18 October 2010

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

I Leave the Pipeline Project the First Time, 1975

Above: "Two-Street," Fairbanks: Picture was probably taken in the mid-1950s, but this scene had changed little by the time the pipeline construction project began in 1975.  This street was lined with bars in those days--most of them almost exclusively Native--both Indian and Eskimo bars. But the pipeliners and military men from the adjacent fort and an Air Force   base came down here too. By the mid-80s, most of these bars would be gone. By now, only ONE out of maybe a dozen and a half bars in this area still operates.  (click)
Sometime in early summer Alyeska fired its prime contractor Bechtel and took over its function as manager of the pipeline construction. I was among those laid off by Bechtel, but then rehired by Alyeska. However, I looked at the package offered and decided, especially in view of what had already transpired at Franklin Bluffs, that it was time to leave. I had taken time to go into Fairbanks and check in with the main office. We discussed the problems I had encountered with the resident site manager. I had documented the incidents and these were apparently brought to the attention of someone higher up in Alyeska. By the time I returned to camp for my last few weeks as a site counselor, Bob Stiles had been relieved. With him gone, I felt I had accomplished something positive and I sent a letter of resignation to my superior in Fairbanks.
Winter had melted away and I stepped into a beautiful, warm summer in Fairbanks. I was enormously relieved to leave Franklin Bluffs and that thankless job behind me.
When Alyeska moved into Fairbanks, it literally took over the town. It seemed that every other vehicle on the road was an official Alyeska truck. Their main base of operations was the nearby Ft. Wainwright facility.  That was also where new pipeline hands checked in and had their orientation, including a video on how to dress in an arctic environment.
One of the effects of all these new people in Fairbanks with all that money was a dramatic rise in the cost of living there, particularly when it came to rental units. They became exceedingly expensive when one could find a place at all. I was fortunate to be able to locate an old cabin on the edge of town, available at a very low price that was being rented by one of my fellow counselors. He was leaving town, so I was able to take over the rent on this place which had no electricity or plumbing. I would soon add power to the cabin, but water would always have to be hauled in and the outhouse was in the back about a hundred feet from the cabin. Living there was much like it would have been at the turn of the century--which was about the age of the cabin.
Although it had a place for a chimney, I had to install a new chimney and an iron stove, since the cabin was empty of everything. The previous occupant had never actually used it. He kept it as a back-up if he ever needed it.  Since the time I had graduated from college, this was actually my first home, not counting the barracks I lived in during Army days. I already had some experience with wiring, so I was able to set up the meter base and a basic electrical system without too much difficulty.
I did not want to spend a lot of money on rent since I had no idea how long I would be unemployed. As it turned out, I would not be going back to work until the next winter. But there were plenty of interesting things to do in the meantime.

Mine was a genuine log cabin with corrugated steel for a roof. I installed a wood stove  and made it home. Because of its small size, even in the minus 55 degree weather, it was relatively easy to quickly heat and keep warm. I hauled water from an artesian well ten miles away. Some years ago when I traveled down College Road where this was located, it was gone--probably burned down.
I wanted to visit some of the Native villages. I had met so many villagers, but I had not grown up in anything like that. Ketchikan was a small American main street type of town of the type that probably no longer exists today, but it definitely was no village. It had all the amenities of the time, including a first-class school system that enabled me to have a very good education that enabled me to apply and receive and ROTC scholarship. Now it was time to see how my fellow Natives who were not so fortunate lived.
I had already made arrangements with a Yukon River Native to travel down the Yukon River as far as Ruby where he lived. Al McCarty had worked at Franklin Bluffs. He told me that he was buying a 16-foot riverboat and a 40 horse Johnson engine when he returned to Fairbanks. I would be among those riding along. The Chena River flows through Fairbanks, then quickly meets the Tanana River. This is the one which passes through Nenana where the annual Nenana Ice Classic is held. This is a type of lottery event where one enters his best guess as to the time of the breakup of the Tanana River at a point where a tripod is set up right in front of Nenana--now an Indian village, but at one time a significant railroad town. When the Alaska Railroad arrived at the Tanana River, it established a large facility there because for several years, Nenana was the end of the line. In 1923, the golden spike was finally driven here by President Warren Harding--the one which commemorated the completion of the Alaska Railroad between Anchorage and Fairbanks. But in the meantime, the railroad employees set up an annual event which continues to this day--making calculated guesses that can net a significant prize from a very large jackpot.
The Tanana River continues through this area, past the deserted village of Old Minto and on to the village of Tanana where it meets the Yukon River. Beyond there is Ruby.  It is a very long trip by boat. The prime barge line which plies these same waters is owned by the Alaska Railroad Corporation, as it has been for many decades.
Below you can see the map which shows you this area in the context of the Alaska Railroad. 

This map shows the 1925 serum run in which serum was shipped via railroad from Anchorage to Nenana, then sent via dogsled to Nome in record time. This event was followed in newspapers nationwide, making it quite famous. Eventually the Iditarod dog sled race evolved out of this historic event. The race alternates, going either through Iditarod itself or through Ruby, where I spent a part of the summer of 1975. (click)
At some point I decided that it was time to try to find more work on the pipeline. I was able to enroll in a special school in Kenai that trained Natives to operate sewer and water treatment plants of the type used by Alyeska. Soon I would be back at work. Meanwhile, a fellow student took me on a drive from Anchorage to Glennallen. It was the first time I had been up that road which is now the one I travel on routinely. On the way up, not far out of Palmer, I saw this site: The Matanuska River flowing in front of King Mountain, which, as it later turned out, was named after an old friend of my Dad's father. This mountain was directly across from the old, deserted village of Chickaloon where I was registered.
Like many other places, including Nenana and Chitina and Talkeetna, Native villages were often displaced by railroad work camps. Chickaloon was one of those places. The Alaska Railroad had a branch line up there from about 1918 until 1923 when the Chickaloon coal mines owned by the U.S. Navy was deemed to be unsuitable for Navy ships and was abandoned. It was a standard gauge branch line. One of the old railroad bridges is still out there, but it is not in use.
The moment I viewed this scene, I began to have a flashback to something I had long forgotten. I was now finding myself expecting to see a large camp of red-painted buildings somewhere along a rocky river at the base of a mountain like this one.

King Mountain near Chickaloon in a photo taken last year from Highway One, the Glenn, along the Matanuska River.  (click).

Porphyry Mountain, just beyond McCarthy and just above Kennecott: Does this  one resemble King Mountain? At the approach angle to Kennecott that you see here, it certainly does. I had never been to Kennecott, or McCarthy and had never seen any photos of this place, but here it was. (click). Photo taken about 1920. 
I did not really give it much thought at the time. I just felt that I should be expecting to see buildings for which I knew no name.  I was not thinking in terms of railroads, but I knew that I was looking for an abandoned mine site.  As of yet I had no name. Dad had never talked about Kennecott, because it was not a part of his life when he grew up at the Jesse Lee home in Seward. And even though I had read many Alaska Sportsmen magazines--the ones which had stories and photos of the old Alaska--I had never encountered any stories or photos of Kennecott. But somehow I knew that place was out there. I just did not have a name for it.
 I sensed that I was about to enter the land that was my true home. In those days I did not know how true that really was.

The Kennecott ghost town mill as it appeared in 1981. (click)

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