17 February 2011

Chapter 58: "The Ravens at National Creek," Pt 2

Kennecott in 1960 was still intact, but "Trashman" Ray had arrived to begin stripping of the site.   --George Herben photo

Below: The Kennecott mill in 1981 minus its roof and two upper levels : The spaces where the Stephen Birch house and
the Superintendent's Residence once stood are now empty.   --UAF AK & Polar Regions Photo Archives

Kennecott mill in 1981

          Lars directed his attention to the three-story staff house, which Trashman Ray had turned into a stripped-out shell, just like the two residences above it.  The three old residences stood in a line that was in the way of the milling operation Lars wanted to build on the hill next to the old mill.

          It’s time to remove these useless relics permanently, starting with that old superintendent residence.  Can’t set up my milling operation in the most convenient spot with those buildings in the way.

          The staff house and superintendent residence had stood here for fifty-eight years.  They stood as a large impediment for Lars to remove. The quick demise of these rambling structures was a certainty.  Lars felt only a momentary twinge of regret.  This was business.  There was a million dollars to be made.

          He next turned his attention toward the Stephen Birch house, which still held the commanding view.  It had once proudly overlooking all of staff row.  The once-impressive fireplace was gone--torn apart.  It was a casualty of the salvage operations of the Trashman.  The roof had been seriously compromised by the stripping out of the copper ore edifice. The trusses showed evidence of severe stress.  The upper windows were opened  or missing. Ragged blinds flapped through the openings.  The massive commanding  front porch was missing its roof--a victim of years of high winds blasting away at it combined with selective destruction by Ray’s crew in an effort to see how much damage could be done without completely wrecking the structure. 

Stephen Birch House 1966

The Stephen Birch house in 1966: The roof had already collapsed prior to complete demolition of the structure:   Charlie Ricci photo

          For a moment, Lars thought he saw a shadow staring back at him through the study window on the main level.  Not being superstitious, he dismissed it and turned his thoughts toward the creek which flowed beside the house.  National Creek dam had already given away, but a waterfall graced the landscape. It was the sound of the falling water and the roar of the creek which contributed the dominant sounds once the mill stopped running.  The soothing sound of the rushing water added to the ghost-town atmosphere of a place long isolated and forgotten by those who had since moved on to their rewards.

          The Birch house stood in the way of the road Lars intended to bulldoze to the old dam area so he could have water for his milling operation.  Once he destroyed it, even the character of the view which it had commanded would become irrevocably altered.  The sense of the majesty of the great men who had stood there would disappear as though they had never existed.  In a few years almost no one would know the building itself had ever existed.

          While Lars contemplated this scene as it now existed for the last time, four very large ravens landed on the rooftop of the old Birch house.  He watched them glide down from the roof top to the grand porch, landing one by one on the porch rail, until all four were perched on the rail in front of the main door of the old house.  The birds stared directly at Lars. 

          For a brief moment Lars had an eerie feeling about those ravens, just as he had about the shadow he thought he saw through the study window, but Lars was not one to be guided by superstitious impulses.   His practical Minnesota back-country  mind simply did not allow him to consider things which did not make sense.  These birds did not fit in his orderly, practical world of business.  A million dollars was at stake. Business was all that mattered.  

          The open jeep arrived with Lars’s  crew from the west barrack. Lars had selected that building as the mess and crew quarters because it still housed an intact kitchen and dining room, plus thirty usable sleeping rooms.  Lars chose to live with his wife in one of the nearby cottages just below the empty five-plex apartments.

          “About time, boys.  You’re not turning into another alcoholic crew like Ray had, are you?  I know you boys have been partying.  Watch yourselves.  This is business.  We’re not on a pot-smoking, partying expedition here. 

          “Are you men ready to get started?” 

          The men did not appreciate Lars’s comments, even though he was right. They had begun drinking and pot smoking to excesses which would have caused Lars to fire them in disgust. The crew remained silent and humorless.  The natural leader of the group was a large man with wild hair and steel-rimmed glasses named Jesse.  He kept the men in line and managed to keep Lars satisfied.  Jesse was a natural con-artist. He knew how to select the right words and he was very convincing. He held up his hand, palm out to Lars.

