Prelude to an Alaskan garden railroad

In the Beginning . . . <<--- CLICK to proceed to INTRO below Pt 1: Introduction: My New Vending Route, July, 1977 Pt 2: Wasilla to Ketchikan: 1953 Pt 3: My Dreams Take Me to Kennecott: late 1950s, early 1960s part 4: Off to Tonsina & Chitina, 1977 part 5: Viewing the Wrangells, En route to Tonsina & Chitina, 1977 Part 6: My First Experience with the Pipeline, 1975 Part 7: I Leave the Pipeline Project the First Time, 1975 Part 8: The Influence of Lone Janson's "Copper Spike," 1975-76 Part 9: G-scale 1994 Part 10: Returning to the Pipeline: 1975 Part 11: One More Time Around: Franklin Bluffs and Pump Station Six, 1976
Part 12: Arrival at Chitina (Tsedi-na), 1977 Part 13: Mike Hatch and the Ghost Train of Tsedi-na, 1977 Part 14: The Railroad Town of Chitina, then and now Part 15: The End of My Vending Route in the Copper Valley, 1979-86

 

In the Beginning . . .

The Ketchikan of the 1960s: This is the north end as it looked about the time I left in 1968. The airport is on a separate island in the foreground. I lived in a neighborhood up the hill near the center of this photo on the main island (foreground: Gravina Island, beyond is Revilla Island).

Anyone who has ever developed an interest in historic railroads or even the history of existing ones has probably run across references to ghost trains. This is usually a reference to sounds of steam engines, or their whistles or bells, locomotives from railroads that are long gone, with the stories often centering on old abandoned railroad grades where the rolling stock and locomotives are long gone and the iron rails themselves no longer exist.

It was just such a story, or, more correctly, series of stories, which brought an entire railroad to life for me--one that had nearly fallen completely out of sight of all but a few who had actually lived it. This railroad had not operated since 1938. It would have probably fallen out of sight completely as an Alaskan flag line had not one determined lady written a wonderful historic account of its beginnings and ultimate demise. Lone Janson wrote what I consider a ground-breaking history of the Copper River & Northwestern Railway (CR & NW) back in 1975. She masterfully detailed the complex political intrigue behind the construction of the CR & NW--the ongoing tug-of-war between two enormous forces: that of the Big Business of the Guggenheim Syndicate versus Teddy Roosevelt and his conservationists who did not want to see this railroad succeed for a variety of reasons.

The CRNW Railway at the wharf at Cordova

1975 was the year I returned to Alaska after fulfilling an obligation to serve in the U.S. Army just after the end of the Vietnam conflict. I came back in time to take part in the Alyeska pipeline construction project.

Alaska only became a state in 1959 because enough federal law-makers were finally convinced that Alaska could exist as a self-supporting state because oil had been discovered along the Kenai Peninsula in Cook Inlet. Alaska had always been a resource-rich territory. First there were the marine fur-bearing mammals that the Russian-American Company nearly brought to extinction in their zeal to make an easy fortune. Once Russia had cleaned out most of these, along with wiping out a substantial portion of the Aleut Native population that Russia used practically as slaves to assist in the harvesting of these creatures, it sold its interest in the territory to the United States.

This sale was the pet project of Secretary of State William Seward. The transaction would become known as "Seward's Folly," because many Americans were led to believe that Alaska was essentially an ice-box of no real value to anyone.

Yet the territory was to one day become the most valuable of all the states in terms of mineral and oil production, fisheries and timber. Eventually the latter two would die off, and even the heyday of gold would appear to be over, but not that of oil and gas. If you ignore some of the details of a story I am about to relate to you which includes oil development related to the Copper River & Northwestern Railway, oil was only in its initial stage of development in 1975.

The signing of the Treat of Cessation, which deeded Russia's interest in Alaska to the United States for 7.2 million dollars.

Very shortly after the purchase came a remarkable series of gold rushes, starting in southeast Alaska, then spreading into the Yukon Territory, then into the interior of Alaska. Alaska became known as a place to get rich panning for gold. Not many did, of course, but a great many mostly desperate men certainly tried. The most famous of these events was the Klondike Gold Rush which actually occurred in the Yukon Territory of Canada. This particular event would also spur the discoveries which would lead to the richest high-grade copper find in all of North America and maybe even the world. But that would be many years in the making.

Skagway Harbor: The port of the White Pass & Yukon Railway

With the Klondike gold rush came the construction of the first railroad to successfully enter the northern interior, piercing the rugged coastal range, extending from Skagway, Alaska to Whitehorse, Canada. This was a narrow-gauge railroad that, like many others to follow, was built too late to take advantage of the big gold rush, but nevertheless survived long enough to pick up some of the remaining business until it nearly died from lack of activity. This one, the White Pass and Yukon (WP & Y), was to be significant for events that were to follow within Alaska itself.

\The contractor in charge of construction of this scenic mountain railroad (1898-1900) was Michael J. Heney, The engineer in charge was Erastus C. Hawkins. Both of these would surface later when the time came for the construction of the CR & NW Railway a few years down the road.

White Pass & Yukon: construction arrives at the White Pass summit

One of the spin-offs of the WP & Y was a much lesser-known short line, the Klondike Mines Railway (KMR) out of Klondike City, across the Klondike River from Dawson City. This one, like the WP & Y, came too late to take advantage of the gold rush, but it nevertheless hung in there as an operating railroad entity from 1906 until 1913. Almost all of its rolling stock came from the WP & Y.

