Higgins, Cecil L. "Cece"

1903-1991 | Aircraft Mechanic and Alaska Aviation Pioneer


Cecil Leroy "Cece" Higgins was born in Edora, Iowa in 1903, the son of Lile Higgins and Alta Brock Higgins. At the age of six, his family moved to Chadron, Nebraska, where he grew up across the street from future Alaska aviation pioneer, Harold Gillam.[1]

In 1923, Higgins and Gillam arrived in Alaska, first landing at Cordova and then Chitina. The pair worked for the Alaska Road Commission (ARC) on the construction of the Richardson Highway. By early 1929, Higgins was working as a mechanic for the Bennet-Rodebaugh Airplane Transportation Company in Fairbanks, one of the two major air services, with Wein Alaska Airways, based at Weeks Field. On July 29, 1929, Alaska pioneer aviator Carl Ben Eielson purchased the company and its name was changed to Alaskan Airways.[2] Higgins participated in the search in Siberia for Eielson, who was killed on November 9, 1929, while rescuing passengers and cargo from the ice-trapped ship Nanuk.[3]

In 1930, Higgins moved to Anchorage and became the first certified aircraft mechanic at the newly opened Merrill Field. He also worked for McGee Airways, which evolved into Star Airways, and later became Alaska Airlines.

On August 13, 1930, Higgins and pilot Matt Neimenen of Alaskan Airways left Anchorage in one of the monoplanes belonging to Alaskan Airways, a Fairchild 71, NC 9153, in an attempt to fly over the summit of Mount McKinley (now Denali). The elevation of the mountain was 20,320 feet. In Alaskan Aviation History, Volume Two, 1929-1930, Robert W. Stevens gave this description:

“Flying directly at the mountain, a distance of 150 air miles, the two airmen climbed steadily up to 18,000 feet. After that, the climbing rate was reduced by the loss of power with altitude, although the Pratt & Whitney Wasp motor of 425 horsepower performed well. Reaching 24,000 feet, the pilot circled around the peak while Higgins shot still and motion picture photos of the peak and the slopes below them. The men stood the high altitude well. It was twenty degrees below zero on the cabin thermometer inside the plane. Some mist was forming as they left the mountain to head back to Anchorage, landing there at 3:00 P.M. Flying tourists to Mount McKinley was big business out of Fairbanks; the pilots thought that perhaps more of it could be done out of Anchorage.”[4]

On Thursday, August 14, 1930, the Anchorage Daily Times remarked that the two airmen had “broken all Alaska altitude records by succeeding to a height of 24,000 feet.”[5] The following day, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported: “The plane circled the peak, a part of the time within 100 feet of the mountain. The flyers said they scanned in vain to locate the snow covered monuments supposed to have been placed by the Archdeacon Hudson Stuck expedition,[6] also the monuments which were supposed to have been planted by the Lloyd party, which preceded the Stuck expedition.”[7]

To accomplish their high altitude flight, they stripped the plane down, taking out the seats, and lightened up as much as possible, loading only enough fuel to get to the mountain and back. On the return they ran out of gas at Susitna Station and glided in about twenty miles to make a safe landing at Merrill Field. Higgins said it was "dead stick all the way."[8]

On September 9, 1934, Higgins married Clara May Peterson, an Anchorage schoolteacher, at the Van Gilder Hotel, in Seward, Alaska, after a courtship of four years. She was born on May 17, 1904 in Burke, Idaho, arriving in Anchorage in 1930 from her home town. She graduated from the State Normal School at Cheney, Washington (now Eastern Washington University), and then taught school at small towns in Washington and Idaho.[9] 

Higgins worked for Alaska Star Airlines for five years as chief of maintenance. He also earned a pilot’s license and bought a Golden Eagle biplane. During World War II, he was called into service by Colonel Everett Davis, the commander of Fort Richardson’s Elmendorf Field, and became foreman of the Alaska General Air Depot, supervising maintenance of the U.S. Army's combat aircraft during the Aleutian campaign.[10]

After World War II, Higgins left the aircraft industry and went into business with Alaska State Mercantile, a wholesale ice cream business, soda fountain, and variety store that was located at Fourth Avenue and C Street, in Anchorage. Through this business, he also became the principal distributor of ice cream in Anchorage. In 1948, he sold his interest in this business and worked as a salesman for a number of local businesses, including Rutherford’s Menswear, Kennedy Hardware, Hoyt Motors, Northern Supply, and Al Swalling’s Steel Fabricators. He retired in 1969.[11]

On June 28, 1980, Clara Peterson Higgins died in Anchorage. She was a member of the Pioneers of Alaska, Auxiliary 4, Anchorage; Anchorage Woman’s Club; League of Women Voters; and the Anchorage Garden Club. She also served as a judge at many local garden shows.[12] After her death, he moved into the Anchorage Pioneers Home.

