Homesteading

A TOWN IS BORN – READ ABOUT SOME OF OUR FIRST HOMESTEADERS

Today we benefit from the industriousness of the founding families of McCarthy. None was more industrious than our founding father John Barrett. Born just five years after Alaska was purchased from the Russians in 1867, John spent his early years in Texas. As the oldest in a growing family he worked hard to help support them. His father, a miner, moved the family by wagon train to Colorado where John spent his adolescence trapping, hunting and prospecting. He became a licensed hunting guide and pursued this career until his early twenties when the allure of Alaska brought him to the Yukon. He was well situated in the area when the Klondike Gold Rush began and his claims on Sulphur Creek brought in good profits.

In the winter of 1898 John wintered in Dawson with Jack London (and others) as a cabin mate. The two remained friends through out their lives. Both men were in their twenties with a radically changing world in front of them. Jack London had left the University of California after one semester and a short stint in a laundry before heading to the Klondike in July, 1898. A devout Socialist Jack had an avid interest in world politics and labor movements. He was interested in farming and animal husbandry, an interest shared by John Barrett. Jack London wrote some of his first published stories while in Dawson, “Diary on the Yukon River”, “The Men of the Forty Mile” and so on. John Barrett had been in the Forty Mile area for several years and it leaves one to wonder if these two young men found inspiration in the other through long winter nights of 1898-99.

John & Josephine Barrett, Our Founding Family

John continued to prospect the Alaskan Territory through the next few years entering the Copper basin at least once prior to his arrival here in 1906. Barrett was familiar with the existing claims in the area and of the intentions of Stephen Birch’s Syndicate and spent time studying the Bonanza Mine and the surrounding valleys developing his prospecting plans and theories about the formation. Indeed, he found what he suspected in the outcropped copper formations in the McCarthy Creek valley. John staked numerous claims which became the Green Butte properties.

In July, 1906 he shrewdly staked his homestead on the most likely land the Kennecott Corporation would have to traverse with their railway. It worked out better than he could have anticipated when Kennecott leased a portion of his homestead for a freight yard as construction kicked into high gear at the Kennecott site in 1907.

Josephine Barrett

Josephine Barrett

John Barrett wasn’t the only homesteader in the valley. John Bloomquist had also staked his homestead at the base of the mountain leading to Kennicott. Bloomquist and Barrett partnered several claims and were good friends. A town site was established between the two homesteads near the glacier and a camp town quickly grew as miners and prospective laborers flocked to the area in hopes of steady employment and brighter prospects. The Fagerburg brothers from Dan Creek and John Bloomquist ran roadhouses bordering the wagon road and later the railroad providing a variety of services. Pete Johnson ran an unlicensed saloon (along with others) at this time. The area was officially a dry region and poorly policed, this is probably the origin of tales of rowdy fist fights and general lawlessness still subscribed to today. This site was not the location of present day McCarthy.

John had married his childhood love Josephine Doze in 1901. At first they spent summers in McCarthy and wintered elsewhere, steadily improving their homestead and mining claims. Both were active, athletic people. John was an avid gardener and he continued to experiment with different crops, winning first place in the 1909 Alaska-Yukon Exposition with his potato crop. There is no evidence that he pursued life as a farmer, mining interests precluded that, but he did much to advance prospects for others in the valley.

The McCarthy Schoolhouse

The McCarthy Schoolhouse

The railroad arrived in March, 1911 and McCarthy developed into a jump-off point for miners and visitors (Kennecott was a closed company site) and a major supply source for the Dan Creek and Chititu Creek mining camps which had been active since the turn of the century. The community of McCarthy was firmly established as a mercantile and freighting point which the railway helped to foster.

Mountaineer Dora Keen arrived in late summer 1911 to attempt to scale Mt. Blackburn. She hired John Barrett and others as packers. Though her first attempt failed she was much impressed with John’s acumen and on her second successful attempt the following year she hired Barrett as her expedition leader and speaks highly of him in her memoirs.

Photography was another interest John pursued and he was able to share this interest with other documentary photographers  of life on Alaska’s frontier, such as J.P. Hubrick who arrived during the Shushanna Stampede and settled in McCarthy. We glimpse their lives today from the extensive collections both these men have left behind.

