Did you know Merrill Field was first named “Aviation Field”? Meet Anchorage Pioneer, Russel Hyde Merrill in this edition.
Russel Hyde Merrill
Our story begins in Anchorage in 1923.
Arthur W. Shonbeck organized the entire town of Anchorage to clear what is now known as the Delaney Park Strip. They cut down trees, then removed stumps and other hazards.
The cleared strip of land became a firebreak for Anchorage, an airstrip for bush pilots and a golf course… By the way, golfers were instructed to give planes the right of way.
Photo of the Delaney Park Strip golf course.
Anchorage’s First Airport
Delaney Park Strip air field
Then, in 1926, Arthur Shonbeck founded Anchorage Air Transport, Anchorage’s first airline.
To start his service, Shonbeck hired a pilot from the lower 48 named Russel Hyde Merrill.
Earlier, on August 20, 1925, Russel Merrill and his aviation partner Roy Davis had become the first to fly an airplane to Anchorage.
Anchorage Air Transport started with two planes named Anchorage No. 1 and Anchorage No. 2
Photo above is the first airline company in Anchorage.
In 1927, Anchorage Air Transport built the first airplane hangar in Anchorage.
Merrill’s Life Saving Flight
In 1927, Merrill received a Signal Corp radio message.
An airlift was urgently needed to transport a critically wounded school teacher in Ninilchick who was near death.
It was nighttime when his plane returned to Anchorage. And with his patient onboard, Merrill had to continue circling the Delaney Park Strip as he tried to find where to land.
The citizens of Anchorage realized what was happening and quickly came to the rescue.
They set bonfires around the field and used automobile headlights to help guide Merrill’s landing. The results became the first night landing in Anchorage.
The teacher recovered.
He Transported Many Furs
Photo above with a load of furs.
By 1929, Merrill was flying 10 to 12 hours a day.
The Last Flight
On September 16, 1929, Russel Merrill set out for Bear Creek at Nyac, near Bethel.
Merrill was not seen again.
Anchorage was Growing
The town was growing to the south, which meant that it was becoming too dangerous to continue having planes flying in and out of the Delaney Park Strip.
Soon, a new airport was built outside of Anchorage. It was named Aviation Field.
In 1930, the Anchorage Women’s Club petitioned to change the name of Aviation Field to Merrill Field.
On April 2, 1930, Merrill Field was established.
A 52 foot tall steel framed tower topped by a rotating aerodrome beacon was erected next to the runway.
Also in 1930, the Anchorage Women’s Club raised funds for a memorial plaque, in memory of Russel Hyde Merrill.
The date at the bottom of the plaque is in reference to the day of his last flight.
The plaque is now located in the Merrill Field airport control tower.
Anchorage’s Merrill Field quickly became the aviation center for Alaska and one of the busiest aviation facilities in the world.
There is Much More to the Story
While Russel Merrill wasn’t in Anchorage for many years, he left an incredible legacy that lives today in Alaska aviation history and Merrill Field.
You can learn more about Russel Hyde Merrill and his love of aviation.
You Can Share This Edition
Did you know that you can share this edition of Anchorage Pioneers with your friends and family?
And when you do, your friends and family will be so happy that they will send you on a first class trip around the world. You’ll follow the famed route of Phileas Fogg and his companion Passpartout in Jules Verne’s 1872 novel, “Around the World in 80 Days”… well, it could happen.
What You Had to Say
From our Alaska State Fair edition.
“I have many memories of the Knik Bridge waiting our turn to cross the Knik hoping the break-up of Lake George wouldn't trap us on the north side of the bridge. Great memories of the ditches filled to overflowing with bright red salmon during spawning season. The salmon used the ditch diversions to continue their run.”
Photo above courtesy of George
“There was a Chugiak fair in 1957 that had a stuffed moose you could sit on and have your picture taken.”
Can you imagine the many adventures of those early Anchorage aviators?
Mike and Mary hope you enjoyed this look at the legendary Anchorage pilot, Russel Merrill.
Do you have a comment? Or you can drop us a line and say, “I flew into (*or out of) Merrill Field”?
To get in touch, you can reply to this email, or Contact Us right now.
Until Next Time
Mike and Mary
Michael – great memory. Yes, we recall the city dump.
Anchorage owes a lot to Pioneer, Mr. Merrill and to his steadfast love of flying was incredible.