03 November 2010

Ch 10, Pt 2: "Abercrombie Rapids Landing"

Chapter 10: 
Abercrombie Rapids Landing, pt 2

The images below can be clicked
for larger photo or drawing

We arrived at
Abercrombie with the greatest of ease and with more comfort than
any of us ordinarily enjoyed in our daily lives. The landing was
the southern-most point where the Chittyna, the Nizina and the Tonsina
river boats once docked.
South approach
to Abercrombie Rapids Landing during the construction-era.
--UAF, Mrs. E.P. Harwood, 79-93-310

Until the railroad came, access to the coast was out of the question.
The Copper River, where it flowed south just past Taral proved too
treacherous for most travel because of a series of very steep, deep
canyons, impassable rapids and glaciers intruding into the river which
combined to make access by way of the Copper River to the coast
practically impossible most of the year. 

The most notorious obstacle of all of these was Abercrombie Rapids. The rapids flowed through the relatively narrow canyon which ended at Miles Lake.
From Miles Lake the river entered the slow-moving, wide Copper River delta before emptying into the Gulf of Alaska.  
A few of our hardiest people, including Nicolai, made the trip once a year 
 every March when solid ice on the Copper River allowed them to make their way  downriver to Alaganik.  This was the Chugach trading post where the Eyak middlemen would take our tsedi--the kind that could be pounded into jewelry-- and swap it for goods our people wanted from the Russians or the 
 Tlingits. The Ahtnas were trading partners with the Eyaks at Alaganik during the entire Russian occupation of the coastline. 

Lt. Allen's
map (Henry Allen drew up the first maps of the area, including
this one) of the lower Copper River and Copper River delta from
Cordova (Eyak Village) to Taral, showing Alaganik, Abercrombie
Rapids, Woods Canyon and Taral (all high-lighted).  Click
image for larger view. 

Even before the Russians took over the coast about a century ago our
Ahtna people were trading our tsedi with the Eyaks, who were distant
 cousins of the the Aleuts.  These Aleuts  were related to the Yupik Eskimos. Our tsedi ended up in the hands of the Tlingits who used the copper for 
jewelry, decorations, tools and weapons. I don’t know what we were
trading before the Russians came, but in the 1800s, our tsedi brought
back western goods ranging from guns to kettles, rope, canvas, cloth,
tobacco, sugar and tea.

Then the railroad came along and changed all that. We arrived at
Abercrombie with the greatest of ease and with more comfort than any of
us ordinarily enjoyed in our daily lives. The landing was the
southern-most point where the Chittyna, the Nizina and the Tonsina river
boats once docked. These railroad construction-era shallow-draft boats
traveled to Chitina and beyond to Bonanza Landing carrying men and
 materiel. The rapids flowed through a five-mile long canyon that once 
 represented a nearly impossible hurdle for travel by foot or boat.  
 The railroad bed was blasted into the side of those steep cliffs on the 
 west side of the river, making what was once a nearly impossible trip 
into an almost routine event. 

My brother Charlie and I, after briefly visiting Dad, set up camp
 downstream from Rapids Landing so Mom could spend her time alone with 
Dad. He had been there to survey the canyon in 1909. The tracks were
pushed through the canyon the following year. The surveyors returned
 five years later because the company recognized a need to build new 
snowsheds to enable nearly uninterrupted winter railroad operation.

 An Abercrombie Rapids snow shed along the  steep west bank 
facing moraine  from Miles Glacier which formed the east
 bank during the railroad era. Since those days, the glacier has 
receded and the river has moved away from the rapids area
leaving it dry.  --Laurie Nyman photo

Dad began surveying for Mike Heney’s Copper River Railroad Company in
1908. Shortly thereafter Katalla Construction took over the work. Once
 the project was completed, the CRNW ran its own surveying crews
After this final job for the CRNW at Abercrombie, 
Dad was returning to Kennecott to work in the carpentry department where
he had been since the railroad arrived there in 1911. He took the summer
 surveying job because the railroad requested him for it and he missed the work.

He told me that the original tracks the company laid were practically
dropped into place because the company was in such a rush to reach the
 Bonanza mill site back in 1910 and 1911 that the builders dropped those 
first rails over just about anything that resembled a railbed. The
 company spent the next several years upgrading the beds to a much-higher 
 engineering standard. 

As a part of the process of making the system more permanent 
and capable of full winter operation without constant shutdowns, five
snowsheds were to be built in Abercrombie Canyon. It had proved almost
impossible to run the trains in the winters during those early years
 because of the temporary nature of the line, but copper production 
 requirements would soon demand year-round operation on the railroad. 

The narrow canyon area filled up with snow every year because it was
subject to such massive and continuing avalanches that only the heavy
wooden tunnels could correct the problem. Even the fleet of rotary
snowplows could not keep up with it.

approach into Abercrombie Rapids Landing

Charlie and I camped in view of the long trestle approach on the north
end of the canyon where the CRNW was building the first three of the new
snow sheds. We tented across the tracks from the river bank in an area
protected from the winds. The bank led to a good dip netting spot. The
reds and kings were running thick through those rapids when we arrived
to make dip netting an assured way of catching a meal. 

Because the river was so dangerous, I had to tie myself off to the bank.
 This meant running a long rope to the rails where Charlie would be ready to pull me back in if I slipped. I caught my thloo-ka in the first few passes of 
the modern white man net Mom bought from the Cash Store. 

We built a fire  near the tracks  in front of our tent for our cooking and warming needs using discarded railroad ties we picked up from the original 
construction. The railroad wood scrap burned much better than the
water-saturated native wood. This was a heavy-rainfall area. Even in
mid-summer, it was chilly in the canyon at night and not much better in
 the daytime because the coast was so close and also due to near-constant winds which blew down the Copper River on some days and up it on others. 

The fire warmed  us while we waited for the last train of the evening. Dad 
 had told us a work train would be coming in that night. We would wait for it 
before turning in for the evening.

No comments: