THE Richardson Trail from inland Fairbanks to the Pacific Coast is Alaska’s longest and most ambitious piece of roadwork. It is unique in many ways, one being that in all the three hundred and seventeen miles from the outskirts of Fairbanks to the town of Chitina there is not one single crossroad. No wonder our Alaska motorists love The Trail!
But our affection goes far deeper than mere present-day motor pleasure, for those who have lived long in Interior Alaska see in the Richardson Trail an index to the whole past development of the great and fertile hinterland province, quite as surely as they see our future here linked with the new railroad. First treked out and cleared in 1905 by the War Department as a crude trail, in 1907 it had become passable for dog teams in the winter and sourdough prospectors with pack animals in summer. By 1910 there was heavy traffic over it, both summer and winter, for it made an overland ” all-American” short-cut from tide-wateravoiding the great time-consuming loop from Skagway to Dawson, down the Yukon and up the Tananasome 300 direct miles as against nearly 1,500 of detour. Light horse-drawn wagons were used on it in summer and double-ender bob-sleds driven by ” the trail hounds ” in winter; and, once the river closed in October, the trail was then the only route to the Interior until July, and our one fine-drawn link of transportation between The Last Frontier and all the outer world. No wonder we sentimentalized The Trail, and this condition remained until the completion of The Alaska Railroad in 1923. In 1913 an automobile (a Ford, of course!) was driven by that gay-hearted pioneer, Bobby Sheldon, on the first through motor trip from the Interior to the Coast. Yet when he first suggested it, other old-timers thought that Bobby should either be given the lunacy test or shipped out at once to Morningside Asylum! Although Sheldon’s trip proved that The Trail could become a motor way, because of the War very little was done to improve it during the following years; and much of the mileage previously established fell into grievous disrepair, due to lack of appropriations.
But in 1920 the present Alaska Road Commission came into being, and too high praise cannot be meted to the work of this efficient, practical and visioned organization, as all who know Alaska will, I think, agree. Those of you who live in sections of the States where good roads have come into being during the last decade, after a long period of hub-deep mud, will know in your own hearts that a road is more than a fact of transportation. It is a symbol. It means touch, that closest of all our sensesto be in touch with kindred life, with other communities of -citizens, with one’s own kind. You can imagine, then, how much more a real road meant to us who inhabited ” the pastures of the wilderness.” After days of mushing across miles of glutinous gelatinous sponge, to come upon even a wagon track! The very sight of it turns your heart tumbling inside of you, and something catches in your throat. A road!–
Dear Uncle Sam, we pray you for our Alaska roads, for they are the very life-blood arteries of our colony, through which our continued well-being flows.
Since 1920 the pioneer period of the Richardson Trail has ended and its larger purpose has gradually been achieved. Now it is justly called ” the best dirt road in America.” It is drained and graded and gravelled throughout, dangerous curves have been widened, and the larger streams are bridged, so that it may now be travelled by good cars and at comfort-able speeds (the entire distance can be driven in one summer day), affording colonists and tourists alike a way of unexampled beauty from the Golden Heart out to the Copper Gateway of Alaska. Many tourists (12,000 came our way last summer) patronize the regular summer motor-bus service between Fair-banks and the coast. A score of prominent travel organizations in the States arrange conducted parties each summer by this route, making what is known as the Golden Belt Tour in over The Trail to Fair-banks and out through different but equally interesting country by the Alaska Railroad. Only last sea-son a new extension from Fairbanks north to Circle City was opened, making now a continuous motor route from the Pacific at Valdez to the Yukon River, 531 miles. New colonists often bring their own cars, and fetch in trailers their camping outfits and lighter possessions. The Trail has afforded to many an unequalled chance to drive in comfort and in leisure through some of the most lovely mountain scenery that I know in all the world, for the way crosses four ranges, although the greatest elevation of The Trail itself never exceeds 3,310 feet. Constructed as it is in such a remote land, through such sparsely settled country (for there is not a real town in all its length), it represents the utmost in engineering patience and skill; and yet the total cost of building this road and maintaining it for twenty-four years has been less than $12,000 per mile.
