McCarthy 1911

CARVING OUT A COMMUNITY FROM THE WILD LANDSCAPE

As our community evolves, we can look back on the founding citizens of this town with an array of views. Bewilderment, awe and envy are a few of the many feelings I’ve experienced as I have educated myself about the world of the founding families of McCarthy. To better understand these people I thought it worthwhile to present a short view of the world; an introduction to people’s experiences at the turn of the century.

Over the last 98 years, since John Barrett had the foresight to stake his homestead on the narrow strip of land that the C.R. & N.W. Railroad would have to traverse on its route to the Kennicott ore site, many colorful characters have passed this way. Such people came to make their fortunes and retire elsewhere. Some amassed fortunes elsewhere and settled here with an eye to the future growth of this part of Alaska. Many came to love this land and endeavored to impart that great love to others through literature, photography and art. Some lie in the silence of our graveyards still. McCarthy to this day continues to draw people of strong character.

As we look back on the myths, and they are myths as so many of the stories have become mythic in their proportions and loose with

Alaska Steam Ship Passengers

Alaska Steam Ship Passengers

the actual facts, I find myself in awe of the earliest settlers of our area. The hardships of the most mundane daily activities are beyond even our hardiest residents today. Take a moment and consider life at our present temperature extremes (today -43F) without insulation, chainsaws, snowmobiles, compact generators, phone/internet and all the little things we take for granted. Horses, dogs, handsaws and kerosene lamps were the conveniences of the day. Conversation, dinner parties, socials, books and sports were the great entertainments through the dark months of winter. And the hardy bunch that made it through the long months of darkness together naturally felt the closeness of a community developing within the first several years of its founding. McCarthy Station, Blackburn, Shushanna Junction and McCarthy are all names for essentially the same square mile.

There were many events occurring on the world’s stage that fueled the spirits of those that ventured to the far north to seek their fortunes and eventually lay the foundations of the little outpost of McCarthy. From the end of the Civil War to the turn of the century it was a time of great change in the United States. The continental United States was no longer a wilderness frontier and

House Keeping in a tent

House Keeping in a Tent

industrialization reduced demand for large numbers of skilled laborers. Between 1880 and 1910 over 18 million immigrants entered the country eagerly   seeking work. The industrial laborer of the late 19th century endured long hours, hazardous working conditions and low wages fueling labor unrest. The fiscal policies of the Federal Government created periodic economic crisis, eroding industrial wages and producing high levels of unemployment. “Progressivism” was a reform movement against corrupt politicians and robber barons and dominated American politics and thought from the last decade of the 19th century until the American entry into World War I in 1917. Progressivism was imparted to the people by all the notable figures of the times by philosophy, literature and gave American politics it own special character.

Seattle and San Francisco were the lifelines to the territory and Alaskans closest link to the birthplace of her citizens. These cities were also the hotbed of radical labor movements and viewed with suspicion by big business

Seattle

Seattle

and powerful money brokers. With the Bolshevik take over of Russia by a small number of revolutionaries even the American populace were led to believe that their country was on the brink of a socialist takeover – another revolution.

Many of the outside world’s events affected McCarthy’s fortunes leading to the classic boom or bust cycle that Alaska faces to this day. Kennecott’s rise and profitability was fueled by the conflicts in Europe, WWI and the high prices copper enjoyed on the world’s industrial markets. The Kennicott syndicate enjoyed a virtual operating monopoly from the West Coast to our door steps. The immigrant filled the work rosters of the railroad and mines with the skilled labor necessary to accomplish the mammoth endeavors of the C.R. & N.W. Railroad and Kennicott Mines. The organized labor unrest in Seattle and Everett frightened mining syndicates enough to initiate the supposed “lawful” search for I.W.W. labor organizers as far north as McCarthy/Kennicott.

The last gold rushes brought the individualist, the disillusioned, the occasional criminal, dreamers and romantics to the “Last Frontier”. Long time resident Al Gagnon once told me “Alaska is still big enough to be as big as you want to be”. If you see the double meaning you’ll understand that many came to Alaska escaping the past. It was perhaps the last place to reinvent ones self. Perhaps

freightsled

Freightsleds

with hard work success was possible in Alaska. The dream of striking it rich in Alaska was fed by larger than life stories in the media of the day. The reality for independent miners was perhaps more depressing as in the case of the Nome strike in which the J.P. Morgan-Guggenheim Syndicate dominated the holdings within two years.

Our founding father, John Barrett was 34 years old when he ventured this way to stake a claim to these valleys. Kate Kennedy, a former Dawson “lady of the evening” was well known for her generosity and kindness and was a matron when she arrived to put down roots in McCarthy that lasted till near her death. “Cap” Hubrick, showman, big game guide and photographer was already 50 when he followed the Shushanna Gold Rush into this country to eventually settle in the new town of McCarthy.

What these people accomplished can never be done again. They carved out of this wild landscape a community, one we still benefit from today. After all it’s our colorful history; past and present, that entertains the many visitors. Romantic as it may be to compare ourselves to the founding members of our community, to believe we share the same goals and beliefs, we would be wrong. We are not as rugged and perhaps not as free. We are not as self reliant. Today we want to believe we are living a “bush” lifestyle, that we are the pioneers. Comparatively our lives are filled with a lot less adversity. Our lives would seem more foreign than the belief systems of the many immigrants who came seeking a new life. Our first residents’ life experience was vastly different than ours. People did not travel with the ease we do today. In the world of 1900, most people did not venture far from their hometowns. Commercial radio broadcasts and rural electricalfication were yet to become widespread. Newspapers and telegraph were the only sources for reliable news.

The idea of Federal Parks did not come into being until 1917. 78 million acres of land passed from Federal control to the States from 1803-1912. Many States proceeded to sell off their lands to private citizens believing private ownership was the best way to manage lands. Since the United States was still in large part an agrarian economy, this is not too surprising. Today the Federal Government holds 650 million acres across the breadth of our country and 67% (244,626.9 acres of a possible 365,039.4 – 1995 figures) of Alaska is under Federal control. McCarthy’s’ settlers made assumptions that the community they were carving from this wilderness might go on to affluence, into the future. They had come a long way to settle here and for many years thought prosperity and stability were possible. Land ownership was foremost in their minds to achieve this. In our present status of “World Heritage Site” and with today’s politics and array of modern communications, special interest organizations from half a world away might facilitate the purchase of such sites as Kennicott Mine for its “historical significance” but could easily negatively impact a new mining enterprise with an arsenal of naïve and uninformed arguments. Catch phrases such as “view sheds” and “scenic corridors” would not have been pertinent to our forefathers. Indeed, their forefathers had accomplished the settlement of a continent 3,000 miles wide. They would not have

Local Farm just outside McCarthy

Local Farm just outside McCarthy

understood the concept of not utilizing mineral and renewable resources if it was possible profitably. And many ingenious means were employed to do this over the long mining history of the Kennecott and Nizina River valleys. This is not to say our residents were willing to rampage over the land; during the Sushanna Gold Rush game control wardens were solicited by the community to curb the stampeder’s proclivities.

Our ancestors were more connected with the raw materials they labored so industriously to obtain because they were connected to life in way we are not today. Our forefathers manufactured and repaired many of their daily objects with expertise. We are disconnected from this way of life. We easily purchase what we need, with little thought as to how the elements of our needs come together (from) to make the things we desire. Most of us are children of the service industry. For us the everyday objects of our lives are disposable. People in the beginning of the last century were schooled in the manufacture of the necessities of life as a daily experience.

We are not as motivated as our forefathers to create lasting communities. We are a mobile society. People are living much longer lives than in 1900. Many of our “residents” who claim to “live” in McCarthy may be paying taxes elsewhere for up to 10 months a year, its common today to maintain more than one domicile. Early McCarthy was methodically building bridges, roads, farms and enterprises. They wanted a diversified economy. A post office and a school were established early on. They understood the dangers of dependence on monolithic employers and were distrustful of the “robber” barons who could pull the economic plug. Turn of the century politics held that “Government” should promote the welfare and stability of labor. McCarthy’s merchants and miners believed that when citizen’s efforts produced capital, those monies which flowed to government were to be expected to be reinvested in improved infrastructures of this area. The residents of McCarthy not only lobbied the Territory for improvements they were sophisticated enough to organize their lobbying efforts. While residents created all the roads in our area, the government improved them. Bridges across the Nizina, McCarthy Creek and many of the improvements on these roads, Kennicott included came about through organized lobbying (after repeated loss of life). Improvements came as a result of importance and use and expenditures must then be solicited.

