Tag Archives: Alaska Railroad

1935 WPA Federal Writers Project

ND Cover 420 resThe November-December issue of Alaskan History Magazine includes an article about the WPA Guide to Alaska, which was written as part of the Federal Writers Project, an interesting study of the territory in which the preface sagely advises, “The best way to know Alaska is to spend a lifetime there.”

WPACAThe Federal Writers’ Project was created in 1935 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, as part of the United States Work Progress Administration (WPA), a New Deal jobs program, to provide employment for historians, teachers, writers, librarians, and other white-collar workers. Originally, the purpose of the project was to produce a series of sectional guide books, focusing on the scenic, historical, cultural, and economic resources of the United States (including the territory of Alaska, Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C.). The project was expanded to include local histories, oral histories, ethnographies, children’s books and other works.

WPANDThe American Guide Series books were written and compiled by the Federal Writers’ Project, but printed by individual states, and contained detailed histories of each state with descriptions of every city and town. The format was uniform, comprising essays on the state’s history and culture, descriptions of major cities, automobile tours were one of the important attractions, and there was a portfolio of photographs in each book.

m7cEAnxa5C9XwK15ggTnnvwA Guide to Alaska: Last American Frontier, was written by Merle Colby, and includes a foreword by John W. Troy, then-Governor of the territory of Alaska. Troy wrote, “Scarcely more than a generation ago, well within the memory of many living Alaskans, the news was flashed in 1897 over telegraph wires that the steamer Portland had arrived in Seattle with ‘a ton of gold.'”

Troy continues: “Even more important, and certainly no less dramatic, is the less-known Alaska of today — the Alaska of graveled automobile roads, of airplanes, used as casually by Alaskans as are taxis in continental United States, of giant gold dredges, of great fishing fleets, of farms with the latest in modern equipment, of homes set in frames of flowers and surrounded with vegetable gardens, of large shops, theaters, churches, schools, clubs, newspapers, and America’s farthest-north university.”

Screen Shot 2015-08-09 at 11.52.08 AMThe entire book can be read online, and there are interesting details throughout the 1939 guidebook, such as this curious advice regarding money: “The 5-cent piece is the lowest monetary unit in Alaska; in the remote interior, the 25 cent piece (two bits). In the latter case, this does not mean that the lowest price of any article is 25 cents, but merely that a total purchase must amount to a multiple of 25 cents. Pennies are almost unknown, and in post offices the clerk will usually make change in one-cent stamps. Prices such as 39 cents and $1.98 are unheard of.”

Screen Shot 2015-08-08 at 8.17.01 AMThe guidebook’s description of roads in Alaska is notably brief: “Automobile Highways. The Richardson Highway (open in summer only), 371 miles long, begins at the port of Valdez, on Prince William Sound, and ends at Fairbanks, paralleling the Alaska Railroad. Frequent bus and truck service connect with steamship arrivals; good accommodations are available along the route.”

Note that the Alaska Railroad, which reportedly ‘parallels’ the Richardson Highway, does so at a distance of well over 100 miles.

Delta River, Richardson Hwy circa 1922“The Steese Highway (open in summer only) extends 163 miles from Fairbanks to Circle. Bus and truck service connect with train arrivals; there are accommodations along the route.

“Other major summer highways, all with bus or truck service, are:
• Gulkana to Slate Creek, 60 miles
• Anchorage to Palmer and Matanuska Valley, 50 miles
• Fairbanks to Livengood, 85 miles
• Nome to Council, 57 miles”

Screen Shot 2015-08-08 at 8.29.37 AMA few local roads between 5 and 39 miles in length are listed, along with the 80-mile Mt. McKinley National Park gravel road from Paxson, now known as the Denali Highway.

A Guide to Alaska is an interesting in-depth look at the territory in the first half of the twentieth century, divided into six distinct regions and described in terms which would do justice to any modern travel guide, such as this depiction of southcentral Alaska: “A number of large rivers, as well as Cook Inlet, break through the mountains fronting the coast and open up inland valleys having a light forest cover, moderate precipitation, short but rather warm summers, and winter temperatures not unlike those found in the northern tier of prairie States. The level and rolling lands afford excellent opportunities for agriculture. The Matanuska agricultural area is located in one of these valleys in the vicinity of Anchorage. Additional and even more extensive tracts of potential farm lands, notably the Kenai Peninsula agricultural area, are found in this same general locality. ”

The entire book can be read online here.