The Trail passes through the heart of big-game country, and sportsmen have little trouble in securing a limit bag within a few miles of the highway. It’s no uncommon thing for automobiles to be held up while huge herds of caribou, on their annual migration, sweep across from hill to hill in thou-sands like the half-wild cattle of early western days. The way skirts many lovely lakes rich in fishpopular boating and swimming places for Fairbanks week-enders. If you are interested in shooting, either with camera or with gun, engage a guide such as John Hajducovitch to take you into the Upper Tanana country and there you’ll find (as W. N. Beach, of the Camp Fire Club, and his sportsmen friends have found) a veritable treasure house.
After one leaves the town of Fairbanks and the pleasant farmlands stretching out near by, the road slides away for miles and milesnot like a ribbon of dental cream, as are so many eastern roads, stiff and unyielding and alien, but built here out of bones of the soil’s self, springy but firm. Through the cool green tunnel of the trees, past moose pastures flooded with flowers and hilltop lakes of bluebells soft as the lip of heaven and wind blown into froth of Queen Anne’s lace, gradually we climb by easy stages on and up into the shadow of the peaks, so massive, so impassive, ineluctable. Alaska is ” long” on highest mountains. Within her borders are no less than eight peaks loftier than Mt. Whitney, the greatest in the States: Mt. Hayes is fourteen thousand, and Sanford and Blackburn (nearly half a mile higher) may be seen from many points along The Trail, as may also the sugar loaf of Mt. Wrangell. The frequent log roadhouses along the way offer not only the friendliest of shelter but food that tastes ambrosial, after these miles of open air and land. One surely should experience The Trail, to see what “The Interior ” really means.
At Willow Creek The Trail forks, and one may go on all the way by road to tide-water at Valdez (an alternate route which makes the Richardson Trail 410 miles from Fairbanks) or direct to Chitina on the Copper River Railroad and thence by train to Cordova. It’s hard to say which way is finer, for the rugged grandeurs of the Copper Valley are unsurpassed, and yet the Keystone Canyon into Valdez is also ethereally lovely in its drape of spray-blown waterfalls. Lieutenant Allen spent weeks of ” discomfort that beggars description,” cold and half starved, to make the first white trek up the river from the coast to Chitina, in the early spring of ’85 a distance of 131 miles which we cover to-day in a few hours of Pullman luxury and dining-car service.
This railroad was built to tap the rich copper lodes of the Kennecott, and the discovery of these lodes was itself dramatic enough, in all conscience. Katherine Wilson of Cordova tells how, one day some thirty years ago:
In the late afternoon Tarantula Jack and his partner halted their pack-horses. It had been a long day’s tramp, and the foothills of the Wrangell Range offered nothing of shelter or food for man or beast. Naked and glacier-scarred, the mountains rose at their approach in lowering unwelcome and retreated darkly into their high-up ice caves. It was while the prospectors were loosening the pack straps to get at the shrunken food-bag for the animals, that the eye of Tarantula jack was caught by a patch of green apparently overgrowing a slide well up the face of the mountain. “Looks like that might be grass up there,” he observed to his companion. And as he staked out the hungry horses and gave them as much as he dared of the feed, he kept glancing now and then at that vivid patch of color so promising of fresh forage.
When the flapjacks and coffee had been disposed of and pipes lighted up, Tarantula rose to his feet. ” Think I’ll take a turn up the mountain and prospect that vegetation,” he announced. He was gone some time. He returned two steps at a jump.
” Grass? ” his partner ventured.
Tarantula jack spat explosively. ” Grass nothing ! ” he fumed, in disgust. ” That there green is malachite and chalcocitecopper ore, or I never saw Arizonaand a whole blamed mountain of it ! ”
And so was discovered the Bonanza mine.
