Wiley Post and Will Rogers were the super stars of their time…an aviator with one-eye and a part-Cherokee lasso-twirling humorist, both out of Oklahoma. When they died together in a plane crash in Alaska August 15, 1935 it was a national tragedy.
Post and Rogers were a week into their trip of exploration. Post planned to fly across to Siberia and perhaps even repeat his round-the-world feat of 1933. Rogers was along for the ride, or part of it. The end came all too soon when the cobbled-together float plane Wiley piloted stuttered on lift-off from a brief stop and crashed into a lagoon near Point Barrow.
The Seattle Connection
Post and Rogers’ final journey began in Seattle…or more specifically at the Renton Airport (sometimes called Bryn Mawr airport) on the southern shore of Lake Washington. From here the fellows took off in the unnamed plane for the north after fitting it with pontoons and test flying it over the lake. The rest, as they say, is history.
Where tragic history goes, a memorial follows. At least one. The City of Renton chose to remember the heroes in 1949 by naming the refurbished float plane facility the Will Rogers-Wiley Post Memorial Seaplane Base. Fourteen years to the month following the tragedy the base was formally dedicated with the unveiling of a plaque and speeches by Governor Arthur B. Langlie and Renton Mayor Perry Mitchell. The solemnities were augmented with a bathing beauty competition and various seaplane-themed contests, including an award for the seaplane carrying the most girls. (Seattle Daily Times, 8/16/49 and 8/29/49).
Fast forward to the 21st century. Flying buffs, including Washington Seaplane Pilots Association president Bob Dempster, a story unto himself, advocated for improvements to the monument. Specifically, Dempster and others pushed for additional plaquage describing the lives of the celebrated pair, as well as the provenance of the doomed plane. A second dedication of the monument was held August 7, 2003, 68 years to the day after lift-off.
How to get there from here
Finding a small monument in a busy airport is not as daunting as one might think. Enter the Renton Airport from the west side off Rainier Avenue South. The left fork will take you easily to a small parking area near the shore line just outside the airport perimeter fence. The monument appears on a small hillock ahead of you.
Full text of the original panel:
Will Rogers – Wiley Post, Memorial Seaplane Base, Dedicated August 28, 1949. To the memory of Will Rogers, America’s most beloved ambassador of good will and his fellow Oklahoman, Wiley Post who took off from this base August 7, 1935, on their ill-fated flight to encircle the globe. City of Renton.
Top Photo: Will Rogers and Wiley Post at Renton Airport prior to take-off, August 7, 1935.
Seattle Post-Intelligencer Collection, Museum of History & Industry, Seattle; All Rights Reserved.