Still More Classic Alaskan Books

Classic Alaskan books from the Sept-Oct and Nov-Dec issues of Alaskan History Magazine:

Conquering the Arctic Ice, by Ejnar Mikkelsen (1909)

Eijnar MikkelsenIn October 1907 the Danish polar explorer Ejnar Mikkelsen, co-leader (with Ernest de Koven Leffingwell) of 1906-1908 Anglo-American Polar Expedition, which established that there was no land north of Alaska,  set out on a formidable journey, which would take him west along the Arctic coast from Flaxman Island to Barrow, Nome, Fort Gibbon, Manley Hot Springs, Fairbanks, and then down the Fairbanks-Valdez Trail to Valdez, where he boarded a ship for home.

His trip was detailed in his book, published in London in 1909 by William Heinemann. Available to read online at Google Books.


A Dog Puncher on the Yukon, by Arthur Treadwell Walden (1923)

Arthur T. WaldenArthur Treadwell Walden was a dog driver during the Klondike and Alaskan gold rushes. He would become a respected trainer and freighter on Admiral Byrd’s 1928-29 expedition to Antarctica, but thirty years before, in northern Canada, he gained  fame as a sled dog driver and freighter over the northern gold rush trails near Dawson City, Circle City, and Nome. 

After returning to New England Walden began a breeding program which produced the Chinook breed, based on a dog by that name which he knew as a sled dog driver in the North.


Dog Team Doctor, The Story of Dr. Romig, by Eva G. Anderson (1940)

Dr. Joseph RomigIn 1896 Dr. Joseph  H. Romig traveled to Bethel, Alaska, and opened the first doctor’s office and hospital west of Sitka, at a time when there were very few non-native people living in remote southwest Alaska.

 For a time, Dr. Romig was one of the only physicians in Alaska, and he became known as the “dog team doctor” for traveling by dog sled throughout the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in the course of his work. Four decades later a book would be written about the good doctor’s adventurous and life-saving exploits across the vast northern territory.


Seward’s Icebox, by Archie W. Shiels (1933)

Sewards IceboxArchibald Williamson Shiels, born in Scotland, emigrated to the US in 1893. He became chief of staff to railroad contractor Michael Heney, supervising the construction of the White Pass & Yukon Railway, and was later involved in the construction of the Copper River and North Western Railroad. Shiels joined the Pacific American Fisheries in 1916, the largest salmon cannery in the world, and served as President of the company from 1930-1946.

Shiels collected a vast amount of informational material, from which he researched and wrote many historical manuscripts, books, and speeches. His well-researched Seward’s Icebox begins in 1867 with the transfer of Russia to the United States and continues to the date of publication. 


Tillicums of the Trail, by George C. F. Pringle (1922)

Tillicums of the TrailSubtitled ‘Being Klondike Yarns Told to Canadian Soldiers Overseas by a Sourdough Padre,’ this is a collection of true stories from the Klondike and nearby regions, as told to troops by the Chaplain to the 43rd Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Forces, at Avion, France, during the First World War. Pringle was a pioneer bush pilot and United Church minister and this book contains some classic northern tales, “….because in every man there is something that stirs responsive to tales of the mystic Northland, vast, white, and silent.” 

Pringle’s true stories to his men included his first trip by dogteam, the legend of the Lost Patrol, the story of Skagway’s notorious “Soapy” Smith, a trip down the Yukon River by scow from Whitehorse to Dawson City, Christmas and wedding celebrations in the Klondike and more. Available to read online at Project Gutenberg.


Ploughman of the Moon, by Robert W. Service (1945)

Ploughman of the Moon, ServicePloughman of the Moon: An Adventure into Memory is the autobioigraphy of Robert Service, famed Bard of the Yukon whose popular poetry includes The Spell of the Yukon, The Cremation of Sam McGee, The Shooting of Dan McGrew, and countless others.