The partners staked out claimsa dozen or so. They located in their own names, Jack Smith and Clarence Warner, and, to cover as much ground as possible, in those of a trail party with whom they had travelled inland as far as the Chitina.
Months later at Valdez they notified the others of their find. The latter were but mildly interested; a copper property not being like a placer, a poor man’s mine. However, a dozen of the ” sourdoughs ” recorded their claims. But when, the following year, they were offered what to them was the fabulous price of twenty-five thou-sand dollars apiece, seven of themand with alacrity!sold their interests to a ” green young college feller ” from New York.
That young ” college feller” was Steve Birch, the empire builder. That ” patch of green ” became one of the world’s greatest copper mines, the Kennecott, which was primarily responsible for the melo dramatic building of the Copper River` and Northwestern Railroad, put the now prosperous ” Red Metal Metropolis” of Cordova on the map, and made possible the establishment of one of the main steamship lines now plying between Seattle and Alaskan ports. Great fortunes often breed great jealousies, but Stephen Birch is still ” Steve ” to many old-time Alaskans who knew that young mining engineer when he first came here directly from Columbia University, back in the days of ’98, and followed Lieutenant Abercrombie on a scouting trip to reconnoitre a military road (our present Trail) inland from Valdez. On, the way back he picked up news of Tarantula jack’s discovery, took an option on the Bonanza at Kennecott and has been with it ever since, rounding out one of the most striking episodes in the history of the Territory. During the late War one shipment of copper ore from this property proved to be worth more than the whole sum Uncle Sam once paid for the whole Territory of Alaska. The Copper River section supplies the highest grade of copper ore being mined anywhere in the world to-day, and a constant stream of the red metal flows through the port of Cordova, aggregating nearly a million dollars every month.
But before there could be this great copper production there had to be a hundred and ninety miles of railroad; and few believed that possible, up the canyons and past the great glaciers of raging Copper River. There was in those days, however, a certain intrepid Irishman abiding in the land, Michael J. Heney. He had been the contracting constructor of our White Pass and Yukon Railroad from Skagway over to White Horse, the only railroad then penetrating into the North from the Coast; and, having already built one ” impossible ” road, he saw no reason why he could not build another! The word ” impossible ” was always a red rag to ” M. J.,” at which he first snorted, then charged; and the road is a picture of the man, stopped by nothing in heaven or on earth. Surely no one but ” a wild Irishman ” could have conceived it, surely no one but ” a black Irish-man” could have built it. For three miles along the river’s edge there lies Child’s Glacier, raising its frigid bulk three hundred feet high in a solid wall, with the torrential river swirling and undercutting at its base. The glacier moves three and a half feet a day, and every few moments giant bergs break off, some weighing thousands of tons, and splash mightily into the water. Just across is Miles Glacier. The dual sight is tremendous, and when President Harding was here, Cordova people who brought him out to see it could hardly get him to go back! No one of his party had ever looked on such a thingand no wonder, for there is nothing like it elsewhere.
A fine sightbut not for a prospective railroad builder who must rear a bridge across the river between these glaciers, and slap its twin steel threads against their very faces. Working day and night all winter, with hundreds of men, ” M. J.” reared the false-work for his bridge upon the river ice. But an unprecedented early spring came, the ice began to thaw and shift, and the bridge was not yet completed. If the river ice moved before the last span was in, the whole huge structure and a year’s full work were irretrievably lost, and surely no one then would back another such venture. The ice went outless than one hour after the last bolt had been placed in the connecting span of the mighty steel bridge, now rising secure and high above those glacier-strewn waters. ” The Iron Trail” tells the romance of that building, first daringly plotted by three iron musketeers of AlaskaHeney the contractor, Macpherson the engineer, and Dalton the famous old Alaska sourdough; the first train over it in 1911 brought out the most valuable consignment of copper ore ever moved in the history of the world.
