"You must never forget who you are, who your people are, or
Another spring break-up was underway. After a long winter of minus fifty to
minus sixty degree temperatures, the increasing daylight had finally brought in
a warming trend. Night time temperatures had been minus twenty-five the week
before. By early March, the lowest temperatures were only minus ten. Afternoon
readings had been rising into the thirties since early February and had hit
forty degrees above by the end of the month, causing considerable glaciation
along the tracks and the beginnings of ice-breakups on the rivers.
The railroad had assembled two trains to work the eastern end, otherwise
known as the Chitina Local branch. Because the track walkers had already
detected problems with the rail bed near Strelna, the CRNW shut down the line
east of Chitina and dispatched the two maintenance consists north much earlier
than normal. The last load of ore had gone through Chitina March 2nd. There
would be no more runs until the problems with a sinking rail bed were corrected.
The bridge watcher at the Copper River crossing predicted that the ice would go
out early. The trestle crossing would go out with the ice.
The two maintenance trains had to be over the bridge near Chitina before the
trestle washed away. Freight consolidation engine no. 21 arrived from Cordova first.
It was pulling a line of twenty, 1870s-era dump cars loaded with gravel, plus four
flatcars piled high with wooden ties and steel rail couplings and other
hardware, a box car full of tools, a kitchen car, two bunk cars, and a caboose.
Behind the first train was a second, which also carried a pile-driver rig.
The railroad scheduled Chitina Local No. 21 to operate out of the Strelna
gravel pit, while No. 22 would continue on to Porphyry to work on the far end of
the Chitina Local Branch. The pile-driver was for repairs on the Kennicott River
trestle. It was also the back-up rig for the east-side when the time came for
Copper River trestle to wash out.
Cordova Locals 20 and 23 would work the area from the Copper River delta near
Cordova up to Chitina. All four consists had been assembled for spring break-up
repairs, similarly equipped with the same number of Western Air dump cars, flat
cars and the rest. Number 20 would be temporarily stationed at Chitina to work
from Chitina south to Bremner. That train would also utilize a largely Native
crew, as would numbers 21 and 22.
It had been a long, cold, miserable, and unproductive winter.
Everyone--Native and white alike--had waited anxiously for the spring breakup so
they could get back to work. Trapping had been at an all-time low and no one had
any spare cash. There would be no complaints about the existence railroad this
year. It was the savior. The CRNW would keep the people of Chitina alive through
another year. The railroad had long since become a part of the Native way of
Although everyone who could work was ready to board, the Native crew for No.
22 would be picked up at Strelna, where the several small families headed by old
man Eskilida still lived, about sixteen miles away from Chitina. The railroad
also kept another crew in reserve at Chitina for Cordova Local No. 20, which
would be arriving within a week after 21 and 22 departed the depot.
These men might be needed to take the rails and stringers off the bridge
after the two maintenance trains crossed if it appeared that the trestle might
go out early. The railroad always tried to salvage the top part of the bridge.
As they began their tenth season working railroad maintenance, Johnny and Cap
had seniority. They chose to ride the caboose with the conductor. This was the
favored place on the train. Conductor Matt Stevenson always had hot coffee
brewing there. Besides, it was the warmest spot, and its high, rear-end cupola,
had an excellent view of the rest of the train and everything to the rear.
The two hopped aboard along with elder uncle Tanas Nicolai. Tanas was most
senior because he was also full-time. He headed the Native crew for Local No. 21
and even 22 when the two consists worked together. Tanas spread his crew out
between the two trains, so each would have a small complement of workers until
they reached Strelna. Then Tanas would take charge of crew 21 and his cousin
Edward would take crew 22.
In the earlier days a white man had been given charge of each Native crew.
The white bosses never acknowledged the Indians by name, preferring to assign
numbers to each man instead. They would count one through twelve. If there were
twelve men--no matter which twelve they were--the crew was considered complete.
Sometimes the Indians would substitute one of the men for another without
telling the white crew boss, but the twelve men whose names were on the payroll
were the ones who would get paid. The Indians would replace one of their own if
he was sick or had to be with his family or even if he was too drunk to be
present. That way the Indian whose name was on the payroll would still be paid
and would not lose his job.
The substitute who replaced the regular would receive other compensation from
the Indians themselves. Every Native protected each other in a system they
developed from the very earliest of the railroad days.
The Indian crew members found numerous ways to make life difficult for the
white crew bosses. The white men would often quit in complete frustration.
Finally, the railroad superintendent relented and began employing Native bosses.
Tanas, Edward, and Andrew of Chitina were among the first. Once the Indians
took charge of their own people, the railroad management discovered that
maintenance ran remarkably well.
