Project Jukebox

Digital Branch of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Oral History Program
Richard Frank
Richard Frank
Richard Frank talks about working on riverboats in Alaska.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2008-04-02

Project: Fairbanks Communities of Memory
Date of Interview: Mar 2, 1996
Narrator(s): Richard Frank
Location of Interview:
Location of Topic:
Funding Partners:
Alaska Humanities Forum
Alternate Transcripts
There is no alternate transcript for this interview.

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His childood and ethnic background

A kind old miner

Richard's first day on the job

The hard work and appreciation of river boats

Attaining first mate status, and a pilot's license

Frank's military experience, and returning to the river

Learning respect from the Native elders

Employment opportunities for young Native men, and safety training

First mates and friendships

Wood cords

World War II and the Native community's perspective

The Public Health Service boat and safety training on the river boats

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RICHARD FRANK: I didn’t move here in 1942. I came here with my family in 1975.

But when I first came to Fairbanks, it was by riverboat. A guy named Frank Albee.

He was trading up and down the Tanana and Yukon River, and he stopped at the fish camp one day, and he asked if I wanted to go to Fairbanks, and I asked my mother and dad.

And that was my first trip to Fairbanks.

He bought me a meal ticket at the Model Cafe, that’s where I ate everyday, but I slept on the boat every evening, on the Chena River.

The bluff that Effie was talking about, I grew up in that area back in the early 30's and the Ray River.

My dad is from Rampart, my mother is from Minto. I speak my dad's dialect better than my mother's dialect.

It’s much easier to pronounce in his Native tongue than my mother. The pronunciation in his Native tongue was distinct pronunciation, whereas my mother's it was sort of guttural pronunciation.

So it was much easier for me to speak his dialect. And he was also a chief of Minto.

When I first seen a steam boat, back in the early 30's, it was at the mouth of Ray River.

And the bluff that Effie Kokrine was talking about was right below Ray River. In between there, there was an old miner that came up in the late 1800's, and he settled there.

That’s where he ended up. I don’t think he found much gold, but he left a cabin there.

And we used to go visit him, and he'd read to us. We walked down there sometimes with our brothers, and he'd pull out a book and read to us.

And he taught us how to plant gardens and all that, we used fertilizers and one day I was headed down there, and I ran to the garden and got a handful of dirt and put it in my pocket,

because I want to plant his hair back on. Rubbing it all over his head, and he really got a charge out of it.

He was a kind old man; I will never ever forget that fellow.

When I first seen the steam boat, it was coming down the river and making noise.

Never saw something like that and that really inspired me to become part of it.

And as a kid raising up in... on the Tanana River in the fish camp, when all our chores was done, we'd play steam boat in the smoke houses.

And I always dreamed about working on boats. During World War II, all the young people were taken out of the villages to serve in the military.

And I was in Nenana. I wasn't really looking for work, but one was offered and I took it, on the steamer Nenana in 1942.

I turned 14 on the steamer Nenana in August. And a fellow by the name of Allen Brown was the first mate.

And I’ll never forget that first day we were, I went to work, we were leaving Nenana with a barge load of freight, and just when we left the dock, there was a guy waving.

And Allen Brown asked him if he wanted to get a ride down the river. He said yes. So he motioned to the skipper to go back to shore, and we picked this fellow up,

and that was the first Native person we seen in a military uniform. A guy named Donald Star.

And we really, really appreciated him. When the first mate told him get aboard, he told him where are you going? He said Tanana.

The first mate told him, "Well, soldier, you got a free ride down there." That was something. I’ll never forget that first day of my work on the steam boats. I'll live with that. And I tell these stories to young people, how it came from the heart to help each other.

That was ah, fortunate that I got work in something I really dream about, and I really, really appreciated. It was hard work, but I was used to that.

We were all used to that. My father worked on the steam boats. And in those days they had to cut their own wood.

So he told me about it, in his Native tongue, and their big obstacle in those days was to communicate.

They spoke mostly in their Native tongue, and the first mate or second mate was, they used English. So that was their big obstacle.

And they used to tell stories about people from lower Yukon that came up on the steam boats, and when they were laid up for the winter, they were laid up here in Fairbanks or wherever it may be, but usually up on the Tanana River.

And these two peoples, especially these two people had to go back home. The Native people in this area gave them two snowshoes; one snowshoe each and one extra, and they built their own little sled, and they walked all the way back down the Yukon River.

And I heard about those, and I want to find out if it was true. And I talked to the old elders down around Fortuna Ledge and Pitka's Point, and they said yes, it is true.

So that’s the way it was done. Like Effie was saying, there was a lot of hard work, but they appreciate it, and it had to be done.

The life on the river boats is something that a lot of people is not really aware of it, and some of them just read about it, and hear about it.

There was no airfields, no communications, no electricity.

