by Anniel 5/5/15
Russia was involved heavily in the Crimean War, fought from 1853 through 1856, and had incurred hefty war debts. Maintaining the Territory of Alaska had become a further financial drain, so the Russians offered Alaska for sale to the United States in the late 1850’s while Abraham Lincoln was still living. The U.S. Civil War interfered, and the turmoil following Lincoln’s assassination meant the offer was not accepted by President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Henry Seward until March 30, 1867.
The United States paid the grand sum of $7.2 million for 586,412 square miles of land, or about 2 cents an acre, for what was called “Seward’s Folly.” The vast, largely unexplored, territory remained under military control until May of 1884 when civil government was installed and the area became a District of the United States. Alaska became the 49th State of the Union on January 3, 1959.
For many years the only way for people to reach parts of Alaska was by steamship from Seattle to Seward, then by rail to Anchorage, or to travel with a fishing fleet. The Yukon Gold Rush, which began in 1896 and lasted for 3 years of incredible hardship, brought thousands of prospectors, miners, gamblers and assorted camp followers into the Territory through Canada. River travel and the building of small railroads and bridges opened up more territory where rich ore sites of silver, copper, tin, basalt, and other minerals were discovered, always leading to more growth.
In 1899 gold was discovered in the sands off Cape Nome, where it was easier to travel and also transport the gold by ship, so that gold rush lasted about 10 years, or until 1909.
Bear’s grandmother and Swiss grandfather, Otto, had met and decided to marry while they were both living in San Diego, but Otto had promised his mother that he would not marry until he first returned to visit her in Switzerland. He told his fiancée he would be gone about a year. Grandma Leila must have been a very remarkable woman because she told him fine, but she was going to head for Cape Nome to work while he was gone, and she did. As far as we know she was the first on either side of our family to come to Alaska, although others were right behind.
It was the coming of railroads, built along rivers and streams, along with steam and paddle boats, that opened the Interior of Alaska to mining, homesteading, settlement, and all the commerce that came with settlement. The brief history above leads to stories, of course.
Life on the Tundra
Two of my favorite people are Tony and Caroline. Tony is from a village called Kiana (i = “eye” ), inland from Kotzebue Sound, part of the Chukchi Sea. People who don’t live near there insist on pronouncing it Kot-ze-boo, but natives pronounce it with a U sound at the end. Kotzebue and Kiana are above the Arctic Circle and Kiana is on the banks of a stream near the Kobuk River. It is a place of muskeg and flat tundra, which means the subsoil is all permafrost and only small bushes and bramble can grow in the topsoil. There is not a mountain or tree in sight. Lots of edible berries, though.
Tony and Caroline met and married while he was attending college in New Mexico. When he got a job teaching in Juneau, they invited his mother to spend some time with them there. She had never been anywhere near a mountain, and Juneau, which is surrounded by mountains, absolutely terrified her. She finally would not even go outside because she thought the mountains would fall on her, and she didn’t like trees, either. She was so frightened and unhappy Tony had to take her back home.
When Tony got a job in Kiana, Caroline told me she wasn’t too happy because she didn’t want to live without a dishwasher. Tony’s mother didn’t understand the problem because, she said, she did have a dishwasher. It wasn’t until they were moved to Kiana that Caroline learned the “dishwasher” was a 14-year-old girl who came every night, went down to the river for water and heated it to do the dishes.
Tony learned to grow vegetables in greenhouses in order to interest his
students and native neighbors in healthier eating. He has done much for his home village. Whenever we meet anyone from Kiana they turn out to be some relative of Tony’s.
One spring on a trip to Kotzebue, Bear and a friend watched while the sun was setting over the ocean and the Northern Lights were dancing in the pinkish sky. They still speak of the sight with awe.
Selling Black Underwear
My old boss, who went by the name Mac, first came to Alaska in the early 1930’s selling dry goods and clothing in little villages and settlements all over Alaska. He walked railroad tracks and traveled rivers and streams to reach his customers. By that time Anchorage had become the Railroad and commercial hub of Southcentral Alaska, so it was Mac’s hub, too.
He sold regular wool underwear, all white long johns at first. The miners liked the warm long johns, but said they got dirty too fast. Then Mac talked the Utah Woolen Mill Company into making black underwear for their Alaska customers. The miners loved the new black long johns because they didn’t have to wash them. They were probably pretty ripe at the end of the winter season. Mac put himself through college and Law School on the money he made each summer.
Mac told me that one summer he was walking on the railroad tracks hauling his sample case when he looked up and saw a grizzly headed right down the tracks toward him. He said it was no contest. His sample case went one way off the tracks and he went the other. The bear took the middle of the tracks, as is only proper.
So how were the purchased goods delivered? Bear and I have been studying the history and maps of early Alaska and there seems to have been regular trade routes down the main rivers, the Yukon, Nenana, Kuskokwim, and Chena, for instance. Then the goods would be off-loaded to smaller paddle wheel boats, and they made delivery to the main camps on the secondary rivers and streams. Word would go out that a boat was in and men were sent from the smaller camps to take their own deliveries. Barges still haul fuel and goods along the main rivers and it is possible to travel as a passenger on barges, particularly on the Yukon.
