Legacy of the Chief,
Chapter 15: "Chitina Trestle Crossing"
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“Until then, I think Nicolai had been inclined to look upon the railroad
as a just a dreaded extension of the white man’s power, but one which
could be endured. Wouldn’t you agree, Uncle Tanas?”
“Yes, it was a shock for all of us, but particularly him because he had
tried to convince everyone to go along with them. He felt betrayed. He
wasn’t quite so tolerant of them after that. We were there the next day
to begin retrieving all the disturbed bones and other pieces scattered
around the old grave-site. We gathered everything that was left and
moved it all to a safer place.
“Poor old Eskilida took a long time to recover. He was already getting
along in years. He suffered several broken bones. We younger men decided
we would get revenge no matter what, but we still asked Nicolai what we
should do first. Maybe what we were really telling him was that we
wanted him to do something. In the end, Nicolai, because of his
spiritual power, did more damage than the rest of us combined.
Looking down Eskilida trestle toward the Eskilida fish camp.
“We did not know for certain which men disturbed the graves, but we knew
who beat Eskilida. Those men had come from Haley Creek, where a large
tent camp was set up. We knew we couldn’t attack the camp. It had too
many white men there, or we would have gone down and finished it right
“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.”
Johnny, Cap and Violet all listened to their uncle intently as Tanas
related the strange occurrence.
“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.”
“You really believe Nicolai and the elders had a strong curse like that,
“Nicolai wouldn’t say. Neither would anyone who was over there, except
Chief Goodlataw. He’s my friend, so I talk to him often. He told me that
they started something very small, but it grew very big. He said the
elders themselves grew afraid of what they might have done, but they
were even more afraid that if they said anything, it would grow even
more. So they remained silent.
“They raised something none of us would want to even contemplate out of
the dark depths of the earth. It is an evil spirit which stalks our land
to this day. Never before had so many sleep-doctors gathered together to
do so much damage, not since the days when the Mendaesde Ahtnas
slaughtered the Russians.
“The nature of what they did required a strict vow of silence. No one
could know outside of their small group what had really happened over
there at Taral. All they told us was that the matter of the desecration
of the graves which angered the spirits of our ancestors had been dealt
with. We were told to wait.
“But we were not satisfied. We young men decided to take matters into
our own hands. We stole or destroyed property of the workers and of the
company itself. Then we started to isolate small groups of white men and
beat them. We did everything we could think of to let the company know
how we really felt.
“Incidents of fighting between our people and the railroad workers
increased until we were almost in a full state of war. Something had to
be done, because it was getting out of control.
“But the wave of violence and looting did not stop until we, the sons of
Nicolai, Eskilida, Billum and others, finally isolated the Irishmen we
were sure were responsible and beat them to within an inch of their
lives. We caught them at a bar in Chitina. They had to be lunatics to be
there where we could get to them. We practically destroyed the bar in
the process. After that , we weren’t allowed into any bars again. We
didn’t care. Those were white man places, anyway. We finally restored
honor to our people. It was all that mattered to us.
“This was when Nicolai forced those concessions from Stephen Birch. Once
he got what he wanted, Nicolai then told Birch that the fighting, the
stealing, and the vandalism was over. We now felt that once again the
land was ours.”
photo from Lauria Nyman Collection
Bridges, Trestles and Snow Sheds
Between Cordova and Chitina there are 129 bridges, with a length of 42,988 feet, or 8.15 miles, which were built at a cost of $590,000. This side of Miles Glacier, mile 47, there are 40 bridges, length 17,963 feet costing $256,000. From Miles Glacier to Tiekel, a distance of 52 miles, there are 42 bridges length 15,459 feet, costing $18,000. From Tiekel to Chitina, a distance of 32 miles, there are 47 bridges, length 9,566 feet, costing $163,000. The longest bridge is across the copper river just beyond Chitina, at mile 132. It is 2,790 feet long, or a little
more than a half mile. The west approach to the Miles Glacier bridge is nearly as long. The Gilahina bridge is 890 feet long, from eighty to ninety feet high and was built in eight days."
The Chitina Leader,
April 1, 1911: "RAILROAD COMPLETED TO THE COPPER BELT"
“Uncle Tanas, you speak very well for an Indian.”
The three younger people laughed at Johnny’s words. Tanas was known to
be an unusually well-read man, even more so than most of the local
whites. Tanas took pride in his literacy, yet he was only able to rise
to a maintenance foreman within the ranks of the railroad labor force.
No one was interested in hiring an educated Indian into a meaningful
Johnny continued his story now that Tanas had related his incredible
“The Irish have a character trait of tenacity which must have kept them
from leaving the area completely. Somehow the group held together as a
team and managed to gain a hold at Tiekel. They were too unruly and
obnoxious to everyone else to last there, so the group was dispatched to
the more isolated station at Cascade.”
“How did you find that out, Sken’nie?”
“George Brown told me about those men before he sent me out there. He
never cared much for them, either, Violet.”
“Those stupid, drunken Irish were so brazen that they started bragging
about what they did to our sacred graves,” Cap said, speaking up for the
first time. His face showed the pained expression he must have had when
he first heard the Irish crew openly brag about the desecration.
