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Mary Joyce 

Photo of Mary Joyce 
Categories: 2013 Alumnae, Adventure, Business


Mary Joyce was a pioneer southeast Alaska entrepreneur and adventurer. During the 1930s, she owned and operated a remote wilderness lodge, became the first woman radio operator in the Territory of Alaska, made a thousand-mile sled dog trip from Juneau to Fairbanks, and was a hunting guide, pilot, flight attendant, nurse, and candidate for Alaska Territorial Representative. She inspired news and magazine articles, poems, plays, books, movies, art and songs.

In 1928 Mrs. Eric L. Smith, of the Charles Hackley lumber fortune, hired Joyce as a private nurse for her son, Leigh Hackley “Hack” Smith, a decorated French Foreign Legion veteran of World War I. The Smiths, with Joyce, traveled Alaska’s Inside Passage in 1929. They visited Twin Glacier Camp, established in 1923 by Dr. Harry C. DeVighne, a Juneau physician. Hack, struck by the area, purchased the camp, located 40 miles northeast of Juneau and accessible only by boat or floatplane. Hack and Joyce ran the lodge, added buildings, guided hunters and raised Taku husky sled dogs until 1934 when Hack died on a hunting trip. His mother bought the camp, including 15 sled dogs, and deeded it to Joyce who renamed it Taku Lodge. That winter Joyce operated a radio station at the lodge for Pacific Alaska Airways’ twice-weekly Juneau-to-Fairbanks flight. Joyce became the first female radio operator in Alaska.

In December 1935 Joyce embarked with five dogs on an overland trek to represent Juneau at the Fairbanks Winter Carnival. She hired Native guides or traveled alone on her three-month, 1,000 mile trip. National media covered her adventure, noting the great distance, bitter -60º F temperatures, primitive trails, and lack of communication, causing the American public to fear for her safety. Joyce flew the last leg to Fairbanks on March 26, 1936, where the mayor of Fairbanks awarded her a Silver Cup and the rare “Honorary Member” title from the Pioneers of Alaska. She completed her dog-mushing trip after the festival. “I wanted to see the country and experience some of the things the old-timers did,” she told reporters. “I just wanted to see if I could do it.” 

Because of her knowledge of the remote country, Joyce hauled radio equipment by dog team for the Navy as it built defenses during World War II, was a consultant for construction of the Alaska-Canada Highway, taught survival skills to troops, and helped develop a new air route from New York to Fairbanks. An Associated Press article, “Alaska Woman Could Give Soldiers Lessons in Defense,” she is quoted: “It’s nothing . . . Most Alaska women can take care of themselves.” Explorer Norman Dawn chose Joyce to co-star as Taku Mary in a film, Orphans of the North (1940), shot in the Taku River region. Another film, The Flying Saucer (1950), is loosely based on the lives of Joyce and Hack Smith.

One of the first female pilots in Juneau, Joyce ended her piloting days with wounded pride after she collided with fishing gear on Gastineau Channel. A certified nurse, she spent two years as a flight attendant for Pacific Alaska Airways, a subsidiary of Pan American Airways, traveling the Alaska-Seattle-Montana routes. In the 1940s, Joyce sold her lodge and moved to Juneau where she was a nurse at St. Ann’s Hospital and where she later purchased the Top Hat and Lucky Lady saloons. She led the statehood parade in Juneau and cut the ribbon for the first Iditarod trail race in 1973.

Joyce was born in Baraboo, Wis. Motherless at 18 months, she and her brother were raised by an aunt and uncle. Graduating from Mercy Nursing School in Chicago, she moved to Hollywood in 1928 and Alaska in 1929. Except for a short stay in Wisconsin in the 1940s, Joyce lived in the Juneau area until her death in 1976. She is buried in Evergreen Cemetery there. Today, Taku Glacier Lodge draws thousands of tourists each year and visitors can see the dogsled Joyce used on her 1,000-mile journey. In 2012 the Juneau Jazz & Classics group premiered a composition about Joyce written by her grandniece, titled “Nothing to Lose.”


Additional resources:
Alaska State Library, Historical Collections, Mary Joyce Collection.
Baldwin, Bert. “Mary Joyce’s Thousand Miles on Snow,” poem in Northern Highlights and Mary Joyce. Bert Baldwin, 1976. 
Bell, Karen and Janet Shelfer. Taku: Four Amazing Individuals—Four Incredible Life Stories and the Alaskan Wilderness Lodge That Brought Them Together. Birmingham, Alabama: Will Publishing, 2006.
Greiner, Mary Anne. Mary Joyce: Taku to Fairbanks, 1,000 Miles by Dogteam. Bloomington, Indian: Author House, 2007.
Kolkhorst Ruddy, Kathy, personal communication,
Twin Glacier Camp, National Register of Historic Places documentation. 1988.

Induction ceremony acceptance speech