I had grown up in Ketchikan, the "gateway" community to Alaska on the southern end of southeast Alaska. I was well aware of Skagway, which was on the opposite end of the Alexander Archipelago which made up southeast Alaska, and knew it as a near-ghost town which happened to have an old railroad based there. Beyond that I knew very little about it.

Excursion on the White Pass: While I was growing up in Ketchikan, I did not know much about it, except that it was based in Skagway.

I knew even less of interior Alaska, even though my Native roots lay there. I had never even heard of the CR & NW until I read that book by Lone Janson, "The Copper Spike," about a year after it was published in 1976.

In fact, at the time I was hired by Bechtel to be a Native Site Counselor based in one of the large northern pipeline construction camps, I knew very little about my state at all even though I had grown up in southeast Alaska. I knew even less about the many historic railroads which had been largely responsible for turning the territory that had once been a remote part of the old Russian Empire into a viable American economic entity.

The Alyeska pipeline about twenty miles south of Delta Junction as it heads toward the Alaska Range on its way to the port at Valdez.

Continue

 

In Pursuit of the Ghost Train of Chitina, Pt 1:

Introduction: My New Vending Route, July, 1977

  Here I was in the early 1980s somewhere on my rural Alaska highway vending route with my trusty 4-wheel drive, 1 1/2-ton yellow crew-cab  truck I had purchased new probably about 1978. I used this monster extensively to haul all those heavy machines I operated in approximately three dozen or more locations. Burned up one engine and it was never the same since.  Eventually I had to replace it with a newer model with one of those new diesel engines.

Often I had to move even the pool tables on my own, but thanks to my experience working for Anchorage Amusement, I knew what I was doing--most of the time. I wonder now how many summer nights out there on one of those long roads I ended up sleeping in the cab of that truck. Oh yes, that is a cast on my right arm. I was never the most careful of working people. Such considerations as safety were not exactly my prime concern in those days. After all, I was in the early part of what would turn out to be a two-decade-long adventure ! I am a whole-lot more safety-conscious these days, but also not exactly a young man anymore. 

The photo is an old Polaroid. That's all I had.  Armando fixed this one for me.  The Polaroid Instamatic  was particularly handy back then, although the quality of the pictures left  much to be desired.  It never occurred to me that I would want some of these images for posterity.

I guess I was like most anyone else who pulled up to Chitina for the first time. It is a fascinating old place in a particularly intriguing setting, but just another Alaskan frontier town--I thought.  In the nearly three decades since I first set foot in that dusty town, little in the appearance of Chitina has changed. One large building that was out of use even back then was finally torn down last year and a business has burned down on the same spot three times (I strongly suspect there is a message in that latter series of events).  I was a coin-amusement operator back then, specializing in jukeboxes, pool tables, video games and pin ball machines. In those days Chitina was an intriguing place, but more so it was an opportunity to do business. It would not be until fifteen years later that I would learn my true connection to the place.

I remember how proud I was on obtaining the loan which enabled me to purchase the "Glennallen Route" back in 1977.  I had just completed my work for Alyeska Pipeline Service Company. Three years of construction were over and I was ready to begin my own small business in earnest. Why I picked this line of work is something I have wondered over ever since, but at that time it appeared to be an exciting and potentially very profitable business. The original company name was Nabesna Music.  This was because my first locations centered on that area, the upper Copper Valley. When I picked up the new route, I changed the name to Yukon Amusement with the very optimistic assumption that I would one day spread my business accounts all the way to the Yukon River. Ultimately I made that dream happen.

The Glennallen Route  was a series of lodge and bar locations which consisted almost entirely of older-model jukeboxes and pool tables with a few pinball and cigarette machines thrown in. I was already operating a similar, albeit much smaller  business in the upper part of the Copper River valley--mainly at Mentasta Lodge and Duffy's Roadhouse. I  wished to expand upon this.  The operator of the Glenn Highway route was Anchorage Amusement, owned by John Knox and Keith Copeland. It was John who ultimately sold me that route.  One of the men who worked there told  me even then that I would probably end up regretting it.  That was an old-timer named Bill Fixel.  At the timeI thought he was joking.

John Knox flew me from Anchorage to Valdez on July 4, 1977 where I would meet up with his representative of the Valdez route, Jerry Waldrop. It would be Jerry who would take me through the Glennallen Route, which began with Tonsina Lodge, 77 miles north of Valdez, turning it over to me as he made one final collection for Anchorage Amusement at each location. It was one of those hot and sunny days for which interior Alaska is noted at mid-summer. We pulled up at Tonsina in the early afternoon in his collection truck--a step van with a lot of vending supplies and set up for running coins inside the secure back area. Jerry already had a full load of money--many bags of quarters from all the vending machines, jukeboxes, pool tables and who knows what else John was operating at Valdez. That route would soon be sold to Keith Copeland who was in the process of  extinguishing his partnership with John Knox at Anchorage Amusement. In another year, Keith moved to Valdez where he would pass on after living a relatively quiet life at Valdez for over a decade, as was his apparent wish. John himself was the first to go. He died about a dozen years after selling me this route--one I had finally abandoned a few years before. Keith, his old business partner, followed a year later. They were both enormously supportive in my business endeavors, for which I will be forever in their debts. These were business men from another era in the days of the old frontier Alaska--the Alaska of pre-pipeline days. They were both honorable and hard-working family men that one would be hard-pressed to find around much anymore. For them a handshake was good enough. That I know for a fact. It was how we did business back then.

