1928, 65.
No entry for Charles O. Hammontree was included in John P. Bagoy’s Legends & Legacies, Anchorage 1910-1935 (Anchorage: Publications Consultants, 2001). By Walter Van Horn and Bruce Parham, October 2015.
Preferred citation: Walter Van Horn and Bruce Parham, “Hammontree, Charles O.,” Cook Inlet Historical Society, Legends & Legacies, Anchorage, 1910-1940, http://www.alaskahistory.org.
Major support for Legends & Legacies, Anchorage, 1910-1940, provided by: Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, Atwood Foundation, Cook Inlet Historical Society, and the Rasmuson Foundation. This educational resource is provided by the Cook Inlet Historical Society, a 501 (c) (3) tax-exempt association. Contact us at the Cook Inlet Historical Society, by mail at Cook Inlet Historical Society, Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, 625 C Street, Anchorage, AK 99501 or through the Cook Inlet Historical Society website, www.cookinlethistory.org.