Alaska and The North Pole

Walkin' Charley Aldridge


Alaska And The North Pole
So you think there isn't a real "pole" at the North Pole? Think again...

Alaska Airlines sponsored the first commercial flight over the Top Of The World. Carolina was part of the big event in Fairbanks, which celebrated the placement of a real "pole" over the North Pole, on December 12, 1951. It was filled with trinkets and childrens' letters to Santa Claus. There was so much mail that the excess letters were placed in a bag, and tied to the pole!


  Once upon a time (1951, to be exact)…way up north in Alaska, there was a man named Stanley Garson.  He was an oil worker at Point Barrow.  Working in such an isolated place gave Stan lots of time for thinking…and what he thought of was something lots of folks probably asked:  "Why isn't there a "pole" at the North Pole?"  He just assumed there was one.  And once he found out it was a myth, he was disappointed.  In fact, the more he thought about it, the more he was determined to put one there.  "There'll be a Pole at the North Pole if it's the last thing I do!", he vowed, as he told his story to the local Fairbanks newspaper.    

Stan Garson and the North "Pole"
North Pole Nellie
  Luckily, Stan was friends with journalist - radio commentator North Pole Nellie (aka Audree Vance).  By late September, she became involved in the project.  Nellie loved the idea of putting a real "North Pole" into place.  She went a step further, and suggested kids could write letters to Santa Claus, and send them along with the pole.  They could get an airplane to just fly it up there.

Sounded simple, right?  Yet the Polar flight was to be made by the U.S. Air Force.  The operation would have to meet their requirements.  For instance, the striped pole was too big for them to transport, so it had to be trimmed from from 9 ft. to 6 ft.  Washington DC had to approve the flight in its early stages.  (Ladd AFB made regular flights there at the time, along the 16 hour, 3200 mile "Ptarmigan" route). When a Brigadier General turned down plans for the 58th Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron to drop the iconic marker from a B-29, it was Nellie who came to the rescue.  She contacted Alaska Airlines, who happily agreed to deliver the pole to its rightful place.  (Besides, it was great publicity for the Airlines to begin their commercial flights over the Pole!).  By mid-November, the CAB approved the flight.

Carolina, Miss Movietime USA
  So the plan was in place...Nellie got to work, spreading publicity and finding key people who could take part in the ceremony.  She convinced Hollywood to get involved.  By coincidence, the Film industry was just launching their "Movietime USA" campaign in October 1951.  Their mission was "to send representatives to visit with people everywhere, explaining how and why movies are made, and how the ordinary people are important to the movie industry".  And they found a representative to send up to Fairbanks, Alaska. They could tie in the "Pole" ceremony too.  They sent none other than Carolina Cotton!  

This was going to be an important step for Carolina.  She was to be the first celebrity dispatched beyond the continental limits.  Not only would it be a chance to represent Hollywood up in the Alaskan Territory, but she and Nellie would be the first women to fly over the North Pole!  Besides, it would be a whole lot of fun...

(from a press paper): At this time of the year, thousands of boys and girls are asking their parents if there really is a Santa Claus and almost as many wonder if a North Pole actually exists.  North Pole Nellie (Alaska Newspaper-woman and Radio commentator  said "I intend to clear up this matter once and for all by putting a real Pole where it belongs and to provide the means so that kiddies may send their letters to Santa and have the assurance that they will be delivered to the legendary home of the Good Saint. When the Pole is dropped and the letters are landed on top of the world, parents can honestly tell their children that the have been sent to Santa Claus' headquarters".

While kids across the country were busy writing letters to Saint Nick,  the Pole Drop event picked up momentum…and became more elaborate.   The actual steel "pole" itself was white with red stripes (yes, just like all those cartoons).  The first $150 was chipped in by Garson himself. The Northern Commercial Company in Fairbanks built the 9 ft, 300 lb pole. It was made hollow inside.  Originally, the Santa letters would be placed inside the pole.  Commercial agencies got involved, and included Gift Certificates along with the letters.  The biggest prize was a coupon for a free Cadillac!  So they gathered letters from kids all over the U.S.A. There were over 5,000 letters…so many that they now had to be placed in a separate bag, attached with the pole. 