Dora Keen & John Barrett

Dora Keen & John Barrett

John Barrett worked tirelessly on his mining ventures. He formed a corporation and solicited interest in his mining prospects and raised development capital through sales of corporation shares. He made frequent trips to the outside promoting McCarthy, Alaska and his business interests.

Josephine and John were locally active. John was a member of the Commercial Club, Arctic Brotherhood and took interest in local and territory politics. Josephine contributed to the welfare of the Chitina area Ahtnas during the difficult and decimating adaptation to the white mans world. She was also active in the Red Cross and Armenian Relief Organization as were many of her contemporaries during the Great War. John furthered the interest of his community by contributing to street improvements, donating the school building and constructing a water tower.

In 1912 the original site of McCarthy voted to change their name to Blackburn. This was probably a more appropriate name as McCarthy was named after McCarthy Creek which in turn was named by Lieutenant Oscar Rohn who was dispatched by Captain William Abercrombie to follow Lt. Henry Allen’s failed attempt to discover Chief Nickolai’s copper mine (source). Lt. Rohn suffered

First tunnel on McCarthy Creek road

First tunnel on McCarthy Creek road

the same hardships as Allen by running very low on supplies and losing his horses. Rohn luckily came across a prospector named James McCarthy who loaned him horses and provisions to continue his mission. Rohn in turn named a creek after McCarthy and was the first to describe the mineral geology of our area.

Did John Barrett know James McCarthy? It is entirely possible as Barrett had been in the Copper Basin years earlier, but he was not responsible for naming McCarthy Creek or the town.

The present town site of McCarthy came about mostly during the Shushanna Gold Rush when hundreds of potential prospectors rode the rails into the area and were forced to exit the trains on John Barrett’s property. The miners set up tents on John’s property, much to his alarm. There were too many to control. As Barrett did not have patent to his property he followed the same route as he had with the railroad. He quickly surveyed a section of his homestead as a town site and leased lots to potential merchants, families and entrepreneurs. Blackburn’s fate was sealed as people found the convenience of the railhead, postal offices and freight easier to deal with and merchants began flocking to the new town site of McCarthy. Some established Blackburn businesses such as Pete Johnson’s saloon operation moved their entire buildings into the folds of the new community. Within a short time much of the downtown of McCarthy was up and running. With the Dan Creek operations booming, the Shushanna Stampede and Kennecott’s expansive building boom McCarthy flourished all through the second decade of the new century.

By the early 1920’s McCarthy reached its peak population and production creating opportunity for the industrious individual. John Barrett along with Nels Tjosevig and others were instrumental in building and maintaining the McCarthy Creek road which accessed

Barrett building a boat

Barrett building a boat

Green Butte and the Motherlode Mines as well as several freight and travel routes. The Territorial government began to spend funds on improvements and maintenance of several of these roads recognizing their importance to the economy of Alaska and the region.

McCarthy’s location at the end of the line on the railroad provided some interesting situations. Bootlegging was rampant in the area and train engineers had a special whistle sequence as they neared town warning one and all that the law was on board. By the time law enforcement officer entered town it would have been difficult to locate the booze. During the 1917 flu epidemic McCarthy and Kennicott were quarantined thus saving them from significant loss of life. McCarthy was the location of the famous Gustave Priesner murder of prostitute Rose Silberg, his paramour. This story ended in McCarthy with two people dead and the subsequent manhunt and an escape spanning the length of Alaska. The story gripped the territory with the lurid details. Priesner is thought to have finally escaped to Siberia, never to be heard of again.

Government searches were launched all the way to the McCarthy area for the union organizers of I.W.W. (International Workers of the World) after a tense Union uprising in the Seattle area. No doubt by modern standards these searches and arrests would be

Probably Blackburn, the early  location of the community.

Probably Blackburn, the early location of the community.

patently illegal but I.W.W. and unions in general were gaining influence and beginning to cost the industrial barons of the day major concessions and Kennecott’s Syndicate was no less concerned.