          “We’re ready, boss.  Lead on!”

          “Very good, Jesse.  The rest of you should take note. Jesse has the right attitude.”
          The men snickered at Lar’s obvious naiveté.  They loved working for Jesse.  Lars wrote the checks, but Jesse was the shadow-boss.  If he told the crew they should murder Lars and his wife Adeline, the crew would have done it without question. Jesse was the man. Lars had no idea what a potentially deadly situation he stood in.  The spirit of the nearly-dead Trashman Ray was alive and well in the Wrangell Range.

          “I’m going to bulldoze out the remaining  wooden walkway all the way up to that two-story house above the waterfall. Then I’ll blade the wood remnants into high piles around the single-story house just below.”

          Lars  pointed to the  old Douglass residence. 

Kennecott 1955 view 1
Abandoned Kennecott was almost wholly intact in 1955

Kennecott 1955 view 2
          “That’s the  building which will go first.   Then we’ll burn the three-story building just below it.  The last one will be that two-story one up there where those ravens are sitting.  Once we’ve finished stripping out and burning those three buildings, I’ll have Jesse bulldoze over the entire area to clear it off all the burned wood so we can do a final burning of the remaining piles. That will leave a large cleared area for our road up to the water source.  It will also leave plenty of room for our ore separator that you guys will assemble.”

          The men grumbled at the sound of work, but were held in place by Jesse.
The men were not any more respectful of the history of the place than their drunken predecessors.  To them this was an opportunity to have some fun burning three structures and getting paid for it.   The group was eager to start the process as long as it did not involve too much work.

          High above on the Birch house porch railing, the four ravens had begun making a loud racket, catching the attention of Lars and his five crewmen.   The noise began just as Lars turned the dozer up hill and headed toward the remaining wooden walkways.  The boardwalks remained intact from the staff house up to the Birch house.  But a final destructive thrust through the once quiet, but still-intact mill town had begun.  Lars reached the staff house and began ripping up the wooden walkway, working his way in the direction of the Birch house.  The ravens became increasingly agitated, but they held their ground, not moving from their perches on the wide porch.

          In less than an hour, Lars ripped up the entire remaining walkway, blading the broken wood into  two large piles which he pushed hard against the single-story residence.   Lars stopped the dozer below the house and walked up to the building. He stepped inside, moving  toward the center of the structure, which was the original  living room area.   He looked out the south-facing windows one last time, seeing the view of the doomed staff house below it. He was startled to see a young man with short, curly hair looking straight across the yard directly at him.  Lars did not recognize the man as one of the crew members.  He quickly walked back outside to view his crew.  The five men stood assembled near the dozer, smoking and talking in a very animated fashion among themselves.

          “Jesse!  Yes, you! We’ve got an intruder in the staff house.  Get some men up there and run whoever it is out of there.  I don’t want anyone but us to witness this!”

          Lars walked down the hill toward the staff house as his five men went through all the floors of the tall building.

          “No one here, boss.  Someone could have escaped through the rear door, but I’m sure one of us would’ve spotted him.  What you been smoking?” 

          Lars scowled and returned to the superintendent residence.  It was a mess in there. The furnishings were long since gone, and much of the glass had been broken out in recent years.  Now Lars would finish off the destructive process.   He stuck a match and lit his cigar, then he dropped the match to the floor, where a pile of old papers quickly ignited.  The flames crawled to  the peeling wallpaper  and began to climb the wall.  Lars felt the heat and tasted the smoke.  He turned around and walked calmly out the door, becoming the last human to ever see the inside of the Douglass residence.   He turned around and shut the door, then walked off, relishing the cigar he was puffing.  

          On the Birch house porch, four men stood silently, observing all this destruction.   Nicolai turned to Birch. 