  Tonsina Lodge as it appeared in the 1930s.  On the third floor on this side, about the third or fourth window from the right, resides a very well-known "ghost," said to have died in that room shortly after the building was erected on this site.

Tonsina was and still is a fascinating place. Back then it was run by an old couple who had picked up the property sometime in the 1960s and who had just had a very successful run after three years of pipeline construction activity.   It was a very big deal that meant really big bucks in those days. Nothing quite like the pipeline had happened in this valley since the U.S. Army came through to build the new Glenn Highway during World War II. But even more so, for all of Alaska, no project but one would rival the impact of the Alyeska Pipeline construction project. That was the building of the Copper River & Northwestern Railway and the development of the Kennecott Copper Mines in the nearby Wrangell Range. But those days were long gone. Kennecott and its railroad had pulled out of the Copper River valley in 1938. This was 1977--nearly 40 years later.

It had been a very busy place for all those three years, this Tonsina Lodge. Now all that activity was finally winding down. The ancient-appearing couple was probably in their late 70s. They looked older than they were from years of living the hard life of being remote Alaska lodge operators.  Their appearance very much fit in with the old place. Bob and Margaret Fraser had already completed the setting up a new bar in a brand-new building which would soon also house their Mexican Restaurant. They called it the "Mangy Moose."  But their prime place of business remained the old three-story frame lodge that at one time was a barrack at old Fort Liscum near Valdez. This was the single remaining structure out of many that had once dominated the Valdez Inlet where old Valdez stood. After Ft. Liscum was abandoned in 1923 as an Army outpost, the place became known as "Dayville," named after the family which picked up the property a few years after abandonment. Now that same property is the home of Alyeska's pipeline terminal. My very last job for Alyeska was at that terminal. At the time I had no idea that it was a historic location. No one could ever guess that now. No signs of the old days remain there.

 

Ft. Liscum near Valdez is now the site of the Alyeska  pipeline terminal.

 

A some point in the 1930s the old rough log structure which served as the lodge at Tonsina burned down. Sometime thereafter  this former barrack was disassembled and moved over the narrow Richardson Trail to its present location where it still stands.  In those days upper Tonsina was a strategically-placed, very busy lodge. This new building would serve it well for another fifty years. It still looks like a old barrack, but the long  roof sags badly .  The former barrack  has a reputation as being a haunted one. But in 1977 the building was still the main lodge. Margaret oversaw the money and business transactions while "Rotten" Robert managed the facility and oversaw the food and bar service. He was a master at lodge cooking and he had a special love for Mexican food.  People would drive for many miles just to eat a Mexican dinner at The Mangy Moose, upper Tonsina Lodge.

 When I walked into the lobby of the old building, I encountered the first of the roughly four-dozen machines I had just purchased from Anchorage Amusement. These were an old Seeburg jukebox and a Valley pool table.  The other machines--another somewhat more recent vintage jukebox, two larger pool tables, and a foos ball machine were in the new bar building.

Since my first of many thoroughly-enjoyable visits there I have always wanted to include that lodge in one of my ghost stories. I hope I am around long enough to do just that. The place certainly warrants the attention.

From Tonsina Lodge we crossed Squirrel Creek, headed up a steep sandy hill, then turned right, proceeding east down the new Edgerton Highway to Lower Tonsina. The view heading east down that narrow but paved road is absolutely magnificent.  Here is one of the best ways to see Mt. Wrangell--"the one that smokes."  It was sixteen miles down that road, then at the end of the pavement. Somewhere beyond that was Chitina. On this day we would not be going there. The owner of Lower Tonsina was an old Indian named Joe Goodlataw. He and his wife Martha ran a small restaurant and gas station there in what was a relatively new and attractive log building about four feet off the ground. I had another pool table and another old jukebox there. It was here that I first met Joe's grandson David who would soon be working for me and who years later would do some major carpentry work for me at my Copper Center property.  At the time I had no idea that we were, in fact, cousins, removed about three times, but cousins nevertheless. Joe was a younger brother of Cap Goodlataw, the main character in my historic novel.

After Jerry cleaned out the two machines he looked in the direction of Chitina and told me "We won't be going there today. Too much dust for me.  I can't stand dusty roads like that one. You can go there yourself later." On my list of equipment was a model 2700 Wurlitzer at a bar operated by someone named "Curly" in a bar somewhere in Chitina.  I would not be getting there right away.  I had a master key with me for that jukebox so I could make a final collection for Anchorage Amusement before officially taking over the machine.

 Meanwhile I had set myself up in business in a location which was central to the valley. I had rented a small apartment above a busy truck stop at Glennallen, mile 114 on the Richardson at the junction with the Glenn Highway known as "The Hub."  One project I did there related to my business would be remembered by Native people many years later. I call it the "Northern Lights Room" project. It lasted less than a year, but I would be there at the Hub for nearly three years before the place burned down.

But that is another story.  After I was comfortably set up with my new business--a rather extensive route down some very long rough and dusty by-ways and frost-heave, dip-laden highways--I finally was ready to head off to find and deal with this place called "Chitina. "

  By the time I arrived at Tonsina Lodge, it was a little worse for the wear and tear. This drawing, done by local artist Gail Niebrugge accurately portrays its appearance when I first stepped into the front lobby at this door on July 4, 1977. This sketch reveals the east side, facing Mt. Wrangell.  The historic photo shows the west-face, which is the view from the Richardson Highway.  This drawing first appeared about 1980.

