Monday, June 23, 2014

Talkeetna and the Alaska Commercial Company's Susitna-Valdez Creek freighting gamble

Old freighter's cabin at Talkeetna in 2005

Gold was discovered at Valdez Creek (near the headwaters of the Sustina River) in 1903. The first pack-horse and winter sled routes that supplied the mining district (often following Ahtna Athabascan trails) branched off from the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail to the east. All told, remote Valdez Creek was 250 expensive miles overland from Valdez.

As an alternative, the Alaska Commercial Company (AC Co.) decided to try shipping supplies up the Susitna River from the Talkeetna area to Valdez Creek.  AC Co. was very familiar with the lower Susitna, opening a store at Susitna Station (a Dena’ina Athabascan village 25 miles up the Susitna River) in about 1885. During the 1896 Cook Inlet gold rush, Susitna Station also became the supply center for prospectors fanning out along the region’s rivers and creeks.  With mining expanding, in about 1907 AC Co. established Talkeetna Station 50 miles farther upriver at the mouth of the Talkeetna River.

One difficulty with AC Company’s plan to supply Valdez Creek was that the lower section of the Susitna was only navigable for its first 130 miles. Just past Indian River (35 miles upriver from Talkeetna) is an 11-mile section of the Susitna that thunders down through Devil’s Canyon—impossible to overcome by boat. A 25-mile portage around Devil’s Canyon existed, but that trail was steep and treacherous, sometimes taking three weeks to traverse. g

Even between Talkeetna and Indian River boating was difficult. A USGS report by Alfred Brooks stated that most steamboats could ascend the Susitna as far as Talkeetna. From there to Indian River shallow-draft steamers could navigate, but only during periods of high water. In late summer, freighting was limited to smaller boats that were lined up the river (pulled with ropes from shore).

A small AC Co. station was established at Indian River, and beginning in 1908 pack trains freighted supplies 90 miles up through the Talkeetna Mountains to Valdez Creek. This was no easy trail either. Most of the creeks draining into the Susitna cascade down through narrow, often deep, canyons. Crossing those canyons was dangerous, so the trail climbed high above timberline, where creek crossings were easier.

The pack-horse trip was time-consuming, averaging 11 days one-way (about eight miles a day), which cut into the all-too-short mining season at Valdez Creek. AC Co. also discovered that freighting supplies from Talkeetna to Valdez Creek cost triple the amount to ship supplies over the winter trails from Valdez. As long as miners shipped most of their supplies during winter, a summer Sustina River route was impracticable. AC Company’s attempts to freight along the Sustina during winter also proved unsuccessful.

After two years AC Co. abandoned the route and its stations at Indian River and Talkeetna. Talkeetna did not become a permanent settlement until the Alaska Railroad began construction in 1915.

Little is left from Talkeetna’s earliest days. Situated below the confluence of the glacially-fed Chulitna, Susitna and Talkeetna Rivers, a significant portion of the original townsite has been lost to river erosion.

One of the oldest Talkeetna buildings is shown in the drawing. It is the David Lawrence/Harry Robb cabin, located on C Street just around the corner from the Talkeetna Roadhouse. According to the National Register of Historic Places it is a freighter’s cabin built in the 1920s.

The cabin’s oldest section is a 15’x20’ 1 ½-story gable-roofed log structure, with multi-pane windows, and a small gabled overhang protecting the front door.  A 15’x11’ frame-addition was tacked on at the back in the 1940s. The Talkeetna Historical Society owns the cabin and it is part of the Talkeetna Historic District.

This cabin is probably fancier than ones built by the earlier freighters who worked the Susitna-Valdez Creek route, but it is still a link to an almost forgotten episode in Interior Alaska history.


