Monday, February 4, 2013

Bingle Memorial Camp namesake was indefatigable worker


Bingle camp lodge as it looked in 2001


Bingle Memorial Camp is set on a picturesque 66 acre heavily-wooded parcel along the south shore of Harding Lake, about 47 miles southeast of Fairbanks. It exists in large part because of the vision of Bert Bingle, a Presbyterian minister who spent most of his career building churches and church camps throughout Alaska, and traveling thousands of miles to reach his parishioners. Bert was indefatigable, and my wife, who knew the Bingle family, says the only time he slowed down was to get other people to speed up.

Bert and his wife, Mable, came to Alaska in 1928 to serve the residents of Cordova, on the south side of Prince William Sound. Cordova, a small fishing town, was also the terminus of the Copper River and Northwestern Railroad that brought copper to tidewater from the Kennicott copper mine 200 miles inland at McCarthy. In addition to holding services in Cordova, Bert road the train north once a month to conduct services for the miners. (a foretaste of Bert’s later railroad ministry).

In 1935, when the Matanuska Colony (a New Deal resettlement project) was established, the Bingles transferred to Palmer and were there to greet the first settlers. Bert did his best to help the colonists feel less isolated and far from home, setting up a short-wave radio for visitors to listen too, and publishing Palmer’s first newspaper of sorts—mimeographed sheets printed in the Bingles’ cramped tent.

By 1941 the Bingles were on the move again, this time to a railroad and highway ministry along the Alaska Railroad and the Richardson, Glenn and Steese Highways. Based out of their home in College, Bert rode the rails to hold services at Nenana, Healy, McKinley National Park (now Denali National Park and Preserve), and Curry. Referring to his railroad ministry, he liked to tell people that his church was the longest in the world, “225 miles long and six feet wide.” He also drove to Ester and Chatanika for services, and several points along the Richardson and Glenn Highways.

When World War II broke out Bert began acting as an unofficial chaplain for personnel located at the Big Delta Army Airfield (now Fort Greely).  As construction began on the Alaska Highway, Bert also volunteered to serve the construction camps between Big Delta in Alaska, and Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory.

It was probably on one of Bert’s innumerable trips along the Richardson highway that he began toying with the idea of establishing a youth camp at Harding Lake.  He had already helped build a youth camp at Kings Lake in the Matanuska Valley, as well as six churches scattered across South Central and Interior Alaska. Building was in his blood.

Bingle Memorial Camp is located about seven miles off the Richardson Highway, almost directly across the lake from the Harding Lake State Recreation Area. When the Presbyterian Church (with Bert in the lead) established the camp in 1953, there wasn’t even road access.  Bert was instrumental in getting a road punched out to the camp, and for many years that was as far as the road went.

During the 1950s and 60s many of the camp’s building were constructed, including the main lodge and residential cabins. One of my wife’s older brothers helped build some of the cabins during one summer.

All of these older buildings are of log construction. The camp still maintains its rustic charm, including most of the buildings being unplumbed and heated by wood stoves. The only exceptions are the main lodge (where the kitchen and dining hall are), a modern (fully plumbed) retreat center, and a modern (also fully plumbed) showerhouse.

Several hundred feet above Harding Lake, the lodge has a commanding view. It’s a wonderful place to watch the world go by. I have spent many pleasant days there. One year in late Fall I was the only person in camp, chopping wood for an upcoming event. Long Vees of sandhill cranes, brilliantly lit by the afternoon sun, flew overhead while down on the lake a raucous gathering of about 100 swans waited for their departure time.

Bingle Memorial Camp is owned by the Presbyterian Church USA, and managed by an inter-denominational board of directors. When camp is not being held, the facilities are available for rent. For more information about the camp check out its website at <binglecamp.org>.

Sources:

  • “Alaskan Missions, My 28 years in the Yukon Presbytery,” Rev. Bert Bingle, no date, College, Alaska
  • “Chaplains have been serving Alaska service members for years,” Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Ted McGovern, 2012, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson website
  • “Footprints, Sketches of 100 Yukon Presbyterians,” no author, 1998, Presbytery of the Yukon
  • Conversation with Claude Klaver, retired Presbyterian minister and long-time associate of Bingle Camp
  • Conversation with Betsy Bonnell, retired Bureau of Land Management realty specialist and family friend of the Bingles.

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