 

One part of many: Continue

In Pursuit of the Ghost Train of Tsedi-na, Pt 2:

Wasilla to Ketchikan: 1953

 

Our last home in Wasilla still stands. The first two were almost unlivable in the winter. This one was brand new in 1953 when we moved in. Behind it and up the hill is the Hernings Store, once Teeland's General Store, which had been located downhill from this house on what is now the George Parks Highway that is the main highway route from Anchorage to Fairbanks. About two decades ago a historical society moved the general store to save it from demolition since it was sitting on what had become very valuable real estate.

 

 

I was just three years old when Dad and Mom packed up the old Henry J car and left with me, my younger brother Jimmy, and that tabby cat whose name for the moment eludes me. In those days it was quite a bit more of an adventure to drive that roughly sixty miles from old Wasilla to Anchorage. It was a much narrower, windy road with long bridges traversing those large glacial waterways the Matanuska and the Knik Rivers.

I recall that Dad would sometimes drive us down just to look at the Knik River. Every so often a glacial dam somewhere high in the Chugach Range would burst loose from behind a glacier, flooding those river channels. Sometimes the water would be almost up to the bridge when this event would occur. But most of the time it ran low, probably close to twenty feet below the bridge deck heading into Cook Inlet only about half a mile beyond the bridge. Funny the things one remembers. That river no longer does that. Lake George, the cause of all that river flooding, has long since ceased to exist. Undoubtedly the glacial dam which made it all possible has long since retreated beyond the point where Lake George was even viable.

I don't remember much about Anchorage in 1953 except it did look like a city even then. Of course it was a much smaller place than that which one would encounter now. These days the Anchorage bowl is largely filled up. People seeking housing now look toward Wasilla if they want affordable housing. It has become the fastest growing bedroom community in Alaska. It will not be long before Anchorage and the Wasilla-Palmer area will be almost indistinguishable.

To think when I was living in Wasilla probably not more than a hundred people lived within one mile of that old railroad station.

The old Alaska Railroad depot in Wasilla is one of about three of this type which still exists along the Alaska Railroad line. The others are in Seward and Nenana. The larger one in Fairbanks was torn down years ago to make way for an even larger station which has since been replaced by a modern facility designed to accommodate the many tourist excursion trains which ply the AKRR.

 

 

Teeland's Store as it appeared in 2007. Mom used to walk me past here on the way to the railroad depot where I would count and name the cars as they went past us on the way to Fairbanks or Anchorage.

 

 

There was Teeland's Store, a roadhouse, a very small school where Dad taught and the post office, but not much else but a few small houses and cabins. That area is now a vast strip mall of about 6,000 within the town limits. In the surrounding area comprising the Matanuska-Susitna Borough live about 60,000 people. I don't think there were that many people living in the entire Territory of Alaska back in 1953 (Alaska finally became a state in 1959).

We continued on, following the old Alaska Northern Railroad Line which is now the Alaska Railroad, along was undoubtedly a very narrow and windy, sometimes steep highway crossing the Chugach Range over to Seward. There we stayed overnight in the Jesse Lee Home where my Dad grew up in the late 1920s and 1930s. The place spooked me out. It was big and it smelled funny. And somehow it had an institutional feel I had never before experienced which would be the source of many a nightmare for me for years afterwards. I suspect that it is that same feeling of panic which many Natives have experience who have actually had to live in such places.



Dad would tell us boys stories about all the hard work in the garden at the Jesse Lee Home--a Methodist Church Native orphanage. Here you see a group of Native boys in the garden, probably removing rocks. There were a lot of rocks to remove. The boys dorm was Jewel Guard Hall on the left. Next to it was the dining hall and kitchen, known as the Balto Building, constructed in 1931.

By the time Dad brought us through Seward to spend the night here, the home had a much more finished appearance. It would last another 11 years before the great earthquake of 1964 destroyed the girls dorm (on the right) causing the Methodist Womens' Christian Missionary Society to decide to abandon the entire complex. Today the two remaining buildings on the right still stand and are now the objects of an major effort to restore the buildings for use as dormitory housing mainly for Native rural students. This was largely at the insistence and persistence of my father, who tried for years to gather support to save the remaining structures for posterity. It appears that he just might have finally succeeded in his endeavors to save a part of Alaska's heritage.

 

 

Soon we were boarded on the S.S. Aleutian bound for Ketchikan on the southern end of southeast Alaska on one of its very last voyages as a passenger liner for Alaska Steamship, which had previously been owned by Kennecott. One year later Alaska Steamship would get out of the passenger business. The ride over the Gulf of Alaska was very rough. Dad said that the propellers would come completely out of the water because the seas were tipping the ship that much. I was seasick for most of that voyage.

Thus it was that I grew up in Ketchikan--a very rainy city to say the least. It was common to see 160 inches of rainfall in a year there, but the record was 201 inches. It just rained a lot. Emory Tobin had a rain gauge at his place of business which showed the amount of rainfall as it made its way up the gauge seeking that 200 inch mark every year. It was about 12 feet high, standing next to a Tlingit totem pole.