Kennecott 1955 view 3
Kennecott south face 1955
Kennecott south face 1981

Kennecott south face 1981

         “It’s just as I told my grandsons here.  You white men came to take the riches from the earth, caring nothing for those of us who have always lived here or our land.
Now you are eating upon yourselves.  You are destroying that which you made in the name of the precious copper of yours.”

          Birch looked very distressed.

          “You’ve always been right about us, Nicolai.  But that’s who we are.  We can’t be any other way. For us to build, we must destroy.  Sometimes it’s not a good thing.”

          “This is sickening, Boss. They might as well burn us.”

          “They are burning us, Frank. This should never have happened.”

          “Our tyone predicted that this would happen--first your railroad would disappear, then your towns, then your mines.  Now we’re watching it happen, just like Shee-ya here said it would.”

          “Tsuuye, you listened well. You were always my best student. You sensed that this town carries with it the sins of its human creators.  You were right. The curse will go on.  Once our curse is pronounced, it takes on its own life.  All who have been and all who will be connected with this place must pay the price.  Only the Ahtnas who lived here from the beginning will escape the curse.”

          “It’s pure evil, that’s what it is.  How can pretend to be so pure because you’re Indians while unleashing this evilness on us all?”

          “Frank’s right. We let our own hatred of the white men and their ways take control of us. We cannot escape being brothers, Shee-ya.  What hurts one will hurt all.  We are all brothers.” 

          “Tsuuye, let the white man learn the lesson you have just pronounced.  Do you really think he will listen?”

          “If we don’t listen to our own words and take heed, our people will burn just like the house we watch. There is evil loose in the land. Our people have as much to fear as do the white men.”

          “How can we stop it now?  Look how far it has come! This is the white man being the white man. He doesn’t even need us to act foolishly.  He will do it to himself.

          “Ket’chee ten’eh, you understood I was your equal when you met me.  We are from different families of the same race.  The Great Creator called all of us his children.  That is why I gave you such respect.  You tried to honor me in the same way, but you fell short. You turned your back on my family.”

          “But he let us in, Shee-ya. They learned to accept us, even if we had to prove ourselves. We became a part of what was here. Even a little is better than nothing.”

          “They still don’t understand. In the end it is still up to us--the Ahtnas, the Saghani Utsuuy, the Children of the Earth.  The white men will leave, but we will always be here. If we fail to protect this land of the Uk’eledi, we will enrage our Great Creator. We cannot fail him. We must not let that happen.”

          “When can we leave, Shee-ya? I don’t want to watch this much longer.”

          “Soon, Tsuuye, when the fires die.  We have another gathering soon.  It is the big one, and it will be the last.  Everyone must come.  

          “Where will it be, Shee-ya?”

          “Son, this is the big one.  We have to all witness the end of the Bonanza.”

          “Ket’chee ten’eh, are you sure? Why would they destroy the Bonanza?”

          “These men are being led by the Devil, himself.”

          “Not Lars?”

          “Lars is a follower, like the others.”

          “Who is the devil?”

          “Tsuuye, it is the uyaeni.”

          “The whiskey?”

          “Yaabel comes in many forms, Tsuuye.

Superintendent Res / Staff Hse
Superintendent's Residence & Staff House in 1966   --Charlie Ricci

          Lars and his crew watched the Douglass residence vaporize in only minutes.  He and the others soon became aware that the four ravens were intently watching the fire while appearing to be engaged in a very animated conversation.

          “Just like a bunch of old women up there with nothing better to do than watch the world go by,” Lars remarked to Jesse.

          Jesse studied the large ravens watching his crew destroy the building and realized one of them was looking straight at him.

          “Just like humans, aren’t they?”

          Lars pointed to the staff house.

          “As soon as the flame dies down here, I’ll ignite that one.   Tomorrow we’ll return to finish the job by torching that house where those ravens are congregated.

          “They don’t seem to want to leave. I think it best to tackle that job tomorrow.  I don’t think it would be a good idea to disturb them.”

          “No argument from me, boss.  I don’t want those birds mad at me.”

