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Honoring aviation pioneer Carl Ben Eielson

From staff reports

Carl Ben Eielson, old photo of aviator

By the time he reached 30 years of age, 1920s aviation pioneer Carl Ben Eielson, a Hatton native, had achieved national hero status.

COURTESY PHOTO

North Dakota native and Arctic aviation pioneer Carl Ben Eielson continues to be honored through the efforts of people in his hometown of Hatton, about 40 minutes southwest of Grand Forks.

The Hatton-Eielson Museum Association has transformed the original Eielson home in Hatton into a Heritage Center, showcasing objects pertinent to Carl Ben Eielson’s remarkable – and tragically short – career as a famous pilot of the 1920s.

Carl Ben Eielson was born in Hatton, and lived from 1897 to 1929. The Eielson family was large, and their father was a successful merchant. Carl Ben stepped aside from his studies at the University of North Dakota to join the U.S. Army as World War I unfolded. He learned to fly in 1917, as part of his U.S. Army Air Service enlistment, and got further pilot training in the U.S. Army Signal Corps.

The Great War ended before Eielson was sent into combat, and he returned to North Dakota, completing his teaching degree at the University of North Dakota. By then a skilled pilot, he was part of a group that formed a Hatton flying club. He enrolled in law school at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., but left there, moving to Alaska to teach school, and to fly. Eielson became a commercial pilot, traversing Alaska, delivering air mail across vast frozen expanses.

Eielson then began arctic region aviation adventures with George Wilkins, an Australian polar explorer. Most notably, in 1928, Eielson and Wilkins flew across the Arctic Ocean, in the first flight ever over the North Pole, from Alaska to Norway. In the U.S., Carl Ben Eielson was crowned a national hero, for this maiden “Top Of The World” flight. He and Wilkins also conducted an aviation expedition to the Antarctic/South Pole region in 1928. In 1929, Eielson received that year’s national Harmon Trophy, awarded to the country’s outstanding aviator.

Carl Ben Eielson and mechanic Earl Borland perished in a crash of their plane, in November 1929. They were attempting to rescue personnel and goods from a vessel trapped in the Bering Sea, off Alaska.

Eielson’s remains were recovered and returned by national mourning train from Seattle, Wash., to Hatton, where 10,000 people attended his funeral on March 27, 1930.

“It is important for us to keep his story alive, for people to know what he accomplished, the time period he lived in and what was going on in the country and in the world,” Joy Vaagene says. Vaagene and other Hatton residents currently serve on the board of directors of the Hatton-Eielson Museum Association.

Vaagene says the Eielson family was known for hard work, educational achievement, business success and community contributions. She says Carl Ben’s aviation achievements grew from these roots. “I don’t think he had a vision for what he could do – I think opportunities came to him, and when he learned to fly, it opened up a whole new world for him. And he knew what this could mean for the world,” she says.

Carl Ben Eielson was inducted into the North Dakota Roughrider Hall of Fame in 1997.

The Hatton home which houses the Heritage Center is a Queen Anne Victorian, built in 1900. The association honored the family request that the main floor be preserved as their residential quarters appeared. The upper floors are used to display historic items, from Carl Ben’s aviation career, and includes items about the pioneer history of Hatton and the area. The fuselage of a plane Carl Ben flew – a Fokker F.VIIa, with 400 horsepower in a 12-cylinder engine – is on display in Eielson Hangar, a repurposed historic Hatton commercial building. The plane display is a loan from the North Dakota State Historical Society.

The Hatton-Eielson Heritage Center is open Sunday afternoons, from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Vaagene stresses the center is also open, by appointment, year-round. All an interested group needs to do to gain access to the Heritage Center is call a day or more in advance, to make a visit appointment.

See: www.hattonmuseum.com; phone: 701-430-0593.