All I could remember of the Alaskan interior of my earliest days was a very little of my experiences up to age three when we had lived in Wasilla. Dad would talk a little about Chickaloon which he could himself only vaguely recall as a small child before his Dad brought him to the orphanage probably about 1927. Chickaloon was an old coal mine facility built by the U.S. Navy before World War I along with a railroad spur to reach it. Now it is known as a former Indian village. Dad's Mom was one of those inhabitants. He did not know where his mother had come from prior to her arrival at Chickaloon, but he knew that she had died about 1939 and was buried in Sutton near Chickaloon. It would be many years before we were able to piece together most of that story. Dad knew nothing of the Copper River valley, much less anything of Kennecott and thus he never spoke of it. He did speak some about Jesse Lee Home, but sometimes it was almost as if he was being apologetic about how things had been there.

 

Dad's teaching job in Ketchikan finally produced enough income for him to begin building his own home after acquiring some property along a hillside some distance from Main School above downtown Ketchikan where Dad was initially hired. He began a home-building project in 1955 which never really ended. By the time I graduated from Ketchikan High School in 1968 the house was ten years past Dad's most ambitious remodeling project and it had taken on a distinctly finished appearance and was otherwise quite comfortable. Yet there was always one more project to complete that house. In 1964 Dad took the position of president of the local community college--a job he held until his retirement in 1981 when he and Mom left Ketchikan for good.

 

 

I believe this is actually a picture of the original S.S. Aleutian owned by Alaska Steamship Company during the its heyday when Kennecott Copper was king--the dominant industry in Alaska. The first Aleutian was built in 1898 and wrecked and sank in 1929 somewhere near Kodiak. The second one was built in 1906, purchased by Alaska Steamship in 1930 and sold in 1954. It was ultimately scrapped. The Alaska Steamship dock was right off of the main streets of downtown Ketchikan. From Mission Street, the passenger liner was always visible. This is how this part of Ketchikan would have looked when we arrived in 1953.

This view is from a residential hill above old downtown Ketchikan. The large building near left center is the old Main School where Dad first worked. Below at the docks one can see the three stacks of an Alaska Steamship vessel at the dock. Bar Harbor is straight ahead, looking down Tongass Narrows toward Seattle.


Continue

In Pursuit of the Ghost Train of Tsedi-na, Pt 3:

My Dreams Take Me to Kennecott: late 1950s, early 1960s


While I was growing up there in Dad's new house on the hills which were largely surrounded by 100-plus foot-tall cedars and hemlocks, I begun having a series of dreams about a group of red-painted buildings situated along a steep hillside with a pile of heavy rock rubble and what appeared to be some kind of creek or river flowing through that rubble out front. The buildings apparently were of an old industrial type and obviously deserted. Although in my dreams, I never was able to see the top of the hills as you see them here, the main structures very much resembled the ghost town of Kennecott as it looked about the time I finally arrived in the Copper River valley.

 

The Kennecott ghost town and mill site as it appeared about 1981. 

I dreamed versions of that vision many times while I was still a young boy. I don't think they appeared again after I was about 7 or 8 years old. But in some ways I continued to live my dreams. I always knew those buildings existed somewhere. There was never any doubt in my mind about that. I can distinctly recall in one of those dreams stepping into one of the buildings. It was a large room and very dusty in there. Not much was in the room except  large wood tables and benches with a heavy layer of yellowish-colored glacial dust in it, although at the time I had not heard of glacier dust. That is a phenomenon which is peculiar to interior Alaska. It is unknown in most of southeast Alaska where I grew up.  It was only later that I realized what I had been dreaming was just as real as I had assumed. I had found my way into one of the dining rooms of the lower Kennecott camp in my dreams as they would have been about 1980. 

I used to spend many hours walking through those  tall groupings of hemlocks, spruce and cedar  which made up the forest lands that came right up to Dad's property.   The land just beyond our home dropped off rather suddenly, finally ending as a sharply-cut canyon in which flowed a creek that emanated from somewhere well in the mountains behind us to the uninhabited eastern part of the large island on which we lived. I spent many a pleasant hour alone walking those woods, learning the lay of the land--and seeking those buildings. I just knew that someday I would encounter them. They were out there somewhere.  I don't believe I ever told anyone else about them. How was I to explain it? I just knew they existed. Over time the dreams changed and along with them the memories of those buildings I thought I had seen. By the time I was in junior high school those images in my mind had largely been forgotten.

I used to take walks the several miles to downtown Ketchikan from our home every chance I had if the weather permitted it. One of the businesses downtown was Emery Tobin's gift shop which was also the original office for the Alaska Sportsman Magazine which eventually evolved into the world-renown Alaska Magazine of today. His monthly magazines always had great photos of old Alaska. It was an extension of a much larger Alaska I had never known, although parts of it already seemed familiar. I loved the pictures of the old buildings out there in the middle of nowhere. There were so many of them: cabins, mining structures, parts of ghost towns. I don't remember ever seeing Kennecott, but I sure saw many fascinating remnants of Alaska's relatively-recent past. Although it always held an odd fascination with me, I assumed that my adult life lay elsewhere, probably stateside. Even though I was drawn to many of those images and the stories which accompanied them, I never really studied them closely, for I could not imagine that some of them would become a part of my latter adult life--many decades later.

 

One of Emery Tobin's magazines published the year I was born. These were wonderful productions documenting life in Alaska as it existed in the 1930s through the 1960s.  In those years very little in Alaska changed except for what was brought on by WW II. Then came the Alyeska Pipeline project.

