Author Archives: Helen Hegener

About Helen Hegener

Author and publisher, Northern Light Media.

1935 Matanuska Colony

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A typical Colony scene.

The 1935 Matanuska Colony Project, developed near present-day Palmer, Alaska, was part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal for America, an unprecedented series of economic programs designed to provide aid to people reeling from the Great Depression. Nearly one hundred new communities were designed and developed by Roosevelt’s planners, but the largest, most expensive, and most audacious of them all was to build a government-sponsored farming community in Alaska’s Matanuska Valley.

A Northern Light Media website presents the detailed history of the Colony, as written in the 2016 book by Helen Hegener, “A Mighty Nice Place,” The History of the 1935 Matanuska Colony Project. The site combines the history of the Matanuska Valley and the government’s Colony Project with the remarkable photographs of A.R.R.C. photographer Willis T. Geisman, who was charged with documenting every aspect of the venture and recording the events surrounding the Matanuska Colony Project.

The site currently presents the first six chapters of the book, from ‘A History of the Land,’ to ‘Bound for Alaska,’ when the 200 families departed for their new northern homes. The second half of the book, detailing the construction and development of the Colony itself, will be posted this fall, making the entire book available to read free online.

Click here to visit the website.

A Mighty Nice Place“A Mighty Nice Place,” The History of the 1935 Matanuska Colony Project, by Helen Hegener. Published in November, 2016 by Northern Light Media. 276 pages, 120 photos, 6″ x 9″ b/w format. Print book: $24.95 plus $5.00 shipping. Click here to order the book via PayPal

The Esquimaux

Esquimaux 3 420Only published for one year, 1866-1867, The Esquimaux was Alaska’s first newspaper, edited by a Western Union Telegraph line man named John J. Harrington. The July-August issue of Alaskan History Magazine shares the story of this unique publication, and the little-known history behind it.

Twenty miles south of present-day Teller, Alaska, on a sand spit separating Port Clarence Bay from the stormy Bering Sea, a Western Union telegraph cable construction camp named Libbysville was the site of Alaska’s first bona fide newspaper.

There were around forty men stationed at Libbysville, part of an ambitious Western Union project to lay an electric telegraph line from San Francisco, California to Moscow, Russia. The route would run up the west coast of the United States through northern California, Oregon, and Washington; then 850 miles through the colony of British Columbia (the project would be known in B.C. as the Collins Overland Telegraph) and cross into what was at that time Russian America, traversing 1,800 miles across the land which would later become Alaska before dropping under the Bering Strait, coming back to land at Plover Bay, Siberia, and then crossing Siberia to Moscow, where lines would connect to Europe. The project would be an alternative to the deep-water Trans-Atlantic Cable under construction at the same time by the Atlantic Telegraph Company.

440px-Robert_Kennicott_Harriman_Alaska_ExpeditionThe U. S. Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, has made The Esquimaux available to read online, and it records much history of early Alaska, such as the death of Robert Kennicott, who had been the Expedition’s naturalist: “Kennicott.––Died at Nulato, R.A. May 13th, 1866, Maj. Rob’t Kennicott, aged 32 years, a native of Louisiana, U.S.” The second issue would carry a lengthy front-page obituary for Maj. Kennicott, whose reports on the geology, flora, and fauna of the territory were among the earliest recorded, and may have precipitated the U.S. purchase of Alaska.

The July-August issue of Alaskan History Magazine, which includes the history of the newspaper, and the history of the trans-Alaskan telegraph cable project which was its reason for being, can be ordered here.

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Irving M. Reed

oie_21234926N4BBt391In his classic 1969 book, Boyhood in the Nome Gold Camp (Mineral Industry Research Laboratory, University of Alaska), Irving McKenny Reed records the observations made by an enthusiastic young boy in one of Alaska’s great gold mining towns at the height of its glory: Nome between 1900 and 1903.

An article in the July-August issue of Alaskan History Magazine highlights the young Reed’s adventures in Nome. He was only ten years old when he, his mother, and his six-year-old sister traveled by ship from Seattle to Dutch Harbor, where Irving’s father was developing a sulphur mine. It was a storm-tossed, 34-day voyage, but only the beginning of his life of Alaskan adventures. Irving Reed would grow up in the remote mining camps of Nome, Iditarod, Livengood, and Takotna, and he would go on to be a respected mining engineer, Alaska’s first fire warden, a State Game Commissioner for 12 years, and the Territorial Highway Engineer.  His complete biography can be read at the Alaska Mining Hall of Fame, and a collection of Irving Reed’s photographs at the University of Fairbanks, including several photos from the Iditarod Trail in the 1920’s, can be found here.

