07 November 2010

Ch 14: Johnny Gakona Signs On

Legacy of the Chief, Chapter 14:
"Johnny Gakona Signs On"

"You must never
forget who you are, who your people are, or where you came from.
Even as you learn the new and strange ways of the white man--and
you must be a good student of him and his ways--you are one of
us, and you will always be one of us."

--Nicolai talking to his grandsons at the Spirit Camp of Taral,

ore train

The changes caused by the enormously rich
copper mine and its railroad forced Nicolai to reexamine the
core of his traditional spiritual beliefs.  He could no
longer look at his Creator in the same comfortable way, for the
chief's very basic assumptions had been severely challenged by
the disruptive transformations brought on by Birch and his railroad.
A mixed ore and freight
train sits at the Chitina depot, ready to resume the trip to the
Cordova wharf.  In the rear is a combination baggage and
passenger car.  --Candy Waugaman Collection

The fog and mist lay heavily over Town Lake. As Johnny walked down the
hill from his village just west of the main town, he could only see the
dark outlines of the the depot building and its nearby warehouse. On the
siding behind the depot, he could hear the small Kennecott Local No. 74
private train locomotive quietly chugging away. The engineer was heating
up the boiler so he would be ready to leave once the Chitina Local ore
train arrived from Kennecott.

The entire party was housed at Breedman’s Hotel Chitina--the town’s
first-class lodging. Johnny speculated that they were probably already
enjoying an omelet breakfast. He soon found himself wishing that he too
could be part of the elite so he could have a decent breakfast.

The other two sizable lodging establishments, the Overland Hotel and the
Commercial Hotel were for working men. The three-story Overland was in
the middle block while the two-story Commercial was at the western end
of Main Street.

It was about ten minutes before eight. Johnny had no intention of being
late for his appointment with Superintendent Hansen, who the Great Man
had said would be waiting for him at the depot. Because no trains were
due for hours, Johnny expected to find the station empty except for the
station master and the superintendent.

The Native hill road ended at Fairbanks Avenue, then it veered over
toward Main Street, which was the small business district. He stopped at
Jack Palmer’s Place in the Commercial Hotel to grab a quick cup of Hills
Brothers. Several of the local railroad depot crew members were sitting
at the counter sipping coffee when he entered.

Main Street view 1

Looking north,
down Main Street, on the right is the Commercial Hotel,
including Jack Palmer's Place.  The taller dark-colored
building on the left is the Overland Hotel. In the distance, the
second story of the Hotel Chitina is visible.  Behind the
Commercial Hotel is the depot. Two passenger cars and a caboose
are on the rear siding.  Town Lake is just to the right of
the coaches.  --UAF Frederick Mears Collection,

“Johnny, you’re down early.”

“Tom, I didn’t expect to see you here either. I think I’ve got a job.”

Tom’s expression showed a combination of surprise and then pleasure.

“No kidding? Your grandfather came through for you, didn’t he?”

“He did? Is that what happened?”

“Never underestimate the ways of the wily old Nicolai. He has power few
appreciate. Don’t know how he does it, but he somehow makes things

Johnny’s eyes widened when he realized what had occurred the night

“Grandfather set me up.”

“Great old man, isn’t he? Don’t waste your chance, Johnny. Not many in
their lifetime get the opportunity you just did.”

“You know?”

“About the offer for more education? Don’t blow it. You don’t have to
sell out to them to get what you want and what we need. You’re Indian
first. Remember that.”

Another railroad worker, a white man named Jennings looked up at Johnny
and nodded before returning to whatever he was reading. Johnny left the
restaurant with a greater appreciation of the skill and power which his
grandfather quietly yielded.

The track
south of Chitina approached the town just to the west of Spirit
Rock, the 600-foot-tall hill which dominated the southern view
of Chitina, directly across Town Lake.  The periphery of
Town Lake became the turnaround, making it possible by 1915 to
simultaneously run two trains headed in different directions
safely, since the meeting place was almost always Chitina.

Overview of
Chitina.  The Hotel Chitina is the large, two-story
structure in the center-left.  Spirit Rock overlooks Town Lake
and the railroad turnaround.  --Clara Rust
Collection, 67-110-257, UAF AK & Polar Regions Dept.

The chilly air was more evident as he approached the lake. Soon the fog
would lift, undoubtedly to reveal another warm and bright summer day,
but right now it felt like fall. He entered the station by way of the
rear door to the waiting room on the back end. George Brown was stoking
up the fire in the large room to ward off the chill. He glanced up at
the Regulator clock as Johnny entered, noting the time as eight sharp.

“Good morning, Johnny. Glad to see ya. You’re right on time. That’s
good. Mr. Hansen, our railroad superintendent from Cordova, is in my
office in the back. Come on in.”

They were not expecting me to be on time at all. After all, I’m one of
those lowly Indian half-breeds. At least, I’ll bet that’s what they’re

The superintendent was at the stationmaster’s desk looking over some

“Mr. Hansen, this is Johnny Gadanski.”

