Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Harry Karstens, a.k.a. the Seventymile Kid, and his Fairbanks connection

Harry Karstens, cabin at Pioneer Park in the 1990s

Henry Peter (Harry) Karstens, a.k.a. the Seventymile Kid, was a legendary Alaskan outdoorsman. He is remembered as co-leader of the first successful ascent of Denali and as the first superintendent of Mount McKinley National Park (now Denali National Park). However, at the age of 19 he was also part of the first wave of Klondike stampeders heading north from Seattle in the summer of 1897.

Arriving in Dawson on Nov. 1, 1897, he quickly became disillusioned with the Klondike. Finding creeks around Dawson already staked, in December he stampeded to Henderson Creek near the Stewart River. Jack London was also mining at Henderson Creek, and one of the legends about Karstens is that the main character in London’s book, Burning Daylight, was modeled in part on Harry.

Harry soon returned to Dawson and survived most of the winter performing odd jobs around town. In early 1898 he scouted out the gold prospects on the U.S. side of the border and that spring relocated to the Seventymile River, downriver from the new town of Eagle. (An old-timer in Eagle nicknamed him the “Seventymile Kid.”) During that spring he helped layout the Eagle townsite.

Harry mined on the Seventymile for several years before accepting what he thought would be a temporary job as mail carrier between Eagle and Tanana Crossing during the winter of 1900-01. He ended up delivering mail around Interior Alaska for many years. It was Harry and fellow mail carrier Charley McGonagall who, in 1903, blazed the first winter trail from Gakona (on the Valdez-Eagle Trail) to Fairbanks.

According to Tom Walker’s book, “The Seventymile Kid,” Harry considered carrying mail to be the toughest job he ever did. He is quoted as saying, “It changed my whole life in the north and filled me with wanderlust.”

He and McGonagall participated in the short-lived Kantishna gold rush in 1905-06 and also ran a winter delivery service from Fairbanks to the diggings. After Kantishna petered out, Harry continued to deliver freight and passengers throughout the region and hired out as a guide.

One of the people Harry guided was Charles Sheldon (conservationist and “Father of Denali National Park”). In 1906 he led Sheldon on a two-month trip to the Toklat River on the north flank of Denali. Sheldon returned the next year, and Karstens accompanied him on a year-long excursion back to the Toklat.

Harry went on to participate in the first successful ascent of Denali in 1913. Although he did not have mountaineering experience, his level-headedness, wilderness survival skills and endurance made him indispensible during the expedition.

Thanks to the influence of Charles Sheldon, Harry became the first superintendent of Mt. McKinley National Park in 1921. He resigned from the Park Service in 1928, the same year that the road through the park to Kantishna was completed. Grant Pearson, a later Mt. McKinley National Park superintendent, wrote in his book about Karstens that, “Perhaps the park was getting a little too tame for ‘The Kid.’ It was losing its untamed-wilderness atmosphere.”

After retiring, Harry settled in Fairbanks. He and his wife, Louise, bought and moved into a large home on Ninth Avenue. In 1953 they began work on a smaller cabin on the Ninth Avenue property (shown in the drawing) so they could rent out the larger house. The new cabin was completed in 1955.

The 20-foot by 18-foot 1.5-story cabin, which is now located at Pioneer Park across from the Pioneer Museum, is built of logs sawn flat on three sides. Harry’s great grandson, Ken, told me that the second floor of the cabin was finished with surplus doors purchased from a steamship company. Unfortunately, the doors were removed later to install insulation. The shed-roofed room at the rear is a more recent addition.

Karstens died the same year the cabin was completed and is buried in Birch Hill Cemetery. Louise lived on in the cabin for many years. She died in 1974 at the Fairbanks Pioneer Home.

  • “Alaskaland Cabin Lore.” Alpha Delta Gamma. 1978
  • Correspondence with Ken Karstens, Harry Karsten’s great-grandson
  • The Seventymile kid: the lost legacy of Harry Karstens and the first ascent of Mount McKinley. Tom Walker. Mountaineers Books. 2013
  • The Seventy Mile Kid: wilderness superintendent of Mount McKinley National Park. Grant Pearson. Signal Press. 1957

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