16 February 2011

Chapter 57: "The Last Train Ride," Pt 2

Abandoned Kennecott view 2
Office and staff house at Kennecott after abandonment, 1946   -W.A.Richelsen

          The familiar form of the lanky chief engineer suddenly appeared in the small payroll area where John Bitter had once signed Johnny and Cap in and assigned them their first room.

          “Johnny!  It is you!  I thought I’d seen a ghost out there.  I feel like I’m looking at one right now.  What a sight!  You’re a spirit from straight out of our own past. Great timing. Couldn’t be better.  I love it!  Is this your son?”

          “Mr. Richelsen . . .”

          “You remember my name?”

          “Cap and I decided you were one of the good-guys.  We knew who was who in your camp, sir.  Had to.  We were Indians in a white man’s world.”

          “You honor me.  What a way to end a career. Recognition by an Indian.
Don’t get me wrong, Johnny. I remember you very well.  This is thrilling for me.

          “I’m sorry.  Got carried away.  You were saying?”

          “This is my son, Michael.  We came here  to witness the closing of the camp. Am I glad to see you, sir.  I was afraid everyone I knew was gone.”

          “Not everyone. I’m one of those guys that goes with the place.  Been here almost from the beginning. Delighted you came.  There’s no one more entitled to be here right now than you.  It’s so fitting. Call me Walt, not sir or Mr. Richelsen.  

          “Are you all right, Walt? This doesn’t sound at all like the engineer Cap and I knew.”

          “It’s over, Johnny.  I’m so full of contradictory emotions from all of this that I don’t know if I’m coming or going. I feel free now and let down at the same time. Anyway, Good to meet you Michael.  You look just like your dad here.  He was one of our favorites, you know.  Never thought I’d see him again. Is that your dog out there?”

          “Yes sir, that’s Tikaani.”

`        “Bring him in.  We’re informal today.

W Richelsen
W. A. Richelsen at his home in Kennecott     --W.A.R. 

          “So you’re here to see it all come to an end are you, Johnny?”

          “I didn’t want to miss it.”

          “You arrived on our final train. It leaves tomorrow for the last time,  but several of us will be here through the end of December finishing our moth-balling operations.”

          “You mean not all of you will leave on the train?”

          “Oh my,  no.   There’ll be forty of us around for a while.  Nevertheless you arrived in time to be part of the big historic event.  We’ll have a quiet ceremony at my place after it’s over.  If you’re still here, you’ll want to come on up.”

          “I may be. I’d love to come, sir.”

          “I could use you here if you want to work.  We’ve got plenty to do for the next month.  Care to stay?

          “Really? Are you sure?”

          “Love to have you working with us again.  You know, Michael, Johnny and his friend Cap were two of our most dedicated workers.  They did your Native people proud. 

          “Whatever did happen to him?  I heard a rumor he was killed.”

          “Yes, Walt, Cap was shot in 1932 while I was away.”

          Richelsen raised his eyebrows.  

          “Very sorry to learn that.  He was a good man who impressed everyone here, one way or another.  Bill Douglass was impressed with him. You remember Frank?  Of course you do.  He was your real sponsor.  Frank put his reputation on the line for you, and he was very proud of you both because you proved him right.  We’ve sure missed him.  He’d still be here engineering if he’d had the chance. What a tragic loss that was.  

          “Now, what about a place to stay? One night or several weeks. Doesn’t matter. If you want to work, I’ll provide the place. Tonight, it’s on us. You can leave on tomorrow’s train or stay with us and help us sort and pack up.”

          “We could sure use a place.  Beats camping out in the cold.”

North Kennecott cottages
North Kennecott cottages before the power plant burned down in 1924.  --Surgenor
Collection, AMHA   

          “Oh, we won’t let that happen.  Let me look over here at the room assignment board.  Yes, there’s a cabin up the north walkway just across from the power plant.  Bittner’s old place. Remember him? 

          “I remember John well.  He had a large cat that used to watch us work at the power plant. That was one of the bigger cabins, wasn’t it?”

          “It’s big and unique.  It’s the one with the recessed porch right in the center.  You  can’t miss it. It’s unoccupied and it’s still warm. We’re still running the steam through that section, but it’s on low pressure.  You’ll need to use the wood stove to make it comfortable in there.”