 

Eventually Emery retired and sold his magazine. It went national and became a very big business, including its publication "The Milepost," which is the main travel guide most Alaska-bound travelers purchase before heading off to Alaska.  Just a block away from Emery's old office was the Ketchikan Daily News. I was able to gain the route for my neighborhood while I was in junior high school, running it for a couple of seasons, rain or not. It did not matter to me. The editor in chief there was Albro Gregory. He, too, would resurface later in the oddest of places. Almost all of the characters of which I speak have long since passed on. But it is amazing how many of them came back in one way or another to add one more piece to the puzzle that would one day reveal itself to me as its own puzzle within a puzzle.

Years later those childhood dreams would resurface in a very odd way.

I had left the Army in 1974. I could see that I was not temperamentally suitable for a military career.  The Army was down-sizing because the Vietnam War was over. The opportunity to leave early came along, so I did just that.   I had been a second lieutenant and had done my duty. That was enough for me.  After leaving the military, my search for suitable employment stateside had been unsuccessful.  After a few months of failure to see any encouraging results,  I finally gave up and returned to Ketchikan where Dad was still head of the  local community college.

He suggested I visit the local Bureau of Indian Affairs Office in downtown Ketchikan. It seems that employment opportunities were about to open up now that the construction right-of-way for the Alyeska Pipeline had been approved. So it was that in a matter of weeks I took my first flight to Anchorage since I had successfully interviewed for a full military scholarship for college some six years before.

 

The Federal Building in Ketchikan where the US Post Office and the BIA office, among others, were located.

 

It was winter in Anchorage. My first interview led nowhere.  It was cold, the inlet was full of ice and it looked awfully barren up there,  and I  retreated back  to Ketchikan wondering what I would do next. It was not long before another opportunity came along. The world-wide engineering firm known as  Bechtel was looking for counselors for a ground-breaking program Alyeska was setting up for newly-hired Natives all along the 800 mile-long pipeline. It was not long before I had a job at some place I had never heard of on the North Slope near  the starting point of the Alyeska Pipeline at Prudhoe Bay.

 

A much younger me, taken as I was about to head north to a new future that would one day involve historic model railroads of all things !

 

At the time I had no way of knowing that I was about to take part in the greatest privately-financed construction project ever to take place in Alaska. Things would never be the same in my life from that time on. A new course had been set. Whatever might have happened to me had I been successful in achieving some kind of career stateside was never be. Even the very nature of who I would become would be altered drastically by what was about to happen. My two-decade long adventure in the Wild North and my ultimate inseparable association with Kennecott and its Copper River and Northwestern Railway was finally underway. I had no way of knowing and could never have comprehended in my wildest imagination what was about to take place.  I was 26 and thought I was ready for the new world which was about to unfold.  I was not. Not even close.


I last saw Ketchikan in 1981. I understand it is hardly the same place anymore, but what place is? So much has happened in those few years. In those days, this is part of how it appeared.

Continue

 

In Pursuit of the Ghost Train of Tsedi-na, part 4:

I head off for Tonsina & Chitina, 1977

 

In 1989 the old Copper Center Bar burned down and was eventually replaced with this building. I purchased the property in 1996 and began a long-term upgrade project for the entire property.  This is how the bar appeared in 1995. The bar building was unpainted, but at least it was relatively new.
 

The time had finally come for me to take that trip down to Chitina and find that Wurlitzer 2700 which was on my list of machines I had purchased from Anchorage Amusement.  The trip would begin at the Hub on the intersection of the Glenn and Richardson Highways. This was mile 114 of the Richardson. Mile 100 was the southern turn-off into Copper Center while the cut-off to the New Edgerton was about mile82--three miles north of Tonsina Lodge.

In 1977 the Richardson ran through Copper Center as a relatively narrow, somewhat windy six mile stretch.  A few years later this section would be bypassed because it went right through the Indian village of Kluti-kaah and was considered to be a hazard. No doubt that it was. It was also true that once the new bypass was completed, Copper Center would become a backwater with extremely limited business possibilities.

One of my vending locations was the Copper Center Bar which was on Loop Road--an original piece of the Old Richardson which was now nothing more than a short country road to the historic Copper Center Roadhouse and the Copper Center Bar and an adjacent trailer court. Years later I purchased that trailer court and bar.  On this day I would be traveling right past the Loop Road, not stopping  anywhere until I got  to Chitina.

 

 

 

1996 aerial of the Klutina River and its confluence with the Copper River. The Old Richardson can be seen crossing the Klutina. The Loop Road then takes off from that, heading east toward the Copper River, then bending around to meet the Old Richardson again. In the lower right-hand corner is a segment of the New Richardson Highway. 

       I continued past the Klutina River and up the hill, climbing up to a long bench which parallels the Copper River for miles, even though from the highway the Copper River south of Copper Center is no longer visible. Somewhere around mile 90 is the Old Edgerton cut-off. This is the historic Edgerton which was built from Chitina in1910 to connect with the Richardson Trail at this point. At one time Willow Creek Lodge existed near here, but like so many of the lodges from those days, unless one knows exactly where to look, nothing can be seen. It is as if it had never existed. The Old Edgerton cut off is unmarked. At that time I was unaware of it. As it turned out, this narrow gravel road meets up with the New Edgerton at a place called Kenny Lake, eight miles east of the junction with the Richardson.

 

 

This is part of a 1914 map showing the old road from Copper Center to Chitina. Highlighted in yellow is the old Edgerton Road which extended from Willow Creek to Kenny Lake where it now joins the New Edgerton Highway. You may click on the map image for a larger view.

