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

Monday, September 28, 2015

Bumper crop of juniper berries - September 2015

We have a bumper crop of ripe juniper berries in our front yard this year. They are not really berries, but the female cones. Unlike other conifers, the juniper cones have fleshy scales that merge together, giving it a berry-like appearance.. I've eaten the berries off the bush, and I keep meaning to collect some of them to use as flavoring in cooking. Maybe this year I'll finally get around to it.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Upcoming French-language edition of John Haines’ book, "The Stars, the Snow, the Fire," to be illustrated by me, Ray Bonnell

I'm a horrible procrastinator and have been working frantically to complete a special project. I didn't want to jinx myself by talking about it before it was completed. My part of the project is done and I can let the cat out of the bag now.

John Haines' cabin as seen from the Richardson Highway

Early next year the French publisher, Editions Gallmeister, based in Paris, will be publishing a new French-language edition of  "The Stars, the Snow, the Fire: twenty-five years in the Alaska Wilderness ,"  a book of essays written by Alaska writer, John Haines. The book will be illustrated with 20 of my drawings.

The view from the top of the ridge above the Haines homestead

Editions Gallmeister has been publishing literature penned by American authors since 2006. Its first book was "The Stars, the Snow, the Fire." To celebrate the publisher’s 10-year anniversary it is publishing another edition of this classic nature book.

Interior view of John Haines' cabin, looking out over the Tanana River Valley

One of the publisher’s staff saw the drawings I did of John Haines’ cabin and of the view of the Tanana River Valley from the ridge above his homestead,  and invited me to illustrate the book. How could I refuse? Many of the drawings I have posted recently were done for the book.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

September walk in downtown Ester

I went for an afternoon walk in beautiful downtown Ester yesterday. I was looking for historic buildings but ended up taking photos of almost everything. Here is a sampler. The first six photos were taken along Main Street.

Golden Eagle Saloon

John Trigg Ester Library

The next series of photos were taken along Ester Loop and Wellhouse Road, to the north of Main Street just past the library.

Hartung Community Hall

The following photos are of Ester Gold Camp  (closed) at the other end of town on Alpha Way.

Ester Gold Camp hotel

Malemute Sallon

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Old truck-mounted dragline seen along Elliott Highway outside Fox

This is an old truck-mounted dragline I spotted along the Elliott highway just outside Fox. Haven't figured out what make it is yet. Do you suppose the truck and dragline turned color along with the autumn leaves?

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The changing roadhouses of Richardson, Alaska

Richardson Roadhouse in the 1960s

Opening and operating a roadhouse in Interior Alaska was always a gamble. A poorly chosen location could hobble a roadhouse’s ability to attract travelers, new routes might bypass a location, or traffic along a trail might die out completely if a gold strike faded. Also, there was almost constant danger from flood, fire and other natural disasters.

Even building a roadhouse in an established community was no guarantee for success. The small community of Richardson, about 70 miles southeast of Fairbanks, is an example. The town, established in 1905 along the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail (later the Richardson Highway) on the northeast bank of the Tanana River, had three roadhouses, all apparently called the Richardson Roadhouse at one time or another.

According to the book, The Trail: The Story of the Historic Valdez-Fairbanks Trail that Opened Alaska’s Vast Interior, Jacob Samuelson, who operated a grocery store in early Richardson, also built the first roadhouse. Old photos show a structure built of squared logs, but little else in known about it.

The section of the Tanana River between Big Delta and Fairbanks has one of the steepest gradients along the entire river, and the river there is turbulent, often changing course. It moved against Richardson aggressively in 1915, eating away much of the town. What was left was forced to move, and Samuelson never rebuilt.

J. W. McClusky ran a trading post and also sold gasoline at the new townsite a mile inland along the re-aligned Richardson Highway, near Banner Creek. In 1916 he and his wife built a two-story log roadhouse just west of the creek, appropriately called McClusky’s Roadhouse. In 1922, they replaced that structure with a larger flat-roofed two-story log building that could accommodate 30 guests. Their operation was renamed the Richardson Roadhouse.

With increasing traffic along the highway, McClusky expanded the business again. He added a two-story section to the end of the roadhouse, doubling its size. Unfortunately, he evidently overbuilt, and the anticipated tourists never materialized. McClusky eventually closed the roadhouse and his name disappeared from the history books. The building sat vacant for several years and was eventually disassembled, moved to Fairbanks, and re-assembled as a warehouse. The roadhouse’s disappearance may have coincided with the town’s second relocation away from the turbulent river during the 1920s.

Fred Wilkins, who was a homesteader in the area, built the third roadhouse at Richardson’s second location in about 1915. When the town moved a third time, he relocated his roadhouse to the north side of the highway. After McClusky closed his operation, Wilkins renamed his business the Richardson Roadhouse.

The drawing shows this third roadhouse in about 1960. The log structure, with false front, was divided into two sections — a café on one side, and liquor store/convenience store on the other. Behind and to the sides of the roadhouse were several out buildings including barn and storage sheds. To the right of the roadhouse were small guest cabins (later replaced by a small motel unit). On the left were gas pumps, several small frame buildings used for automotive service, and a log garage.