This warmly personal account traces the first half of his life, from his boyhood in Scotland to his emigration to Canada at the age of 21 with his Buffalo Bill outfit and dreams of becoming a cowboy, drifting around western North America from California to British Columbia, being sent to Whitehorse and later Dawson City by the Canadian Bank of Commerce, and gaining fame for his captivating way with words. The book is available to read online at Project Gutenberg 


Alaska Days, by Erastus Howard Scott (1923)

EH Scott book 420 resPublished in 1923 by Scott, Foresman & Co., this slim 100-page volume is the photo-rich recounting of a journey taken by Erastus Howard Scott and his wife as they travelled from Chicago to Seattle and boarded a ship which took them across the Gulf of Alaska to Katalla, Valdez, and finally Seward.

From Seward they rode the newly-built Alaska Railroad to Fairbanks, photographing and describing everything along the way, including a memorial stop for the recently departed President Harding. Available to read online at Google Books.


Alaska The Great Country, by Ella Higginson (1908)

Ella Higginson book 420 resElla Rhoads Higginson (1862-1940) was one of America’s most celebrated early 20th century writers, and the first Poet Laureate of Washington State, 1931. Her book ‘Alaska, the Great Country,’ an annotated history of Alaska and an absorbing  travelogue of Higginson’s adventures there, was published in 1908 and went through several editions.

Higginson describes her trip with the less than politically correct mores and values of her time, but her keenly written observations of territorial Alaska make this a fascinating account. Available to read online at Project Gutenberg.


A Summer in Alaska (Along Alaska’s Great River) F. Schwatka (1893)

Schwatka book 420 resPublished by J W Henry, St. Louis, in 1893, ‘A Summer in Alaska, A popular account of an Alaska exploration along the great Yukon River from its source to its mouth,’ by Frederick Schwatka, is the enlarged edition of his ‘Along Alaska’s Great River, published in 1885. 

The book details Schwatka’s explorations along the Yukon River, from its source in northwestern Canada to its mouth on the west coast of Alaska, the first full-length navigation of Alaska’s greatest waterway. Available to read online at Project Gutenberg.




 

More Classic Alaskan Books

The books section of the July-August, 2019 issue:

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The entire July-August issue can be read online free at the issuu digital publication site. The May-June and Sept-Oct issues are also available at issuu.

 


 

Classic Books on Alaska

Six non-fiction books briefly noted in the inaugural issue of Alaskan History Magazine, presented here with links to their digital versions, free to read online, where available.

The Ascent of Denali (Mount McKinley), by Hudson Stuck (1918)

Ascent of DenaliHudson Stuck, an Episcopal Archdeacon, organized, financed and co-led the first expedition to successfully climb the South Peak of Mt. McKinley (Denali). With co-leader Harry Karstens (later the first Superintendent of Mt. McKinley Nat’l Park), and four native youths, Stuck departed Nenana on March 17, 1913 and reached the summit of McKinley on June 7, 1913. Walter Harper, a native Alaskan, reached the summit first. Illustrated with Stuck’s photos from the journey and published in 1918 by Charles Scribner’s Sons, “The Ascent of Denali” is Stuck’s fascinating account of that pioneering expedition.

 Project Gutenberg Edition


A Woman Who Went to Alaska, by May Kellogg Sullivan (1902)

Woman Who Went to Alaska“Two trips, covering a period of eighteen months and a distance of over twelve thousand miles were made practically alone. Neither home nor children claimed my attention. No good reason, I thought, stood in the way of my going to Alaska…”

With these words the plucky and determined May Kellogg Sullivan opens her book, recounting her extensive travels to Yukon and Alaskan gold camps and beyond, seeking adventure and her fortune,  at a time when few women ventured anywhere alone. Published in 1902 by James H. Earle & Co.

Project Gutenberg Edition


Golden Alaska, An Up-to-Date Guide, by Ernest Ingersoll (1897)

Golden Alaska

Subtitled “a complete account to date of the Yukon Valley; its history, geography, mineral and other resources, opportunities and means of access.” 

The Dial, a literary journal of the time, noted in their July 1, 1897 issue that Ingersoll’s book was “a timely publication just issued,” citing the author as “a well-known writer of books of travel,” and noting the book was “well printed and contains numerous half-tone reproductions from photographs of Alaskan scenery.” Published in 1897 by Rand, McNalley & Co. 

