SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska

The Day that Margaret Bell saved two plane crash victims

Local author, who wrote about 'heroes', 'heroines,' was also one in real life



May 08, 2017
Monday PM

(SitNews) Ketchikan, Alaska - The  most successful author to have called the Ketchikan area home was Margaret Bell, who published a dozen novels in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Focusing on their younger protagonists, Bell's novels - published by major companies like Morrow - are what would now be called "young adult" novels and featured many stories that she had lived in her decades in Alaska.

But one day, in 1965, Margaret Bell became a "heroine" in a real life Alaskan adventure story.

For many years, Bell lived in the village of Loring, more than a dozen miles north of Ketchikan, using her black and white former Navy boat to go back and forth between her home and Ketchikan. And that was what she was doing the day she participated in a dramatic rescue.

jpg The Day that Margaret Bell saved two plane crash victims

Margaret Bell on Gravina Island  beach across Tongass  Narrows from Ketchikan
Source: Ballard Hadman  Collection, Ketchikan Museums
Courtesy: Alaska State Library

According to the February 2, 1965 edition of the Ketchikan Daily News; Don Moore, 35, a shift engineer at the Ketchikan Pulp Company and Tim Victorson, 21, a KPC power house employee had taken Moore's single engine Luscombe float plane for a flight and landed in the waters of Moeser Bay, between Knudsen Cove and Loring.

"Moore gunned the engine of the little plane for the take-off from smooth waters," the Daily News reported. "Then something happened. Moore said that with about 200 feet altitude, the controls jammed, the plane nosed down.  He regained control, but it was too late, as one wing dragged, dumping the plane into the water, smashing one float and seriously damaging the rest of the plane, except for the engine."

As luck would have it Bell was returning from Knudsen Cove to Loring after dropping off her husband, Sam Wiks, who was heading to Ketchikan for his regular shift on the Alaska State Ferry Malaspina.

"Moore and Victorson crawled out of the wreckage, which did not sink," the Daily News reported.  "With the paddles they managed to get the wreckage ashore after half an hour of arduous effort. They struggled along the rough shore toward a cabin, each step for Moore (who had a spinal injury) a painful movement.  Then they heard the purr of Margaret Wiks 10-horsepower engine, heard her cut the speed, attracted by the plane wreckage.  Then she saw the castaways."

The Daily News reported that that Bell picked up the two men and headed for nearby Deep Bay where she knew a resident had a radio.

"As they sped along, a sheer-pin broke and our heroine found she had no tools for the replacement," the Daily News reported. "They all paddled, or rowed for half an hour or so.  Then, Moore, getting stiffer from his injury all the time, discovered a pair of pliers.  They went ashore and Victorson replaced the errant pin.  Soon they made Deep Bay."

The Coast Guard was contacted and the cutter Cape Romain rendezvoused with them in Clover Pass. The two men were taken to Knudsen Cove and an ambulance took them to the hospital.

"Mrs. Wiks gunned the little motor (of her boat) and headed once again for Canoe Pass, the route home, not knowing that she had become a heroine," the Daily News concluded.

Margaret Bell Wiks was born in 1898 in Thorne Bay to a pioneering Alaskan family.

"Margaret's mother came north with her family in the 1880s, settling on the west coast of Prince of Wales Island near the Native village of Klinkwan,"  Pat Roppel wrote in the Capital City Weekly in 2011. "James Millar's first venture into the fishing business was construction of a cannery at Burrough's Bay at the mouth of the Unuk River near Ketchikan in 1887. He went on to build and operate many salteries. His sons helped him at such places as Nutka Inlet, Hunter Bay, Kasook Bay, Nichols Bay, and Sukkwan, all on southern Prince of Wales Island. One of these sons was Margaret's uncle, Craig Millar, for whom the town of Craig is named."

Millar Street in Ketchikan was also named for the family, as was Craig Millar Cutoff near Cape Chacon.

"Margaret's mother, also named Margaret, married Robert Bell, who came to Alaska in 1889 and had a salmon saltery on Prince of Wales Island." Roppel wrote in 2011. "He eventually built and was superintendent of canneries at Gerard Point near Wrangell, Dundus Bay cannery near Glacier Bay and at Excursion Inlet."

Excursion Inlet, near Glacier Bay, would be the setting for Bell's first book "Pirates of Icy Strait" published in 1943 by William Morrow and Company of New York.

The book was reviewed by the Kirkus Review which noted "This is an interesting, well written story laid along the coast of Alaska, of the dogged courage and ingenuity of a boy and a man which not only kept them alive through shipwreck in the icy waters, but which brought about the rounding up of a gang of fish pirates that had been robbing the salmon traps of the region. Will probably interest a good many boys over 15 as well as the 12 -- 15 group."

When Bell's "Watch for A Tall White Sail" came out in 1948, it received a positive review in the New York Times which called it an "exciting" and "invigorating" novel "in which hardship and grief are met with courage and enriched by delicately handled romance."

Bell would go on to publish more novels such as  "To Peril Strait," "Totem Casts a Shadow," "Ride out the Storm," and "Daughter of Wolf House." Although the books are no longer in print, numerous used copies can be found on websites and in used bookstores.

Margaret Bell Wiks died in Ketchikan in 1983.



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Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
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