 

  Route to from Copper Center to Kennecott: This map shows the junction at Glennallen and the Old Edgerton cut-off (unmarked, to the right of Willow Lake).  The three numbered towns were all destined to become part of my historic model railroad project. Continue

In Pursuit of the Ghost Train of Tsedi-na, part 5:

I View the Wrangells, En route to Tonsina & Chitina, 1977

 


Just beyond the Old Edgerton cut-off is an excellent view of the Wrangell Range, including Wrangell, Kelth-edi, "the one that smokes." This range plays a large part in the folk lore of the Ahtna people, especially as evidenced in my chapter Nicolai's Raven Story of Creation. In 1977 there was only a small turn off here. Since then a much-larger one has been built due to enormous demand by the many who wish to view and photograph these scenes. On this day, I marveled at the sight, but kept on going. I did not know about Kennecott as yet, although by now I believe I had heard the name. Mt. Blackburn is the head of Kennicott Glacier and just to the northwest of Kennecott  itself. One of the ridges southwest of Blackburn is the Bonanza Ridge which contained the fabulously-rich copper ores on which Kennecott would build its early fortune.

 

View 1 of Willow Lake Showing Mt Blackburn and part of the Chugach Range just above Lower Tonsina. View is oriented ESE. Click picture for larger image

 

View 2 of Willow Lake showing Mts Drum, Sanford and Wrangell. Click picture for larger image.

 

View 3 of Willow Lake showing Mts Wrangell and Blackburn. Click picture for larger image.

After passing by this lake, one begins climbing a long, gradual hill for some distance before leveling off. Near the summit of this hill is the New Edgerton cutoff.  I noted the sign which showed the Chitina was a left turn and made the turn. Immediately the mountains started to come back into view:  To the left the spectacular  Wrangell Range begins to come into view. 

 

Once past the turn at the junction the Edgerton becomes an eight-mile tangent that ends at Kenny Lake, affording a spectacular view of some of the tallest peaks in North America.  Ahead you see Mt. Wrangell on the left and Mt. Blackburn on the right--the head of Kennicott Glacier.  It was on the eastern side of this glacier, named after an early American explorer to Alaska named Robert Kennicott that the richest high-grade copper ore vein ever found was discovered in August of 1900--about a century before this photo was taken. And it is here that my destiny would lie. For this was the land of my ancestors. And the discovery of that vein at that time only occurred because of a deal made between a small group of prospectors who made their way here because of the Klondike gold rush and a man named Nicolai.  Skolai Nicolai, the tyone of Taral, one of the greatest Native leaders of his time--my great, great grandfather.

Nicolai from an 1885 drawing by Lt. Henry Allen & the Kennecott mill in 1980 drawn by Gail Niebrugge

Continue

In Pursuit of the Ghost Train of Tsedi-na, Part 6:

My First Experience with the Pipeline, 1975

The Advent of the Alyeska Pipeline: The event which changed everything.


 

Above:  The route of the oil pipeline and a profile map in the context of the entire state of Alaska.

Below: The pipeline construction camps, 1974-77:  You won't readily find this map anymore. The camps are mostly long-gone since the early 1980s or even earlier. In place of these camps are the various pump stations, some of which have also since been abandoned. None of the pump stations were located on or even near these construction camps. The pipeline camps were for construction of the actual line while there were separate camps at every proposed pump station location.


The Alyeska Pipeline was the single largest privately-financed construction project of the time. To say it changed most everything in Alaska is an understatement. From the moment those first oil field leases were let out by the State of Alaska in 1969, the future course of Alaska was set and the lives of every one of its citizens would be greatly affected forever--even those living in the most remote of places within the state. I was one of many for whom this event marked a pivotal change which would affect me for a lifetime. During the height of construction, over 20,000 people from all over the world were employed on the project. All of them would be affected in similar ways, for this was a project like no other.

Franklin Bluffs was the name of my first camp. It was March of 1975 and I was flying from Fairbanks across the Arctic Circle to a pipeline construction camp that was only fifty miles south of Prudhoe Bay. I believe the company who had the contract flying to the northern camps was Wien Air. They are long gone, but at the time they were a well-established yet typically-Alaskan operation--a bare bones and sometimes white-knuckled flying operation. The turbo-prop probably held two-dozen people, if that many, with room for a huge assortment of duffel bags, tool kits, boxes held together with duct tape and all the other odd assortment of baggage we in the North Country are used to seeing on pipeline workers' flights such as this one.

This was my first real job since leaving the Army nearly a year before. I was excited, knowing that this could be the beginning of a career that would take me on to even bigger and better things. Yes, it was a three-year construction project, but most all of us who were part of that gargantuan operation, including me, somehow seemed to believe it would go on forever. I can recall nothing in my life quite as exhilarating as when I finally became a part of the Alyeska Pipeline project.

Franklin Bluffs camp, winter view: This was the camp that I first saw during those late winter months that I worked here as a Native site counselor. Nothing exists at this site but the gravel pad upon which this camp was built. Like all the other construction camps, this one was disassembled and hauled off after the work here was completed.  We landed on a gravel strip adjacent this camp. Franklin Bluffs is on the North Slope amoist nothing but tundra. There are no trees and few geographic features. There is a slight bluff from which this camp took its name, but nothing exists here to stop the incessant winds from blowing up a real storm. Those create total white-outs making road travel nearly impossible. There were plenty of those.  Click for a larger view.

