Sy Neeley was interviewed by Bill Schneider and David Krupa on June 13, 1993 at his home in Glennallen, Alaska. His wife, Carol, operates Carol's Bed and Breakfast in their home. The weekend's lodgers were on their way out the door when Sy took a few hours off to do this recording. This break was a rare occurrence for the Neeleys, who not only run several businesses -- the B & B, a sanitation service, tax preparation -- but also provide volunteer services to the Glennallen community. The previous day, the Neeleys had attended the funeral of a fourteen year old boy who, like the Neeleys' own daughter in 1971, had died tragically in an accident during the bright days of June. The coincidence of timing saddened them all the more and gave them pause to reflect on the many accidents that had claimed the lives of too many youngsters in this tiny, close knit community. Sy is a natural storyteller and his eyes light up as he recounts the exploits of fondly recalled old timers. In this first part of a two part interview, he describes growing up the Chistochina and Nabesna area, construction of the highway, and early methods of transportation. He talks about the ingenuity of the early pioneers, including an early bootlegger who used the seat tank to hold bottled contraband, which was delivered en-route to legitimate booked deliveries. He talks about friendships with old timers, like Bill Cameron, a worker at the Nabesna Mine. He describes the elaborate, world-class, big game hunts executed by the esteemed guide, Harry Boyden, who later sold his land to the Ellises (see tape Oral History 95-71-02 for further accounts of Boyden). Sy's interview contains a lot of gems like this, colorful and humorous anecdotes from a life spent listening, laughing, and living amidst the great community that is the Copper River Valley.
Digital Asset Information
Project: Wrangell-St.Elias National Park
Date of Interview: Jun 13, 1993
Narrator(s): Sy Neeley
Interviewer(s): Bill Schneider, David Krupa
Transcriber: Joan O'Leary
After clicking play, click on a section to navigate the audio or video clip.
His personal background
His father running the Chistochina Lodge
Trapping in the area
Memorable occurrences in Alaska as a young boy
Truck driving and bootlegging
The Black Regiment that built the highway
Life in the Nabesna area as a young boy
History of the Nabesna Mine and area
Description of the old Eagle Trail and road to Eagle
"Old timer," Bill Cameron
Ingenuity of the early pioneers, and a wood bridge that was handmade without machinery
"Old timer," Jack Justin
Transportation by road and airplane between Nabesna, Northway, Tanacross, Tok, and Delta
Harry Boyden getting supplies for his guided hunts
Using horses in guided hunts, and Harry Boyden's style as a guide
Operation of a guided hunt
Types of clients who went on guided hunts
Mail route between McCarthy and Chisana
Click play, then use Sections or Transcript to navigate the interview.
After clicking play, click a section of the transcript to navigate the audio or video clip.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Okay. Today is Sunday, June 13, 1993. I'm Bill Schneider. Dave Krupa's here. And today we have the pleasure of doing an interview with Sy Neeley, a fellow here in Glennallen. We're at his home.
He and his wife, Carol, operate a bed and breakfast and they have numerous types of services that they do here in the community and lots of different businesses.
And Sy has been in this country all of his life, and so we're -- we're going to talk a little bit about the history, what brought your parents up here and what life was like growing up here.
And Sy spent time as a young boy out at Chistochina at the roadhouse out there. So we'll be talking about some of those topics. But let me -- don’t let me get ahead of this. Let’s -- let's go back and tell me about your parents and what got them to Alaska.
SY NEELEY: Well, I guess -- I wasn’t around at the time, but my mother fell in love with a gentleman and came from Wrangell, Alaska, and they were married and moved to Wrangell and that’s where I was born. And then shortly after that, I think I was about three I guess, that they went back to Olympia and spent a year or so back in Olympia, Washington. That was where my mother originally came from and my dad also.
And went -- stayed there for a while, and then dad decided to come back to Alaska and we came back to Juneau in 1938. I was born in ’33, and ’38 we moved back to Juneau.
In ’39, we moved to Sitka, and dad worked for Sims-Drake Construction when they built the Japonski Base there on the Japonski Island right across the bay from Sitka. Which is now what the Sitka Airport is built on that same location there.
And then 1942 why -- we were -- dad was working for Sims-Drake and he was supposed to go to Burma to work -- continue on working for them, and mom and I were at that time allowed to go. And just when everything was loaded on the boat ready to leave Sitka why the Navy came out with an order that no dependents were allowed to go overseas. That was in the -- early in the spring of 1942. In January.