Like they're enjoying a lot of these things in the villages now. But I remember one village when we landed there, an old person came down to the first mate and he said, "Can you get some sugar and tea on the beach first?" See, they were out of it. They were out of groceries.

And he told a couple of us to take a case of tea and a sack of sugar. And to hear those people saying come on over to the house, have some hot tea with us,

to show their appreciation after they suffered for groceries that they ran out of. Now there’s no shortage of stuff, you just pick up the phone and order it. And it'll be there probably that afternoon by air.

But life was hard. But people are really appreciate it, because that’s the way they live, and that’s what their standard was [extra size].

On the, going back to Ray River, that was the only transportation, was by rivers during the summer time, like Effie was saying. I'll never forget those big rafts that used to come down from the upper Yukon River.

There was hardly any inboard or outboard motors. And the upkeep of those was tremendous for the people in those days, 'cause you have to have gas and oil,

where as the raft you just billet and you go on down by mother nature's power. And you utilize the raft.

It ah... in my days on the river too, there was a lot, a lot of animals on the river.

Big herds of caribou, which I thought will never be...become an end to those animals.

When I got laid off that fall, as young as I was, the first mate asked me what I was going to do next year.

I told him I didn't know, and he said, "Well if you're around, I’d like to have you back."

And it dawned on me there, that I must have been doing something right. As young as I was.

And I'd also, when I came back home, I also thought that the responsibilities that I tried to exercise, which was taught to us, was something that I have to be very careful of.

And the dream, of my dream to work on the boat was to climb the ladder. But I had to earn it.

There was a captain on the... I ended up working on a diesel driven motor vessel, motor vessel Yukon, they call it.

He recommended me to be mate. And I had to pass a Coast Guard examination to become licensed mate. So he said, I'll make a recommendation. And he said from there on, you're on your own.

And lo and behold, I passed that. And when I was recommended to become first mate also, I passed that. And the pilot license and the skipper. I never thought that I would do those things due to lack of education.

As I got a little older, my brother was serving in the military in the Aleutian campaign, and I thought I was going to join him, I should join him.

So I volunteered, and instead they sent me to South Pacific. And it was, it was quite an experience for me. The responsibility that, that was given to me,

I lived by that, and became an aircraft mechanic while I was in the Service. We have a reunion this October, 18th fighter group in Reno.

And to say to the pilot that this aircraft is combat ready, that’s quite a responsibility as young as I was.

And I thought I was going to be a mechanic the rest of my life. I did work for the airlines here as a mechanic, but a fellow named Fred Goodwin told me, what are you doing there working on an airplane when the barge is ready?

That’s all it took, and I went back to the river. I headed back on the river when I got out of the Service, and I just worked on it until I thought it was better to get off and spend some time with my children.

I enjoyed it and met a lot of people. And one of the things that I was taught is when you go into the communities,

among the Native people, always extend a handshake with them, from the heart, even though you can't understand each other.

Show that you appreciate those people, whoever it may be. And I lived by that. And one old fellow from Koyukuk told me, I'll never forget you.

As young as you were, you came up and shook hands with us. He said that’s never been, that don't really ah, been exercised lately. And these are things that we get to put aside.

It took us three weeks to go from Nenana down to the Yukon River, mouth of the Yukon River and back. That was a long, long trip.

And each piece of freight have to be handled by hand. Going down river, we stood a watch of six hours on, or six hours off on the steam boat.

And during that six hours, you have to stand wood watch, what we call wood watch, to feed the fireman his supply of wood for the boilers. And other duties was fire watch and some safety watch.

The people I hired; I was looking for very dependable people. Safety factor was one of the strong things that we exercised.

We were going between Nenana and Minto, going upstream with an empty barge, when the MV Yukon... and those barges create some big, big heavy waves.

It was near fall, and there was a boat coming down and around the bend, and it was going pretty fast. We usually slow down when we see a small boat, but this boat headed just right by us.

And we knew what was going to happen; he was going to flip his little boat over. And some of the deckhands was off watch, in their bunks sleeping and some of them were on watch.

The skipper told me you better hit the general alarm and on the way down I hit the general alarm and ran back to the fan tail which is the back of the stern of the boat, where the sounding boats and all that are secured.

When I got there, there was two deckhands out of their beds, just in shorts, one was launching the boat, the other one had the motor running, and they jumped in.

We time each other to do these things, and all three of the occupants of that small boat was overboard. And when we cut loose, we picked them up, the first one, we didn't know who they were, but found out this one guy was saying there’s a woman, there’s a woman there, and we picked her up first, and we brought her aboard, and then the two other people.

We saved everything except their fishing gear. And when we came back aboard the MV Yukon, we found out that she was seven months pregnant.

So all that training and picking the crew really pays off. And the work itself was, there was no other work up and down the river except on the river boats.

And it was something that all of the young Native people had an opportunity to do. Many of them got fired, and some of them missed the boats and all that, like I did when some good big dances are along the Yukon River. Hell, I missed many, many times, I missed the boat.

The smaller boats was there also. I'll never forget a small boat named the Idler, was something that I really, really wanted to work on. It was..

it went a lot of places where we weren't able to go in the smaller rivers. So, I saw a young person there, that's sitting among us, that ah, became a real good friend of mine.

When I first saw him, and I saw him on the beach here in Chena, he had his arm in a cast, so we got to know each other really well, and I think a lot of people appreciated us.

Jim Binkley is well known. Allen Brown is well known among the Native people, he hired many many people, there was ah...

There was ah, there was some first mates that was really, really hard to work for, but then work was something that we had to do, and they taught us many things. I guess that's...I wondered if there are any questions.

Oh, we got paid once a month, somewhere in the neighborhood of $100.00, and there was no overtime. We never got paid for overtime.

Wood watch, I mean when we'd load wood, 50 cords was a drop in the bucket to load. The most we ever loaded was somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 cords at one time.

That was a lot, a lot of work. So if there is any questions. I want to thank you. AUDIENCE MEMBER: Would you talk about how people cut the wood?

RICHARD FRANK: Ok, yea, cutting wood was done a lot by contracts. Ah, Minto had a big contract due to World War II.

They cut over a 1000 cords one winter, and I helped do that, and many other young people. But a lot of individuals got 100 cords contract for the winter, and some of them got more than that, some of them just 50.

And they use ah, most of them use ah, crosscut saw, a six foot crosscut saw, an axe, and they have to haul it to the bank. And put it up where the bank won't cave in. And put it up where a boat can come in and load it.

So somewhere in the neighborhood of $6.00 to $8.00 a cord, wood. You have to split it and stack it up, so someone can, the purser on the boat can come around and measure it off.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: And they were three feet long? RICHARD FRANK: Yes, four feet. AUDIENCE MEMBER: And that’s hard to do. RICHARD FRANK: Yes, leather gloves when you're on a wood watch, leather gloves last just about six hours, and you throw it away.

And the work got so hard on the riverboat, that your hands got full of calluses, you either dip it in the water or just hold it. It just became just like a piece of leather. You had a question?

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Actually this is probably something for a future symposium, its kind of off, but -- it just occurred to me that maybe you would know how, how did the Native community feel about being drafted? It sounded like you volunteered, but how did in general were they ok with the drafting for the war?"

RICHARD FRANK: The patriotism was there. It was something they knew they had to contend with.

A lot of those... there were some Native people in the first World War, from up and down the river, Tanana, Nulato and that area. They talked about it, and oh, it’s something that we just had to do.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: In Tanana, there was 18 boys taken out of Tanana that first year. And we did have some volunteers, but people didn't have the money to come to Fairbanks for their examination.

So they wait and got drafted, and then come and got, you know, if you had to have physical examination. So, this was, both ways, some got drafted and some volunteered. But I remember, as sad as it was, I was very proud of Tanana when they took 18 boys, Native boys, to fight for us.

And you take your same Native boys at that time and turn them loose in Fairbanks, they'd have been nothing. They'd have just been inmates. But to us, they were our pride and joy.

RICHARD FRANK: There was one Native boy that was a P.O.W. in Europe, from the interior, so... AUDIENCE MEMBER: You’re experience in the South Pacific, how do you compare Alaskan mosquitoes with South Pacific ones?

RICHARD FRANK: There’s a lot of bugs here in Alaska, and they said the South Pacific was just worse, probably. It ah, I guess some of the islands I was on it was...

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Ah, Public Health Service riverboat was that operating in those days? RICHARD FRANK: Yes. AUDIENCE MEMBER: So a lot of the guys would get their exam when that Public Health Service came by... RICHARD FRANK: Yes.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Mostly kids, I guess. RICHARD FRANK: Yes. AUDIENCE MEMBER: The biggest outboard ever seen.

RICHARD FRANK: Yea, that ah, the... there was a lot of accidents on the river boats.

There was people going over board, and ah, there was one instance where we were shifting barges around at Nenana, and am I doing alright? We were shifting barges around and there was... We had ah, a waitress in the galley crew.

The cook was a woman and two waitress and at that time I was serving as a first mate, and I told the crew to go back and have your coffee and stay back around the fan tail. I said that woman on the other boat is going to jump overboard.

Just as I turned, just as I turned, she jumped. Here again, the training of the crew paid off to launch that boat, we picked her up. But ah, if nobody was aware that something like that would happen. She just stood there, seemed like she was... she waved at us, and on that, nobody was aware like some of the crew members were, we would have lost her.

But there was a lot of accidents that happened. And ah, the safety factor that was exercised during our training was very beneficial for the crew. Thank you.