Alaska has several railroad towns that either grew up directly because of a railroad built out from them, or have derived their chief support from a railroad. And Cordova, like Skagway, is the place where Iron Trail and Pacific waters meet in a harbor here more beautiful, I think, than even justly-famed San Francisco Bay, an ample area of good anchorage and probably the finest naval harbor in Alaska. Cordova is a modern, clean-built city of to-day, not only tide-water outlet for the richest cop-per mines but also gateway to the Bering River coal and oil fields and the Interior placer and quartz mines. It is the home of salmon and clam industries and the epicure’s Cordova crab, a deep-water crustacean which cannot be equalled anywhere. Lying on the east side of Orca Inlet at the entrance to Prince William Sound, it is laid out with a view to the future, with well-graded wide streets, substantially built houses, a good water system, electric light and power, attractive homes, excellent schools and churches, ” the finest docks in Alaska,” cable connection with Seattle, telegraph connection with the Interior, and a powerful wireless station. The site was named by a homesick Spaniard, Caamano, sailing up this coast in 1792 on that restless search for gold which, like a gadfly, drove his people fruitlessly so far afield, into Florida and California. Here again they found no trace of golden treasure, for they never penetrated behind the ranges but went away discouraged after naming the bay for the most strangely haunting of Spanish cities. Cordova is but one of many high-sounding names of old Spain that have been left upon this coastbut of Spaniards themselves, no colony or trace remains. The land was waiting for the touch of another master.
Prince William Sound is perfectly landlocked and surrounded by high mountains. Like most of the South Coast harbors, it is an unspeakably beautiful mountain-fast bay. The entire southern coast of Alaska is very irregular and precipitous, with only slight stretches of beach varying the rugged con-tours of the piled-up mountainy wall that seems to forbid all entrance to the inner lands. Here are the islands so sought by fox farmers, here are the greatest bears in all the world. Fishery experts tell that the waters of Prince William Sound contain 250 varieties of edible sea foods. The near-sea valleys are full of ferns, anemones, forget-me-nots and buttercups, for the climate here is but the climate of Scotland. A zero day in Cordova is so unusual that the local papers will headline it; whereas in the mild January of 1926, grass crops and strawberries were growing at Seward, mosquitoes and alders and cat-tails were reported coming out at Cordova, and fox farmers along the coast were complaining about the ” heat!” Mild and moist conditions are usual here, Latouche one year recording no less than 249 1/2 inches of rainfall! For the high peaks, rising liter-ally from the tide line, form a great barrier which not only opens few natural doors to the Interior but catches upon its jagged summits all wandering rain clouds from the warm sea and casts them back once more in water that hurries down the slopes in swift rich salmon streams., Year in and year out this monstrous game of catch as can continues, and few indeed are the stray puffs and whiffs of moisture that slip through the fingers of these big-league mountains. And so many are the islands, bays and headlands of this ragged coast that they draw out Alaska’s five thousand true miles of continental shore line to more than five times that length, if all their irregularities are measured.
Valdez is another warm rich Spanish name, and the town of Valdez is one of the old gold-camps of Alaskan story. It, too, lies at the feet of great mountains and is reached from Cordova by slipping along the coast back of that Hinchinbrook Island where Lieutenant Allen was landed, at Point Eteches, to begin his once adventurous escapade into the Interior. Across the sound are white-capped mountains, thick in green vegetation from the snow line to the water’s edge. You pass Fort Liscombe, steep granite slopes which are the haunt of mountain sheep and goats, fine trout streams, and many mines and prospects, for this whole region is one where both gold and copper ore are widely distributed. ” Red” Ellis put Valdez on the map as a mining town, for, after locating a good gold prospect near by, he talked the inhabitants of the town into raising $10,000 on shares for a plant, and the mine paid eighty per cent. a montha good community investment! Valdez today impresses visitors not only by its small but well-laid-out golf links, open to the use of all, but by its beautiful gardens in the courthouse yard, where flowers are free for the picking, and the municipal strawberry beds where the stranger within her gates is invited to go and pick and eat to his heart’s con-tent. For Valdez, like Skagway, has turned its early wildness into present beauty. It was one of the bustling busy towns of olden days, a place of gusty miner’s meetings like Nome, in 1910 when Cliff Mine was at its best; and Valdez was outfitting point to Fairbanks, Copper Center and other Interior camps before Cordova got the railroad built. Four-teen miles back of town is lovely Keystone Canyon, with the road to Yukon valley stretching away to the north, one fork of to-day’s good trunk line over the mountains.
