08 November 2010

Ch 15, Pt 1: "Chitina Trestle Crossing"

Legacy of the Chief,
Chapter 15
: "Chitina Trestle

click on picture for
larger image: some of these images appear in the book for
this chapter.

MP 132 trestle

In the two-dozen actual years of its operation as a working railroad
bridge, the Copper River trestle had the reputation of being the
deadliest place on the railroad. It was probably the most haunted.
Altogether it took fifteen lives. The bridge itself was rebuilt well
over two-dozen times, as if Nicolai himself did not want the trestle to
remain standing for too long. The infamous Copper River crossing between
the Kotsina and the Chitina River confluences, and built within sight of
Uk’eledi, Spirit Mountain, Spirit Rock and the promontory of Taral
Creek, will remain forever the most ghastly symbol of the curse of
Nicolai.  --Reflections of Johnny Gakona

The Copper
River Crossing at Chitina
  --Candy Waugaman Collection

The Creator has long remained silent, but no more. He is warning us
that we must remain as we are--humble, but prepared to protect the land
of the Uk’eledi and our own people from the c’uniis of the white man.
What lies ahead can no longer be predicted. All we know is that we are
here now. What happens tomorrow now that the white man has arrived with
his white devil spirits is not for us to know . . . It will be left to
us alone to protect this land from the Yaabel which has followed the
white man . . .

--Nicolai talking to Eskilida, Skilly and Goodlataw at Taral in 1900

My grandfather, the great Chief Nicolai the Tyone, must have believed he
would live on through his descendants. For those of us who knew him in
those old days before he succumbed to the Spanish flu epidemic in 1918,
he increasingly resembled a Biblical prophet of old. His being was such
that he seemed greater than life. His words were powerful, though not
always easily understood. Nor were his admonitions ones that many were
prepared to follow. He demanded so much of himself all his life, and he
relented little for the rest of us who mostly felt like mere children in
his presence.

He had a rare power to make us believe that we were a great people with
a unique mission which we dare not fail. He was a masterful leader at a
time when it looked like all of us as Ahtnas were doomed to extinction.
We came close. The diseases alone almost completely wiped us out.

Eskilida family

“Nicolai, Billum, Eskilida, Goodlataw
and the other elders gathered at Taral where they stayed in retreat for
several days. None of them ever told us what they did, but we can guess.

All the elders were sleep-doctors. The word got around that the
sleep-doctors had placed an evil curse on the railroad. We
suspected that it was a
curse on all white men who had any part of the railroad or the copper
mines, all the way up to the very top of management. It had its effect. The first one
to go was the railroad contractor, Big Mike Heney, the biggest Irishman
of them all. It wasn’t long before the head railroad engineer, E.C.
Hawkins also unaccountably lost his life.
The curse took on a life of its own, which is the nature of such
demon-spirits. It just kept growing. Soon all who entered our land
uninvited by us were in danger of becoming a victim of the curse.”

Chief Eskilida and his family. --UAF, Copper River Railroad & SE
Alaska album, 99-290-09

He remained a solitary figure all his life. Yet he was the first one
whom we sought when real trouble loomed. Although many of us are
Christians now, at least in form, we are also Ahtna--the people of the
Great River. We will always be Indians tied to the land, and we will
forever carry with us the spirituality which the white man lacks.

I have had much time to contemplate the words of my grandfather, whom we
buried in the fall of 1918 in a secret place of his choosing along the
north slopes of Spirit Mountain. Those of us who were there were sworn
to secrecy. We believe that the power of the Great Sleep doctor lives
on. It would be most unwise to disturb the spirit which resides at
Taral. Nicolai was the last resident of Taral. No one would live there

Nicolai’s problem with the Irishmen started in 1910. My problem started
six years later, when I signed on with the railroad. F.A. Hansen, the
CRNW superintendent had been right. The Irish crew was a particularly
crude and obnoxious bunch of men who worked well as a team and wanted no
other nationalities in their group. Foreman Patrick O’Malley did his
best to keep the entire complement strictly Irish, but this time he was

Shortly after I signed on, Cap Goodlataw managed to pick up the other
vacant position at Cascade in the fall of 1916, much to the obvious
irritation of O’Malley and his band of ruffians. The Irish made clear
from the beginning that they resented the intrusion of us Natives in
their bastion.

