All Over The Map: Who was the ‘Paine’ of Paine Field?

Jul 23, 2023, 11:00 AM

paine field...

Everett airport namesake Topliff Olin "Top" Paine kneels in the snow and prays in gratitude, and smiles, after surviving yet another perilous US Air Mail Service Flight through the Rockies, circa 1920. (Public domain)

(Public domain)

Paine Field in Everett added “Seattle” to its name this week – becoming Seattle Paine Field International Airport. The new name generated a lot of media attention and conversation, and riled up a lot of people, too.

The wisdom of this “branding” move may be debatable to some, but retaining “Paine” as part of the name keeps alive the history of an interesting figure with deep ties to Everett and the romantic days of early aviation.

Paine Field was officially named on July 22, 1941 – 82 years ago this week – and it was done so in honor of Topliff Olin Paine, whose nickname was “Top” for short (and T-O-P also happened to be his initials, too). According to a family member, “Topliff” comes from the maiden name of his paternal grandmother, Lura Leonard Topliff.

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Top was born in Orwell, Ohio in 1893 and moved to Everett with his family as a child in the 1890s. He graduated from Everett High School in 1911 and attended the University of Washington. He worked for the United States Forest Service and then enlisted in the Army around the time of World War I, which is where he learned to fly.

After the war, Paine joined the U.S. Air Mail Service, which in those days was an arm of the Post Office Department (it would be shifted to private contractors, notably Boeing, in the late 1920s).

Top Paine flew many dangerous air mail routes in the Rocky Mountain West, mainly between Salt Lake City, Utah and Rock Springs, Wyoming. This was in the earliest days of air mail and not unlike the early days of the internet. It was also as romantic as the Pony Express, and even more exciting, as aviators wrestled their protozoic aircraft through darkness and storms, all in service to a new and faster way to communicate via the written word.

One image of Top Paine from his U.S. Air Mail Service days shows the beaming young pilot kneeling in grateful prayer in the snow alongside his airplane – having just survived another dangerous flight carrying the mail.

Tragically, Top Paine died at his home in Salt Lake City in April 1922 just after his 29th birthday. Accounts of what happened vary, but his death was ultimately attributed to an accidental gunshot. Topliff Olin “Top” Paine is buried at Evergreen Cemetery in Everett.

Fast forward about 15 years, and Snohomish County Airfield was built in the late 1930s as a Great Depression-era federally funded Works Progress Administration (WPA) project. A few years later, when the airfield was being beefed up for military training use as part of the runup to American involvement in World War II, a civic leader in Everett suggested naming it for Topliff Paine.

Just a few months after the official naming, a Northwest Airlines airliner made a special stop at Paine Field on December 7, 1941 in order to pick up a young Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson, Everett native and, at that point, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. The destination was Washington, D.C., where Scoop and other members of Congress would hear FDR’s Pearl Harbor speech the next day and vote to declare war on Japan.

More than 100 years after he died, Topliff Paine still has descendants in the Northwest.

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His grand-nephew Nicholas Moe is 76. He was raised in Everett, but now lives in Thurston County. Moe’s grandfather Sumner Paine was Top Paine’s brother.

Moe says the family is very proud of Top Paine’s name being on the airport in Everett, and they’re very proud of the family’s involvement in many aspects of Everett’s civic life over the years. Moe says they appreciate the current airport management, who invited the family to Paine Field a few years ago to dedicate a statue of Top Paine outside the passenger terminal.

Moe is, of course, very happy that the new name for the airport still includes “Paine.”

However, when it comes to having “Seattle” as part of the package, he’s not as sanguine.

“I think it’s unfortunate,” Moe told KIRO Newsradio. “And I would like to see ‘Everett’ in there rather than Seattle. But, you know, that’s up to the powers that be, I guess.”

Everett-raised Thomas Paine is Moe’s cousin. He lives in Eastern Washington and is also a grand-nephew of airport namesake Topliff Paine, and his unofficial historian.

“I have some mixed feelings,” Paine wrote in an email to KIRO Newsradio. “For one thing, Paine Field has always been Everett’s airport. Before that, it was Everett’s Air Force Base.

“In my opinion, putting ‘Seattle’ in the name tends to obscure Everett’s historical role with the site,” Paine continued. “On the other hand, it’s probably a wise move from a marketing standpoint and will probably benefit the airport business-wise.”

Along with the recent kerfuffle, there’s at least one bizarre footnote to the saga of Northwest airport naming that entangles Paine Field.

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Back in 1983, Sea-Tac Airport was renamed – temporarily, as it turned out – “Henry M. Jackson International Airport” after the longtime U.S. Senator when he died suddenly in September of that year. The change was much opposed by many (especially in Tacoma – or “Tac” for short) and it was short-lived. When it went back to being good old Sea-Tac, several people in Snohomish County suggested renaming Paine Field for Jackson instead, since “Scoop” had grown up in Everett and still lived there at the time of his death.

While the Jackson name was being discussed as a possibility for Paine Field, Sumner Paine – namesake Top Paine’s brother, who was then 95 years old – told the Seattle Times he didn’t approve.

“I’m proud of the name,” Sumner Paine told the Seattle Times. “It was named for my brother and it’s an honor to him.”

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea or a question about Northwest history, please email Feliks here.

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All Over The Map: Who was the ‘Paine’ of Paine Field?