West and south, on Resurrection Bay that runs an arm back into Kenai Peninsula, lies Seward where Uncle Sam’s own railroad reaches down to sea. How those early Russians sprinkled our Alaska map with holy names! Each new discovery of theirs was, for good luck, most apt to bear the name of that particular saint or feast day. Many of the old Indian, Spanish and Russian place names have since been translated into English, and only research or tradition reveals the older and often softer-sounding form of word. But any collection of syllables like the Spanish Revillagigedothe island named for that up-and-doing Don Juan Vincente de Guemes Pacheco de Pedilla, Count of Revilla Gigedo and viceroy of Mexicohas proved almost too much for Saxon mouths to master! So this present-day busy city of Seward, named of course for Lincoln’s forward-looking Secretary, is built near the site which Baranof, ” the Iron Governor,” selected in 1792 as the proper spot for a shipyard and called Voskresenskaiawhich means Resurrection, and also Sunday. Here was launched in 1794, the Phoenix, the first vessel ever to be built in the territory now Alaska.
Seward, a couple of thousand miles nearer the Far East than Bremerton or Mare Island, tapping with its railroad both the Matanuska and Nenana coal fields as a coaling station, outfitting point for the big game district of Kenai peninsula, transfer point to ” The Westward ” and the Valley of Ten Thousand. Smokes, was founded about the same time as Fair-banks by just one white man named William Lowell, said to have been descended from the famous Massachusetts clan of that name. His homestead, containing about a hundred and sixty acres, was bought up and laid out as a townsite by the Ballaine brothers, who were then interested in the ambitious plan for a railroad from Resurrection Bay to a point on the Yukon River. While the Alaska Central Rail-road Company has passed into the things that were, its projectors builded better than they knew; for the Government Railroad, now in operation, absorbed the seventy-odd miles already built across the peninsula and stamped the name of Seward indelibly upon Alaska’s mapwhere no man’s name has surely a better right to be!
One passes through a protected channel into Resurrection Bay, fifteen miles wide, a long straight passage like that of Seattle’s harbor, and large enough ” to float all the fleets of the world.” Ice-free and always open, Seward is near great fishing banks and great coal fields, is a cable terminus, and all of surrounding Kenai Peninsula is highly mineralized territory. From Nuka Bay to Willow Creek, mines or prospects are to be found every few miles. There is a fine stand of timber here, and logging in the woods is carried on year round. A delightful roadway connects the city with Kenai Lake, and this is the heart of moose, sheep, bear and goat country for the sportsman, and Alaska guides, as Arthur Thompson says, will ” do all but tie the animals!”
Paradise Lake is a hatchery where any one who asks questions may learn the fascinating romance of the salmon cycle. Backed by great hills which break only at that notch through which the railroad drops from far-off Fairbanks, Seward on its quiet bay, built up on rising ground of slate that drains and cleans ideally, stands a secure metropolis of the North to justify its historic name.