The roadhouse was located approximately halfway between Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks, and Fort Greely just south of Delta Junction. It was a convenient rest stop for Army buses shuttling soldiers between the two posts, and old photos show the buses parked in front of the roadhouse.

The structure containing the café and store burned down in 1982. The convenience store moved into one of the tiny frame buildings next to the garage and gas pumps, and, along with the motel unit, the roadhouse struggled on for a few more years before closing permanently. Now the only building remaining is the weathered log garage.


•   Fairbanks North Star Borough Property Records

•   Historic Resources in the Fairbanks North Star Borough. Janet Matheson & F. Bruce Haldeman. Fairbanks North Star Borough, 1981

•   Roadhouses of the Richardson Highway. Walter T. Phillips. Alaska History Commission, 1985

•   The Trail: The Story of the Historic Valdez-Fairbanks Trail that Opened Alaska’s Vast Interior. Kenneth Marsh. Trapper Creek Museum, 2008

Monday, September 14, 2015

A porcupine, a fox and a lynx met in a bar...

Porcupine - ubiquitous across Alaska

I'm not really a wildlife artist, but here are some wildlife drawings I recently completed for a special project. Some of them are just so-so, but in general I think they came out alright--especially considering that none of the drawings are over 3 1/2" x 5".

Little brown bat--the only bat that is native to Alaska.  A 3 1/2" x 5" drawing would actually have the bat about life size. They are tiny, with a wing span of only 8".
Caribou skull lying on the tundra--a not uncommon sight.
 Red fox--they can be found during winter in the woods behind my house.
Lynx. Rarely seen--the few times I have spotted one it was sitting by the edge of a road, sunning itself like a house cat
Wolf. Again--rarely seen in civilized areas. Usually glimpsed at a distance. The only time I got close to one was in the middle of winter just outside Beaver Creek in the Yukon. I was in a car and he stared me down from the side of the road.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Manley's historic schoolhouse reflects town's commitment to education

Manley schoolhouse in mid-2000s

Gladys Dart was a young mother with three children when she moved to Manley Hot Springs in 1956. She and her husband, Chuck, had just purchased the Karshner homestead on the north side of Hot Springs Slough and were in the process of starting a greenhouse operation. Gladys told me that even though she had taught school in Fairbanks, teaching again in a formal school setting was not in their plans.

Manley Hot Springs, now usually just called Manley, was past its zenith when the Darts moved there. John Karshner had staked his homestead around the hot springs in 1902, and a community coalesced there. According to U.S. Census reports, Manley’s 1910 population was 101. However, it had shrunk to 29 residents by 1920. The population swelled to 45 by 1930, but slipped back down to 29 by 1950.

Gladys wrote in a 1983 biography that 15 people lived in Manley during the winter of 1956-57, mostly “old timers and childless couples.” The Northern Commercial Company’s store manager had a teenage daughter, and there was only one other family with children.

The territorial government’s policy was that communities needed 10 students before a teacher was provided. It is doubtful that until the 1950s Manley had enough children to warrant a school, except perhaps during its earliest boom years.

Because of this, Manley parents with school-age children faced difficult choices. They could move their families to communities with schools, board their children away from home, or teach them through correspondence.

The Darts home-schooled their oldest child that year. The next year a family with school-age children moved back to Manley. The father was a local bush pilot, but his wife and children lived in Fairbanks. The family’s desire to be together brought them all back to Manley.

A few Manley residents, convinced that more families would move to town if there was a school, approached Gladys about starting one. In addition to the 10-student minimum, communities also needed to provide a school building, so the Darts offered the use of an old 16-foot by 20-foot log cabin on their property. The building had no electricity or plumbing, but it did have hot water piped from the springs for heat.

The Territory accepted the one-room schoolhouse. Gladys became the school’s sole teacher, and Chuck provided the maintenance. However, by the start of school in September 1958 the schoolhouse still didn’t have furniture or supplies. Manley was not yet connected to Fairbanks by road, and the supplies would be delivered by the last boat of the season, due about a month after school started.

Until the furniture arrived, they had to make do. Chuck shortened the legs of two large tables to serve as desks, and students used Blazo boxes (wooden crates that containers of fuel were shipped in) as seats.

Gladys survived that first school year, and predictions about the school attracting new residents proved true. By 1960 Manley had 72 residents, and the school had 19 students — a bit crowded for a one-room building.

Classes moved out of the log schoolhouse in fall 1961 and shared space temporarily in the Dart’s newly finished home. A new school building was completed in 1963. That building served until 1980 when an even larger facility (named after Gladys) was constructed.

Gladys, now retired, still lives in Manley. The log schoolhouse (which is on private property) was renovated for its 50th anniversary in 2008 and is still nestled against the base of the hill, just off the Elliott Highway. It is a testament to the tenacity of a lady and a community that valued education.


Chuck and Gladys Dart: Manley Hot Springs. Chuck and Gladys Dart. Yukon-Koyukuk School District. 1983

• Conversation with Gladys Dart

In deed, indeed: teaching and learning in a one-room school. Gladys Dart. Outskirts Press. 2010

• U.S. Census reports for 1910 through 1960