The Rustanius sisters
Ketchikan women were early ‘heroines of the horizon’
By DAVE KIFFER
May 17, 2020
In the late 1920s, Marvel Crossen was the first female pilot in Alaska and over the next two decades, there were female bush pilots in Southeast Alaska. Among, them were a pair of Ketchikan sisters, Marguerite and Helen Rustanius.
The Rustanius sisters – who are featured in the Tongass Historical Museum’s new “Into the Wind” exhibit - had a long history in Southern Southeast.
Their grandfather, Harry Hamilton came from Toronto, and their grandmother, Jenny came from Howkan, a Haida village on Long Island, west of Prince of Wales Island, that later was abandoned when the three Haida villages in that area worked together to create Hydaburg.
Maggie attended Sitka Industrial School, attended Sitka High School, briefly taught at the Training School, went to and got her teaching degree from Bellingham Normal School, and then was hired by the Bureau of Education to teach in Howkan. When the school in Hydaburg was built, she taught there, and then took a position at Loring. There she met Johann Julius Rustanius, who had immigrated from Helsinki, Finland.
In 1917 Julius was working for the San Juan Fishing and Packing Company. The company sent a letter for the Miners and Merchants Bank informing them that a check to Julius Rustanius for $138.23 had been lost, according to company records. In those days, canneries usually paid cash rather than checks to fishermen, so it was likely the money was for some work - possibly tin smithing - he had done for the company.
Marguerite's daughter, Ann Fiorella, said that her mother loved to ski and actually met her future husband, Louis Fiorella on Deer Mountain during World War II.
"Growing up she was one of a group of spirited girls who embraced life in Alaska and fished, hunted, hiked and climbed mountains," the Empire said in 2011. "Her sense of adventure led her to compete for free flight training, and she was the only woman among the contest winners. She was believed to have been the first woman in Ketchikan to solo when she flew alone to Wrangell and back on September 13, 1941."
Ketchikan woman Margie Nebel had been flying locally earlier in 1940, but the Alaska Flight Hall of Fame believes that Marguerite was the first woman with native heritage to fly in Southeast, Alaska.
Ann Fiorella believes that her mother was chosen, along with several other local hopefuls, to be part of a program that would train pilots for military airplane ferry duty. The US Army was sponsoring an "aviation cadet training program" in 1941 and several local youngsters took part in a series of tests that program offered. Five - including Marguerite Rustanius - were selected. According to a history of Ellis Airlines, future Ellis pilots Rodger Elliot and Jay Snodderly also took part in the program.
"The program only covered learning how to solo," Fiorella said recently. "After that they were on their own for additional flying lessons, and she didn't have the money for that."
"It's one of those things that you wish you had asked her about," she said. "But she never talked about it and neither did we."
Marguerite married Louis Fiorella in 1943. He was a Coast Guardsman from New York State and stationed on the Cutter MacLean when it had a run in with a foreign submarine off Prince of Wales Island. The crew of the ship believed it sank a Japanese sub, although a check of the Japanese records ten years ago found no "lost" Japanese submarine in Southeast Alaska, although a check of Soviet Union World War II records did find that a Soviet sub disappeared near Dixon Entrance during the War.
Louis Fiorella mustered out of the Coast Guard after the war and stayed in the Ketchikan working as a painter and a carpenter and eventually going to work at the new Ketchikan Pulp Mill in 1954. He was also involved with setting up the Veterans of Foreign Wars Ragnar Myking Post in Ketchikan, according to Ann Fiorella, and that led the family to move to Juneau in 1962, when Louis became a service officer for the state VFW.
Marguerite went to work for the Juneau Public Library.
"Because she loved books, working at the Juneau Public Library was a natural fit," the Empire wrote in 2011. "She was employed there, primarily in the children's book section, from 1964 – 1984. After retirement, she continued to speak of adult Juneau citizens who had been avid readers and patrons of that section as 'her kids'. One of her hobbies was Raven’s Tail weaving, and she was one of a group who volunteered to weave the Raven’s Tail robe, 'Hands Across Time', for the Alaska State Museum."
"They were Depression children and their lifelong love of hunting was part of their attraction," Tyson said. “Helen started hunting when she was just a kid. Women who lived to hunt like she did were a rarity. "
In 1965, Helen Rustanius Todd, died after flying into the lake on Annette Island that now bears her name.
The Ketchikan Daily News, in a story written by pioneer newsman Albro Gregory, called her "one of Southeast Alaska's most colorful devotees of the out of doors."
Gregory reported that it appeared that Helen's plane has faltered as she attempted to take off from the lake, which is now called Helen Todd Lake. Her body was found by Terry Wills - a pilot for Simpson Air - and Jack Cousins, who were flying for the Ketchikan Volunteer Rescue Squad.
"(Ed) Todd reported his wife missing last night," Gregory wrote " She had departed at 7 am, yesterday in her own plane which Todd purchased for her two years ago. It is believed that the fatal crash occurred at 10 a.m. yesterday because her watch was stopped at that time Todd said today. Knowing her schedule, he said ‘that it would have placed her at the lake at about that time to check her beaver traps.' "
Gregory said that Todd reported that his wife had previously checked other beaver traps at Heckman Lake in the Dixon Inlet area.
"Todd said he was told that the plane lay upside down in the little lake and that his wife, though critically injured, had paddled the wreckage until it touched bottom," Gregory reported in the Daily News. " Then she swam about 200 hundred feet ashore. She was found by Wills on an open place on the beach after he spotted the wreckage and landed his plane to check. She may have died of a complication of exposure and injuries from the accident."
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