Cordova Chronicles: Saga of the North Cloud

The Saga of the North Wind shipwreck began with this front-page feature discovered in the Feb. 23, 1949 Nome Nugget, and sent from Pat Callahan, a former Cordovan who now teaches and coaches at Nome High School. Image courtesy of Dick Shellhorn

On Feb. 21, 1949, an exhausted and frostbitten seaman staggered into the Civil Aeronautics Administration facilities at the Mile 13 airport.

Soaking wet, suffering from early stages of what would later be called hypothermia, and wearing snowshoes fashioned out of evergreen boughs, he collapsed after trekking for 28 hours over 30 miles of ice and waist-deep snow to report the grounding of his craft, and the impending peril to those he had left behind.

What followed would be eight days of drama worthy of a Hollywood script: high seas, an approaching storm, and a shipwrecked trio stranded on a windswept sandbar, exposed to rain, snow and roaring surf.

A cast of rescue personnel including famous local air pilots and spotters braving strong winds to locate the scene of the mishap; a pair of vessels manned by knowledgeable Cordova skippers departing the harbor to battle high seas in rescue attempts.

Plus, a U.S. Coast Guard buoy tender steaming from Kodiak at top speed to join the effort, with a Coast Guard PBY dispatched from that same base circling for hours overhead to rendering assistance.

The drama that unfolded was soon being reported live over jerry-rigged radio transmissions to Cordova, with Editor Everett Pettijohn running bold-headlined updates in The Cordova Times, which was published three times a week during those days.

Pettijohn, famous for his colorful journalism, didn’t need a thesaurus to pull out terms such as “heroic,” “courageous” or “fearless,” nor “daunting,” “treacherous,” and even “herculean,” to describe the crisis.

Before the saga of the North Cloud was over, his reporting had been picked up the Associated Press, and attracted readers all over Alaska and beyond.

In fact, on Feb. 23, 1949 the Nome Nugget ran a front-page story headlined “Engineer Treks 30 Miles in Snow to Report Wreck”, credited to Cordova (AP).

It was through this broad coverage that I first learned of the North Cloud shipwreck.

Pat Callahan, a former young Cordovan who now teaches at Nome High School, and is the highly successful coach of the Nome Nanook boys basketball squad, is also quite a fan of local history, and noticed it while scanning on-line newspaper archives.

On Dec. 18, 2020, he sent me a pair of articles from the Nome newspaper, which provided an intriguing first glimpse of drama right down the coast from Cordova.

A few days later, I happened into Jim Webber, our city’s acknowledged Historian Emeritus, who has fished the “Flats” for over six decades, and asked him about the incident.

Webber, who graduated from CHS in 1951, paused in the produce aisle of Nichols Back Door Store. He then recounted walking across Grass Island with his father Bill Webber Sr. during a closed fishing period on the Copper River area, to view the remains of the North Cloud, partially buried in sand while being pounded by breakers on the outside of the flat barrier sand bar.

Mimi Briggs at the Cordova Library and Museum then proceeded to dig deep into the Cordova Times archives to find details about the wreck, having to resort to an obsolete micro-fiche machine to view scans of the 1949 editions, as bound paper copies were not available.

So now, 72 years later, when February nights are just as long and dark as they were in February 1949, with rain, snow and wind also often replicating the conditions of those fateful days, the amazing saga of the North Cloud is about to unfold.

Thanks to Pettijohn, Callahan, Webber, Briggs, and many others, it will be once again be told in The Cordova Times — starting next week, with details of the first days of the shipwreck.

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Dick Shellhorn is a lifelong Cordovan. He has been writing sports stories for the Cordova Times for over 50 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 2020, and third place in 2017 and 2019. He also received second place for Best Editorial Commentary in 2019. Shellhorn has written two books about Alaska adventures: Time and Tide and Balls and Stripes. Reach him at shorn@gci.net.