Project Gutenberg Edition


The Alaska Railroad 1914-1964, Bernardine Prince (1964)

The Alaska Railroad 1914-1964Bernadine LeMay Prince, who joined the U.S. Government-run 470-mile Alaska Railroad company in 1948, worked with seven Alaska Railroad managers. In the early 1960’s she used her almost 20+ years of experience and knowledge of the railroad to compile a remarkable two-volume photographic record of the construction and growth of the Alaska Railroad.

Utilizing photos from the Alaska Engineering Commission’s photographers, among others, she traced the railroad’s history from it’s beginnings in 1914 through decades of sometimes difficult change, to the earthquake of March, 1964. Included are over 2,100 b&w photographs and line drawings. Published by Ken Wray’s Print Shop, Anchorage, 1964.

Not available in digital format. 


Compilation of Narratives of Exploration in Alaska (1900)

Collected RepostsBy the Senate Committee on Military Affairs, United States Congress, 1900. An important gathering of reports by Frederick Schwatka, Ivan Petrof, W.R. Abercrombie, Henry T. Allen, and many others, comprising the records of expansion of non-natives’ knowledge of the territory. Assembled to facilitate a review of territory covered, and the possibilities of opening all American routes to the interior of Alaska. 

“Henry Allen in his report of the reconnaissance of Copper River and Tanana River valleys states that the Indians drew a number of maps. The one he reproduces …. shows the route to Cook Inlet via Suchitno river.” Sixteen reports with 27 folding maps and 33 b/w plates. U.S. Gov’t. Printing Office, 1900. 

Google Books Edition


Old Yukon Tales-Trails-Trials, James Wickersham (1938)

Old Yukon Tales-Trails-TrialsTerritorial judge James Wickersham describes his career as a pioneer attorney, judge, and later as a congressional representative, assigned to a district extending over 300,000 square miles. He made the first recorded attempt of Mt. Denali in 1903; the summit he attempted is now known as Wickersham’s Wall. 

Once seated as a congressional delegate for the District of Alaska, beginning his term in 1909, Wickersham orchestrated changes to Alaska’s relationship with the federal government, in passage of the Second Organic Act in 1912, establishing Alaska officially as a United States territory with a legislature. Wickersham would go on to serve several more terms as Alaska’s delegate to Congress, his last term running from 1931-1933. Published by Washington Law Book Co., 1938.

Not available in digital format.



 

S. S. Nenana

oie_22193644K9uupFSWFrom the September-October issue of Alaskan History Magazine:

At one period in Alaskan history, there were over 300 flat-bottomed sternwheelers navigating on the Yukon River and its tributaries. These sternwheelers were essential in the development of the history of Alaska. Of all these lifelines of the rivers, only one remains, the Steamer SS Nenana, located in Pioneer Park in Fairbanks. The wooden-hulled, western rivers-style steam sternwheel passenger boat Nenana is one of only three steam-powered passenger sternwheelers of any kind left in the U.S., and the only large wooden hulled sternwheeler. She is a living museum of history that must be preserved for perpetuity.

oie_22193533uv0oBLYkShe was built and operated by the Alaska Railroad. With the completion of the railroad from Seward to Fairbanks in 1923, a way to haul freight to the villages and towns was needed. On September 16, 1922, the War Department deactivated the steamers General Jeff C. Davis, and General J. Jacobs from the U.S. Army and made them available to the Alaska Railroad free of charge by Executive Order.

The article about the SS Nenana is by Patricia De Nardo Schmidt, who came to Alaska in 1959, growing up in Anchorage and Fairbanks, and living in Fairbanks since 1969. Patricia watched the history of Fairbanks being lost over the years as buildings were being demolished or falling into ruin and collapse, and when she heard the Steamer SS Nenana was closed to the public in March of 2018 and in danger of being demolished she knew she had to take action. Joining with others who had the same interest in saving the Alaskan steamship, the group Friends of SS Nenana was formed.

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SS Nenana being built, 1932. [1968-013-025 Bill Berry Coll. [Property Pioneers of AK Museum of Fairbanks.]