Cap and I made it equally obvious that we resented the Irish arrogance
which made them think that they had a claim or a say to anything at all
along Copper River Indian country. We Indians left no doubt that we did
not really care one way or the other what the Irishmen thought. The
situation at Cascade was always one of considerable tension, but the
large work load kept the us too busy and too tired for any of us to
bring the matter to a head for several months. Cascade was the station
which maintained the long tunnel that tended to heavily ice up. We were
constantly clearing it of the ice, because the trains were still on a
daily schedule and had to be kept on line. Not only did the 300 feet of
tunnel have to be kept operational, but the crew had to constantly check
the tracks for defects several miles in both directions. Additionally,
part of the crew was often pulled off to Tiekel or Bremner for other

Cap and I always volunteered for those assignments to escape the Irish
antagonism. It was a busy winter.

One night in late winter the Irish managed to sneak in some whiskey
which they probably obtained through one of O’Malley’s connections at
Chitina. The four Irishmen became hopelessly drunk by the time the two
of us returned from a work assignment at Bremner on the hand car.

Kay-yew-nee bared his teeth and growled when those men revealed their
evil intentions. The whisky made them brave enough to think they’d run
us out of Cascade by force. We were both sober, and quickly convinced
them to back down, especially when our large dog started growling.
Instead they began bragging about how great the Irish were and how much
better they were than us siwash Indians.

I held back Cap as long as I could. We might have endured the insults
and animosity, but at some point O’Malley imprudently revealed that this
crew of four Irishmen had all been on the ground-clearing crew near
Eskilida’s camp when they came upon our Goodlataw family graves in
August, 1910.

Eskilida burial site

Chief Eskilida at his camp at MP 126,
showing one of the Ahtna graves in the background on the RR
   --Cordova Museum, 95-72-74

No one knows what the railroad really intended to do about the graves,
but the spirit houses were standing right in the middle of the railroad
survey lines. Some of us believe the railroad intended to relocate them,
but they never had the chance before that Irish crew arrived. To the
Irish, the graves stood out as a hated symbol of Indian pride. They must
have truly despised us, because the Irish crew took it upon themselves
to viciously rip the spirit houses apart and dig down into the graves,
looking for valuable Indian relics while they thoroughly vandalized the

I told this story to my sister Violet when Cap and I were at her small
cabin playing poker with her and Uncle Tanas one night in 1917 while we
were waiting to rebuild the bridge.

“Sken’nie, I’ve heard about the desecration before, but it’s so hard to
believe. How could anyone show so little respect for the dead?”

“They thought they were above us, Saw-da, and were entitled to do
anything they wanted to us, just as though they were slave masters. They
never realized that the evil they were creating would one day return to

“It was at mile 127 where it happened, almost right across from Taral.
Eskilida rushed to the graveyard when he heard the commotion only to be
severely beaten by the four men. No one else was around to help.
Grandfather did not find out about it until the next day.”

Eskilida fish camp

Eskilida camp, CRNW mile 126, RR grade visible on top of loose
rocks created by construction. Grave site is in center-left. 
 --Cordova Museum

“He must have been enraged. Everyone knows how he gets.”

“He must have been, Saw-da, but he deliberately kept us young ones out
of it. The elders hid it from us as long as they could. Then they
wouldn’t tell us who it was that did it.”

“We did that because we wanted to protect you,” Tanas interjected.

“I was one of the men who was summoned to help. It looked like Yaabel
himself had been there to defile our dead. It was horrible. We were
ready to kill any white man who came our way.”

“The railroad must have told the men to lay low for a while, Tanas.”

“No doubt about that, Johnny. Good thing, too.”


No comments: