15 February 2011

Chapter 56: "Chittyna Indian Village," Pt 1

Chitina Panorama
An early panorama of Chitina, circa 1918 
He knew it would be his last opportunity to ride it.   The year 1938 was drawing to a close
and the winter snows had already descended on much of Alaska.   He had returned,
at least for a while. 

          I want to see my children, but it’s the train that finally
brought me back. Grandfather would be horrified. If Nicolai were still alive,
he’d condemn me on the spot for that. He’d probably point his finger at me and burn me alive right where I stood.

          Johnny sat alone in the no-name billiards hall.   Smitty had gone to his reward 
when business died out the first time the railroad quit running in 1932.   His
red-haired widow Rita remained. She planned to close up shop forever once the
railroad abandoned the area.  That was now only days away.

          He leaned against the wooden bench backrest by the window and thought 
about the old times. This had almost been his second home once. He had first 
learned to play billiards with his friend Cap under the watchful eye of grandfather 
Nicolai twenty-seven years before.   Cap and he had spent countless hours at the table
challenging each other and most every other Native in the village.

            Once he had even played against the Great Man himself.  Then there was 
Frank, the engineer who soon became his greatest advocate.  He’d met Frank here 
and beat him on this very same worn-out, dusty table he was now looking at with considerable emotion.

          The view out of the window had not changed.  Everything just looked 
older and worn down with years of neglect.  Across the street were the two long, 
narrow false-fronted buildings that housed O.A. Nelson’s Cash Store. Just behind 
the store was the railroad depot where George Brown had hired him for his first 
railroad job twenty-two years ago. 

Chitina 1960s

The pusher train that had been stationed at Chitina for so many years is staging a mixed freight consist for one last ride south to Cordova, November 11, 1938

          He’d been staying up in the village in Cathy’s home two weeks now. He’d made 
it just in time to watch as the last ore  train rumble through on the first of November.  
The snow fell heavily that day.  Then the storm let up and, allowing the skies
to reveal an unusually active display of the Northern Lights.  The yaykass
had been a part of the spirituality of his early life.  

          The last load of ore had been  a full consist of thirty cars following ten open
gondolas loaded with very last of the loose, broken,  high-grade ore. The ore consist was
headed by none other than the venerable No. 74.  Johnny suspect that very few
along the rail line appreciated that the ore train would never return.

          On that first day of November, Johnny was accompanied by his thirteen 
year-old son Michael and his son’s dog Tikaani, who looked remarkably like Kay-yew-nee.
They watched the load pull out of Chitina like it was just any other load. No
one else seemed to notice. It seemed anticlimactic.  Johnny fervently wished
that Cap could have been there with him to watch the historic scene.  His
would have appreciated the irony of it. Cap had told Johnny that
he--Cap--would be there to watch the mine and railroad come to an end. He
promised Johnny that they would both live to see the end of the railroad.
What had gone so horribly wrong?  Cap was almost always right when it came to
predicting the future.  Cap’s ability to anticipate coming events unnerved some
of the more superstitious Natives, but Johnny had come to appreciate Cap’s gift.

Chitina 1960s
Chitina in the early 1960s.  Even then the view had changed very little in the last 40
years.  Except now that it was considered a ghost town, O.A. Nelson
had ghost images painted on some of the buildings, including the
Commercial Hotel seen in this photo    --courtesy of Rita Hatch

At least God has honored me by allowing me to share this moment with my son, Michael--my very special and spiritually gifted boy whom I named after sla’cheen.

           Only Johnny could fully appreciate the significance of what was happening.  
Neither he, his son,  nor anyone else would ever view see a CRNW consist pull through Chitina again.  The train which the last great chief Nicolai had so despised would soon
to follow the tyone into the vast unknown. 

           He told me
that this train was destined to be a large part of our lives and that we must
adapt myself to the ket’chee ten’eh thloo da kee .   He said that we must claim
the railroad  as if it were our own.  It crosses right through our ancestors’
home--the only land we can call ours. Or is it the other way around--that the
land claims us? The railroad has forever become a part of who we are.  Now it’s almost over.  

          “Father, I knew I’d find you here.” 

          His daughter Rosalene snapped him out of his deep thoughts. She was 
fourteen now,  and had become quite stunning.  Behind her was her younger brother Michael, who was almost knocked down by the his own large Siberian as the animal 
pushed through the door.

          “Are you all right, dad?  Mom is concerned about you.  She says you’re spending 
too much time down here and not eating well.”

          “I’ll be fine,
Rose.  Tell your mother I’ll be home for dinner shortly.  I just need to be here

          “Are you going to spend money here, or are you just taking up space?”

          It was Rita, the old grouchy widow who now ran the place. 


The real Rita Hatch

              She’s been here too long. 
             Probably can’t wait to shut the doors once and for  all.            
             I sure miss the old days when Smitty was here. But I really miss Cap. 
             We shot so many games here, I could never count them all.  

          “I’m going to play pool with my son, old woman.”

          Johnny threw a silver dollar in Rita’s direction.

          “Michael will have a root beer. I’ll have whatever you’ve got.”


          “Coffee it is, Rita.”

          Michael’s eyes lit up.  He thought his father would be sending them both home.

          “Come on, son. Let’s see if you can beat your dad at this game.”

          “Rose, take this money and pick up some tea for your mother at the Cash Store. Here’s an extra quarter for yourself. Do you have a ride home?”

          “Uncle Tanas brought Michael and me down in the horse wagon.  He’ll bring me back.

          “Good.  In that case, pick her up some rice, onions, and carrots as well. She said she needed them for the stew. I wasn’t looking forward to hefting those up the hill on
foot, anyway.”   
          Rose wanted to stay and play pool with her dad , but she took the money and rushed off to the Cash Store across the street.   It was getting cold out there,  but she was well
bundled up. Johnny noticed that his son never seemed to dress all that well.
Michael was impractical, unlike his older sister. He did not seem to pay
attention to small matters like wearing the right boots or having a heavy coat
for the long walk home.

Chitina 1960s
Abandoned Chitina 1939: The last train had left Chitina on November 11, 1938. 
The tracks were now covered with snow.   --Courtesy of Rita Hatch

          “Michael, you need to dress better than that.  Don’t you know it’s winter? Look at your
shoes!  Where are your boots?  You can’t walk through the snow in those light
shoes. Come with me.”

          The two trudged across the street. Rose had already picked up her order and left in Tanas’s wagon. Tikaani followed them out, then waited patiently outside the door of the
general store.

          “Well, hello Johnny! Your daughter was just here.  Did she forget something?”

          “Otto, you know my son, Michael.  He needs new foot-wear and a heavy winter coat.”

          “Michael comes in here once in a while.  What about a hat and gloves?
Need them, too?”

          “I have a beaver hat, but don’t know if I’ve still got gloves.”

          “Better find him some gloves, too Otto--and a white man’s hat.  How’s your stock?”

          The lanky white man’s eyes revealed the arrogance which had always
characterized the man who now owned almost all of Chitina.

Chitina Cash Store
Rear of the Chitina Cash
Store, circa 2001, a year or two before its demolition.  A railroad
spur next to this warehouse enabled O.A. Nelson to empty his merchandise
directly into the back of the store from a boxcar.  To the left you
can see the remains of one such box car, probably the CRNW stock car.

          “We have everything here you could possibly want.  If you have the cash, I have the
product.  Don’t call it the Cash Store for nothing. Come on back into the outfitting section.”           

         They walked past the long counter to the opening leading into the adjacent building.  The room was long and vast. Johnny was astounded to find an enormous selection of
nearly everything.  The shelves were full to the ceiling with clothing, blankets, tents, backpacks  and tools and hardware of all descriptions.  Steel traps and even a cargo sled hung from the ceiling.  One wall displayed a long rack of assorted rifles. 

          “Everything but kitchenware.”

          “That’s in the grocery section.”

          “Impressive, Otto.  Why so much stuff when the railroad is about to end?”

          “I’m going to be the only outfitter around once the railroad closes.  Even ordered a special gas-powered rail-car to run from the east side of the crossing all the way to
McCarthy.  That town will die with the end of the railroad, but the mining camps
and all those trappers and hunters will still need a supplier. That’s me. I’ll be able to shuttle them the sixty miles from Shushanna Junction to here and deliver goods on the same rail-car.  I’m calling it the ‘Chitina auto-railer. It looks like a small bus. Should have it up here next year sometime.”

Chitina 1960s
Typical store somewhere in Chitina or McCarthy area    --UAF Archives

          “I’d say you’re way ahead of the game, O.A.”

          “I didn’t get to own over half the town because of my good looks.”

          The plain-looking, lanky old man let out a loud guffaw at the irony of his own
words. Johnny pulled out enough cash to pay for his son’s needs.  He was surprised to discover that O.A. had prices not much higher than those in Seattle. 

          “Good luck with your ventures, Otto.  I’m sure you’ll be the last white man standing.”

          “Someone’s got to sell tea and rice to the Indians,” he shouted as the two left his general store.

          They returned to the billiards hall.   Tikaani bounded ahead of them and knocked
the door open, much as Kay-yew-nee had for Cap and Johnny many years
before.  After a half-dozen games, Johnny was ready to leave.  Rita scowled as
they walked out her door. 

          “Rita, I’m going to miss this place.  I’ll even miss you."

          “Father, what is the ket’chee ten’eh thloo da kee ?"

          “Where did you hear that?”

          “You said it several times in your sleep last night and the night before.”

          “You could make out my words that clearly?"

          “I couldn’t sleep. You talk in your sleep. But I’m glad you’re back. Mom told me you built the loft for yourself long ago.”

          “Didn’t know you were awake.”

          “I worry about you, Dad. I used sit up there many times and watch the flames burn through the openings in the stove.  I wondered if you’d ever return.”         

         “I’m sorry, Son.  I shouldn’t have left.”

          “Why do you sleep up there when you could sleep with Mother?"

          “I did when I first came back, remember?  We don’t get along, Son.  It’s not the same anymore. It wasn’t that good back then. Besides, she has other friends. You know that.”

          “I don’t like them, either. They’re drunks and bums."

          Michael remained silent as the two finally reached the base of the hill.  It would be a long climb to the top.

          “You’re not staying after the train leaves, are you, Father?”

          “I’m not.  I couldn’t stand being here after all that’s happened.”

          “I’m coming with you. I don’t want to be here anymore, either.”

          “You mean you’re coming with me to Kennecott?”

          “That, too.”

          They trudged through the snow, working their back to the village. Tikanni first would lead, then head off into the bushes, then return, appearing suddenly from the rear.”

Horse Creek Mary
Early photo of Chitina
Natives, including the infamous "Horse Creek Mary"   --AMHA


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