Carolina's ADMA card 1951-1952
Meanwhile, back in Hollywood, Carolina made an appearance on the radio show "It's Fun To Be Young".  (NOTE: the audio transcription from the show can be found on the YouTube video, below).  The "pole-drop" plans were revealed on the show.  Some of the letters to Santa were read, and Carolina was presented with a gorgeous fur parka, mukluks…and flannel underwear…for her journey!  It was announced that there would be a big celebration in Fairbanks for her arrival, and details about the trip to the North Pole.  The newly-formed Alaskan Dog Mushers Association would also be on hand for a big parade in Fairbanks.   (Carolina was made an honorary member of the ADMA on 11/2/51).  They would have an emergency rescue team available, with 2 months' provisions.

North Pole Nellie in Los Angeles with Sheriff Biscailuz
  The word spread quickly about the "Pole" Project.  Event invitations were sent to dignitaries like Governor Ernest Gruening of Alaska, the governors of Washington State, Oregon and California, and even President Truman.  (Unfortunately, they could not attend).  Nellie made some promotional films of Alaska, and showed them while visiting in the continental U.S. (as of November 15).  The films were taken by Russell Hackett "to show to Stateside audiences, and to invite California Governor Earl Warren to festivities".  And, in return, Nellie planned on making some movies and recordings of people interested in the Pole Drop (including Carolina), and feature them on station KFAR in Fairbanks.  Some of the Hollywood folks behind the scenes promoting the project included Carolina's manager Bobbie Bennett, Los Angeles Sheriff Biscailuz, Jerry Hannifin (reporter from Life Magazine) and Bert Parks (NBC).  

The Pole Drop was to take place by Thanksgiving, but a few setbacks pushed the date ever closer to Christmas.  Luckily, things finally fell into place.  By Tuesday December 3, Carolina found herself whisked away on a plane, and landing in the heart of the snowy town of Fairbanks by that Saturday, the 8th. (She may had made some stops along the way).  She would be there for the next 7 days.  She played over 30 shows--at service clubs, lodges, theaters, music stores, schools, hospitals, military installations.  Such a heavy schedule took a toll on the Yodeling Blonde Bombshell, as she collapsed on Thursday eve (but fully recovered by Friday).  She did several shows at the Lacey St Theater, with her last performance on the eve of Dec 11.

Dog sled teams like these used in the parade
  The night after her arrival in town, The Alaska Dog Mushers Association had a nice get-together with Carolina in Fairbanks.  They welcomed her with their honorary membership ceremony, dinner and reception.  Magness Marks gave the honors at the ceremony.  Jack Mansfield - first president of the ADMA and chairman Parade Committee - was there as well.

Besides becoming an Honorary Dog Musher, Carolina was also made an "Honorary Moose", by the Fairbanks Chapter of the Moose Lodge.  

The plane and the pole were to make the historic flight on Tuesday, Dec 10.  The Alaskan Dog Mushers Association held a big parade, from the Post Office to the airport .  Around 20-40 sled teams were in the procession.  The participants stretched for 4 blocks.  It must had been quite a sight!

But with all the hoopla surrounding the big event, there was one big problem.  At some point, the 9 foot pole was missing!  it was reported that the now-famous marker was stored in a gift shop, and some pranksters decided to run off with it!  North Pole Nellie and Stan Garson tracked it down, but then both Stan and the pole both disappeared.  They were secretly located in a Seattle hotel.  Apparently Mr. Garson made an agreement with Alaska Airlines to take the pole marker on a little "publicity tour", clear back to New York, with an unexpected detour in Minnesota.  Needless to say, the DC-4 (dubbed "The Polar Express") was delayed.  So, in case the pole wasn't back in time for the flight, Stan Garson actually had a "spare pole" made, identical to the first.  Happily, the original pole marker was returned on schedule, Dec 10.

But along with the good news, came some bad news:  Carolina and North Pole Nellie were now told they could not be part of the historic flight over the Pole!  Why not?  Because the plane was going to refuel at Pt Barrow military base, which did not allow women.  Also, the Navy was conducting exploratory oil drilling @ Pt Barrow.  What a shame…nonetheless, they both were glad to see the plane go to the North Pole with its marker and Santa Claus letters.

Enter another problem:  The DC-4 plane was being overhauled in Seattle.  Some people were beginning to doubt if the Pole Drop would take place.  But Garson, Carolina, Nellie and the citizens of Fairbanks were faithful it would….and by the next morning, Wednesday, Dec 11, the flight would finally become a reality.

