To an appraiser, the .20 carat diamond in Rita Brown’s wedding band is worth about $450. But to her, it’s an invaluable heirloom steeped in family history.
It’s likely the gemstone once belonged to a wealthy California man who died in a fiery plane crash outside Canyonville in 1928. It was buried near the wreckage on a steep slope. Many tried and failed, but Rita Brown’s relatives were able to find it.
“I don’t wear a lot of jewelry, and I’m not that sentimental,” she said. “But to me, it’s priceless.”
The story of how Rita Brown got her diamond begins when her brother, Gordon Smith, noticed an article, “Diamonds in the Wreck,” in the October/November 2003 issue of Air and Space Magazine.
It recounted the story of a Pacific Air Transport plane that crashed south of Canyonville while ferrying a retail magnate and his satchel of diamonds. The article by Sam Goldberg told how a Spokane airplane buff named Addison Pemberton had rebuilt a working model of the Boeing 40C using the handful of surviving components recovered from the crash site.
To Brown, now of Corvallis, and her nine siblings, the story of Mailplane No. 5339 sounded remarkably familiar. It was an open secret in her family that several great uncles had recovered some diamonds from airplane wreckage and given them to their wives. Her father, retired Glendale High School science teacher Chet Smith, received three from his own father. He kept them in a drawer and occasionally showed them to guests.
Goldberg wrote about how the townspeople had clambered up the nearly vertical face in search of the precious stones.
“Rumors abound of Canyonville wives who own rings set with diamonds from the crash,” he wrote.
After word of the Air and Space article got around her family, Rita Brown’s father wrote to her and her siblings. He said they should get the rest of the story.
“Some (or most) of you may recall how Mom’s diamond (in the setting of her engagement ring) came to be in the family,” he wrote.
He went on to write that his father and two uncles spent days following the crash combing the hillside. Using sifting boxes made from window sills, they may have recovered up to six diamonds.
“I’m not sure how many were recovered, but (I) believe that Aunt Lora, Aunt Mary Louise and possibly Aunt Nellie all had them,” he wrote.
And he clarified where they had been found.
“The hillside in question is the one directly ahead as one enters the long sweeping (right-hand turn), second one down, going north through the Canyon Creek section of I-5. It is 7 miles from Canyonville, not 9 as the item says,” he wrote.
Of Chet Smith’s three diamonds, two are now in the wedding rings of daughters. Another is set in the band of a daughter-in-law.
The diamonds feature an unusual cut, one that sacrifices sparkle to give a larger look. A gemologist who examined them for Smith traced their origin to a well-known diamond mine in Brazil, he said.
The story of how the diamonds ended up on the ridge begins on the hazy morning of Oct. 2, 1928.
Pilot Grant Donaldson was heading from Medford to Portland with nine pounds of mail and a passenger, B.P. Donovan. While attempting to fly below low-hanging fog and above the treeline, Donaldson was caught in shifting clouds and missed a turn. He heard booming noises from below and discovered he was scraping treetops, according to The News-Review’s article about the crash. The large biplane dove through the trees and into the mountainside and burst into flames.
Donovan hit his head and died on impact. Donaldson lost his ears and his nose in the fire attempting to rescue him. He was able to scramble down to the Pacific Highway below, where a vacationing family from Michigan assisted him.
The next day, the airline recovered Donovan’s body, and what it could of the wreckage and the diamonds.
Donovan, 57, had owned a chain of drug stores and was a frequent mail plane passenger who led an itinerant life, said Addison Pemberton, who chronicled the story of Mailplane 5339 and his efforts restoring it for his book, “The Model 40.”
“The only addresses I have for him are hotels,” Pemberton said.
The wreckage was soon abandoned by the airline and the story of a diamond-strewn crash site high above Canyonville became local lore.
Brown was given the diamond by her mother, Alta, after the Air and Space story ran. When she married her second husband in 2007, Brown had the diamond and three diamond chips set into it — the chips representing her two sons and her new husband. Several years ago, she and her boys traveled to Pemberton’s Spokane fabrication shop to sit in the plane that once carried the stone she wears each day.
After she saw a June article in The News-Review about Mailplane 5339 returning to Roseburg for an air rally, she stopped by the newspaper office for a photograph.
She said she had her jeweler set the diamond low because she does a lot of gardening and yard work.
“I don’t want to lose it,” she said.
• You can reach reporter Garrett Andrews at 541-957-4218 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.