Humorist Will Rogers (1879-1935) and aviator Wiley Post (1898-1935) began what would be their final journey at the Renton Airport on August 7, 1935. They took off for Alaska with plans to travel onward to Siberia and beyond, but barely more than a week later died when their airplane crashed. Fourteen years later the City of Renton named the floatplane facility at the airport the Will Rogers-Wiley Post Memorial Seaplane Base in their honor, and a monument commemorating them was unveiled at the dedication. This People's History of the memorial at the seaplane base was written by Eleanor Boba.
Wiley Post and Will Rogers
Wiley Post and Will Rogers were the superstars 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 on August 15, 1935, it was a national tragedy.
Post and Rogers were a week into a trip of aerial 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 floatplane Wiley piloted stuttered on lift-off from a brief stop and crashed into a lagoon near Point Barrow.
The Seattle Connection
The two Oklahomans' 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 Post and Rogers took off for the north in the unnamed plane after having it fitted with pontoons and test flying it over the lake. The rest, as they say, is history.
Where tragic history goes, a memorial follows. The City of Renton chose to remember the heroes in 1949 by naming the refurbished floatplane facility the Will Rogers-Wiley Post Memorial Seaplane Base. Fourteen years to the month following the tragedy, in August 1949, the base was formally dedicated with the unveiling of a monument and plaque and speeches by Washington 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. (The Seattle Daily Times, August 16 and 29, 1949).
Fast forward to the twenty-first century. Flying buffs, including Washington Seaplane Pilots Association president Bob Dempster advocated for improvements to the monument. Specifically Dempster and others pushed for, and obtained, additional signage describing the lives of the celebrated pair, as well as the provenance of the doomed plane. A second dedication of the monument was held on August 7, 2003, 68 years to the day after lift-off.
Finding the monument
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.
The text of the original panel on the monument reads:
"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."