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Article in the July-August issue of Alaskan History Magazine.

 

Deering Roadhouse

Anna Ruhl's Roadhouse

Anna Ruhl’s Deering Roadhouse

The handwritten caption on the front of this photo by early Alaskan photographer Frank H. Nowell, showing three women, five men and three dogs, reads, “Anna Ruhl’s Road House – Deering, Alaska, September 25th 03.” There are two signs on the gable end of the building (to the viewer’s right): one reads ‘Restaurant,’ the other says ‘Bunk Room.’

The village of Deering, located on a sandy spit on the Seward Peninsula where the Inmachuk River flows into Kotzebue Sound, 57 miles southwest of Kotzebue, was established in 1901 as a supply station for interior gold mining near the historic Malemiut Eskimo village of Inmachukmiut. According to Donald J. Orth‘s Dictionary of Alaska Place Names, a post office was located here in 1901 and the name came from the schooner Abbie M. Deering, which was present in the area around 1900.

Illustration from Capt. Winchester's book.

Capt. Winchester’s sketch of the Schooner Abbie M. Deering from his book: “Leaving Lynn, Nov. 10, 1897”

A first-hand account, written by Captain James D. Winchester and published in 1900, relates the story of the wooden schooner Abbie M. Deering, built in 1883, which was bought by a company of twenty men who wanted to sail to the Alaskan gold fields during the Klondike Gold Rush. They left Massachusetts in November 1897, with Winchester, a merchant marine and the only seafaring man among them, at the helm. Capt. Winchester taught his crew to sail en route, and they sailed around the tip of South America, passed through the Straits of Magellan, and arrived at San Francisco five months later. They sold the ship, which was nicknamed ‘Diver,’ according to Capt. Winchester, “for the vigorous way in which she dove into a sea, giving many of us a good wetting in spite of every precaution.”

Records kept by the U.S. Department of the Interior show the schooner did eventually make it to Alaska, and some reports say the community of Deering was settled by its crew. There are apparently no records of Anna Ruhl’s roadhouse at Deering, and an extensive search turned up only the photograph above.

On August 26th, 1903, the town’s namesake, the Abbie M. Deering, departed Nome with a cargo of thirty tons of cigar case and mats, bound for Seattle and way ports. On September 4th, the schooner met heavy currents and an early morning fog, and drifted onto a reef on a small island on the northwest side of Akutan Pass, in the Aleutian Islands. The crew worked for thirty-eight hours trying to pull the vessel off of the reef. The schooner’s master assisted the crew of the U S Revenue Cutter Manning, upon their arrival, in the removal of the thirty one passengers and eight crewmen. The mate was left in charge of the wreck, and all the passengers and crew, except a few who remained in Dutch Harbor, went on to Seattle. The ship and its cargo was reported a total loss. Rudyard Kipling’s 1897 novel Captains Courageous mentions the Abbie M. Deering by name.

 

 

 

This article is an excerpt from the book by Helen Hegener, Alaskan Roadhouses, Shelter, Food, and Lodging Along Alaska’s Roads and Trails, published in 2015 by Northern Light Media.

 

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Barrett Willoughby

oie_2132217v9Yn62AlThe July-August issue of Alaskan History Magazine features an article about Barrett Willoughby, Alaska’s first commercially successful female novelist. Her romantic stories, set in various parts of Alaska, were serialized in the most popular magazines of the day, and two of her books, Rocking Moon and Spawn of the North, were made into motion pictures. In addition to her popular novels, she wrote short stories, travel books, and character sketches of significant Alaskan pioneers.

oie_21323170HlUIHvEThe daughter of a riverboat captain and named after her mother, Florence was raised on Alaska’s waters. Some of her earliest Alaskan experiences are recounted in her first novel, Where the Sun Swings North (1922), available to read online free at Gutenberg.org. Florence – later taking the family name Barrett as her first name – grew to love Alaska, its land, history, and people—and all but one of her novels have an Alaskan setting. Many of her male protagonists were, like her father, riverboat captains, and all of her female protagonists shared her love of Alaska.