After graduating from Law School Mac, now with a wife, returned to Anchorage for good just before WW II and started his law practice. He thought of becoming a Coast Watcher when the war started but the Japanese also began their war along the Aleutians, the Thousand Mile War, before that could happen, so he was in the Home Guard.
He went on to become an Alaska Federal District Judge before returning to private practice. All the old timers who had bought black underwear were his best clients.
When I worked for him he had collected all kinds of exotic animals at his Anchorage home, including things like pheasants and peacocks, and kept a few of his favorite breed of horses, Tennessee Walkers. It was fun to visit, unless he expected help cleaning the barn.
Flat, a town located in the Yukon-Kuskokwim area of Western Alaska very near Iditarod, was once a thriving gold mining town, founded in 1908 with 6,000 residents. That was before the greenies and the EPA got their pristiner-than-thou hands on it. In 2010 it became a census-designated-point with a population of, TA-DA, exactly 0, and is now officially a Ghost Town.
My older brother, Chuck, came to Alaska in 1961, a year after I did. He got a job running a cat at a placer mine at Prince Creek, just out of Flat. He worked there almost every summer for Rich and John, two brothers who had been born in Flat and grew up mining with their father.
After Chuck’s first summer of work, Rich told him the miners in the area had a bet going how long he would last since he was not a native and would probably find the work too hard and be lonely for some excitement.
Chuck laughed and said, “What do you mean? This is just how I grew up.”
In the summer of 1969, Chuck asked me to bring his 5-year-old son, Sean, to Flat for the big 4th of July celebration and to stay for a week or so. The 1st of July Sean and I got a small bush flight to McGrath, and then an even smaller plane to Flat. The Town Hall was the only community building still in good repair. I’m guessing that there were around 100 people or so living in the area, and there were at least 24 million mosquitoes for every resident (but only the females bite.)
That first afternoon I met the man who kept the town running, Johnny Miscovich. He shook my hand and peppered me with questions. When I told him I worked for Mac his face lit up in a big smile. “Tell him you met Johnny Miscovich and he’ll know for sure you’ve been to Flat.”
“I suppose you bought his black underwear?” I asked.
“Of course, best damn underwear I ever had!”
I’m not certain I believed in black woolen underwear until that moment.
About ten years after I met him, John Miscovich would invent a nozzle that revolutionized high pressure hoses so that the direction of flow could be torqued down and the direction of the spray controlled. It tamed hoses and helped out firemen everywhere. He became wealthy but returned home to Flat every summer as long as he was able. All the old-timers loved the place.
The strangest character I have ever met had been living in Flat for a number of years. Although he was white he claimed the name of William Geronimo Burns, and said he had been raised by Geronimo himself. Billy Burns was semi-bald and gray, tall and thin and had the most enormous red nose I have ever seen on any human being. He had been everywhere and done everything and loved to talk about it. Chuck told me to take his stories with a grain of salt. But I can tell you that he eventually had to move into an old folks home about 6 miles from downtown Anchorage and he walked those 6 miles and back again every single day, including the day he died at the age of 104.
While staying at Prince Creek I saw the daily back breaking work of placer mining and also watched a clean-up that involved about twice the normal workload. I give you my word that anyone who mines for a living deserves every penny they make.
John, one of Chuck’s bosses at Prince Creek, had a teenage son who worked along with everyone else. He also had one younger boy named Eric, who was a little bit older than my nephew, Sean. The two little boys became great friends and ran around the camp everywhere, filthy, sweaty and covered with huge blood-smeared mosquito bites. They were told always to stay in sight of camp and no one worried much about them.
After the big 4th of July Celebration in town we all went back to our cabins at Prince Creek and prepared for bed. I heard some noise on the porch, and then a couple of rifle shots. John knocked on the door and said he had seen a bear trying to get into our cabin and he was going to get the tractor to drag its carcass up and over the hill. Sean, of course, was terrified and crawled into bed with me for the next few nights.
Some days of exciting terror for the boys followed as they kept crawling to the top of the hill to peek and be scared by the bear all over again.
Rich and I were peeling potatoes one night for dinner when I realized I hadn’t heard the boys for awhile and mentioned to Rich we should probably find them. We went out and called them and saw them giggling hysterically and running over the top of the hill where the bear carcass was dumped. Eric reached us first and yelled, “WE SAW THE BEAR, AND I KICKED IT!”
“YEAH,” shouted Sean as he panted up, “AND I PEED ALL OVER IT!”
Indeed, a feat guaranteed to vanquish all fears.
When we returned again to civilization I found that most things I had thought were so important no longer mattered. Maybe a mandatory hitch in the wild with Outward Bound really would cure many of society’s ills. • (1590 views)