So Dad said he wasn’t going if he couldn’t take mom and I. So he unloaded the stuff off the boat and it sat on the dock for a couple, three weeks, and we ended up getting on the Old Aleutian. It belonged to the Alaska Steamship Company and coming farther north we ended up in Valdez.
And I think that was in February 1942 we ended up in Valdez. I remember it was raining when the boat docked and the first person we met there was a gentleman by the name of Bill Cameron and he worked for the Alaska Road Commission.
And my -- my dad always laughed about that. He said Bill was standing on the dock and mom and I were on the boat, and dad walked down the gangplank and Bill said, "It looks like you’re lost." Dad told him he was lost.
He said, "Well, what can I do for you?" He said, "First, find us a place to stay." "Well," he said, "Go up to the Shoemaker’s house." Shoemaker had a little lodge in Valdez there up -- a store and a couple rooms upstairs.
So that's where we spent our first few weeks in Valdez was upstairs in the Shoemaker -- the grocery store, actually. Grocery and hardware store there.
That's what got us to this part of the country was kind of by a set of circumstances -- accidents, 'cause we should've been in Burma, but ended up in Valdez instead.
Dad worked as a cook in Valdez for a while. He didn’t like that. Of course, he'd done that when he was younger and he didn’t like it.
So he finally went to work -- Well, Bill Cameron, the first gentleman we met there, why dad told him he wanted to get a job outside. So dad went to work for the Alaska Road Commission and came up to Chistochina.
And the crew that he was working with up there was -- they laughed about that, 'cause it was a five-man crew and -- and -- or six men in the whole crew counting the foreman, and four of them stuttered.
So dad said it was quite something to get something done around there because if you're going to discuss it, it took a long time to discuss it before we decided what we were going to do.
But we -- Dad was staying at the Chistochina Trading Post at the time and Etta Housler -- Etta and Red Housler owned the place. Said they owned the place. Anyway, it turned out later they really didn’t own it.
But anyway, Dad decided it was better than working for the Alaska Road Commission was to maybe have a lodge. So he gave Etta $250 and the total price of the lodge was supposed to be $1,500. And that put him in the lodge business and trading post business, I guess. That's what it was called Chistochina Roadhouse and Trading Post.
And there was very little there to work with. Dad just rounded up some groceries. And in those days, it was a standing contract between the Alaska Road Commission and all of the roadhouses up and down that -- that you just had a meal sheet there. And if you worked for the Road Commission, why as you went through or while you were working in that area you just signed the meal sheet and the Road Commission paid for your board and room as long as you were working for them.
So it was kind of a -- a good deal because, you know, the guys that work in the summertime and there was very little -- nobody worked in the wintertime in those days. I mean, falltime came, the roads closed why that was kind of it for the year. Then you went back to work the next year or went trapping or whatever you were going to do for the wintertime.
But that got us in then into interior Alaska. And my mother and I came up on May the 14th, 1942 when we arrived at Chistochina. We road up from Valdez with Red Housler. His wife that was running the lodge up there. So that's how I ended up up here.
BILL SCHNEIDER: What did your dad do in wintertime up there?
SY NEELEY: Well, at the trading post, there, of course, there was a -- there was a Native village there and he bought furs. That was one of the first things he had to learn how to do was to buy fur, because a lot of people trapped in those days.
Trapping was a big part of the income around the valley. Most of the Natives trapped here and a lot of the people like worked in the mines -- the summertime mines or worked for the Road Commission, why they went trapping in the wintertime.
And a -- a good -- good bunch of the people around here that had some pretty decent traplines. And there was a lot of -- fur was a good price. Remember, it was 1942. During the War some furs were, you know, pretty high value. And, oh, some of these guys could make four or five thousand dollars a winter trapping, which in 1942 was pretty good money, you know.
Wages weren’t all that good. I remember the boys at the Nabesna Mine when we -- the mine was still running in 1942. We came here and it ran until the fall of ’42.
And I think they were getting -- part of them were getting five dollars a day and part of them were getting six dollars a day for working at the mine. But the mine furnished their board and room for them. They got to live in the mill or at the mine. Fed there.
Trapping was a -- a big thing. We had -- Dad had groceries and, oh, we sold Blazo for the lamps and kerosene for lamps, and traps and snares and groceries.