Barrett Willoughby bioBiographer Nancy Warren Farrell wrote in Barrett Willoughby, Alaska’s Forgotten Lady (University of Alaska Press, 1994): “Willoughby’s novels were romantic adventures. And therein existed one of the keys to Willoughby’s personality and her writing. If one word depicted Barrett Willoughby as a person and as a writer, it would be ‘romance.’ It was the romantic outlook which urged her on, which kept her excited about the future. Her journey in life was like a steamer trip north: ‘A warm and magical Alaskan wind that fills me with expectancy and makes me sure that ahead––up around that next beckoning bend––lies something I’ve always longed for. I don’t know what it is exactly, but it’s beautiful; and it has in it youth and bouyancy––and that elusive, golden will o’ the wisp––Romance.’”

Sondra O'MooreBibliography
Where the Sun Swings North (1922)
Rocking Moon (1925)
Gentlemen Unafraid (1926)
The Trail Eater (1929)
Sitka, Portal to Romance (1930)
Spawn of the North (1932)
Alaskans All (1933)
River House (1936)
Alaska Holiday (1940)
The Golden Totem, a novel of modern Alaska (1945)

Filmography
Rocking Moon
Spawn of the North

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Alaska Nellie

Screen Shot 2019-07-15 at 6.44.33 PMOn the editorial pages of the May-June issue of Alaskan History Magazine there is a small photo of an Alaskan legend whose spirit inspired the publication of the magazine. Nellie Neal Lawing, known as Alaska Nellie by generations of Alaskans, left a legacy of courage, service to others, and dauntless resilience which the publisher of Alaskan History Magazine aspires to with each issue. The following article, written by Alaskan author Helen Hegener, first appeared in Alaska Dispatch a few years ago, and then on the website for Northern Light Media, which publishes Alaskan History Magazine:

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“There were possibilities of an extensive business at this place for at least three years, as I saw it, and now I would be needing a dog team and dog kennels, a place for harnesses and a small building in which to cook dog food. On the mountain above the lodge I cut logs for the kennels and the cookhouse.”  ~Nellie Neal Lawing in her autobiography, Alaska Nellie

Nellie Trosper Neal Lawing, familiar to Alaskans as “Alaska Nellie,” lived a life much larger than most, even by Alaskan standards. She was a fisherman, a hunter, a trapper, a cook and a roadhouse keeper; she fed the crews building the Alaska Railroad, welcomed princes and presidents into her home, guided big game hunters and developed an impressive trophy collection of her own. She mushed a dog team, kept a pet bear cub, became famous for her strawberry pies, and saw a movie made about her adventures. She was one of a kind, an Alaskan original, and she lived life to the fullest.

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Grandview Roadhouse, Alaska Railroad mile 44.9, 1915

Nellie arrived in Seward on July 3, 1915, just as construction of the Alaska Railroad was getting underway. She wrote in her autobiography, Alaska Nellie, that she set out to seek a contract “to run the eating houses on the southern end of the Alaska Railroad,” and she described her effort: “On my first time out on an Alaskan trail, I had walked one hundred fifty miles and as usual was alone. This accomplishment, in itself, might have satisfied some, but I was out here in this great new country to contribute something to others, and I felt this means could best be served by becoming the ‘Fred Harvey’ of the government railroad in Alaska.”

Nellie’s early life is succinctly described in an article written by Lezlie Murray, Visitor Services Director, Chugach National Forest, and published in Fall 2011 issue of SourDough Notes:

“The oldest of 12 children, Nellie Trosper was born into a farm family in Saint Joseph, Mo., where she dreamed of coming to Alaska. As a young child she learned to trap and hunt in the countryside around her parent’s farm, becoming a good shot and capable woods woman. She left home in her late twenties after she had helped to raise her brothers and sisters and could be spared. A diminutive woman barely five feet tall, Nellie began to work her way to Alaska in 1901, stair-stepping her way through the west. She spent the most time in Cripple Creek, Colorado, where she worked at a variety of jobs, owned her own hotel and married a prominent assayer. Unhappy in her marriage due to abuse at home, she made the decision to divorce and moved on to California, where she booked steerage to Seward, Alaska.”