“Those were the graves of my family. Now we knew who these men really
were. In their drunken stupor, they unmasked themselves. We had thought
they were long gone. All this time we had been working with the very men
who despised us the most and who had personally defiled the resting
places of our ancestors. It was clear to both Johnny and I that their
first beating in the bar in Chitina was not enough. We were eager and
very ready to finish the job. We took them on right then and there.”
“It was a pleasure to strike at these foolish and loathsome men,” Johnny
added. “All the bad feelings we built up from having to live with these
crude Irishmen was probably felt in the power of our punches. We were
motivated by all that indignation which had built up over time. But
after what we learned that night, nothing would have stopped us from
taking the Irish on and beating all four of them senseless.
“When it was over, we hand-trammed ourselves and Kay-yew-nee all the way
back to Chitina that night, having no reason to stay in Cascade any
longer, and very good reason to leave.”
“Johnny and I thought we would be fired for sure, maybe worse,” Cap
“Instead George Brown reassigned Cap and I to the Chitina maintenance
yard. We’re happy to be working at home. No one ever said anything about
the incident. The Irish stayed quiet, and neither Cap nor I ever said
anything until now.”
That was an interesting evening at Violets. We went there often that
year to play poker. From the spring of 1917 off and on until 1927 Cap
and I worked together on the all-Native crews, usually under Uncle Tanas.
When we worked out of Chitina we stayed in the house the two of us had
rebuilt for Shee-ya in 1914. The rest of the time we stayed in the one
of the railroad cars provided for the crews. Often we’d end up at
Violet’s after work. It was a very small place, but just right for
playing cards. Sometimes Tanas or some of the others would join us.
Uncle Tanas’s Native crew was the one assigned to pull the tracks and
stringers before the river lifted the trestle bends and washed them down
the river into oblivion. It was an annual occurrence. A local bridge
superintendent watched the river and the trestle for the ideal time to
stop railroad traffic and begin dissembling the bridge top. At the right
time, he would order a crew to pull the rails and stringers over the
pilings before the ice shoved the bridge out. This way the material loss
was limited to only a few pilings. Then the crew could rebuild the
bridge using the original material.
The damage when the ice on the river began to break up was just what we
expected. We watched the ice lift the entire center part of the bridge
out of the river, ripping the bents from their river base. The pilings
were pushed forward and crushed loudly with a finality which was awesome
to behold. Most of the bridge in both directions was pulled into the
main channel, leaving few bents standing on either side of the river. In
a few hours the main mass of ice was completely flushed downriver and
the bridge was gone.
It was one of those cold, gray and gusty days which was only too common
along the lower Copper River during spring breakup when the time came to
begin rebuilding the bridge. The salvaged pieces from the old bridge sat
in neat piles along the rails near the lineshack waiting for the crew to
begin rebuilding the trestle once the river dropped to safe levels.
After the ice-jam took the pilings out in the spring of 1917, the
notoriously boisterous Irish crew from Cascade was called in to run the
west-bank pile-driver used to rebuild the 950-foot-long trestle. The new
pilings they would use were stacked up and ready next to all the rails
and stringers which Tanas’s crew had salvaged.
The Irish crew had recovered from the injuries we had inflicted on them
by then and pretended nothing had happened. They went in with the old
construction-era pile-driver and began the process of installing new
bents. No one understood what happened next. All I can tell you is that
something which tied the pilings together failed. The structure which
the Irishmen built into the main channel collapsed into the high,
rushing river--pile-driver and all. O’Malley and his entire Irish crew
were lost that day. The Native crew stood along the west bank when the
partly-rebuilt bridge loudly collapsed in one crushed and mangled mass
in the angry, roaring, and heavily-silted waters. Then the mass of
timber and pile-driver remains spit out away from the bridge in a mad
race for Cordova. The entire group of us stood in stunned silence.
Each one of us Natives understood the awesome and horrible meaning what
had really happened on that day. Nicolai and his curse of the
sleep-doctors had finally taken their revenge on the real perpetrators
of the ghastly deed. No bodies were ever recovered. We watched
helplessly while three of those four men were rushed down the river.
Their eyes revealed absolute panic before they submerged forever. It was
the haunting look of men who know that they are already dead. O’Malley
simply disappeared. No one saw him after the bridge collapsed. He was
probably trapped in the cab of the pile-driver. We recovered the
pile-driver. The river took the bodies.
Business quickly returned to normal after the river dropped to a less
dangerous level. Everyone thought it better to just forget what had
happened. The company called in a Catholic priest to say a mass for the
men and that was the end of it.
With the new trestle completed for the year, it was next necessary to
begin opening up the railroad all the way to Shushanna Junction. In
later years the company ran the maintenance trains over to the other
side before the bridge went out. In 1917, we had one long train waiting
at Chitina for the new bridge. Our all-Native crew stood ready with the
train to start working our way up the line toward Strelna and beyond.
Three great iron-horses stood by for the first run after the annual
washout. Mikado No. 71 had the place of honor in front of Consolidation
engine No. 20. The two-dozen cars of freight included the flat car which
carried the replacement pile-driver. We also had our bunk cars and mess
cars in the long consist plus a line of gravel dump cars.
At the very back end was the pusher, mogul No. 100, an 1870s vintage
Baldwin that was permanently stationed at the Chitina roundhouse. I
never understood how some people could call that large rectangular
barn-like structure a roundhouse.