The builders of the Alaska Central Railroad planned to tap the Matanuska coal measures two hundred miles inland, and then push on to the Yukon drainage; for although only one fifth of Alaska has been geologically surveyed to date, its known coal fields include twelve thousand square miles, and skilful geologists compute Alaska’s ultimate coal re-sources at a hundred and fifty billion tons-far beyond the original supply of Pennsylvania, the largest coal producer of the States. The Matanuska field lying back of Seward and Anchorage is rich in high-grade bituminous and anthracite coal, equal in quality to that supplied by Montana and Utah mines, while the Nenana field that lies along the line of the present Alaska Railroad is one of the largest and most promising of ” lignite” fields, really an excellent slightly subbituminous coal. In fact, at one point on Healy River near the railroad line there are four beds exposed, one above the other, separated by narrow layers of shale and sandstone, totalling a hundred and thirteen feet of coal. Some of the coal beds in the Nenana River region are forty-five feet thick. These known coal deposits of the Matanuska and Nenana valleys were largely responsible for the construction of the Government Railroad and for the existence of Anchorage, Nenana and a number of other smaller communities along the right of way, for here were more wide pastures for the Iron Horse to feed upon. The Government Railroad also tapped the Willow Creek lode gold camps of the lower Susitna and the extensive placers and agricultural development already well under way in the Fair-banks district. The Matanuska Valley, too, has its fertile farms; so that Uncle Sam’s railroad, built as it is upon the known facts of coal, gold and agriculture, has a mighty firm foundation.
From Seward to Anchorage most of the route is along the old Alaska Central right-of-way, now taken over and re-graded by the Governmentpast Kenai Lake, across the ridge of mountains which march in 6,000 to 8,000-foot peaks down the spine of the peninsula, past larger glaciers than many you go miles to see in Switzerland, by waterfalls and swift tumbling streams, to drop steeply down to Turnagain Arm on Cook Inlet and around to the railroad-built and modern town of Anchorage, on Knik Arm. Except for the Bay of Fundy, I am told, Cook Inlet has the highest tides in the world, the extremes being sixty feet and the incoming water rising to a bore eight to ten feet high. Sometimes the tide meets itself going out, and the waters are then as thrilling a scene to watch as you can imagine. Cook, the great navigator, went up this large indentation from the Gulf of Alaska, thinking he had at last found a northwest passage. However, when he saw that the tides were running so high, he concluded that this was not the channel and, in disgust and disappointment, he named the bay Turn Again Arm.
Anchorage is much more than a railroad town, however for It is one of Alaska’s real cultural centers, a little city of 2,500 souls, now building a $50,000 high school. I shall never forget my own first visit there, the woman’s club I attended, the splendid papers read and book reviews givenand the marvelous refreshments! For Alaska’s women are famous cooks, wherever you go. I sometimes think that this is true because most Alaska husbands are themselves good cooks, having mushed and siwashed and camped so much ” on their own.” Wise in the ways of cookery themselves, this knowledge makes them intelligent cook critics, and therefore sets a high culinary standard! But Anchorage is also an art center. Here Sidney Laurence lives, whose celebrated pictures hang in the most discriminating galleries of America and Europe. For years he has made a study of Mt. McKinley from this southern side; and he has painted the majesty and mystery of that great mountain, in all its moods, with the care and shading of true lover as well as of consummate craftsman. His wife is also an artist, making her study one of Alaskan life, its sled dogs in special, in all their types and poses. Seward has the Dutch artist Jan Van Emple, who ran away and came to the New World as a cabin boy, is now a member of the Whitney Studio Club in New York, and has taken part in a number of eastern exhibits. He has done a very unusual reredos for St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Seward. The upper portion of the` painting shows the familiar figure of the Christ, with angels kneeling at His feet; but the background of the Resurrection scene is formed by the mountains and waters of Resurrection Bay itself, and in the foreground stand Alaskan natives, miners, and settlers grouped about the open tomb. The prospector stands in his rough shirt and suspenders, rugged, true to life, his shallow round pan dropped from his hand and rolled against the open sepulchre, while the little Indian mother standing near is unable to lift her head to heaven with the rest because her baby weighs so heavily upon her back. The whole conception forms a work of great piety and unusual beauty. Cordova is the home of Ziegler, who has done such charming sketches in ink, as well as canvasses of great vigor and power; and Rockwell Kent himself had an ” Alaskan period,” when he spent a winter here and first caught that glory of a beetling, severe, rock coast which later was to send him with his lively master’s sketch book to far-off Patagonia and to Labrador.