Tanas had worked on the line since the first train came into old Chittyna in
1910. He was in the first group to benefit when Nicolai made the deal with Birch
that obligated the railroad to hire entire crews of Natives for seasonal
Nicolai did not ask for year-around work for most of his people because he
knew it would not benefit them. Instead he asked Birch to consider hiring a few
for full-time work so there would always be some Natives on the railroad
The railroad unintentionally gave men like Tanas, Tom, Edward, and Andrew a
special status which was highly respected by their own people. Each of them
lived comfortably, if only modestly. Tanas had a skill for keeping the peace
between the Natives and the whites which the railroad valued. But in reality, he
used his powers more like that of a shop steward, always trying to protect his
people against the sometimes strange and arbitrary ways of railroad management.
It was in the early morning of March 5th, 1925 that the first consist, No.
21, pulled out from its place on the main line in front of the locomotive repair
barn. The engine arrived only the day before. It had been kept running all night
because it was far too cold to let the boiler shut down.
Matt pointed to the pot, looking first at Tanas.
"It’s ready for you guys. Be my guest."
Johnny had talked Tanas into letting his brother Charles along with him on
this run. Although Charles had no seniority, Tanas allowed him to ride in the
caboose because Charles was part of the family already on board. Charles, as the
junior member poured the cups. He handed the first one to Tanas. It went in
order of rank and age, except Charles had deliberately given the white man,
conductor Stevenson, the second cup rather than the first.
Matt and Tanas, chose to stay below, allowing the younger ones to watch the
tracks from the cupola. Behind the caboose, an old Baldwin mogul was coupled on
to act as the pusher. No. 100 was permanently stationed at Chitina because the
four-percent grade on the other side of the crossing required an extra engine to
help a fully-loaded consist up the hill.
The Baldwin was second in age only to the legendary No. 50. Old No. 50--a
Rogers 4-6-2, was Mike Heney’s original--the first CRNW locomotive. Heney was
the contractor who built the White Pass out of Skagway and who had been in
charge of constructing the CRNW railbed when he suddenly took ill and died. The
railroad considered the 1871-vintage wood-burning engine obsolete. Old No. 50
was too antiquated to sell, so the railroad kept it in the eleven-bay roundhouse
at Cordova, ready if it was ever needed for whatever duties were required. It
never was. The duties of Heney’s original engine ended with the driving of the
copper spike at Kennecott on March 29th, 1911. It sat in the darkness of the
roundhouse for twenty-seven years, a useless relic of the frontier days of old
Cap sat on the north side of the cupola. He had a good view looking straight
down the loose, sandy cliff which dropped steeply into the Kotsina River bed
over a hundred fifty feet below. This section of the railbed was subject to
heavy erosion. Still going uphill, the rails left the Kotsina basin, heading
southeast. The rails crossed the ridge which separated the Kotsina from the
Chitina River until the wide Chitina River canyon was finally in view. Then the
rails resumed an easterly course. It was only a few minutes into Kotsina. The
small whistle-stop consisted of a siding and a line shack. The line shack was
rarely used. It was one of twenty-four of similarly designed ten by twelve foot
frame buildings with hip-end roofs, dating back to 1914 when the railroad began
upgrading its many miles of line so it could operate in the winter.
The train pulled off the track onto the siding. Johnny and Charles helped the
Baldwin pusher uncouple. It backed out of the siding and took off in reverse,
all the way down the six miles of steep hill to Chitina.
"Look, Cap. There’s smoke coming from the line shack."
The entire Native crew assembled there.
"The foreman from Strelna is here. There’s already a problem with the
track sinking just ahead. We’ll have to get out the wheel barrows and pull up
some of the track for shoring up. The section foreman says its unsafe to run the
engine any farther until we repair it."
"Okay, Tanas. Guess we know where we’ll be tonight."
Matt returned to confirm Tanas’s evaluation.
"Cap, climb that pole and tap into the line so I can telegraph the
stations at McCarthy and Chitina.
"This looks like it, boys. Haven’t seen the problem yet, but foreman
Corey seems to think it’ll take several hours to repair the damage. He says
much of the rest of the line into Strelna is beginning to sink, so there may be
other delays. If we’re lucky enough to get through to Strelna, we have weeks
of work ahead of us. Everything seems to be sinking."
"It’s already started? Seems awfully early, especially as cold as it’s
"There’s a spring and a pond up there that never froze. We thought we’d
taken care of the problem last year, and the year before that, and the year
"So this is it? We’re at Kotsina tonight?"
"Looks that way to me, Johnny, unless we’re lucky. Cap! You connected
yet? Climb on down here with that wire so I can tie in with my key!"
"The other load of gravel cars should be along shortly. We may need the
extra gravel in case the 240 yards we have on hand is not enough. Can’t get to
the Strelna gravel pit from this side. It’s too far away."