08 February 2011

Chapter 36: "Cap's Vision of Nicolai," Pt 1

engine # 71

CRNW Mikado engine #71 in front
of Fireweed Mountain on the east approach to the Kennicott River trestle 
--McCarthy-Kennicott Museum

Sal Reed stepped down from the high cab of No. 71.  On the last run he had brought
in No. 73 and exchanged it for this one, as the 100-hour maintenance mark approached.
It had been another great day in the valley.  The winds were light and there was almost
no cloud cover.  The bright sun had caused the river to sparkle a multitude of
reflections into his face most of the way up.  But he did not mind. It added to
the dreamy effect of this absolutely wonderful valley.  Sal felt great today. 
Everything was working well for him.
The amount of in-going freight had finally started to diminish after a long run of thirteen
years.  Full inbound train loads had been the rule. Finally the loads were
smaller and less frequent.   He had been on this system from the very beginning
and had risen to the senior position.  Sal had the pick of assignments. 
 If his brother John had lived, John would have been senior to Sal.  John died in 
1913 when the rotary he was operating crashed through trestle 75B.  What was so ironic was
that on the way north, John’s rotary No. X-1 had been stopped on that very
trestle. John Reed decided to take advantage of the stop to drop the hot ashes
through the grate, even though it was against company policy to dump ashes on
the wood trestles due to the danger of fire. For reasons no one would ever know,
John ignored the policy.  On the return trip, he failed to see the thirty feet
of burned, missing trestle. John was crushed by No. X-1 when it crashed through
the trestle remains and landed deep in the ravine. The accident resulted from
his own carelessness.  But in a rare jury decision, his widow won a substantial
settlement in court anyway. 

Crane retrieving engine

A CRNW crane pulling a
wreck out of the water  --Cordova Museum

Sal shook his head.  He missed his brother and wished above all else that John 
could still be here to enjoy what Sal thought of as “God’s country.” 

            What a pointless tragedy.  I can’t believe you did that to us, John.

He walked back to take another look at his consist.  There were the usual thirty-five steel
flat cars of 100,000 pound gross capacity.  Four of them were loaded with milled
lumber.  There was a battery-powered locomotive bound for the mines on the fifth
car and a load of steel on the sixth.  The other cars were empty.  In front were
three outside-braced box cars.  The attached tags indicated full loads of
everything from oats to boxes of new clothes from Sears.

A fourth car, no. 288, was the stock car holding several dairy cows destined for Kennecott.  
Pullman combine no. 51 was directly behind the tender.  Sal decided it would be best to
break the load up and relay it all to Kotsina.  Then it could be reassembled for
the trip into Shushanna Junction. He turned to the stationmaster.
“We’ll break this up into two sections.  I’ll take the heavy  front end as one load, with the
pusher to  my rear, then return for all the empty flat cars.”
George nodded.  Usually they would send the coach car last, so the passengers  
wouldn’t be stuck at Kotsina waiting for the rest of the train.  However, there were 
no passengers today except Johnny and Cap, who were still considered railroad 
George would prevail on them to help with the train relay process.  He walked back 
to the depot to explain this to the two passengers.  Sal began powering up the engine
for the first run.   It was quite warm out so the engine required little time to
gain full pressure.  The first group of cars would be ready to leave soon. It
would be a quick process.
At the depot Cap sat with his father.
“Remember, you’re the son of the chief.  Do right. If you have a son, you will be chief
someday.  That’s our way.”
“I know, father.  I’ll follow our Indian way.  You know that.”
Johnny sat with his mother Helen, his sister Violet and her musher friend Abbey. 
Charlie sat on the other side of Cap.  Abbey had the dog Yew nee on a leash. 
If anyone could hold back this dog, it was Abbey.  She had a way with animals which 
baffled the men.  George walked up to Johnny and explained the situation. 
“You just help with this relay process to speed it all up, and I’ll owe you one.”
“You’ve always been fair with us, George.  But we’d do it anyway. We’re still part 
of the railroad.  Don’t send someone along you don’t need when
we’re there anyway.”
The train pulled out so smoothly, the two Indians in the combine hardly noticed.  Sal was
a wizard at the controls.
“Back to Kennecott.  Are we going to make this a habit, Sla’cheen?”
“It’s an interesting place to work. Something always different. What do you think? I know
you like the food.”
“I could get used to it. That was quite a party at Tom’s lodge.   What’d you think of it,
“I sure found a lot of female admirers.  Tom’s rose hip wine was not as good as he made it
sound, but it sure was strong.  The women seemed to like it, anyway.   I still
didn’t find any women I like as well as Rose.”
“Still on that Rose thing, are you Johnny? Am I going to have to drag you out of McCarthy
The train pulled to a halt at Kotsina. The men jumped off the coach and waited.  Sal Reed
backed the loaded cars into the siding, where the two Indians uncoupled the load
from the engine.
“You guys come with me. Hop on.  There’s enough room here.  Ever ridden in one of these
backwards?  You might as well enjoy the run back to Chitina instead of waiting
around for nothing here at Kotsina.”
“This is going to be a great day. You’ll really like this.  Come on up, Cap.”

riding the cab

Riding the cab of a CRNW Mikado 
--Cordova Museum
Cap stepped up onto the high deck.  He could feel a sense of enormous power coming 
through the steel floor of the cab.  It was everywhere.  He felt the life which existed
within the massive engine. Now he was beginning to understand what Johnny must
be feeling. Whatever magic there was in these iron horses was beginning to
overtake him as well.