“You may sit down, Mr. Gadanski. I have been told to see about finding
you work. We have an opening at Cascade, which is a section house south
of Tiekel near our long tunnel. It has a crew of four this time of the
year and six in the winter when our requirements are greater. It’s
demanding work. You want it?”

Overland Hotel

Early view of Main Street, Chitina, showing Schapp's Hardware, which is now
Spirit Mountain Artworks, plus the bakery shop and the Overland Hotel, both of
which burned down about 1917. --courtesy of the late Bruce Haldeman

“Yes, sir. I want to be part of this railroad.”

“Very good. Mr. Birch recommended you highly. We want to keep him happy,
you know. It is also important that you need to keep us at the company

“This railroading is tough business. Most of our crew is Irish and some
of them don’t think much of Indians or half-breeds. They’re a tough
bunch. You have to be at least as tough as they are. They’ll put you to
the test. If I were you, I’d always be sure to put out more of an effort
than they do. That’s not easy. They’ll try to work you to death as it

Johnny thought about that for a moment. It sounded no different than
when he was growing up among the full-blooded brothers and the whites.
No matter which way he looked, he was always on the outside--always

“Grandfather taught me to work hard. No one can be tougher than

Mr. Hansen, I’ll do my best. I work hard and I fight hard--better than
any Irishman I ever met.”

“Well, Johnny, if you can back up those bold words, more power to you.
I’m sending you down to meet Patrick O’Malley, your new foreman. He’s
over at the crew house across from the locomotive repair barn. Take this
slip with you.”

The superintendent signed the slip of paper he had been filling in as he
and Johnny spoke, then handed it to the new hiree.

“This is your notice of hire by the company.”

“Good luck, Johnny,” George Brown said as he showed him out the door of
the inner office. Hansen returned to reading his reports on the desk
without saying another word.

Patrick O’Malley was sitting with several other burly men at a rough,
hand-built table in the mess hall across from the bunkhouse. He looked
up from his breakfast when he saw the Indian enter the room. Johnny
handed O’Malley the paper Hansen had given him.

“Fellows, look at this half-breed fellow who thinks he’s good enough to
work with us Irishmen.”

The other men looked at the half-breed and then at each other and began
to laugh. Johnny looked straight into the eyes of O’Malley.

“Just tell me where to begin.”

“Fair enough, Mr. Gadanski. You have a nick-name?”

“Call me Gakona. Johnny Gakona.”

“Okay, Johnny Gakona. You’ll be leaving with me on a gas-powered speeder
for Cascade Station tomorrow. O’Riley here will bring you over to the
repair barn and get you started learning the ropes. Tomorrow you’ll want
your gear ready to go for the ride down the tracks. Shaun O’Riley, this
is Johnny Gakona.

“Listen, the Cordova Local will be coming in about three hours from now,
so go with Shaun as soon as he’s done eating. We have work to do before
the train arrives. We can use your help today. It’ll be a busy one. Grab
yourself some coffee and wait for Shaun.”

It sounded good to me. Not as bad as I had imagined, but it felt strange
to be among this group of men with their odd-sounding accents and the
loathsome way they had of looking at me. But I was as ready as I could
be. I took an empty cup off the counter and filled it. It would be my
third cup that day.


About eleven thirty the first whistle could be heard from some point
toward the east across the river. Soon a heavy load of ore would be
pulling in on a doubleheader. Local No. 70 was pulling a long line of
steel flatcars stacked high with 200-pound sacks of ore concentrate.
Number 100 was steamed up and ready to meet the train at the Kotsina
siding to assist in bringing the full load up the river bank and into
the Chitina railroad yard.

Overland Hotel

Overland Hotel, Chitina, 1913   --Candy Waugaman

Only the year before, the railroad was still using the older and smaller
consolidation engines on the mainline. The first of the larger Mikados
had not yet arrived. The ore trains pulled by the lighter-weight
consolidations were invariably double-headers, while the much more
powerful 70-series Mikado-type locomotives eliminated the need for
running two engines hooked together, except for the run between Chitina
to the top of Kotsina hill and the other heavy grade from McCarthy to

The Chitina railroad crew would be switching cars and locomotives, since
No. 70 would meet Mainline No. 72 for the continuation to Cordova.

What a thrill. Now I was
truly a part of the railroad. I was working for the company
today on my own--not as part of a larger Native crew.
Behind the station, the engineer had Kennecott Special No. 74 steamed up
and ready. The private train would have to wait until the Bonanza ore
train had arrived.

Activity at the depot and repair barn was already in full swing. The
sound of the whistle from No. 70 was getting louder.

I could hear the rumble
which told me that it must now be crossing the long trestle at
the Copper River--only minutes away from arriving at the Chitina
station. Soon I would meet my first train as a railroad man--a
Native railroad man.

Continue with
Ch 15: "Chitina Trestle Crossing"


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