Legacy of the Chief,
Chapter 19, pt 2: "Birch Party at McCarthy-1924"
click on picture for
larger image: some of these images appear in the book for
Bradford Washburn 1938-39 aerial of Shushanna
Avenue, McCarthy, from the Mother Lode power plant in the foreground to
the Mother Lode railroad warehouse on top.
“Mr. Birch, is that you? It certainly is! What a pleasant surprise!”
He set the cue stick down and immediately walked over to shake the older
man’s hand. When he moved, Birch recognized the young man.
“You’re Nicolai’s Grandson. Now I remember you. That was so long ago. I
can hardly believe I’m seeing you here. How fortuitous!”
“It was just pure luck for me to walk into this place and find you
“Oh. Okay, Mr. Birch. Let me introduce you to the others. The man I am
about to beat at this game is my brother Cap. And this beautiful lady is
my sweetheart, Rose. Her friend over there is Bubbles. She’s with Cap.”
Birch shook hands with Cap and nodded his hat to Rose and Bubbles.
Cap looked hard at Birch and nodded, but said nothing.
“Oh, yes, and that’s my ever-faithful companion, Kay-you-nee. The name
means ghostly spirit. He has a way of appearing whenever I need him, and
then vanishing at other times. He stays with me when I work the railroad
jobs. We walk the tracks together.”
Stephen turned to the rest of his party.
“Gentlemen, this is Johnny Gakona, whom I met on my honeymoon when I
traveled through Chitina in 1916. He was a grandson of a very fine man
who treated some of us white men probably better than we deserved. Dan
Jackling nodded toward Johnny.
“And who would that fine man be, Stephen?”
“Dan, he was none other than Nicolai the Tyone of Taral. It was Nicolai
who first revealled the source of the copper to a member of the
McClellan Group. They’re the ones who sold me the Bonanza claims.”
“Johnny, this is one of our board members, Daniel Jackling.”
“I am honored to meet a grandson of such a legendary man.”
“Then meet Cap, who is also a grandson.”
Cap again sized the man up quietly as he shook hands in silence.
Stephen continued with the introductions.
“These two young men are our assistants, Dermot Preston and Cecil Heinze.”
“I remember you, Dermot though I did not hear your name back then. You
came into the billiards hall at Chitina and sent for the brandy. This is
my sla’cheen Cap. He was not around town back then.”
Cap shook his hand and that of Cecil, sizing them up as well. He
remained silent. Dermot observed Cap, who was carefully
scrutinizing the four corporate men as he met each one.
“Johnny, as my train approached this town, I decided we all could us a
break before resuming Kennecott business. It seems most serendipitous
that I would run into you here, especially since I doubt I’ll ever
return to this country again.”
“Lucky, very lucky. I’m just pleased to see the grandson of someone who
meant so much to me in his own way. I’m not trying to take anything away
from you, but Nicolai and I had a special relationship that was highly
beneficial to both of us.”
“Almost friends. We were never really true friends, but we made things
happen for your people. Nicolai made me agree to some things that worked
out well, even for my company. But I don’t want to get into that.
“It’s just good to see you. I’m ready for a game and a chance to get
even for losing to you that last time. Dan, I’m sure you’ll understand
if I step foreward to take this first game. You get to play the winner
of this round.”
“Fine with me, Stephen. It’s my kind of game. I’ll challenge the
“We’ll take the next table, ” Dermot said, signaling Cecil to follow
suit. The aides wisely chose not to involve themselves in the game
between Johnny and Birch. Neither one wanted to take the chance of
actually winning any kind of game against Birch or Jackling. They both
knew far better than to make either boss look bad.
“Cap, I’ll challenge you, if that’s okay with you. Cecil can play the
Cap, having just lost the game to Johnny, looked at Dermot and
contemplated the matter for a few moments.
“First I’ll take you. Then I’ll take your partner. Then you two will
have to play off on the third table, because I’m going to challenge
Johnny or your boss after that.”
“You’re on, Cap. Before I shoot I need to check with the bosses on just
one matter. Sirs, do either of you desire cigars or brandy?”
Birch looked toward Dan Jackling. Then he looked toward the proprietor,
who had remained inconspicuous during all this interaction. Cecil had
already whispered something to the man, and the proprietor spoke up.
“So you really are Mr. Stephen Birch? Your aide
tells me you have brandy on the train. I have cigars here. Please feel
free to bring in your own brandy. Consider this place yours. I am
“Cecil, go ahead and bring in the brandy. Dermot, select some cigars
from that man and purchase one for all of us men. Would you ladies care
“Got a cigarette, mister?”
“Cecil, see if you can get the ladies some cigarettes. And, Dermot, make
sure you bring enough brandy in here for the ladies as well. Johnny,
we’ll hold up the game a moment until Cecil returns, if that’s
Johnny realized this was not a request. He nodded his assent.
Cecil rushed to the business car and quickly
returned with two bottles of brandy and some glasses. These he carried
effortlessly as though he had been professionally trained as a waiter.