          This is . . . what is this I’m feeling?  It’s great, whatever
it is. I’m up here on this high deck and I love it.  No wonder Johnny’s such a
nut.  Must be contagious. Now this is a machine.

Cap would never speak those words.  But Johnny caught the look on his face, smiled and 
pointed at him.
“You’ve got the bug too, Cap.  I know it when I see it.”  He hugged Cap after saying that, much
to Cap’s surprise.   This was rare for the two of them, but both Cap and Johnny
were so caught up in the exhilaration of the moment that they could hardly
contain themselves.  Johnny was thrilled beyond belief that his sla’cheen
-- the person who invariably and inevitably ended up mattering the most in his
life was there to share the ecstasy of this ride with him. 
It was less than an hour later before the train was finally reassembled at Kotsina and ready
for the remaining run.  
“It’s one of those unusually great days out here, ”  Reed observed.
“It’s the kind of day a railroad engineer lives for.   You two might as well stay up front with
fireman and me.  Plenty of room.  Enjoy the trip.  The scenery is awesome from
up here as you’ve already observed. More so from the cab than anywhere else on
the train.”

Indeed it was.  The route included several long straight lines of track which enabled the huge
engine, running on track in near-perfect condition, to operate at very high
speeds. The excitement of having that  full sounding steam whistle blow so close
as the heavy Mikado rushed through the Chitina River valley was of a type
neither Cap nor Johnny had ever experienced.  Even the normally stoic Cap was
completely carried away by it all.   Ahead at the end of the first long stretch
was Strelna.  The water tank stood prominently on the right, but to left, a
depression filled with  blackened remains marked the spot where a two-story
lodge once stood only weeks before. 
A few minutes later the train reached the Kuskulana crossing.  The steel bridge,  together
with its wood trestle approaches, exceeded 700 feet.  The depth of the gorge
seemed even more pronounced from the locomotive cab.  Just beyond the gorge were
several long straight stretches which allowed the train to reach its full speed
of over sixty miles per hour.  
Cap could see indications of a small mining operation hanging along the sheer face of a cliff
wall on the eastern end of Crystalline Hill as the locomotive raced on by.  Soon
the red buildings of Chokosna Station were in sight.  A mining supply road led
into the hills from the depot.  The train made a brief mail stop and then
Minutes later the train reached the long curved Gilahina trestle, where it was necessary to
slow to about ten miles per hour as the rails followed the contour of the hill,
then entered the tall bridge.  Water barrels were placed on platforms every
hundred feet in event of fire due to hot ashes from the train. The train
followed yet another series of long, straight track sections into Crystal Lake.
A water tower stood at the small trestle crossing the creek.  Beyond was a
sawmill operation on Crystal Lake.  The train passed through without stopping,
heading into a final long run of track as it approached the Lakina River
trestle, which was near the beginning of Long Lake.  The train stopped to pick
up a load of vegetables from the farm.  This consisted mostly of carrots bound
for Kennecott. These were favored by the mules which provided tram power in the
Bonanza Mine on some of the levels.
Beyond the lake, the train entered higher country as it approached the west slope of
Fireweed Mountain. The approach into McCarthy was sometimes considered the best
part of this run, due to the view of Bonanza Ridge, Porphyry Mountain and the
Kennicott Glacier and river.

downtown McCarthy

View of downtown
McCarthy from the Kennicott River trestle: The taller white structure on
the left is the drug store. On the far right is the Golden Bar.  --Lulu
Fairbanks Collection, UAF
As the train approached Shushanna Junction, the sandy bluffs running along  the eastern bank
of the Kennicott River came into view.  Then the glacier and the long trestle
crossing.  Just beyond lay the very small town of McCarthy.  Cap immediately
noticed the two-story drug store marking the center of town and the silent
Mother Lode power plant at the southern end near the creek.

          I wouldn’t trade being here for anything. Nothing could
replace it, not even close, except maybe for our visit to Shee-ya when he told
us the raven story. What a thrill to share this ride with my sla’cheen Cap.  My
dearest friend ever.

Two very happy young men left engine No. 71 at the junction, carrying their bedrolls.  Cap had
also packed the usual camping gear, just to be on the safe side. He had the bulk
of the load strapped on his back.  As the two wandered into town, Cap noticed
that the old place seemed quieter than it was on their last summer visit. Two of
the businesses on the main street stood  empty.  No one was in sight.
“Seems odd around here.  I miss Kay-yew-nee.  It’s not right without him here, too. I’m
going in for a soda, Sla’cheen.”
“You know where I’m headed, Cap.  See you later.”
Cap wandered into the large drug store to find the soda fountain.  Outside Johnny had
continued on in the direction of the Row, apparently not caring that Cap was no
longer walking with him.  The feelings both had when they departed the train had
quickly changed as they entered the town.

Cap found a store that appeared to be equipped to handle a much larger town than McCarthy. 
To the rear was a row of post office boxes. A padded row of stools at the
counter seemed inviting.  Cap sat down, then looked around again. No sign of
life anywhere.  The place was huge, but there was no one in the heavily-stocked

McCarthy Drug Store

The McCarthy Drug
Store on Shushanna Avenue       
--McCarthy-Kennicott Museum

The place was not that old, but there was something about it that made it feel ancient. Like
the place itself was alive. It was dead silent.  Nothing.  But there was an
unmistakable presence, and it was not friendly.  He began to feel like he
couldn’t breathe in there. Cap stood back up and quietly walked out the door and
into the sunlight, where he felt a sense of relief.
          Something wrong in that place.  Never going in there again.


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