  •   “A Trip from Portage Bay to Turnagain Arm and up the Sushitna,”  Lt. H. G. Learnard. In Compilation of Narratives of Exploration in Alaska. . U.S. Government Printing Office. 1900
  • Talkeetna. Talkeetna Historical Society. Arcadia Publishing. 2013
  • “Talkeetna Historic District – National Register of Historic Places Registration Form.” Fran Seeger-Boss & Lawrence Roberts. National Park Service, 1992
  • The Conquest of Mount McKinley, the story of three expeditions through the Alaskan wilderness to Mount McKinley. Browne Belmore. Houghton Mifflin. 1956
  • “The History of the use of the Upper Susitna River – Indian River to the Headwaters.” Terrence Cole. State of Alaska Department of Natural Resources. 1979
  • “The Mt. McKinley Region, Alaska.” Alfred Brooks, USGS, 1911

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Life on the Line in Fairbanks historic red light district

Prostitute's crib at Pioneer Park Gold Rush Town

Economic depression gripped most of the western world during the 1890s, so not surprisingly thousands of stampeders raced north during the 1897 Klondike gold rush. The majority were men, but (since depressions are equal opportunity oppressors) a goodly percentage of women chanced the trip as well.

All were lured by adventure and the possibility of riches—however women were disadvantaged in finding fortune.  Mining was essentially closed to them because of social mores and the physical strength required. Consequently, women were usually relegated to domestic work. A significant number of northbound women were prostitutes and professional entertainers though.

About 80 percent of the population in the Yukon and Alaska was male. Prostitution was viewed as a “necessary evil”—required to satisfy the needs of the predominantly male population and protect “respectable” women from potential abuse. In communities across the region, governments decided the best way to control prostitution was segregating the ladies in “restricted districts.”          

According to Lael Morgan’s book, Good Time Girls of the Alaska-Yukon Gold Rush, Judge James Wickersham (who moved his court to Fairbanks in 1903) instituted a policy of “moderately taxing vice for civic betterment.” Prostitutes and others on society’s fringe, such as gamblers, were tolerated but required to pay monthly fines (essentially license fees) which helped support city government.

Because of this encouragement and lax law enforcement, by 1906 Fairbanks was a rough and tumble town. Episcopal Archdeacon Hudson Stuck was dismayed by the frequent violence (often instigated by pimps and their ladies) but believed outlawing prostitution was unrealistic. His suggestion to the city council was a separate district for prostitutes, similar to the one established at Dawson in 1899.

With city backing (if not official approval) the red light district, soon called the “Line” or “Row,” was established at the edge of downtown, between Cushman and Barnette Streets along Third and Fourth Avenues. Prostitutes had to confine their services to the district, with no solicitation allowed elsewhere. The district was regularly patrolled, and as long as the ladies paid their monthly “fines,” they had no fear of police harassment. The prostitutes also agreed to routine health screenings. Within a few years the city also passed ordinances minimizing the role of pimps.

In 1908 a fence with gates was erected across both ends of the district to protect the sensitivities of respectable people. Not that much occurred outside. Prostitutes’ more discreet activities were confined to their small cabins (called “cribs”). The 9’ x 12’ single-room log cabin in the drawing is one such crib. Now at Pioneer Park, it originally stood along Fourth Avenue. Cribs varied considerably. Some were multi-room frame structures. A few even had second stories with gable windows.

Most of the cribs actually faced inward—their living rooms with large picture windows and doors opening on to the alley between Third and Fourth Avenues. It was along the alley’s boardwalk that men would go “window shopping.” If a lady’s window shades were open then her trade goods were available.

There was little trouble along the Line for most of its existence. Some contemporary writers spoke of the Northern ladies as a breed apart from prostitutes elsewhere.  Judge Wickersham wrote that they were “of a more robust class than usual among their kind… less addicted to criminal activities outside of those peculiar to their mode of life.”

The ladies of the Line were tolerated by respectable society (even if not allowed to actively mingle), and they were known to support local charities and grubstake prospectors. Patrons felt little fear that prostitutes would take more than their fair share of a miner’s poke, and some miners even left valuables with their favorite ladies for safekeeping.

The Line survived almost 50 years, but was finally closed in 1952, not because of local opposition, but at the insistence of the federal government.  Most of the cribs were demolished in the mid-1950s, eventually replaced by Safeway and Woolworth stores.