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News / Life / Clark County Life

Clark County history: Klondike gold seeker Vern Gorst

By Martin Middlewood, Columbian freelance contributor
Published: August 5, 2023, 6:00am

A successful Klondike gold seeker, Vern Gorst turned his gain toward flight in 1913. Before that, he dabbled in transportation, creating a boat motor launch service, an automobile business, and several West Coast bus lines. With an eye to the future of transportation, he watched the brothers Wright closely, even naming his son Wilber. When Silas Christofferson flew a Curtiss Pusher off the Multnomah Hotel in Portland, Gorst was in the crowd watching. Later he paid for flights with the famous pilot.

Gorst incorporated Pacific Air Transport in January 1926 and sold stock. Among his shareholders were Julius Meier, owner of the Portland department store Meier & Frank. The Wells Fargo loan officer, William A. Patterson, helped him get funds and became his adviser and eventually president of United Airlines.

In late 1925, Pacific Air Transport received a government contract to deliver regular airmail. Gorst selected Pearson Field to service the Portland Post Office for the Seattle-to-Los Angles run because, at the time, Portland lacked a viable airfield. However, whether Pearson Field was used as a regular stop is unclear. It seemed an alternative to Swan Island while the Portland airport was under construction, shrouded in bad weather or other no-fly circumstances.

On Sept. 15, 1926, Vern Bookwalter flew the first government-sanctioned airmail round-trip for PAT and returned, making the first official U.S. Postal mail transported between Oregon and Washington. In 1919, Army flight instruction gave Bookwalter four hours of training before he soloed. That earned him pilot’s license No. 82, signed by Orville Wright, which he proudly displayed.

Ace pilot Tex Rankin nicknamed the big and “well-padded” Bookwalter “Anti-lift” and defined the term as “a larger unnecessary object holding an airplane down.” Unhampered by the nickname, Bookwalter flew his Ryan-M1 monoplane from Pearson Field at 5:25 a.m. with 184 pounds of mail headed for Medford, Ore., landing three hours later. He exchanged the Ryan for an Travel Air to return to Pearson with 10 mailbags. When he arrived at 11:30 a.m., a crowd of 6,000 locals greeted him. His landing was the third time letters were delivered to Vancouver by air. (Lincoln Beachey’s delivery by dirigible never involved the post office and Walter Edwards’ flight, although sanctioned, was more of an exhibition.)

Piloting planes modified to hold cargo was dangerous, not because of the load, but because of the schedules that had to be met. Fog, wind, inclement weather and night flying caused delays and more than an occasional crash. Two of the northern route’s 18 full- or part-time Pacific Air Transport pilots died in crashes.

A ceremony two days after Bookwalter’s flight launched regular airmail service shredded Vancouver-Portland relations. During the celebration, the jealousy between the more populous Portland and the smaller Vancouver for “ownership” of the route flared. George Baker, Portland’s mayor, led a delegation of only Oregonians. Noting this slight, Lewis Shattuck, president of the Vancouver Chamber of Commerce, angrily commented that his city was paying $75 a month so Portland received air mail, adding, “and they don’t even acknowledge we exist.” Gorst cut a deal and agreed to pay a monthly rental until the Swan Island Airport was completed.

Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.

Columbian freelance contributor