A site of tragedy for the State of Oregon may soon have a formal name change in Lake County in recognition of an infamous plane crash that took the life of Oregon’s governor 62 years ago.
A difficult-to-reach area in Lake County approximately two miles from Dog Lake, southwest of Lakeview, has never had a formal name designation, but unofficially has been known among residents as Governor Ridge for decades. A historic marker has been placed to mark the site where in 1947 a Beechcraft Bonanza aircraft carrying Oregon Governor Earl Snell and several other individuals crashed, with all aboard killed.
A private citizen has submitted a registration form to formally name the site as Governor Snell Ridge under the designation of the Oregon Geographic Names Board. The area falls under the administrative authority of the Fremont-Winema National Forest.
Earlier this month Lake County Commissioners showed their unanimous support for the name change during a public meeting, while also indicating surprise that the area had never previously had a formal name declaration – but in the years since the accident had always been known among residents as Governor Ridge.
The crash site is not visible from the nearby road. In 1995 a historic marker was installed at the site commemorating the crash site, complete with an image of a Beechcraft Bonanza in flight. In 2016 an application was submitted to add the site to the National Register of Historic Places under the U.S. Department of the Interior.
The Beechcraft Bonanza was the height of post-war general aviation luxury when it first debuted in 1947, iconic for its distinctive V-tail. The aircraft was brand new, recently acquired direct from the Beechcraft factory in Wichita, Kansas in 1947 by Oregon State Senate President Marshall Cornett, a Klamath Falls resident.
The crash occurred on Oct. 28, 1947. The aircraft took off from McNary Field in Salem bound for Adel in Lake County for a goose hunting trip at the 800,000-acre MC Ranch, owned by Oscar Kittredge. In addition to Governor Snell, aboard the aircraft were Secretary of State Robert Farrell, Cornett, and the aircraft’s pilot – Cliff Hogue.
The group planned to land at Coleman Lake Landing Area, spend an evening at the Kittredge Ranch, hunt geese the next morning, and fly back to Salem afterward.
The flight from Salem to Klamath Falls was uneventful. The group had dinner at Cornett’s house, then returned to the airport, taking off around 10 p.m. eastbound for Lake County.
A few hours later Kittredge became nervous with the late arrival of his friends, assuming that with weather turning worse they must have turned back to Klamath Falls, so Kittredge went home. The following morning he called Cornett’s home, but there was no sign of Cornett back in Klamath. A search was launched, but it was not until a telephone tip from a cowboy in the Dog Lake area south of Lakeview reported sounds of an aircraft in distress the night in question was a search launched in the Lakeview vicinity. Aircraft were dispatched from the Lakeview airport, and soon the wreckage of a Beechcraft Bonanza was spotted on a steep slope.
A search-and-recovery party was launched by Jack Smith, Drews Valley District Ranger for the U.S. Forest Service. The bodies of every passenger were recovered on the scene. It appeared to the search crew that the aircraft had flown straight into the ridge, shearing off ponderosa trees and coming to a stop between two trees. Crash site investigation concluded that bad weather and a low cloud ceiling had likely forced Hogue, a veteran pilot, to fly lower than usual, and he crashed into the ridge after misjudging a safe altitude at which to operate the aircraft below clouds but above the mountainous terrain.
With Oregon’s governor deceased the Constitutional path of succession normally falls to the secretary of state, but he had also died in the crash. If the secretary of state cannot assume the role, it falls to the president of the Senate – also deceased in the crash. Fourth in line was the speaker of the House of Representatives, John Hall, who had not joined the hunting trip and was therefore still very much alive. Hall was sworn into office the same day the bodies were recovered, his first act as governor was to declare a statewide day of mourning.
Snell was first elected governor in 1942, carrying a whopping 78% of the state vote – an Oregon record. He first served in state politics in 1926 as a member of the House of Representatives after serving on the Arlington City Council. In 1932 Snell became the secretary of state. Snell was incredibly popular, and it seemed a foregone conclusion that upon completion of his second term Cornett would be elected the new Oregon governor.
A model of Beechrcraft Bonanzas remain in production to this day, arguably the most iconic single-engine general aviation aircraft ever built. However, as luxurious as the aircraft may be, known for smooth handling, sleek design and fast speeds; it has been involved in many high-profile crashes. Most famous of all was a 1959 crash that claimed the lives of musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and “The Big Bopper,” immortalized as “The Day the Music Died.”
Part of the cause for the Bonanza’s ill reputation was due to its perceived status symbol. Considered the premiere aircraft to own, it was highly sought by those with deep pockets, and often little flying experience. While instantly recognizable for its V-tail design, that aspect of the aircraft also made it deadly for inexperienced pilots. The aircraft was easy to enter an inadvertent spin from a banked position, resulting in aircraft going from level flight to a potentially deadly situation almost instantaneously.
The aircraft, with its streamlined design and 165-horsepower engine, was incredibly fast, drawing comparisons to the flying equivalent of a luxury sports car. This led to many pilots trying to push Bonanzas to their speed maximums, and when reaching the manufacturer’s defined “never-exceed speed” the Bonanza developed a nearly uncontrollable wobble from the V-tail near certain to result in a high-speed crash. It is for this reason that the Bonanza earned the nickname, “The fork-tailed doctor killer,” with crash rates more than twice that of comparable general aviation aircraft.
The crash site unofficially-for-now known as Governor Ridge still contains some debris from the crash, including much of the now-flattened fuselage, parts of the wings, engine cowling and tail. The engine was removed for investigation, while other bits and pieces from the crash site have in all likelihood been removed by looters. One part of the plane, a door, was removed by site visitors and later recovered in 1990 after being discovered at a campground. The door was returned to the Forest Supervisor’s Office in Lakeview, where it remains. The looters had used the aircraft door for target practice.