Cordova Chronicles: Saga of the North Cloud, Part III

On Feb. 25, 1949 famed Cordova bush pilot Merle “Mudhole” Smith was at the controls when he and three observers overflew the wreck of the North Cloud on Grass Island, and one of them, Martin Anderson, decided on a rescue plan for the trio of survivors stranded on the beach. Photo courtesy of the Federal Aviation Administration

By late Tuesday, Feb. 22, 1949, thanks to engineer Holeman’s incredible trek for help, plus an immediate search by Cordova Air Service, everyone knew the North Cloud was aground on the far end of Grass Island, with a trio of survivors sheltered above the beach.

The term “island” is really a misnomer. Located 40 miles southeast of Cordova, Grass Island is a flat sandbar roughly 5 miles long, with a maximum elevation of perhaps 20 feet. Like several other barrier islands formed by silt and sand deposits from the Copper River, its outer edge faces directly into the Gulf of Alaska and is constantly pounded by surf.

Perhaps one of the few pieces of good news for the crew of the North Cloud was the fact that they ran aground close to the far end of Grass Island, which meant they were near a deep channel between that island and the next bar to the east.

If they had landed midway down the island, they would have had to walk several miles to reach rescue at either end. And if they had run aground on a rocky steep beach, they would have been in immediate and deep peril.

The location on a gradually sloping outside beach also meant they could literally climb off the barge to sand at low tide, and that is exactly what the Howards and their son-in-law Robert Zentmire did. While Holeman was making his trek for help, they wisely hauled plywood and timber from the North Cloud and built a lean-to style shelter high up on the beach.

They also stocked it with supplies, including food, water, sleeping bags, and gas-powered Coleman stoves, for both cooking and heat.

The wood structure they built must have been sturdy, for it would soon withstand winds over 60 miles per hour.

Out of any communication and unbeknownst to them, the Coast Guard had been notified, and help was on the way. At that time, there was no USCG ship stationed in Cordova, nor a USCG air station at Mile 13. The nearest Coast Guard station was in Kodiak, 300 miles away.

Meanwhile, from Cordova, the first rescue attempts were made by the tug Mahalo, on Wednesday, February 23, 1949.

From that day’s edition of the Cordova Times, under headline “TUG FAILS TO REACH GROUNDED BARGE,” came this:

“The tug Mahalo radioed here this afternoon. It was unable to reach the grounded power barge North Cloud because of shallow water, but would make another try at rescue on tomorrow’s high tide – about noon.

“Hugh and Frank Opperman, who operate the Mahalo, talked with Sgt. Walter Ebbett of the local ACS station at 2 p.m. They said they got within one-quarter to one-half of the barge but were unable to proceed further. They said a high wind was blowing and they were icing down.”

Capable of carrying five passengers, and famous for its unique wing shape, a Stinson Gull Wing such as this was one of the planes operated by Cordova Air Service during the late 40’s and beyond. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Air and Space Museum

The Mahalo’s second attempt also failed, due to mounting winds and inability to get close to shore. It returned to port.

Surely the trio stranded on the beach witnessed the efforts of the Mahalo from their shelter, and perhaps watched in dismay when it left.

By now, the peril facing the trio was becoming increasingly evident.

The next day, a Cordova Air Service plane piloted by Merle Smith, president of the airline, and carrying spotter Jack Downing, along with photographer Cliff Collins and veteran local skipper Martin Anderson, flew out to assess the situation.

It must have been a bumpy ride, and fortunately “Mudhole” Smith, a veteran of many such challenging circumstances, was at the controls.

From the Friday, Feb. 25, 1949 Cordova Times:

“Smith said a 60-mile north wind was blowing off the Copper River Delta and holding breakers to a minimum, although spray from the combers had iced down the barge from stem to stern.”

“He warned that the breakers were picking up in severity due to a rising southeast wind and that the marooned party would “be in bad shape” if a heavy southeaster comes up, as seas sometimes wash completely over the island on high tides.”

And in fact, the tides were mounting, and a change of weather was indicated.

By now, the Coast Guard was on its way. The cutter Cedar was proceeding from Kodiak via Juneau and expected to reach the scene the next morning.

Meanwhile, one of the observers in the plane had made other plans, and wasted no time putting them into action.

The Cordova Times described what happened as soon as the plane landed at the Eyak airport:

“Anderson, a boatsman well acquainted with the waters and flats, left this afternoon in his boat the Lady Jane. He said he believed he could cut through the breakers into a narrow channel at the end of the bar and get the trio off.

“He expected to arrive about the same time as the Cedar and will assist as the Cedar itself will be unable to negotiate the channel.”

Coming up next week, the Saga of the North Cloud, Part IV: Can rescuers overcome challenging weather and ice floes?

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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 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.