For more information about Friends of SS Nenana or how to get involved, go to their website (friendsofssnenana.com) or their Facebook page: Friends of SS Nenana. Donations to help support the SS Nenana can also be made through these sites or the North Star Community Foundation SS Nenana page (www.nscfundalaska.org/FSSN).

National Historic Landmark  https://www.nps.gov/places/nenana.htm

Sept:Oct cover smallThe Sept-Oct issue of Alaskan History Magazine, which also features articles about Josephine Crumrine’s sled dog menu covers for The Alaska Steamship Company, the unprecedented luxury cruise of railroad magnate Edward H. Harriman and his carefully selected passenger list of scientists and artists, the story of sea otters in the Aleutian Islands, the history of Alaska’s flag, and an excerpt from Josiah E. Spurr’s 1896 expedition to map and chart the interior of Alaska for the USGS.  The issue can be ordered from the Alaskan History Magazine website.

 

Frank Carpenter

oie_132243cSE042UPThe July-August issue of Alaskan History Magazine includes an article about the venerable world traveler, Frank Carpenter (1855-1924), a photographer, journalist, and lecturer whose writings helped popularize world geography and cultural anthropology. With his daughter Frances (1890-1972), Frank Carpenter photographed Alaska and collected the images of other Alaskan photographers between 1910 and 1924. The article in Alaskan History Magazine tells of a trip he and Frances made across the Kenai Peninsula in 1916, from Seward to Sunrise, a gold mining camp near Hope, on Turnagain Arm.

First working as a journalist for the Cleveland Leader, Frank Carpenter became a correspondent for the American Press Association in 1884. By 1878 his writings were being widely syndicated in newspapers and magazines, and in 1888 he and his wife embarked on a trip around the world, describing life in the countries they journeyed through. Carpenter’s real estate holdings in Washington made him a millionaire, and he was a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, the National Press Club, and numerous scientific societies. In 1898 the Carpenters traveled 25,000 miles in South America, and from the mid-1890s until he died, Frank Carpenter traveled around the world almost continuously, authoring nearly 40 books and hundreds of magazine articles about his extensive travels. Carpenter wrote standard geography textbooks and lectured on geography, and he wrote a series of books called Carpenter’s World Travels which were very popular between 1915 and 1930.

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First hospital in Anchorage [Library of Congress Carpenter Collection]

In 1893 The San Francisco Morning Call wrote “He stands at the head of the syndicate correspondents of the United States.  What he writes is read every Sunday in twenty of the biggest cities of the Union, and his newspaper constituency must at the lowest amount to a million readers every week.”

A collection of over 5,000 images were donated to the Library of Congress by Frances at her death in 1972. The Frank G. Carpenter Collection at the Library of Congress totals approximately 16,800 photographs and about 7,000 negatives.

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Frank Carpenter (right) with Jafet Lindberg, one of the founders of Nome, Alaska.

The Library includes this notation about the prints: “Within the albums, English captions accompany most images, but dates are not consistently indicated. The Carpenters may have taken many of the images, especially those made 1910-1924, but the albums also include images that they collected, and the origin of such images is not always noted.”

An excerpt from Carpenter’s 1923 book, Alaska, Our Northern Wonderland:

“The biggest thing in Alaska is the government railroad. By that I do not mean so much its five hundred miles of tracks, its cars and equipment, or the number of tons and passengers it will haul, but what it stands for in the future of the territory. It means the building of feeder wagon and motor roads and the construction of other railroads. It means cheaper coal, lower freight rates, lower living and mining costs. It means more lands and resources flung open to the settler and the prospector. It means a new era of development and prosperity for Alaskans. “

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Frank George Carpenter

Carpenter died of sickness in 1924 while in Nanking, China, on his third trip around the world, at age 69. The Boston Globe obituary observed he “always wrote fascinatingly, always in a language the common man and woman could understand, always of subjects even children are interested in.”

More photos and excerpts from Frank Carpenter’s travels and writing can be found in this book:

CoverFinal Alaska & the Klondike, Early Writings and Historic Photographs, by Helen Hegener, published May, 2018, by Northern Light Media. An engaging journey through the literary history of Alaska and the Klondike, and an introduction to some of the most compelling books ever written about the North. $24.95 (plus shipping), 320 pages, over 100 b/w photos, ISBN-13: 978-1717401991. Click here to order.

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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