          The crew had moved to the doctor’s residence porch on the second level of the old hospital. They watched from there as Lars enter the basement level of the staff house.  A whiff of smoke quickly turned into flames racing up the high white walls, engulfing the entire edifice in a matter of minutes.

          It was a very hot fire. The tall flames appeared angry and seemed to contain a live spirit.  When the fire finally died down, leaving a shockingly different-appearing scene, the crew sat down to a late outdoor dinner near their chosen spot by the old hospital building, safely away from the heat and smoke.  

          Jesse decided they would set up a campfire just below the hospital in the cold ruins of the electricians’ warehouse. The crew would have to be there all night waiting until the fires from the two buildings had completely burned out.   It was getting late, but because this was mid-summer, the sun only went down briefly. It had moved behind Fireweed Mountain, leaving long, dark shadows.  The roofless mill and the old Birch house seemed to stare down at them with quiet disapproval.  The ravens  at the Birch house took off as darkness approached.

          “I’ll sure be relieved when we burn that last one down,”  Bruno stated as he took a swig from a bottle of Rich and Rare. 

          “I don’t like those crows...”

          “Ravens,” Jesse corrected.

          “Ravens, crows,  Indians, Natives, Siwash, red men -- all the same to me,” 
          Bruno said, taking yet another swig.   He passed the bottle to Jesse, out of sight of Lars, who was examining the destruction caused by the second fire.

          “How do you equate Indians with ravens, Bruno?”

          “You know how the siwash are.  They place great significance in those damn birds, like they’re part of the same family.  I don’t know why I blurted that out.  Maybe it’s that Indian curse lurking around these parts.  Don’t look at me that way.  I know it’s here, I’m telling you.”

          “That place on the hill is spooky, all right,” Jesse observed.

          “Hell, this whole place is spooky.  There’s something out here with us that doesn’t want us here.  I can feel it.”  

Staff Row area demolished
All the remains of Staff Row after the demolition of 1968 was the General Office and the Hospital.   --UAF AK & Polar Regions Archives

          “Look, Bruno, we all feel it in one way or another.  All except Lars.  Nothing seems to bother him.  But I don’t think there’s a one of us here who wouldn’t like to be somewhere else, now that we’ve started this burning of the old buildings.   It just feels weird and evil out here.”

          “However,  I wouldn’t be bringing Indians into this, if I were you.  You know the legend about that old Nicolai curse?”

          “No, what the hell are you talking about?” 

          “Well,” Jesse cleared his throat, “let me try to explain it.”  

          Jesse straightened his wire-rim glasses.  He fancied himself as a free-thinking, but intellectual spirit, along the same lines as the hippies who had become a part of the stateside scene.  

          “Apparently when the railroad reached Chitina from Cordova,  the men who cleared the right-of-way disturbed several Indian burial sites.  One of the Native families even sued the railroad, but lost in court at Cordova, as was to be expected in a town controlled by the company.

          “Anyway, it is said that old Nicolai and some of the other chiefs--Billum, Eskilida and Goodlataw--got together at a spirit place called Taral and evoked some deadly thing out of the ground to punish the men who dishonored their dead.”

          Jesse stopped to pull out his pot-pipe.  He carefully lit it, took a drag and continued. 

          “It was an Irish crew that was killed in one fell swoop when the trestle went out on the Copper River.   No one figured out until later that it was these same men who had kicked around the bones of the dead relatives of Nicolai.   But, of course, Nicolai  knew who they were all along. So it is said, anyway.”

          “Well, apparently those old shamen--they’re called sleep-doctors up here--thought that would be the end of it.  But it wasn’t.   They called this spirit Saygawneeguy,  which means Raven spirit, since it was Nicolai of the Raven spirit clan who originated it.   I remember that name, because a Chitina Indian I know told me this story.  There was a strange ring of truth to it.  The Indian who told me the story said he and almost all the people at Chitina are  descendants of Nicolai.