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Nellie Neal with a mannequin on porch of the Grandview Roadhouse, 1915

Likely due in part to her plucky approach, she was awarded a lucrative government contract to run a roadhouse at mile 44.9, a scenic location she promptly named Grandview. Her agreement with the Alaska Engineering Commission was to provide food and lodging for the government employees; her skill with a rifle filled out the menu, and her gifted storytelling kept her guests highly entertained. Nellie described the accommodations at Grandview in her book, ‘Alaska Nellie’:

“The house was small but comfortable. A large room with thirteen bunks, used as sleeping quarters for the men, was just above the dining room. A small room above the kitchen served as my quarters. To the rear of the building a stream of clear, cold water flowed down from the mountain and was piped into the kitchen. Nature was surely in a lavish mood when she created the beauty of the surroundings of this place. The timber-clad mountains, the flower-dotted valley, the irresistible charm of the continuous stretches of mountains and valleys was something in which to revel.”

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Nellie in her later years, with her treasured gold nugget necklace

Wiry and independent, Nellie was an excellent shot and a respected big game guide, and she rapidly accumulated an impressive array of wildlife trophies. She maintained a dog team in winter, and trapped along the corridor which would later become the Seward Highway. Once during a blizzard the local contract mail carrier, Henry Collman, didn’t arrive when he was expected, so Nellie hitched up her dog team and set out to find him. She located the mail carrier badly frozen in an area which had claimed several lives. Nellie took the young man back to her roadhouse to warm up, and then set off to finish delivering his mail sacks and pouches, which she later learned contained valuable goods, to the waiting train. For her courageous efforts the town of Seward declared her a hero and awarded her a gold nugget necklace, with a diamond set in its large pendant nugget. Nellie treasured her necklace to the end of her days.

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Nellie Neal

Nellie tells another dog team story in her book: “One cold winter day in December when the daylight was only a matter of minutes and the lamps were burning low, two U.S. marshals, Marshals Cavanaugh and Irwin, together with Jack Haley and Bob Griffiths, arrived at the roadhouse.

“The heavy wooden boxes they were removing from their sleds had been brought from the Iditarod mining district. They contained $750,000 in gold bullion.

“‘Where do you want to put this, Nellie?’ called the men, carrying their precious burden.

“‘Right here under the dining room table is as good a place as any,’ I answered.

And it was as simple as that. There it stayed until the men carried it back to the sleds, next day. They were able to go to sleep, for it was as safe right there in my dining room as it would have been in the United States Mint. No one would dare to touch it.”

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Nellie and her trophies in front of the Dead Horse Road House

As work on the government railroad progressed, Nellie moved north and operated a roadhouse near the Susitna River, at a railroad camp known as Dead Horse. Because Dead Horse Hill was such a key location in the construction of the Alaska Railroad, a large roadhouse was built at the site in 1917 to accommodate the construction workers, officials, and occasional visitors. Management of the new roadhouse was given to the intrepid roadhouse keeper who had proven herself at Grandview.

Nellie took on running the Dead Horse Roadhouse with all the pluck and dedication she’d shown at Grandview, cooking meals on two large ranges for the dining room which seated 125 hungry workers at a time, and filling 60 lunch-buckets each night for the construction crews to take on their jobs the following day. In her autobiography she wrote, “I dished out as many as 12,000 to 14,000 meals per month, having two cooks, two waitresses and several yard men as help.”

In his book about the era and the area, Lavish Silence, Kenneth Marsh described the roadhouse accommodations: “…spring-less wooden bunks, straw mattresses and oil- drum wood-burning stove, all in one large room at the top of a flight of rickety stairs, held together by a warped wooden shell (which, at times, put up an uneven fight against the elements).”

oie_7412486P3ZjB7PIn July, 1923, President Harding, his wife, and Secretary of State Herbert Hoover stayed at the Dead Horse Roadhouse on their way to the Golden Spike-driving ceremony at Nenana. The next morning Nellie served heaping plates of sourdough pancakes in her warm kitchen, commenting, “Presidents of the United States like to be comfortable when they eat, just like anyone else!”

“Before the Curry Hotel was built, Curry featured a famous old building called the Dead Horse Roadhouse. The proprietor was the famous Alaska Nellie, who was known for her incredible cooking abilities and extraordinary hunting skills. It is said she killed the largest grizzly bear ever seen at that time.” ~Steve Mahay, in The Legend of River Mahay

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Nellie’s last home, on Kenai Lake

Finally in 1923, Nellie used her life’s savings to purchase her final home, a roadhouse on Kenai Lake. The railroad stop along the blue-green waters was renamed Lawing when Nellie Neal married Bill Lawing, and together they built the roadhouse into a popular tourist stop on the Alaska Railroad. Vegetables from Nellie’s garden were served with fresh fish from the lake or with game from the nearby hills, and Nellie’s stories, often embellished with her rollicking tall tales, kept her audiences delighted. Celebrities, politicians, tourists and even locals came to enjoy the purely Alaskan hospitality at the Lawings’ roadhouse on Kenai Lake.

