Author’s note: This is Part One of a two-part story about a few of the unlucky and the unwise among the long history of medical professionals in Seward.
Prior to 1975, no community on the Kenai Peninsula had had more medical professionals than Seward, so it only stands to reason that Seward should have had the most bad-luck stories among its roster of those who came to serve the public health.
Seward’s first dentist and first physician arrived in 1903 on the steamship Santa Ana, and the sad tales began shortly afterwards.
The brilliant New York physician, Dr. David H. Sleem — with a failing heart and the advice to seek a colder, healthier place to live — followed the gold rush crowd for a few years before arriving in Seward in 1904. He practiced medicine there until about 1910, when he moved to Valdez and dropped dead of a heart attack in 1913.
Dr. Charles Leslie Hale, in 1905, became Seward’s second dentist. When railroad work in the Gateway City slowed down and his patient load diminished, he moved on to Katalla, Valdez and then Cordova. On New Year’s Eve 1918 — only three days after his 38th birthday — Dr. Hale succumbed to the pandemic dubbed the Spanish Flu.
In 1938, Dr. Ray Gregory Banister arrived in Seward and spent several years as a surgeon for the Alaska Railroad, the U.S. Army and the U.S. Public Health Service. He was also a part-time physician for Alaska Native Services and temporarily headed the Seward Tuberculosis Sanatorium.
In early 1945, he became a pilot. He purchased a 90-horsepower Stinson Voyager and began making weekly aerial forays to Homer and Kenai to provide medical services, thus becoming perhaps the peninsula’s first flying doctor.
On the day after Christmas 1946, he made the questionable decision to fly to Skilak Lake to visit Mr. and Mrs. Art Frisbie, who were living at the mouth of Cottonwood Creek. Some publications stated that he was planning to fly on to Homer, but that is unclear.
Banister, a 40-year-old Louisiana native, and his passenger, Seward school superintendent Harold Roth, had departed Seward that morning — after the doctor’s wife had driven the two men to the airport — and had flown into variable conditions that included falling snow.
Before his departure, the doctor had told his wife he was unsure the weather conditions would allow him to complete his trip. They never saw each other again.
For months afterward, Banister’s wife held out hope that her husband would somehow be found alive, but in August 1947 a pair of Seward residents discovered a rusted portion of the Stinson’s landing gear on the beach near Caines Head, about 9 miles south of Seward.
In addition to his widow, the doctor left behind four children between the ages of 2 and 6.
In 1973, 27-year-old Dr. Steven L. Harris moved to Seward to work as an associate of Dr. John L. Noyes. Athletic and an avid climber, he signed up for the next running of the Mount Marathon race. About two years later, on Feb. 19, 1976, he hiked the mountain with Jake, the Harris family’s golden retriever, and was swept away in an avalanche.
When Jake returned home alone, three hours after the doctor had departed — Mary Harris, Steven’s wife of only three years — suspected the worst. She notified the Troopers, who launched a search, and several hours later the doctor’s body was recovered beneath about 3 feet of hard-packed snow near the 1,000-foot level of the mountain. Harris had been one of only two physicians in Seward at the time of his death.
But arguably the worst misfortune of them all — even though the experience did not lead directly to his death — was what happened to Dr. Orville Lewis “O.L.” Albery in 1941.
Albery, an Ohio-born chiropractor, had spent more than a decade working in Fairbanks and helping his wife Janette to raise their three children before coming to Seward in the year his tragedy began.
He was apparently an ardent outdoorsman. Alaska Game Commission records for 1927 show that he and another Fairbanks resident were awarded an area trapping permit, allowing them to take up to 30 minks and 100 muskrats by the end of that calendar year. He had been in Seward only a short time when the 49-year-old began planning a big new adventure.
The plan called for Albery, accompanied by friend and former Fairbanksan, 29-year-old Alfred Mitchell Thibbert, to embark on a three-week hunting trip on Montague Island, which lies at the entrance to Prince William Sound, about 70 air miles east of Seward. They had arranged for a mail boat called Luck of the Irish to haul them and their food and gear to McLeod Bay, where they hoped to establish a base camp on the large island’s western coast.
Dr. Albery and Thibbert — a former liquor store manager in Fairbanks and current employee at the Fort Raymond military base in Seward — departed the harbor in Seward on Nov. 29 and disembarked in McLeod Bay on Dec. 2.
According to a United Press story later, the mail boat stopped for them on Dec. 10 and Dec. 20, but the two men failed to appear. Since they had carried a full month’s worth of provisions, concern for the men’s safety was not critical at this time.
What no one knew then or would learn for some time is that the two hunters had made a life-affecting decision shortly after arriving on the mountainous, heavily forested island: Believing that perhaps the best hunting lay elsewhere, they had cached most of their food in a cabin at McLeod Bay and hiked across the island to the eastern, outer coast at Patton Bay, where the Nellie Martin River dumps into the turbulent Gulf of Alaska.
Their research into Montague Island told them that a straight-line hike across the island was perhaps 6 miles, but traveling over snowy peaks and ridges put them off-course, and it took them days, rather than hours, to reach Patton Bay.
Once they reached the other side, Albery later attested, the weather turned nasty. Attempting to reverse course, they found themselves unable to withstand the brute force of the winds, and the snow and ice piled up behind them, effectively blocking off access back to their McLeod Bay base camp.
Covering an area of 305 square miles, Montague Island is the 26th largest island in the United States. Walking the coastline around to the other side was out of the question. They searched fruitlessly for other passages across the island.
They were trapped.
Ultimately, Albery and Thibbert felt they had no choice but to hunker down and wait. They took shelter in a tumble-down, abandoned cabin, tried to conserve their energies and their meager supply of rations, and began to scour the beach for anything that might be edible.
Back in Seward, residents there — and around the nation — were reacting to the recent bombing of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s declaration of war.