Craig - Then and Now: The Age of Ellis Airlines

A few weeks ago I saw in the Prince of Wales Island Post that Island Air Express will begin flying from the Klawock Airport to Juneau and Petersburg on May 1. They’re introducing a new pressurized high-altitude aircraft that will move people comfortably back and forth above the clouds and the unpredictable weather below.True, there’s no getting around the takeoffs and landings, but if you can tolerate those, you can make your connection in just about any weather, and at any time of day. Along with the Inter Island Ferry and good floatplane service, travel options to and from Craig have never been better.

 

Back in 1960, if you wanted to come to Craig, you flew on Ellis Airlines. Ellis Air was named for its founder, Bob Ellis, who started out with a single engine Waco in 1936. Bob was a good pilot, and his business grew steadily. Barbara Bean told me an interesting story about Bob Ellis. Barbara, by the way, is in her mid 80s and lives with her adopted son Bill Eggan in Craig. She is the great granddaughter of John (Giovanni) Peratrovich, the Croatian/Italian patriarch of the prominent Peratrovich family of Klawock. Barbara said that back when it was just Bob Ellis and his plane, he was known for customer service, and advertised that he was happy to fly anyone or anything, anywhere in range.

One day a Klawock customer wanted to send a large jar of fermented salmon eggs, better known as “stink eggs,” to a relative in Ketchikan. Stink eggs have to be left unsealed to allow for a safe fermentation process, so the jar simply had paper folded over the rim, tightly tied with string. True to his word, Bob accepted the package with a smile, promptly lashed it outside to the strut of the Waco’s pontoon, and delivered it safely to town.

By the early 1950s, Ellis Airlines had grown into a large fleet of post World War II amphibians, featuring the Grumman Goose. Painted army green with bright orange trim, the seagoing Grummans rested, took off, and landed on their bellies, powered by a large engine on each wing. Hanging down about four feet from each wingtip was a large stabilizing pontoon, one of which would rest on a rubber tire when the plane was secured at the float.

My first trip with Ellis Airlines was in 1953, the year I was born. We were living in Ketchikan, but made frequent trips to Craig to see my grandparents. As the years went by, I began looking forward to entering the Ellis Air Terminal on the Ketchikan waterfront. The ticket counter was staffed by sharp looking agents, and all the pilots wore pressed grey uniforms complete with a captain’s hat. A special treat was checking in early, so that we could walk down the hall into the Amphibian Room and get a hamburger.

When the intercom announced it was time to board, passengers and their loved ones filed out onto the dock, down the long ramp and onto a large wooden float. Several Grummans were usually there waiting, moored in a line along the float. The side hatch door of the plane you were boarding would be folded up over the fuselage, and you climbed down into the belly and moved up the aisle to choose a seat on either side. If you were the first one in, and wanted to be copilot, you were free to step through the bulkhead and into the cockpit. There you’d get to see the pilot reach up and move the two overhead throttle controls rapidly back and forth just before the two engines would wind up and burst into a noisy idle.

After taxiing out into the channel and getting in position to take off, the engines accelerated to a roar, whipping up the sea and throwing water back, completely covering the windows. It felt like you were plowing in a submerged rocket ship until the heavy plane finally picked up enough speed to get up on step and start skimming along the surface. Then the windows would clear up as tiny beads of water streaked back from the force of the propellers.

It took a long run to get off the water, but eventually you were in the air, gaining altitude for the trip across Clarence Straights and then over the top of Prince of Wales Island to Craig, Klawock, Hydaburg, and sometimes Cape Pole or Edna Bay. Instruments were simpler then, and flying required visibility, so the passes between the mountains on Prince of Wales Island had to be clear of fog in order to complete the trip.

When landing, the Grumman Goose would lightly touch and skim along the surface before finally settling down heavily into the water. The propellers would once again catch the seawater, deluging the plane. The windows would be totally whitewashed, and if you didn’t know better, you’d think you were sinking. I heard that some people actually did think they were sinking when landing in Ketchikan, after taking off from the runway at the airport on Annette Island. The Pan American clippers landed at Annette, and the Grummans, with their retractable wheels down, would be waiting to shuttle the passengers to Ketchikan. I guess if you were coming to Alaska for the first time from Seattle or someplace, you probably wouldn’t be expecting to land in the water. Undoubtedly someone complained, the Customer Service Department responded, and Ellis Air began announcing the water landing before they left Annette Island.

Taxiing up to the float after landing in Craig, you always knew who would be there to meet you, seven days a week. Fred Hamilton Sr. was the tie-up man, ticket agent, radio operator, weatherman and baggage handler all rolled into one. He and his wife Bev and their five children lived in a house connected to the Ellis Air ticket office and radio room, where Fred ushered travelers to and from Craig for 15 years. (In January of this year, Fred celebrated his 98th birthday by coming out to root for the Craig high school basketball teams.)

Fred’s work for Ellis Air included delivering freight around town. He had a Cushman three-wheel motorcycle with big handlebars and a small flatbed in back, and he looked like an army officer riding off to the front. One snowy night around Christmas, Fred was out delivering packages. As he came back over the hill from Shelter Cove, he noticed a crowd in my Grandma’s front yard. A fire had just broken out in our living room, and we had all rushed outside. One of Fred’s sons, Jimmy, had come to visit that evening, and he was standing in the yard with no boots on. He hadn’t been able to find them in the mad scramble to get out of the house. As Fred motored by, he saw Jimmy standing there in his socks.

“Hey, what are you doing? Go get your shoes on!” he hollered.

That was all it took for Fred to miss the corner above Mama Abel’s Confectionary, and plunge headlong over the bank and down into the back of the building. A couple of guys broke away from the fire and helped fish Fred and the Cushman out of the hole. Apparently not too much damage was done, because they were back on the road the next day.

Ellis Airlines went on to merge with Alaska Coastal Airlines in 1962, and the Grummans were repainted white and black, with orange trim. In 1968 Alaska Coastal-Ellis merged into the modern Alaska Airlines, which today can fly you non-stop to Miami, Honolulu and Mexico City. The Grummans are gone, but the customer service remains about as good as you’ll find anywhere.

Ralph Mackie operates the Hill Bar in Craig, and gill nets out of Coffman Cove.

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