Flight crew on the Polar Express DC-4 airliner
The flight crew on the Polar Express were, L-R:
--ROBERT LONG (2nd pilot)

--WAYNE WISTING (chief navigator)
--DANIELS J. MCCLEAN (navigator)
--CHARLES HALL (3rd pilot)
--HENRY O'NEIL (flight engineer)
--L.E.  FLAHART (1st pilot - captain)

Not pictured:
--JACK CANNON (radio man / airlines / radio operator)
--DON SHAFT (steward)

JACK BECK was Alaska Airlines' operations manager

Taken just before the historic "Pole Drop" flight, at the airport in Fairbanks
(Pictured above, at the Airport...L-R: front of pole - Mayor Bob Hoopes and CC; back: Ethel Granite, North Pole Nellie holding mail sack, and Very Myatt holding small pole)

Just before Noon, the flight crew were at the airport.  Mayor Hoopes wished them luck, and Carolina gave them all good luck kisses.  When the DC-4 returned once more to the ramp, one crew member said "We came back for another kiss!"  The plane was finally off…refueling about 3 hours later at Point Barrow.  They had up to 85 gallons of fuel, 2 gallons of coffee and 10 gallons of water to get them through.  According to chief Pilot Larry Flahart, it was "Smooth flying all the way" to the North Pole.

Well, there was yet one more issue to overcome.  The 9ft pole fit through the plane's cargo doors on the ground.  But it had to be dropped through the 2 side doors.  You guessed it, the pole wouldn't fit through!  So it had to be "modified" a bit so it could easily exit.  (This "little detail" was unreported to the press then, but was revealed in an interview with the flight's co-pilot Robert Long, 87 years old back in 2001).

The late evening skies were clear as they neared their destination.  The icecaps were clearly visible in the moonlight.  The pole was to be dropped by parachute.  They even tied a flashlight to the end of it, to watch it go down.

The plane reduced speed to 120mph…and the candy-striped pole marker, along with the bag of 5,000+ letters to Santa, were dropped, right on target over the icecap of the North Pole!  It took just 15 seconds to land on the ice, 7,000 feet below.

 In honor of Carolina and Nellie, there was yodeling as it dropped.

Chief pilot Flahart reported the drop by radio, taking place at 12:58AM, the early morning of December 12, 1951.

After another stop for refueling at Pt. Barrow, the plane and crew returned to Fairbanks at 9:31AM.  Alaska Airlines became the first commercial flight over the Pole.  It was reportedly "the fastest round-world flight in History: 80 seconds" (using astro-compass).  They were also kept from straying into Soviet Territory.  The round trip flight took 23 hours, 31 minutes.  Although the Pole Drop was also a historical event, the Airlines' main objective was to begin regular commercial flights over the Pole.

Carolina and Wayne Wistling at Club Rendezvous. His inscription says: "To Carolina - This is just before we didn't turn the page. The most fun of the whole evening. Thanx. Wayne Wistling"
  There was more celebrating in Fairbanks to welcome the crew back from their successful mission.  Again Mayor Hoopes was on hand, and he gave Carolina the keys to the city.  (She later wore the key on her costume in the movie "Blue Canadian Rockies").  That evening, there was a big party at the Club Rendezvous.  Owner Frank Caruso treated over 50 guests of honor with steak and chicken dinners "on the house".  Guests included the flight crew, Frank Barr and Robert Totton of Alaska Airlines, Carolina, North Pole Nellie, and Mayor Hoopes.  Alaskan mothers Vera Myatt and Ethel Granite were also there, as they helped Nellie with the Pole project.  The floor show included the club's vocalist / drummer and MC Satch Bianchi, and the North Pole Quartet barbershop singers.  North Pole Nellie introduced the flight crew members onstage, while Carolina gave a yodeling duet…more than likely with Chief Pilot Navigator and yodeler, Wayne Wistling.  (They probably serenaded the crowd with "Three Miles South Of Cash").  Another club singer / dancer / musician, Carl Wayne, then performed.  

  Carolina really enjoyed her week in Fairbanks.  But it was time to fly back to Hollywood, as she was scheduled for a USO tour in a few days.  She reluctantly bid farewell on Sunday, December 16.  Movietime USA was already thinking about having the Yodeling Blonde Bombshell return to Fairbanks by next Spring.

So, if anyone asks "Is there a real pole at the North Pole?", you know what to tell them...!

                                 E P I L O G U E:

Remember that "spare" pole that was created, in the midst of the original one that was missing for a short time?  What ever happened to it?  We are happy to report it is still around!  In fact, it can be found close to where it was originally created.  It now sits in a park at the town of North Pole, Alaska, for all to enjoy.  You can view it here: