Spruce Goose Left With No Fanfare
From Issue: Volume XX - Number 19
By Steve Propes
By Steve Propes
SPRUCE GOOSE transferring to nearby barge in October 1992.
Photo by Sylvia Propes
It took years of planning and a handful of decisions for Long Beach to lose one of its most enduring tourist draws, the legendary Spruce Goose which was at the brink of permanent departure almost exactly 20 years ago this month.
The Hughes H-4 Hercules was a prototype heavy transport aircraft designed and built by Hughes Aircraft, which made the then world’s largest aircraft famous under the Spruce Goose moniker, despite being mainly made out of birch because of metal shortages from the war effort.
Even though it originated with industrialist Henry J. Kaiser in 1942, it became associated with Howard Hughes, whom Kaiser brought in to make the HK-1 (for Hughes and Kaiser) a reality. Hughes was also the pilot during its one and only test flight on Nov. 2, 1947. After a test flight, the Spruce Goose itself began a bizarre journey that had nothing to do with its real purpose of flying up to 750 troops and equipment for the war in Europe that had ended two years previously.
Having proven to his detractors that Hughes’ masterpiece was flight-worthy and not a boondoggle of government funds, he put the Spruce Goose into cold storage.
A full-time crew of 300 workers, all sworn to secrecy, maintained the plane in flying condition in a climate-controlled hangar. After Hughes’ death in 1976, the Hercules was acquired by the Wrather Corp. which placed the plane under a giant dome next to the Queen Mary and opened it as a tourist attraction.
Disney began managing both attractions in 1988, when it bought out the Wrather Corp. After Port Disney was scrapped, Disney informed the Spruce Goose’s new owners, the California Aero Club that it no longer wished to display the Hercules.
The decision to get rid of the Spruce Goose engendered surprisingly little opposition. Assistant City Manager John Shirey said to the L.A. Times, “There’s not the same feeling and same association as there is with the Queen Mary. The Spruce Goose hasn’t been on public display for nearly as long as the Queen Mary. Furthermore, the Spruce Goose is housed within a dome. It’s not a symbolic icon as is the Queen Mary.”
After a long search, the California Aero Club awarded the Spruce Goose to the Evergreen Aviation Museum and its removal and transfer was approved by the club’s board in early July 1992.
The museum staff supervised the aircraft disassembly and in October 1992, the Spruce Goose, weighing 170,000 pounds, eight engines weighing 5,250 pounds, propellers weighing 800 pounds and a wing span of 320 feet was ready to be loaded on a barge for a 1,055 mile trip from Long Beach to Oregon.
On an early October day, Sylvia Propes went to her job as a caricature artist on the Queen Mary. “I was going to the offices of the Queen Mary in a little office building south of the Spruce Goose dome,” she said. “After I parked my car, I was on my way to the office and I saw the Spruce Goose coming out of the building. It was wrapped in a skin of white plastic like a caterpillar coming of a cocoon. There had to be a huge hole in the dome to get it out. This was amazing I should have seen this, which I remember to this day.
“I saw a crowd gathering,” Sylvia continued. “Apparently, some knew about it in advance, but even so, only about 30 random people came up to see it.” The only thing keeping the people watching from approaching even closer was that “there were workmen there.”
“When I finished watching, I went up to do my caricature and I looked down and saw the wings were laying right on the roadway that goes to the dome and there was a large 18-wheeler truck right beside it. The Spruce Goose was lowered on a barge and the barge sank slightly as it was loaded on, so I watched it being loaded for a while. It was going very slowly. Don’t know what it was loading on. We all agreed it was a pretty amazing sight to see it happen.”
It’s not clear whether the wings were then loaded on the barge or onto one of the trucks parked nearby, but it is known that other parts of the plane were hauled by truck. In all, it required 138 days for the barge to deliver the Spruce Goose to the Oregon coast and the several miles inland to McMinnville and the museum on Feb. 27, 1993, where it’s been on display to this day.
The Spruce Goose dome was subsequently converted to a Carnival Cruise Lines terminal, which continues to co-exist with the neighboring Queen Mary, the surviving tourist attraction in this sector of the Long Beach shoreline.