oie_7409DnmPhc24Alaska Nellie became known far and wide, and the foreword to a 2010 reprinting of her autobiographical book, “Alaska Nellie,” by Patricia A. Heim, sums up her legendary status:

“Nellie Neal Lawing was one of Alaska’s most charismatic, admired and famous pioneers. She was the first woman ever hired by the U.S. Government in Alaska in 1916. She was contracted to feed the hungry crews on the long awaited Alaska railroad connecting Seward to Anchorage. The conditions were harsh and supplies were limited. She delivered many of her meals by dogsled, fighting off moose attacks and hazards of the trail, often during below-zero blizzards. She always brought with her a great tale to tell of her adventures along the trail, how she had wrestled grizzlies, fought off wolves and moose, and caught the worlds largest salmon for their dinner, always in the old sourdough tradition. The workers listened and laughed with every bite. 

“Nellie was an excellent cook, big game hunter, river guide, trail blazer, gold miner, and a great story-teller! It wasn’t long before Nellie became legendary and was known far and wide as the female ‘Davy Crockett’ of Alaska, her wilderness adventures and stories of survival on the trail spread like wildfire. Letters addressed simply ‘Nellie, Alaska’ were always delivered. 

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Nellie at her Kenai Lake cabin

“Nellie finally established herself at “Lawing, Alaska” on Kenai Lake, and converted an old roadhouse into a museum for her multitude of big game trophies. It was a great railroad stop and the highlight of any Alaskan visit. Her guest register of over 15,000 read like the Who’s Who of the early twentieth century: two U.S. Presidents, the Prince of Bulgaria, Will Rogers, authors, generals and many silent-screen movie stars. 

“Nellie would entertain them all. Colt pistol on her hip and a baby black bear by her side, Nellie was always ready with one of her outrageous tales of adventure. ‘I was just minding my own business on Kenai Lake when a huge grizzly showed up, I fired my Colt, but as luck would have it, somehow, it misfired, I then had to kick the heck out of the brute and he ran off, but before he ran off he bit me good, right on the wrist, see here.’ She would then fold back her sleeve to show a scarred arm. 

“Nellie was so popular and loved that she was honored with an “Alaska Nellie Day” on January 21, 1956.”

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Bill and Nellie Lawing at their cabin beside Kenai Lake.

Nellie’s happiest days were spent with the love of her life, Bill Lawing, in their log cabin on the shores of beautiful Kenai Lake. She fondly mentions it in the opening paragraph of her autobiography, ‘Alaska Nellie’:

“Glancing out through an open window of a large log home on the shores of Kenai Lake at Lawing, Alaska, the rippling waves had become glittering jewels in the full moonlight of a summer’s night.

Mountains covered with evergreen trees and crowned with snow were reflected in the mirror-like water of Kenai Lake. Was I dreaming, or was the curtain of the past rolling up, so that I might glance back over twenty-four years spent in the great North-land and say, ‘No regrets.'”

In 1939 a short movie clip, ‘The Land of Alaska Nellie,’ was produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios:

 

oie_7433fQBZmUW8Alaska Nellie’s grave is in the city cemetery in Seward, Alaska, a pretty place at the base of the mountains, guarded by towering Sitka spruce trees. Her gravestone bears the image of a pineapple, a symbol of hospitality which began with the sea captains of New England, who sailed among the Caribbean Islands and returned bearing cargos of fruits, spices and rum.

According to tradition in the Caribbean, the pineapple symbolized hospitality, and sea captains learned they were welcome if a pineapple was placed by the entrance to a village. At home, the captain would impale a pineapple on a post near his home to signal friends he’d returned safely from the sea, and would receive visits. As the tradition grew popular, innkeepers added the pineapple to their signs and advertisements, and the symbol for hospitality was further secured as needle-workers preserved the image in family heirlooms such as tablecloths, doilies, potholders, door knockers, curtain finials and more. It seems a fitting final tribute to a legendary hostess of the north.

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Nellie Lawing’s property on Kenai Lake, 1938.

For more information about Alaska Nellie, including resources for further reading and research and photos of her homesite in Lawing taken in recent years, visit the Northern Light Media website: Alaska Nellie | The Story of Nellie Neal Lawing

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