          “Anyway, the evil spirit waited patiently for nine years before taking out that Irish crew on the Copper River, but in the meantime, this Raven spirit Saygawneeguy was credited with every train wreck, bridge accident and just about everything else bad that happened along the railroad near Chitina.  But it seems to have gotten stronger with each kill.  Finally the power spread out, until it’s long, dark shadow reached over Kennecott itself.”

          “Many of the high-ranking railroad and Kennecott company men either died early or lost a wife in untimely deaths.  The very first to go right after the curse was pronounced was Mike  Heney, the head  contractor  for the railroad.  Then chief engineer Hawkins was killed in a freak railroad accident in the states.  Then there was Steven Birch’s wife and one of the superintendent’s wives, and even a superintendent who is said to have killed himself,  though it didn’t happen at Kennecott.   It’s said that even Birch died in agony from an operation which went bad, and then his successor who had worked here as a manager was killed in an airplane bombing which took out practically the entire Kennecott management.

Johnny G at a campfire near the Kennicott River bank across from McCarthy

          “Then there was that mysterious Motherlode disaster which Kennecott tried to hide...”

          “Motherlode disaster?” Bruno asked.

          “Don’t know too much about that one.  Some men lost some lives up there. They saw it coming too--the ones who died saw the avalanche coming at them, or so I am told”

          Jesse shuddered at the thought.  He took another swig of R and R.

          “It must be ghastly to know you are about to die and there is nothing you can do--nowhere you can run.”

          The flames from the two burning structures had begun to die out.  It was also getting chilly out and it had gotten noticeably darker.  Jesse was intrigued by stories like this one he was telling, but he was about as much a believer as Lars.  He just liked a good story.  He wanted to believe, but something inside him said it just could not be.

          “The guy who told me the story said that the Indians were not supposed to be affected by the curse, but something went wrong.  Three of them worked here once. One was shot and two simply vanished. That was a long time ago.

          “Anyway, it is said that Nicolai, upon realizing what he had started, became so distressed, that his spirit does not rest to this day.   Some people claim to have seen his spirit walking the old area around Taral, pacing endlessly, on and on...and with a great sadness which totally dominates the old spirit place. 

          “It’s rumored that the ghost of one of those three Indians has been seen walking with a large spirit dog up and down the old tracks.”

          “Well, it’s a great story anyway.   Nothing like a ghost story told around a campfire.” 
          The men looked uneasily at each other.  Maybe Jesse was an unbeliever, but he had begun to convince the others that something evil lurked out there. No one except Jesse slept well that night.  

          Lars, who had left the men to  themselves for the comfort of his cottage,  could not sleep. Something felt distinctly wrong about all this.  All superstitions aside, there was something really eerie and troubling about those four birds up there. Then there was the matter of the mysterious man who appeared at the window of the staff house and that shadowy figure Lars thought he saw through the window of the study in the old Birch house. He rose from the old bed and poured himself a double-shot of Canadian Club, then added some water.  Lars downed the drink and started to pour another when he heard the sound of the distant hollow train whistle.

          Lars stood up to look out his window. Standing on the track grade directly in front of the small cabin was an Indian with a large dog.  They were looking in the direction of the smoldering buildings. Lars turned to see if his wife was awake.

“Adeline, take a look out the window.  I didn’t know any Indians lived around here.”

          He turned back to take a second look.  The road was well lit by the bright moonlight.  He could see at least a hundred yards in both directions.  No one was there.

          “Why’d you wake me up, Lars? You should lighten up on your drinking. You’re seeing things.”

          She’ll never believe me if I tell her about that odd-sounding train    whistle, either. I guess I saw and heard nothing.  

          Lars sat down at the kitchen table and took out a deck of cards. He brought over the old kerosene lantern and set down his drink.

          That wasn’t a human I saw out there.  The dog wasn’t a real dog and that whistle didn’t come from anything around here.  But I heard and saw them. They’re real, all right. Something’s out here watching us.  Maybe warning us.  Think I’ll have another CC and water.

Kennecott late 1970s


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