A far cry back from Rockwell Kent to railroads! But the first time I came to Anchorage it was in late winter, and to embark upon an adventure from which the kindly Anchorage women tried their hardest to dissuade me. Steel had then been laid from Anchor-age north, and from Nenana south, but there was a gap in the midst of the mountains that had merely been surveyed, for which there was as yet no building appropriation. We planned to go to end-ofsteel, secure our own dog teams there, and mush over The Pass to end-of-steel on the Interior side. It was about the worst time of year to attempt it, we knew, but we were determined to see the country lying under Mt. McKinley and cross Broad Pass before the railroad ” messed it up,” as I expressed it. We saw it with a vengeance, for a great blizzard came just as we reached The Pass and we were caught crawling along like flies upon that mountain slopefrail human things, with slippery hope below. Three times in one short day snow-slides swept down on us with that preliminary hiss, that unforgetable and culminating roar of blind, brute, primal gods forbidding entrance to their long-fast mountain home. How we escaped from that crisp clip of Destiny’s long shears was something of a miracle. Never have I known that sound so close, and never have I felt so keenly the presence of those irresistible forces whose puppets we seem to be. To step from the facile self-contained pride of newly-building Coast cities into the winter heart of that immensity and cold white silence, gave me a sense of curious impotence I never can wipe out in memory. Here man was still the idle sport of monstrous, shambling, elemental gods who dwell in unremitting habitation within the heaven-topping peaks.
It took us nearly two full weeks to go those hundred miles across The Pass, in snows that werein places on the southern sidefrom thirty to forty feet deep. At times we walked upon the tops of trees, at times slid down into the funnels of less close-packed snows around the buried conifers. At times we waited for the storm to pass, at other times we tried to push along, for there was nothing left to eat but dog-rice. Our friends in Fairbanks knew that we had started over, and when we did not come and word was brought of winter storms of long duration and of great intensity raging within the passes, they gave us up for lost. We had the strange experience of reading later in our Fairbanks paper, ” W. F.’s ” comment on our crazy foolhardiness, the statement that we were undoubtedly lost, and what amounted to an obituary noticewith a few shreds of hope still grudgingly held out to any grieving friends of the deceased!
But not so many years after that deeply bitten-in experience I was again crossing Broad Passbut this time in a Pullman observation coach. The train rolled smoothly out over a riven gulch between steep sided slopes, and as I looked far down I recognized from this now conquered height that very chasm of our three-fold avalanche, where we had struggled for three days imprisoned in the mountains’ heart, walled with impenetrable snows, against archaic night. This was the conquest men had dreamed, this was the bourne of all those lonely trails. The 470 miles of the Alaska Railroad had been builtto tap large mining districts and open them to ocean transportation?Yes, but much, much more than that. This was our railroad, built not so much from steel and wood but from the hope and the experience and the very soul-stuff of men, grappling here with gray old gods of chaos. Again mere Man had answered the insuperable challenge, with his dream-spun steel.
At yet another time it was my rare good fortune to be the first white woman (so they told me) mushing over to the foot of Mt. McKinley and back from the present site of the railroad, through the then untracked, unblazed high-lying passes of the inner mountains, the home of many thousand big-horned mountain sheep. I myself counted more than a thou-sand here, in the first three days of this journey, and it too was an adventure long remembered. But to-day they are building a fine tourist’s motor road along those gulches which we ventured, over those passes into the Kantishna country, down to Muldrow Glacier, Wonder Lake, and the foot of tremendous Denali, ” the Most High,” so that in time all the world may come to see. Forty miles of road, to Sable Pass, already have been built; forty-nine more are to be constructed within the next two years, and, a tourist hotel will be erected at the foot of Copper Mountain in time for the tourist season of 1932, whence future thousands will look up at great Denali the highest mountain in the world above its surrounding base. This park highway, already open to the traveller, will prove to be, I have no doubt, one of the most scenic routes in North America, since it crosses four major passes from which a remarkable panorama of the Alaska Range is constantly in view. I say ” constantly ” advisedly, for even that cloud-gathering giant, Mt. McKinley, was visible from Savage River tourist camp last year sixty days out of the season’s eighty; and this is a record, I think, for any tremendous peakfar greater visibility than for far lesser Mt. Ranier, for instance. And yesterday a honeymoon couple from New Jersey left Fairbanks in a plane to fly over to Kantishna and inspect the mountain, before leaving the heart of Alaska. Ah, well! perhaps I’d like to see it from the air myself one day and, in fond memory of that pioneering journey, snap fingers down at Sable Pass, those icy rivers, and the bighorn’s knife-sharp hills, where cloudy shadows wander so high and free.