We landed without incident in the most barren country I had ever seen. All there was to be seen was one bluff as we were landing--and not much of one at that--and miles upon miles of a vast white flat featureless landscape wholly devoid of any distinguishing features. This was the North Slope. The camp itself was a camp of ATCO units built somewhere in Canada and transported by truck over the Alcan Highway. It was a series of parallel flat-roofed single-story barracks connected by very long and wide hallways that were heated by large diesel-burning space heaters.  The halls were brighly-lit with barracks extending at right angles out of the them probably about every fifty feet. I don't know how many of these there were, but the camp was designed to house 1,100 men. All of this was interconnected with a large dining and kitchen facility somewhere near the front of the camp close to the  various offices. Outside were rows of steel buildings which served as warehouses, repair shops and support facilities for water, sewer treatment and power, among other things.

Everywhere were the bright yellow Alyeska pickup trucks and suburbans. Almost all of them were 1975 model Chevrolets. There were dozens upon dozens of these--especially the pickup trucks. Then there were all the heavy yellow pipeline construction equipment. All of it was kept running all the time because diesel engines  shut down had a bad habit of not restarting out here in this arctic environment.

I had a camp manager who was a Texan to answer to but my real boss was Lonnie Thomas and Bob Scanlon, who headed the Native Training Program for Bechtel which was based in Fairbanks on Ft. Wainwright.  Lonnie was either a Tlingit or a Haida Indian originally from Klawak, not far from Ketchikan on Prince of Whales Island. Bob Scanlon was not Indian, but he was a good and dedicated boss. I know that because I soon felt the need to throw a curve ball his way and he caught it.  He backed me up under rather difficult circumstances.

I was at camp primarily to ensure that our force of Natives would somehow remain on the job. Whatever it took to do that was my responsibility. Most of these Natives were villagers who had never worked construction before. They were typically very young--18 to 21 and mostly male. This was a very volatile group. They did not understand these outsiders who had come to build this massive pipeline and I suspect that many of the Natives were intimidated by them--especially the Texans and Oklahomans who comprised the bulk of the pipeline workers.  I was facing a job which was really unwinnable, but I did not realize it at the time.

I had a lot of problems with the Resident Site Manager Bob Stiles who was from Texas. He did not understand Natives and obviously did not want to. He barely tolerated me. I had to try to work around him. The camp manager, who was also a Texan, was easier to work with, so I often brought my immediate concerns to him.  Unfortunately what I discovered is that the real power resided in  Bob Stiles. It would not be long before we would have to square off.

But the real problem we Natives seemed to face was, as usual, within our own ranks. Too many of my fellow Natives found ways to bootleg liquor into the camp. Many a night there were alcohol binge parties which often resulted the next day in Native workers either being fired or feeling sorry for themselves and simply quitting. The worst incident happened shortly after a huge number of United Association Local 798 Pipeline workers showed up with their Native welder helpers as per the agreement whereby so many Native welder helpers had to be hired into those positions. It was basic trainee level. It could have worked, too, but many of the senior 798 welders found ways to discourage or otherwise drive off their Native welder helpers. Then they started bringing in their own family members from Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas to replace the Natives. In one week over sixty of my Native workforce had quit. I stood there in disbelief as I watched planeloads of Natives departing the camp. It was a disaster.

Meanwhile I had this ongoing struggle with Bob Stiles which kept getting worse. He finally sent one of his henchmen to warn me to straighten up and shut up. I shot off a long report down to the head office, the follow-up to a telephone conversation I had with Lonnie Thomas and Bob Scanlon. They wanted the report in detail. I had taken good notes. They got what they wanted. In the end, even though I found I was unable to hold onto nearly as many Natives at Franklin Bluffs as I would have liked, at least I got the last laugh on Bob Stiles. He was removed as Resident Site Manager. Shortly after that I decided I had had enough of a losing situation and I notified Fairbanks via an explanatory letter that I too would be leaving.

Over the course of the few months that I was at Franklin Bluffs I had the chance to go out into the field numerous times, even though Bob Stiles often tried to block my access out there. I interviewed dozens of Natives on the site and in the barracks, all the time trying to collect data to demonstrate what was actually happening to our Native work force. I saw first hand a lot of mistreatment of Natives and in a few cases was able to successfully intervene. What I took away from that assignment was a burning desire to somehow find a way in my personal life to make up for the bad hand I had seen dealt to all too many of the obviously unsophisticated remote-village Natives who often were unable to adapt to a situation such as the one presented in the early days of pipeline construction which involved long but regular hours working with a wide variety of people who knew little or nothing about Natives.

The snow and ice had melted off the tundra. I had had enough of that North Slope camp in more ways than one. Except for one brief break, I had been there about four months, working sometimes both night and day in a futile attempt to keep as many Natives employed on this part of the pipeline as possible. I felt that I had failed, but at least I provided a detailed record of what had happened there to my head office in Fairbanks.

Now it was time to begin looking for a new career.  How was I to know that a year later I would end up right back where I had started this personal adventure--at Franklin Bluffs? All those construction camps and pump station camps and before the year was out I would be back on the North Slope in that very camp. Funny how life works out sometimes.

Meanwhile I picked up this marvelous book--essentially a political history of the construction era of a long-forgotten railroad--the Copper River & Northwestern Railway. I had never really thought of myself as a rail-fan. It had been years since I had thought much about trains at all. Some things in life cannot be escaped. Not only would I soon return to Franklin Bluffs, but I was about to meet



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