          “Is dry firewood handy?”

          “We’ve got firewood stacked in front of all the north cottages.  The remaining crew will be moving into the cottages once we shut the last boiler down. It’ll be a good place for you and your son to stay. It should be stocked with extra food. If not, we’ve got plenty on hand. We’re not taking any of our food supplies with us when we leave.”

          “Walt, I can’t thank you enough. I really did not expect this.”

          “I told you, the pleasure’s mine. You made my night.”

          “My son and I heard that same phrase earlier this evening.”

          “Being in that cottage with the fire going and the kerosene lantern running will be like camping out up here one last time, but more comfortable.  Anyway, I’m very pleased to have you back.  I’ll bet you two haven’t eaten, have you?  Hang on.”  

          Walter picked up the phone and rang up his wife Gladys up in the superintendent’s residence.

Kennecott superintendent's residence

          “Gladys, yes it’s me.  Listen, two very special people just walked in on me from Chitina.  This one fellow, Johnny , what was your last name again?  Yes, Johnny out, Johnny?  Not sure?  They don’t know yet,  Gladys.” 
          “Let’s set a couple of extra places at the table for Johnny and his young son, Michael here.  I’m about ready to eat, and these two look like they could use some good home cooking.  Thank you, dear.”

          “There’s some coffee in the stenographer’s office, Johnny.  Help yourself if you like.  Gladys will have dinner ready in about an hour.” 

          The snow had abated by the time Walt led his two dinner guests up to his home.  The three-story staff house loomed above the office as just a tall, dark hulk of a building with no lights.

          “The few remaining engineers moved out of there already.  It will never be lit up again, unless the Park Service buys our property.”

          “Isn’t this where Frank Buckner lived?”

          “Yes.  I’ve always wondered if there was something more I could have done to prevent that awful tragedy. I still think that we threw him and those others away. It’s always bothered me, even though I was the only one to completely oppose opening up the camp.”

          They reached the turn-off from the main walkway. Just beyond, the snow had been allowed to drift over the wooden sidewalk, blocking easy access to the deserted Birch guest house. The three turned left toward the brightly-lit superintendent’s residence.  Everything else in that direction except for the hospital was shut down and dark.

Superintendent's Residence view 2
Superintendent's Residence view 2.  Click on this photo to see its relationship to the Birch House.   --W.A. Richelsen

          Never thought I’d see it like this.  Only a few places still warm and with lights running.  The rest are cold, dark hulks.  Empty forever, just like Cap told me it would be.

          “You’ve probably never been in here before.  This place was occupied by Bill Douglass and his very large family all during the ‘20s.   Now it’s just me and Gladys.   She’s been a fabulous companion and a marvelous cook. She’s kept life bearable in the worst of times. I would be long gone if it wasn’t for her being here with me.

          “Come on in.  Meet my wife and let’s see about dinner.”  

          The tall and slightly awkward man waved them in with a smile, then motioned towardTikaani

           “You, too, dog.  Come out of the cold.”

Silk Stocking Row Residence
Richelsen and his wife
at their earlier residence on Silk Stocking Row, Kennecott    
--W.A. Richelsen
          When Johnny, Michael and the dog finally left Walter’s place, Johnny was feeling very special. He knew without any doubt that he had done the right thing by coming to Kennecott one last time. This was his first opportunity to be alone with his son.  He looked forward to telling Michael the stories he had always wanted to tell his son.

          The sidewalk ended south of the dark loading dock.  Number 74 sat there fully alive and running a warm boiler. The fireman was on duty watching it so the boiler did not overheat or go out. 

          “Hey, the engine’s turned around.”

          “Yes, son.  They ran it back to McCarthy and turned it around down there.  They also turned the coaches and caboose around.  See?  They’re all in a line, facing south.  The boxcars will be somewhere to the rear.”

          They followed the line of boxcars to the cottage. 

          “We’ll have to cut across one of the couplings.  The cottage we want is on the other side of these boxcars.”

track grade
Track grade at Kennecott, looking north toward the power plant., circa 1960


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