14 November 2010

Ch 19, Pt 1: "Birch Party at McCarthy"

Map of the Chitina Local Branch of the
Copper River & Northwestern Railway

Legacy of the Chief,
Chapter 19, Pt 1:
"Birch Party at McCarthy-1924"

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


Chokosna depot   --McCarthy-Kennicott Museum


Lakina Trestle, just beyond Crystal Lake

--E.B. Schrock #84-80-72, UAF AK & Polar Regions Photo Archives

Special No. 73 began slowing down
as it approached Crystal Lake. The small trestle by the water tower
required much slower speeds. The train passed the steam-powered sawmill
operation at the lake, then picked up speed again until the Lakina River
trestle came into view. This marked the extreme western end of the Long
Lake area where the train would wind its way along the lake while
beginning to climb into the hills. The pace would be much slower during
the next fifteen miles as the train worked its way through a series of
hills and trestles spanning steep creek gorges. Sourdough Peak finally
came into view somewhere beyond Swift Creek. Then Porphyry Mountain
emerged, signaling that McCarthy was only a brief distance ahead.

 Just beyond the gravel pit at
Porphyry, the train began a long descent into the Kennicott River
valley, emitting three loud whistle blasts to announce its impending
arrival at Shushanna Junction. Porphyry Mountain and Sourdough Peak
dominated the view as the train headed down the east slope of Fireweed
Mountain. Then entire south face of Bonanza Ridge became visible. The
most distinctive of the peaks along this ridge was Castle Rock, which
marked the site of the rich Jumbo mine a thousand feet below the summit.
Finally, the array of red buildings which were the mill complex could be
seen below the rock glacier on the northwestern face of Porphyry. At the
base of the valley the prominent glacier was so heavily laden with
detritus that it appeared to be an enormous tailings pile. The rugged
and rocky face of the Kennicott Glacier ended abruptly just short of the
long railroad trestle north of the small settlement of McCarthy.

Long Lake

East side of Long Lake   --AMHA B12.32.297

After a series of curves the slope leveled. The short consist approached
the riverbed flood plain. It passed another active gravel pit with a
siding which included a wye used for turning the maintenance trains
around on the west bank of the river. Just ahead was the final approach
to the quarter-mile long trestle which crossed the roaring Kennicott
River. A 50,000-gallon water tower stood at the eastern end of the
low-lying trestle. Just beyond an assortment of warehouses, small
barracks, a mess hall, sheds and the locomotive repair and storage
buildings left the impression of a busy railroad junction. The railroad
built these to meet the demands of the Chisana gold rush of 1913 and to
facilitate copper ore loads coming from the Motherlode and Green Butte
Mines. Three years later the rush was over. In 1918 Kennecott acquired
Mother Lode, ending the hauling of ore down the creek to McCarthy.
Besides the small town of about 200, only the Green Butte and a handful
of small gold mines in the Nizina gold district used the railroad
junction by 1924.

Approaching McCarthy:

McCarthy View a

Above: Candy Waugaman collection / Below: AMHA B72.32.295

McCarthy View b

Below: from the Candy Waugaman collection

McCarthy View c

Like Chitina with its large empty
hotels, McCarthy already had in its midst several railroad buildings
which served no purpose. Amidst these was the depot, which was placed
right at the junction where a spur line led into town, paralleling the
main business street known as Shushanna Avenue. The depot appeared to be
busy from time to time depending on the business activity at McCarthy.
By 1924 the town was slowly dying, but few realized that McCarthy had
only a limited lifespan. Kennecott had settled into a routine which
brought far less business to McCarthy. The Great Depression would nearly
kill the town in the early 1930’s. In 1938, the closing of the Kennecott
mines and the shutting down of the railroad finally doomed the town.

Birch and Jackling and the two aides watched this panorama develop as
the private train winded its way down the hill at the base of Fireweed
Mountain with great interest. The valley had a prehistoric and at the
same time a ghostly appearance which was enhanced by the jagged hilltops
of Bonanza Ridge and the sheer massiveness of Porphyry Peak, which is a
treeless steeply rising basalt dome with deep vertical cuts throughout
its western face. The proximity of the glacier which caused the town to
appear very diminutive in comparison further enhanced the effect.

Stephen Birch impulsively decided he wanted to take a break in McCarthy
before continuing to Kennecott. He sent the word up to the engineer to
pull up beyond the switch at the depot, then back through the switch to
the end of the siding at the northern edge of the town.

July 4th on Shushanna Ave

July 4th on Shushanna Avenue, McCarthy  
--Eleanor Tjosevig photo

The two Kennecott directors, along with two aides who had accompanied
them, Dermot and Cecil, stepped off the back of the observation car onto
Shushanna Avenue and headed across the small street toward a large
building which housed the McCarthy Drug Store. Stephen picked the Mecca,
an establishment which featured billiards tables and a card room as a
likely place to relax. The Alaskan was a similar establishment anchoring
the northern end of the two story drugstore, but it appeared to be

Cecil was the first to reach the door. He held it open as Birch,
Jackling and finally Dermot entered. Birch thought he recognized the
Indian shooting a game of billiards at the closest table. The
well-dressed woman standing next to him wore makeup which strongly
hinted that she was a part of the town’s night time entertainment. She
appeared to be at a good ten years older than the Indian.

His opponent was a slightly shorter Indian with the strong build of one
who had worked hard all his life. The woman with him also appeared to be
a female escort, but she was much shorter and almost plump. A large dog
sat a few feet away intently watching the four people playing the game.

Johnny turned to see the distinguished party of four enter the hall.

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