Dermot passed out the cigars after offering cigarettes and a light to
both women. Dermot said something to the proprietor, handing him
The owner of the Mecca walked over and locked the front doors, making
the affair a private party.
“Gentlemen, let’s light up and enjoy a good cigar out here in the middle
of this great Alaskan wilderness. Is the brandy all poured? Very good.”
Stephen lifted his glass. The others quickly responded.
“Ladies and gentlemen, to the continued prosperity of this great
territory and especially of the people of this valley. May our copper
mines bring great wealth to all who live here.”
Dan Jackling contemplated Stephen’s toast.
“How did things work out with you and the railroad,” Birch asked Johnny.
“Well, sir, it certainly was a growing up experience. I learned to deal
with some very rough men, some of whom thought they could get the better
of me, one way or the other. They never did, and I always held up my
end. I have worked with the company every breakup season ever since.”
“Cap joined me at the Cascade camp shortly after I started. He has
worked with me on every railroad job I’ve had ever since. We’ve never
worked more than a few months at a time because we both have to help
with the fishing and the hunting. We also each have our winter trap
lines. We even do guiding for trophy hunters in the fall.
“I learned of a shortage of help at Green Butte
and decided that mining would be different experience worth trying. Then
it was a matter of talking Cap into joining me. Indians work better as a
team. Even better as part of a whole crew, but that wasn’t possible. We
both applied for work with Mr. Barrett, who hired us both.
“While we’re waiting for the wagon to pick us up, we’re just hanging
around this small town. I found Rose here.”
“You’re going from railroad work to hard-rock mining? That’s quite a
“You mean because we’re Indians? Cap and I want to prove we can handle
anything. Railroad work brings in money. We need money just like anyone
else. But the same job year after year gets too old. You white men think
this is just your world. We’ll prove you wrong. We try our best to be at
least as good as the best white man who works beside us. So far, we’ve
beat every one of them.”
“You’ve convinced me. I haven’t forgotten my promise to your grandfather
either. When you want to see the continental part of America and further
your education, write me at the company. Or send a telegram. The
railroad can find me. You will reach me. I will answer.”
“I’ve thought about it many times, Mr. Birch. Someday I may just take
you up on it. Not quite yet. That’s a very big step. It means leaving
everything behind. I’m not ready for something like that. Maybe soon.”
“I may be sticking around in the area for awhile, as I am concerned
about my father, who is the head painter at Kennecott. I have already
visited him. He doesn’t look well at all. And he has slowed down a lot.
“Really? I didn’t know. I can certainly appreciate a young man showing
that kind of concern for his father. I’ll make a point of checking on
him while I’m there, so I can see if there is anything I can do. While
I’m visiting, I’ll extend your greetings.”
“That would be good of you, Mr. Birch. Our time is running short. We
have to ready ourselves for tomorrow in case the Green Butte foreman
comes into town. We’ll be on our way now. It’s been a great pleasure,
“I wish you well, young man. I thought the world of your grandfather. It
was quite a pleasant surprise to run into you here. You made my
afternoon. Remember what I said. There is another world out there. It’s
yours if you want it.”
The four of them and the dog headed for the ramshackle cottages lining
McCarthy Creek upstream from the old Motherlode power plant which stood
silent at the southern end of Shushanna Avenue.
“I don’t know about that Birch guy or his companions, Johnny He is still
who he is. This is not our world anymore. He and his kind control it.”
“Maybe it isn’t ours like it was, but I see you adapting to it just
fine, Cap. Neither you nor anyone else lives like our grandfather and
his brothers and sisters did before the railroad came. We work for them.
We get money. We spend it.”
“The money is nice to have, sla’cheen. It takes money to buy tobacco and
alcohol and even women.”
Rose and Bubbles politely ignored Caps words, but Johnny gave Cap a hard
look and then thought about his reply.
“Let’s get Bubbles or Rose to find us a bottle while we still have some
money left. Hopefully, John Barrett at the Green Butte will be ready for
us renegades soon, ” he said in a half-joking manner.
The train’s whistle blew. Johnny turned around.
“Come on Yew-nee, let’s walk up to the station and watch the train
The dog’s ears went straight up and his tail
started wagging. Johnny usually called him by the shorter name. It was
easier to say.
The women headed off toward town to find a bottle, while Johnny and Cap
headed back toward the train. It was pulling out of the siding. The two
Indians and the dog watched the private train slowly puff out of sight
as it rounded a bend at the end of the mile-long straight run north of
the depot. The tracks ran between Porphyry Mountain and Kennicott
Glacier. Not only the 7000-foot mountain, but even the glacier towered
high above the rails. As late afternoon began turning into evening, a
cold breeze began blowing down the glacier from the icy upper reaches of
the Wrangells twelve thousand feet above the glacier itself.
The three figures stood alone next to the depot,
their eyes fixed on the rails long after the train was out of sight on
its final run into Kennecott.
“Someday I’ll ride in the cab of one of those iron-horses, Cap.”
“Someday you’ll ride one of those iron-horses right out of here,
Sla’cheen. I hope you remember those of us you leave behind."