07 February 2011

Chapter 34: "Strelna Work Crew Sets Up," Pt 2

work train 1

"In the early
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
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 h is family, or even if he was too drunk to be
present. That way the hired Indian would still be paid and would not lose
his job. The substitute who replaced the regular would receive other
compensation from the Indians themselves. All Natives protected each other
in a system they developed from the very earliest of the railroad days."
A work train
consist with a pile driver heads toward Chitina from Tiekel. --UAF, Julie
Sweeney Collection, 97-139-322

pile driver
A CRNW Railway
piledriver    --Laurie Nyman

"Tanas, how far to Strelna ?"

"About nine miles, Charles. You boys come with me. We have to grab some
wheelbarrows and help the others."

"Tanas, I spotted a large moose out there in the brush. Let’s hunt it
down for lunch. Let the others run the wheelbarrows. We’d all rather have
moose than most anything else."

"Charles, now you’re talking. Cap! Johnny! Go with Charles. He says
there’s a moose out there. See if you can bring it in. Yes, dead, you
half-white jackass! Butcher it up and give it to the cook. Maybe we can have it
in time for a late dinner."

"Beats working the wheelbarrows and hefting 450 pounds of rails."

"The company’s going to pay for the food one way or the other. Get out
there and bring it in!"

The three skeel’eh needed no further encouragement. Each grabbed a
thirty-thirty rifle and headed north through the heavy brush. It wasn’t long
before Tanas heard three shots.

One bullet each. Guess they weren’t taking any chances. Moose

The crew’ll be happy tonight. Good thing. I’d hate to have to
explain to the rest of ‘em why they’re working so hard while those
three bumpkins are beating the bushes.

Several hours later, the crew finished removing sixty feet of rail, and
hauling in the gravel fill. The skeel’eh were quick to skin and butcher
the large horned animal. In the meantime, the rest of the crew arrived on No.
22. In the rear of the consist was the familiar Baldwin pusher. Johnny and Cap
walked the long distance to the front of No. 100 to uncouple it from the second
consist. Having been freed for a second time, the old engine once again headed
down hil in reverse for its slow return trip to the maintenance shop at Chitina.

After the crew had dumped about a hundred yards of gravel on the low spot,
Tanas finally called the work to a halt.

"We’ve done it. That’s good enough. It’s time to put the track
back in place. Food break first. The cook says it’s chicken soup and beans for
lunch, but it’ll be fresh moose stew for dinner."

Indian hunter
Above: Indian hunter;  
Below: Hunting party / work train crew on the CRNW right-of-way 
--Laurie Nyman

Hunting Party

The cheers from the crew confirmed Tanas’s decision to send his three
nephews on the moose hunt. Few moose had been taken that winter. Many Chitina
families had to subsist on salmon, rice and beans the entire winter. Toward the
end of winter, even the salmon had run out.

After lunch, the men re-installed the three, twenty-foot sections of rail.
Foreman Jack Corey asked engineer Art Holt and conductor Matt Stevenson to hold
up the train at Kotsina siding overnight. The engineers agreed. It was getting
too dark to see the condition of the track. Matt telegraphed McCarthy and
Chitina, notifying them that the Chitina Local was closed from Strelna to
Kotsina at least until the next day.

"Charles, how’d you get so lucky? We’ve looked for moose all winter.
Couldn’t find anything since nen’testende."

"You mean freeze-up, Cap ? No moose at Tonsina ? There weren’t any
moose near Chitina, either. This must be the first. Sure has good taste. The
cook did a great job with it on such a short notice."

"I’d have joined the crew just to eat the carrots, I’m so

"You mean you’re sick of beans with Pilot Bread, Cap ?"
"That’s it, Sla’cheen. Too many beans. That was all we had.
Sometimes I think this railroad is a good thing. It brought us real food."

"You must be getting soft, Cap. You don’t sound like your usual

"Starvation around here, Sla’cheen."

"It’s a tough life, Cap."

Cap chewed a sinewy piece of moose meat, then grinned back at Johnny.
"Not tough at all, Sla’cheen. Just right !"

After their dinner, the skeel’eh walked west down the tracks,
carrying their Winchesters just in case.

"Maybe we’ll find some rabbit this way. It’s a good area."

"I suppose since I’m the youngest, you’ll expect me to skin

"You brought your knife, didn’t you, skell’eh ?"

"I always have my knife on me, Johnny."

They headed to a point where the track starts to veer to the northwest. It
was the top of the long slope to the river base. The forested area opened up
there, allowing a magnificent view of the wide, braided Chitina River hundreds
of feet below.

"Look at the, Cap. The Tsedi Na’--the very center of our people’s
way of life."

It was still covered with ice, though an open channel had broken through.
"It won’t be long now, " Charles observed, pointing to the open
water, which was already starting to flow over the top of the ice.

"That’s called kataleni. The ts’itu’ and its tendelzaghi
are what you see."

Charles gave a puzzled look to Johnny.

"Open water and ice chunks on the river, Charles. Never mind Cap. He
confuses me, too. Cap tries to keep our Ahtna words alive, even though the
teachers beat him to stop it. They beat me too. I learned quick. I had to help
Cap because they kept throwing him out of school."

A strong wind blowing through the canyon worked its way up the high ridge to
the rail grade, sending cold snow dust blowing around the open area.

"Whew ! It’s too cold to stay out here in the open. Let’s head back
to the bunk car. Long day tomorrow."

The three returned with five snow-shoe hares they encountered on the way
back. The temperature on the hill that night dropped to zero. In the black
spruce-lined area where the two maintenance train consists sat at Kotsina
siding, the wind rustled the trees, but the trains themselves were sheltered
amidst the heavy growth. The engineers and firemen kept the boilers fired all
night. Unlike the newer 70-series, these two had been converted back to coal.
They required constant shoveling. Crew members alternated on duty with the
firemen all night long. The 1910-era engines hummed in quiet contentment all

The light was sufficient at seven to begin moving the trains forward. The
cooks had breakfast ready by six so that everyone would be ready to continue the
slow run into Strelna. Maintenance Local No. 22 was now in the lead, since it
was on the main line all night. It would work its way on to Porphyry, once it
picked up its Strelna crew.

The rail followed a largely straight line past Strelna and Silver Lakes. Then
it hit a large curve. The sudden jerk as the rear train skidded to a halt
knocked Charles off his seat in the cupola. He fell down to the floor of the
caboose, hitting the wood hard.

"What was that?" Charles, are you all right?"

Johnny jumped down, followed by Cap. They pulled Charles off the floor. He
was stunned, but not hurt. Matt had already rushed out the front door of the
caboose. Johnny and Cap helped Charles out. Far ahead they could see the place
where engine no. 22 had derailed on the wide curve. It would be another long

Matt returned for Cap.

Dwyers Inn

"Cap was among the
first to spot the smoke somewhere in the distance. He watched for the
flames through the trees.  It was not long before the raging fire
could be seen by everyone.  It was a large one. As the train hit the
straight stretch that passed by Strelna, the form of Dwyer's Inn came into
view, heavily involved in flames.  A small gathering of people was
trying to save the structure with a hose from the nearby water tower, but
the effort was clearly futile.   The crews from the three work
trains jumped out to help, but little more could be done.  The large
two-story log building would burn to the ground.  A historic piece of
Alaska was going up in flames.
Dwyer's Inn at

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