We’ve all heard the stories of historic women like Amelia Earhart and Nellie Bly. Here we’re focusing our scope to our backyard in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, shining a light on some of many inspirational women that never (potentially) made it into your history books.
Celia Hunter made her ascents in a different fashion. She learned to pilot aircraft shortly before the U.S. entry into World War II in 1941 and put her flying skills to use by joining the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs). During the war years, she flew warplanes from their factories to training centers across the Lower 48. After the war, Celia and a fellow female pilot arranged to fly aircraft up to Fairbanks, despite military regulations prohibiting women from making plane deliveries to Alaska. The 27-day journey in December 1947 was marked by temperatures of -50°F, in aircraft with no heat. The pair successfully made the deliveries and wintered over for the next several months. For Celia, Alaska was a new frontier. In 1952, along with Ginny Wood, she opened what many consider the first “eco-tourism” business in Alaska and the United States at Camp Denali. The remoteness of the retreat appealed to many who visited and helped to instill an appreciation of the environment. Celia soon became an advocate, leading efforts to protect her adopted homeland. Celia is credited as one of the first conservationists of Alaska. Together with biologists Olaus and Mardy Murie, Celia petitioned the U.S. Congress to create the Arctic National Wildlife Range (ANWR). She also led the formation of the first conservation organization of Alaska, the Alaskan Conservation Society (ACS), in 1960, to aid in the ANWR formation efforts. ANWR was authorized that same year by President Eisenhower. Celia led the fight to prevent the building of a new dam on the Yukon River, and efforts to thwart “Project Chariot” from using the remoteness of Alaska for atomic bomb testing. In 1976, Celia was made president and executive director of the Governing Council of the Wilderness Society, becoming the first woman in history to head a national environmental organization.
On August 1, 1907, Eleanor Chittenden posed for photographer and fellow mountaineer Ashael Curtis while fishing on the Elwha River, holding aloft a fly-fishing pole in one hand and a Steelhead trout in the other. Chittenden was one of 47 climbers from a mountaineering club known as The Mountaineers, who had come across to the Olympic Peninsula to Port Angeles by boat from Seattle the week before. This was a time when mountain peaks in the Olympics range were still unconquered by human effort, and it was in this spirit that the party first scaled Mt. Noyes to its 7,500-foot summit. The club’s members, which included Chittenden and 26 other women, set records in the total number of peaks scaled (eight ascents in all), as well as first-time accents to the peaks of Mt. Seattle (7,500 feet) and Mt. Christy (7.600 feet). Other “firsts” included Mt. Queets (7,300 feet), and the highest peak – Mt. Meany, at 7,800 feet – by a mixed group. During the first two weeks of August when the expedition was scaling these heights, they endured two blinding storms, with winds reaching as high as 30 m.p.h. The weather was so bad at one point during an attempt by 20 of the members to scale Mt. Olympus, they had to turn back with just 1,200 feet left to climb. Half of the party’s members returned safely to Seattle on August 14 with Eleanor counted amongst them, while the remaining half stayed to try another assault on the summit. Six years after her first climbing expedition to the Olympics Mountains, Eleanor was asked to christen the first sidewheel steam ferry to operate on Lake Washington: the Leschi, built in 1913.
In 1917, the year of the official opening of the Lake Washington Ship Canal by Eleanor’s father, Hiram Chittenden, the city of Seattle greeted the arrival of another skilled in the art of fly-fishing, and, more specifically, fly-tying. By November, Isabel McDonald, originally from Edinburgh, Scotland, had departed the James Wright company in her native land to make a perilous journey to the United States while World War I was underway. Competing sporting goods dealers in Canada, frustrated with wartime delivery delays and freight costs, sought out McDonald for her reputation as a professional fly-tier. The demand for her skills eventually led her to settle first in British Columbia, then in Seattle, to produce fishing tackle of the highest quality for fishermen there. Using materials from all over (hooks from England and Norway; “gut” from Spain; colorful feathers from exotic birds in India, South America, and China), McDonald made up to four dozen flies a day as the sole employee of the Piper & Taft Company. Every thread and feather placed by her hands was an effort born of patience and dexterity; the result produced upwards of 3,500 fishing lures for the following summer trout season. She also had a charitable spirit, using her abilities at hand-crafted work to produce knitted items for the Red Cross. And as no surprise, McDonald was also an active member of The Mountaineers, and she probably climbed one or more of the very same peaks ascended by Chittenden ten years before.
During the Klondike Gold Rush in Alaska, Mollie Walsh operated an unofficial waystation along the White Pass Trail for miners traveling the trail to seek their fortunes. Mollie arrived in Skagway, Alaska, at the age of 24, aboard the steamship Quadra on October 9, 1897, and briefly lived in town, helping to establish the community’s first church. In March 1898, she departed Skagway and traveled up the White Pass Trail with a man and his wife who were headed for Dawson to open a business there. The group was well provisioned for their journey, but Mollie was empathetic to the plight of the many men she witnessed suffering along the trail without adequate supplies or cold weather clothing. While her traveling companions pressed on, Mollie set up a tent to minister to those in need at Log Cabin, a spot on the trail leading to the summit of White Pass. Mollie saved many an ill-prepared prospector on their way to the gold fields or returning to Skagway by offering them food, hot coffee, and a warm shelter from the freezing wind and snow. She became known to many as the “Angel of the North,” including John “Packer Jack” Newman, one of the countless packers who transported goods and supplies over the pass during the gold rush days. Mollie’s care and ministrations were a salvation and reprieve for the battered travelers who braved the Alaska and Yukon wilderness. Today, a bronze memorial bust of Mollie Walsh in Skagway serves as a testimony to her saving so many lives along the White Pass Trail.
May Arkwright Hutton came from Ohio to the Coeur d’Alenes in 1887, where she first worked as a saloon cook, then as a boarding house owner. In 1906, she moved to Spokane with her husband, Levi, after the couple struck it rich with their co-ownership of the Hercules Mine and its veins of silver and lead ore. Hutton was a vocal proponent of the women’s right to vote. As a suffragist, she led the effort in Eastern Washington for women to gain the right to vote. As a result of her efforts in collaboration with others suffragettes to organize Democratic party representatives in support, the Washington Legislature gave Washingtonian women the right to vote at the November 1910 general election. This made the state the fifth in the union to grant women this equal right at the polls. Hutton became the first woman in Spokane to register.