Cordova Chronicles: His goose was cooked

Best story of the week was overshadowed by bold banner headline

Local contractor Don Sjostedt is a student of history and greatly enjoys discovering stories regarding Cordova’s past. The other day he called from his office at Eagle Contracting about some old newspapers found while tearing down a derelict building on Third Street. Often they were used for wall insulation back before the city had any such thing as building codes.

One in particular, a faded Oct. 23, 1958 edition of The Cordova Times, caught his eye. Bold headlines declared “1ST NON-STOP FLIGHT TOKYO-CORDOVA.”  Luke Borer happened by the office while I was picking up the papers, and a debate ensured about whether it was Western Airlines or PNA, a DC-6 or Constellation, and so forth.

We were having so much fun speculating, that none of us bothered to read the front page article by Frances Bonser, which continued: “Flyer Banfe Story One of Hard Luck; He Reaches Seattle.”

Turns out the pilot, John Banfe, proposed an eight-day flight around the world in a single engine plane, and “set Cordova squarely on the middle of the front pages across the country with a famous first that Cordovans will long remember.”

“It was the first non-stop flight from Tokyo to Cordova, and Banfe did not stay long enough to reap the signal honors that would have no doubt been heaped upon him.”

Nor did Banfe stay long enough for Bonser to identify the make or model of the plane, or gather any other details such as flight time, weather and possible problems, as no further information was included, although it did mention that Banfe was forced to stop in Seattle while attempting a non-stop flight from Juneau to New York.

Naturally, other stories caught my eye. The colorful journalism of yore had flare and was high entertainment, by necessity. Cordova had no TV, and KLAM had been on the air for only three years.

For example, “Sebastian Entrances Concert Enthusiasts with His Harmonica,” also by Bonser, was front-page news. “Succeeding artists will be hard-pressed to evoke more enthusiasm from an audience than John Sebastian accomplished in his varied and breath-taking performance.”

Now those were the Good Old Days. Miles away, a budding artist named Elvis would surely have shaken, rattled and rolled Bonser to the very core, but news of the King was slow to reach North.

However, the best front-page story was about a man and a goose, well-cooked in this case. The author is not listed, but it is classic must-read small town news.

The headlines “Rescue Local Logger After 2 Days A-drift In an Open Skiff” were located top-center front page.

“Bill Russell, logger at Juania Bay, set out on Tuesday, last week from that bay to Shelter Bay, where he was going to deliver a nice roast goose to his friend Fluke.  He didn’t arrive.”

“Somewhere in between, his kicker failed. Russell, “Russ” as he is called, tried to row, but a brisk off-shore wind set him farther out. His anchor, which he tried next, failed to hold. The line was too short.”

“It was late, and as darkness fell, Russ considered his situation. He was used to the out-of-doors, and was dressed for it, but this was in an open skiff without power.  He sampled some of the goose, but realizing his position, rationed himself. As it turned out he drifted for 2 days and 2 nights.  He had to bail almost constantly to keep the small craft afloat. At one time he drifted out far enough to see the lights of Cape Hinchenbrook, but luckily the tide turned and set him back in. Another time, he heard breakers in the night and had to stop bailing and row to keep himself off what might be rocks or cliffs.”

“In the meantime his partners missed him and went to Anderson Bay where the Orient was anchored. There they called the Coast Guard, and both the Orient and the Sedge started the search, the Sedge leaving Cordova Wednesday night. The weather was not favorable.”

“On Friday morning, the first break in the weather came, and Commissioner Todd Moon sent Cal Ward, Cordova Airlines pilot, out to join the search. In the plane were also Fred Pettingill and Lew Cochran. When they spotted Russ where he was drifting near Naked Island, they saw he was waving everything in the skiff at them: oars, bailing bucket, even the goose. But realizing he was about to be rescued, Russ promptly ate the goose.”

“Because of poor landing conditions, the plane flew to Fairmont Island, where Lyman Fletcher and Percy Conrad in Fletcher’s boat Pearl Ann went out and picked him up.”

“Russ, after a good meal and a long nap, was little the worse for his ordeal.”

Juania Bay is located within Main Bay, now the site of a PWSAC Hatchery. For Russell to see the lights at Cape Hinchenbrook, he had to be well outside Naked Island, at least 50 miles away from his starting point.

And who thought a non-stop plane flight from Tokyo to Cordova deserved the big headlines?

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Dick Shellhorn, author, reporter, ref and grandpa, can be reached at Shellhorn was born and raised in Cordova, Alaska, and has lived there his entire life. He has been writing sports stories for the Cordova Times for over 40 years. In his Cordova Chronicles features, he writes about the history and characters of this Alaska town. Alaska Press Club awarded Shellhorn first place for Best Humor column in 2016 and third place in 2017.