A lengthy search of local newspapers does not show the prominent couple of the Barrett’s proselytizing politics, religion or prohibition. Perhaps Barrett had spent enough time in mining camps to know better than take unpopular positions in a region dominated by rough and tumble miners or perhaps he was more pragmatic. However others in the town did promote temperance, morality and politics, sometimes to their own demise. While religious events were brought to town and heartily attended, a church was never established.

Telephones to Dan Creek and Kennecott were quickly established and freight routes to

Picnicking along McCarthy Creek

Picnicking along McCarthy Creek

the outlying mining districts were busy providing the goods. As a mercantile town one could purchase just about anything one desired in McCarthy for the right price.

Through the years, Barrett freighted his ores for assay to the railhead in McCarthy from his Green Butte properties. His ore shipments seem not to be quantities for processing but escalating attempts to attract investment capital for his claims.

Entrepreneurs made the town and John Barrett seems to have understood this. When patent to his homestead was issued Barrett entered the township into the record and handed all who had leased his lots title to the land at no further cost to the lease holder. This is the act of an extraordinary character. At the peak of McCarthy’s boom Barrett handed over the most meaningful thing people of the time could possess, title to their very own property. He did not use his position to further his fortune.

As McCarthy peaked, several devastating fires swept the business district and much was never rebuilt. World events, the economy and dwindling returns from copper, gold and silver deposits began to affect the fortunes of the town. Josephine Barrett perhaps felt this the most and she began to take Lawrence Barrett, by now a teen outside to attend school through the long winters. By the early

Barrett in his later years

Barrett in his later years

thirties the impending Depression and depressed world metal markets spelled doom for the once booming town. Fairbanks, the contemporary of McCarthy continued to exist as a regional gateway to the northern half of the Territory and the main campus of the University of Alaska, a leader in northern studies, farming and mining. Many prominent McCarthy merchants  pulled up stakes and relocated to the communities of Cordova, Valdez, Anchorage and Fairbanks, many of whom rose to prominence in business and politics.

John continued to return to McCarthy through the years of its decline. An airport was established in the early 1930s as the aviation transportation boom took over in Alaska. This provided opportunities for tourism in McCarthy over the years but even this dwindled away and McCarthy’s once prominent place in Alaska’s economy faded away. McCarthy never completely depopulated and many businesses continued to hang on until 1940’s. But the Depression, WWII and the subsequent Cold War and Statehood developed other communities in Alaska leaving McCarthy to languish quietly for many years.

Authors Note-As a young man I was lucky enough to have known and even work for Lawrence Barrett, son of John and Josephine in the 1970s as he reestablished the town surveys and property titles. John and Josephine were certainly evident in Lawrence’s character.   He had a great love for the town and

McCarthy Child with bear cub

McCarthy Child with bear cub

was delighted at seeing the community come back to life. A handshake sealed the deals and he never wavered concerning the terms. I was glad to have known him.

In a recent interview with Paul Barrett I was surprised to learn that Josephine was not fond of McCarthy. That in fact she had destroyed many memories and documents of the years in McCarthy feeling that those years were a failure. She and John ran an apartment house in Tacoma, Washington in their later years. It is easy to feel the burden of failure when so many years were spent pursuing the possibilities. McCarthy was simply overtaken by events beyond its control. I wish that John and Josephine could view the community today, a vibrant growing town at the center of the largest national park in America. Their dreams did not die, we continue them today.

John Barrett was an amazing person: he pursued his dreams across a large expanse of Alaska; he loved his freedom; was honest of character; was self educated and self reliant. He was the founder of our community.

(This project is an ongoing affair and we invite anyone with anecdotes, photos or corrections to help us in our endeavor to fully document any early residents’ contributions to our town or history. Please contact us at help@mccarthylodge.com.)

Further reading sources:

  • Alaska – Saga of a Bold Land by Walter R. Borneman
  • Historic McCarthy – The Town That Copper Built by M. J. Kirchhoff
  • A History of the Chisana Mining District, Alaska, 1890-1990 by Geoffrey T. Bleakley

Internet searches:

  • I.W.W.
  • Jack London – biographies
  • Dora Keen

All photos in this article unless noted were provided by the Barrett family, thank you Paul.