For this abode of silence, too, the truly last frontier, is being entered from the Iron Trail and our slow unblazed way of long ago is fast becoming an easy way of rolling rubber. This road is a sure way to better things for many who have given lifetime to the inner country; and a road will mean that prospects in Kantishna land will become mines, and little mines will become real mines, all adding of their wealth to Uncle Sam’s great attic ledger.
Do you wonder, then, that Alaskans are a bit sentimental about “our” Railroad, as we once were about the Trail? It has come to us as the long-promised child of our brain and body, born of our hope and wrought out of long years of work and waiting, until at last the dream came true. We know what it has meant already to the inner lands, in many ways; we know how it links up with all our future promise. And when, as I once did, we sit in galleries of Congress and hear men state there that the building of this railroad was a mistake,because, begun in 1914, it cost a little more, due to the intervening of World War, than first had been anticipated,that the people of Alaska are as yet so ” few” and the land so “worthless” (just the things said about New England, about the Middle West, and later about the Far West, before men knew!) then I could cry in rage, or weep in very pity for their blindness!
But there are many folk sitting in Congress, wiser than those who spoke so slightingly of America’s Last Frontier. Alaska, thank the Fates, still has her friendly Sumners and her Sewards, brave enough and plain-spoken enough to enlighten the people of the States regarding the real worth of their colonial possession. And knowing this, we wait for Time to bring the needed answer, remembering that pessimism about new and as yet unexploited far-off territory is no new thing in Congress; and Time has an ironic way of reversing such under-judgment, a way in which history (for our delight!) abounds.
When Chicago was a cluster of a hundred and fifty wood houses, grouped about Fort Dearborn in 1825, Senator Benton said of the Great West: “The ridge of the Rocky Mountains may be named as the convenient, natural, and everlasting boundary (of the United States). Along this ridge the western limits of the Republic should be drawn and the statue of the fabled god Terminus should be erected on its highest peak, never to be thrown down.” But Benton subsequently changed his mind! Later, the controversy about the great ” Oregon Tract ” (which em-braced what now is Oregon, Washington, Idaho and parts of Wyoming and Montana) brought out a ” new crop of congenital unbelievers,” as our Alaskan Judge Wickersham delights to call them. Senator Dickenson of my own New Jersey said of Oregon, in that period when national legislators knew as little of this section as some do now of Alaska, “Oregon can never be one of the United States. . . . The Union is already too extensive.
A young, able-bodied Senator might travel from Oregon to Washington and back once a year, but he could do nothing else.”
Even such a paragon as Daniel Webster, that ” no-blest of our notabilities” (from Massachusetts, too, itself once a mis-prized colony), said of all that region which contains, among other things, superb Puget Sound: “What do we want with the vast, worthless area, this region of savages and whirlwinds of dust, of cactus and prairie dogs? To what use could we ever hope to put these great deserts, or those endless mountain ranges, impenetrable, and covered to their base with eternal snow? What can we ever hope to do with the western coast, a coast of three thousand miles, rock-bound, cheerless, and uninviting, and not a harbor on it? Mr. President, I will never vote one cent from the Public Treasury to place the Pacific coast one inch nearer to Boston than it is now.”
How Daniel Webster’s long-departed spirit must regret those ill-digested, hotly-spoken words!