Our forefathers in McCarthy paid for many of the ‘towns’ improvements on their own, such as streets and fire protection, they were building for the future. They would not have understood or supported the results of the present style “public process” that exists

McCarthy Creek Bridges

McCarthy Creek Bridges

today, (i.e. the footbridge or the lack of a bridge across McCarthy Creek). Access brought the possibility of enterprise, stability and family. They saw the farms on the west side of the Kennicott and towards the Nizina (now subdivisions) as part of the economy of McCarthy. They saw the mineral wealth of Dan Creek and the Chittitu (now cut off) as part of the economy of McCarthy. They eagerly promoted every ton of hay or cabbage and every dollar of precious metal.

Mining, mercantile, freighting and farming were in abundance. All these enterprises were built without subsidy from government. The mines on McCarthy Creek (from 1907) were intimate concerns to McCarthy’s founding families. The politics of today, limiting and regulating growth and access to lands and resources would have been the antipathy of the prevalent thinking and desires of McCarthy’s early days. While we may be independent thinkers like our forefathers, we do not share the regulatory freedom they had to pursue their dreams. Citizens and small business bear a financial burden today the early residents of Alaska did not.

Tolerance in McCarthy was generally widespread. While many disputes about bootlegging and prohibition remain the stuff of legend

Elanor and Charlie

Elanor and Charlie

the town at the time understood its place in the economy of the day. The occasional ladies leagues feud erupted and accusations of fraud or corruption from various business and political elements were quickly settled. Politics were integral to McCarthy’s survival as a commercial center and many businessmen and townspeople banded together in organized entities such as the Commercial Club promoting McCarthy’s bright future and the Red Cross and Armenian Relief for charitable causes, Arctic Brotherhood, Masons and other fraternities flourished for fellowship and charitable/social causes. Sports were often organized events. Religion flourished but oddly no church was ever established in the early days, though traveling ministers were common. Sheriffs, constables and judges were established. Prostitution was business in McCarthy and openly engaged in. Most of the women in the business were treated with respect if not considered respectable. Children were not often allowed to interact with such, though I am aware of at least two homes and merchants located to close to “THE ROW” not to have been within sight. Children were few and special, protected from the numerous dangers such as sled dog teams by having all such teams staked on the east side of town near Clear Creek today.

The population was enormously diverse. Chinese, Blacks and European immigrants were all present and the only derogatory language (to us in 2004) I have come across pertains to an amusing story of a Indian woman skinning a very valued brood of puppies, dyeing the skins and selling them to tourists as blue fox skins. She targeted the “cheechako” market. Native people had long suffered the American expansion. Athabascans too endured rather demeaning verbiage and charitable causes but on the whole, little public animosity seems to have been expressed in McCarthy. Perhaps, because McCarthy was inhabited by few Athabascans there were fewer tensions. However the rowdy mining crowd was an unending source of concern for townsfolk, but the merchants of McCarthy happily suffered through many a miner’s paycheck. Grubstaking a prospector down on his funds was a common if not risky practice.

(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 info@mccarthylodge.com.)

Sources of further study and interest:

  • A History of the Chisana Mining District, Alaska, 1890-1990, By Geoffrey T. Bleakley, 1996 – United States Department of the Interior
  • Historic McCarthy – The Town That Copper Built (out of print), By M. J. Kirchhoff

The Copper Spike – History of C.R. & N.W. Railroad, By Lone E. Jackson

Legacy of the Chief, By Ronald N. Simpson – area historical with Athabascan views

The I.W.W. Labor Union and Seattle -http://www.tpl.lib.wa.us/v2/nwroom/unsetl.htm

McCarthy’s Media:

WSEN

The Copper Bee

The Avalanche

The McCarthy Weekly News

Cato Institute – for interesting reading and statistics

Should Congress Transfer Federal Land to the States? -http://www.cato.org/pubs/pas/pa-276.html

University of Alaska Archives

State of Alaska Historical Archive Sources

City of Tacoma Public Library Archives

City of Seattle Public Library Archives

University of Washington Archives

NARA – United States Government

Written by Doug Miller in 2003