In 1989, Higgins left the Pioneers Home and moved to Tacoma, Washington, to live with his son. He was survived by a son, Daniel, a daughter, Sally Higgins of Fairbanks; and two granddaughters.

Cecil Leroy "Cece" Higgins died in Tacoma, Washington on July 12, 1990. His ashes were returned to Alaska and scattered over the Chugach Mountains. He was one of the founders of the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum (now the Alaska Aviation Museum) in Anchorage. In 1988, the museum's restoration facility, the Cecil Higgins Restoration Facility, was dedicated to him.[13]


Endnotes

 

[1] Nancy Price, “Alaska Aircraft Mechanic Pioneer Dies in Tacoma," Anchorage Times, July 20, 1991, B-6.

[2] Robert W. Stevens, Alaskan Aviation History, Volume Two, 1929-1930 (Des Moines, WA: Polynyas Press, 1990), 683 and 709-710.

[3] Carl Ben Eielson, UA Journey, University of Alaska Fairbanks, reprinted from the June 30, 1930 edition of the Farthest North Collegian (Fairbanks, AK), https://www.alaska.edu/uajourney/notable-people/fairbanks/carl-ben-eielson (accessed November 29, 2016).

[4] Robert W. Stevens, Alaskan Aviation History, Volume Two, 1929-1930, 907.

[5] “Matt Nieminen Pilots Anchorage Plane over Peak of Mt. McKinley,” Anchorage Daily Times, August 14, 1930, 1 and 8.

[6] The first successful ascent of Mount McKinley occurred on June 7, 1913, when four men (Harry Karstens, Alaska Episcopal missionary Hudson Stuck, Walter Harper, and Walter Tatum) became the first to stand on top of Mount McKinley. See, “UA Museum of the North Exhibit Marks 100th Anniversary of 1st Ascent of Denali,” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, May 19, 2013, http://www.newsminer.com/news/local_news/ua-museum-of-the-north-exhibit-marks-th-anniversary-of/article_db5b4d28-c059-11e2-a432-0019bb30f31a.html (accessed November 29, 2016).

[7] “Alaska Aviators Fly over America’s Loftiest Peak; All Alaska Altitude Records Shattered in Flight over McKinley,” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, August 15, 1930, 1, https://newspapers.com/image/4538336 (accessed August 3, 2016).

[8] John P. Bagoy, Legends & Legacies, Anchorage, 1910-1935 (Anchorage: Publications Consultants, 2001), 321; and Nancy Price, “Alaska Aircraft Mechanic Pioneer Dies in Tacoma," Anchorage Times, July 20, 1991, B-6.

[9] “Anchorageites Wedded Seward—Home by Plane,” Anchorage Daily Times, September 10, 1934, 5; and Obituary, Clara M. Higgins, Anchorage Times, June 30, June 30, 1980, A-2.

[10] John P. Bagoy, Legends & Legacies, Anchorage, 1910-1935, 321-322; and Nancy Price, “Alaska Aircraft Mechanic Pioneer Dies in Tacoma," Anchorage Times, July 20, 1991, B-6.

[11] Dan Higgins to John P. Bagoy, January 16, 2003, Cecil Higgins file, Bagoy Family Pioneer Files (2004.11), Box 3, Atwood Resource Center, Anchorage, AK; and Obituary, Cecil Higgins, Anchorage Times, July 28, 1991, B-4.

[12] Obituary, Clara M. Higgins, Anchorage Times, June 30, June 30, 1980, A-2.

[13] Obituary, Cecil Higgins, Anchorage Times, July 28, 1991, B-4; and John P. Bagoy, Legends & Legacies, Anchorage, 1910-1935 (Anchorage: Publications Consultants, 2001), 322.


Sources

This biographical sketch of Cecil "Cece" Higgins is based on an essay which originally appeared in John Bagoy’s Legends & Legacies, Anchorage, 1910-1935 (Anchorage, AK: Publications Consultants, 2001), 320-321. See also the Cecil Higgins file, Bagoy Family Pioneer Files (2004.11), Box 3, Atwood Resource Center, Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, Anchorage, AK. Edited by Mina Jacobs, 2012.  Note:  edited, revised, and expanded by Bruce Parham, November 30, 2016.

Preferred citation: Bruce Parham, “Higgins, Cecil L. ‘Cece’,” 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.