GOVERNOR SNELL’S PLANE CRASH

By Jack Smith

 

8-18-02

 

I am John B. (Jack) Smith, a US Forest Service Retiree, having retired in Denver, Colorado in 1970.  The subject of this tape is “Reunion 2000 – Oral History Project”.  I made a tape for Larry Cron, the project chairman, following the Missoula reunion in 2000.  However there are two incidents which happened on the Fremont National Forests which I failed to include but which are important enough that they should be included. 

 

The first episode was the Japanese Balloon bombing that occurred on May 5th, 1945 in Bly, Oregon, which I have written about elsewhere.  The second episode, which I will now discuss, was the fatal plane crash which killed Oregon Governor Earl W. Snell and others.  This crash occurred on October 28, 1947, some 25 miles southwest of Lakeview, Oregon on the Drew’s Valley District.  I was District Ranger on the Drew’s Valley District and headed up a search party.  Merle S. Lowden was Forest Supervisor. 

 

Governor Earl Snell, Secretary of State Robert S. Farrell Jr., President of the Senate Marshall E. Cornett, and their pilot Cliff Hogue left Klamath Falls late in the evening of Tuesday, October 27th.  They were headed for Warner Valley and the Kittredge Ranch where they planned to land on a dry lake bed.  The Kittredge’s were hosting a goose hunt for these Oregon officials.  The airplane left Klamath Falls about 10 PM (or later) and did not arrive at the Kittredge Ranch.  The Kittredge family thought the plane had not left Klamath Falls, so the plane was not reported missing until Wednesday morning.  There had been a small weather front over Lakeview during the night.  The airplane was a Beachcraft bonanza.  The pilot probably planned to follow the highway from Klamath Falls to Lakeview, a distance of about 100 miles, and then fly over the Warner Mountain range another 30 or 40 miles to the Kittredge Ranch, which was located in South Warner.  The airstrip at Kittredge ranch would be lighted by automobile headlights so the pilot could see enough to land. Lakeview, Oregon is a mile high in elevation, and the route is all mountainous country.   

 

Although the weather was bad, a small search plane flown by Bob Adams got a fleeting glimpse of the crashed airplane Wednesday afternoon. The Forest Service, however, was not informed that the Governor’s plane was missing until 2 PM on Wednesday.  When I got word that the crashed plane had been sighted on the Drew’s Valley Ranger district, southwest of Dog Lake, I ordered a 50 man fire cache, except for tools, and proceeded to set up a base camp some ¾ mile southwest of Dog Lake on the Yokum Valley road.  This was the nearest road to the area where the crash had been sighted.  A hard surface road extended to Dog Lake, some 20 miles southwest of Lakeview.  The ¾ mile stretch on the Yokum Valley road had light gravel surface.  After a few trips with 4-wheel drive vehicles, the road became almost impassible for even 4-wheel drive vehicles.  We did have telephone and radio communication at the base camp. 

 

We had a cook, so food and hot coffee was readily available.  We provided for sanitation and could handle the 50 or 60 men who showed up to help with the search.  Mostly they were Forest Services Employees and local citizens.  However, there were a couple of state police officers, many members of the press, and others. 

 

Although some searching was done late Wednesday, searchers were hampered by cold rain, pitch darkness, and the rugged terrain.  These searches were somewhat disorganized and ineffective. 

 

The plane crash was at about the 6000 ft level, and was heavily timbered with mature Ponderosa Pine timber.  It is moderately rough country with peaks, rock escarpments, and deep ravines.

 

At daylight Thursday morning, we were well organized and ready to go.  There were about 50 or 60 searchers in the group.  I briefed the group on what we would do.  We lined up about 50 feet apart in a generally north-south direction.  We followed a compass course westerly and told people to stay close enough together to have contact with the person on each side of them.  The two state police officers were at the each end of the search line.  We did not want people to get lost and wander around in the wet, cold weather.  As a signal, one of the state police officers was to fire his pistol three times when the plane was found. 

 

After travelling ½ to ¾ mile cross-country, we walked into the crashed airplane.  The plane had hit several tall Ponderosa pine trees, crashed in a small opening, and slid under the pine trees. One of the passengers was thrown out a door that came open, the other three were in the fuselage which was badly damaged. There were no survivors, they were killed on impact.  The plane had not burned upon crashing.  The operation went well and the search successful.  There was excellent cooperation among lots of people.  Many news people were there.  But then the real work started as we had to carry the bodies back to base camp where they could be loaded on 4-wheel drive vehicles and moved to Lakeview.  We had carried litters and sheets with us, so we got started moving the bodies immediately. 

 

As is often the case, the carrying was done by a limited number of people.  It was a real struggle moving the bodies across the rugged terrain to camp, but we got the job done.  We cleaned up the area and closed up the campsite.  We also said thanks to many people, both Forest Service employees and others who helped. 

 

Governor Snell, Marshall Cornett, and Bob Farrell were very popular politicians.  Earl Snell has been eulogized as one of Oregon’s top Governors with great facility to attract good people around him and to delegate and supervise them in excellent fashion.  Marshall Cornett and Bob Farrell were also very popular politicians in leadership positions in Oregon.  Each of them was potential Oregon Governor in the future if they had lived.