There was quite a few Natives around there that trapped in both over in what's now the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. Or they trapped over and across the Copper River, trapped up the Chistochina River and the Indian River.
And the Gakona Lodge was 30 miles below us, and there was a small Indian village there also and those people they trapped, you know. And it wasn’t all the Indians. There were a lot of white people trapped, too.
The winter -- You know, if there was a trapline somewhere in -- in -- In those days, everybody respected another person’s trapline. If you had a trapline established along a route, why everybody else stayed away from that area there. You might move over 10 miles and have another trapline, but that one was your trapline so everybody stayed away from that, you know.
And you left your tree -- you left your traps hanging in the trees. You left your cabin with everything in it, and you came back the next year and everything's still there. Because that was the way it was. Everybody respected that.
Now if you don’t stand on it or -- locking it up doesn’t seem to do any good because they break the lock, but if you're standing on it, you might have a chance.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, tell me what it was like as a young boy growing up out here at the roadhouse.
SY NEELEY: Oh, I thought it was fantastic. I saw all them trucks running up and down the road and I thought that was the greatest thing in the world. All this machinery running around.
And I'd never seen all this before, 'cause when we lived in Sitka, why dad worked on the base. But, you know, in a small town there was no big machinery there. Fish boats were the big thing around there.
But now all of a sudden, you're out in the country where -- You know, remember in 1942, the war effort was going on full bore around here. And the Public Roads Administration had camps and the Alaska Road Commission was working on the highway and the military was working on the highway. And there was contractors for the military working on the highway.
And the big push, of course, to get the Alcan Highway pushed through, and at the same time the Road Commission had -- was working on the highway between what is now Glennallen where we're right now. They were working on this highway to Palmer. That was under construction. Opened up late that year.
There was a Negro regiment that was housed at Slana at the old Slana Roadhouse, and they were pushing a road through, which basically followed the old Eagle Trail from Slana to Tok Junction. The Tok Junction didn’t exist. That was -- that was started during the Second World War.
I mean, prior to the Second World War there was no such thing as Tok. It didn’t exist. There was the Tanana River. The river was the transportation route through there when the road came through.
The old Eagle Trail came up actually west of where Tok is now. Went across into Tanacross. It went around by Tanacross. But when the Tok road was built, why they went right straight across and hit the Alcan. What is now Tok Junction.
And that was -- There was a big Public Road -- PRA camp as we called them, Public Roads Administration Camp there. And MK Company had a camp there. They had done some work in that area in there and they had some people there. And the military had people there.
And, of course, Tanacross, which was just a few miles up the road up there, about ten, twelve miles up the road there was a -- building an airport there.
Northway, down the other way 50, 60 miles, why they were building an airport there and, you know, things -- there was a lot of activity going on.
There was machinery all over this country, you know, and for a -- a boy that's nine or ten years old, I mean, this has got to be the -- that's -- that's got to be the highlight. I mean, there's all this stuff running up and down the road and if you work it just right, why you can even get a ride in it. That was the big thing, you know.
Well, I told you gentlemen the other day about Mel Jalop (phonetic). He was -- he was the commissary driver. And he was kind of a bootlegger on the side a little bit.
And I used to like to ride with him because he went into all the camps and all the sawmills. And everywhere along the road he stopped because he was the commissary truck for the Public Roads Administration. Everywhere the Public Roads Administration had a camp or any people, he'd have to stop there, you know, to give them their groceries, give them their mail, whatever it is he had for them. Of course, he could sell a little booze along the way, too, so that didn’t -- that didn't hurt him any.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah, now how did he do that? Where'd he keep it?
SY NEELEY: Well, it was an old International truck as I recall, and it had a seat tank in it for the fuel and then there were saddle tanks on the side. But the seat tank didn’t hold gasoline anymore, and he had opened the tank up and filled it full of sawdust.
And so you lifted the seat up and then you picked up this section of the tank that was cut loose, and there was all these pint bottles of whiskey were down in the tank in the sawdust.
So when he had a sale, why, you know, if I was with him why I got to stand up and turn around in there and pick the seat up. Then he'd reach inside and get the bottle and hand it out the window. And I thought that was pretty neat. I'd never seen a bootlegger in operation before, so I thought that was all right.
BILL SCHNEIDER: You were mentioning the Negro regiment, the black regiment, that built that road. Can you tell us more about that? And I think that you had mentioned the other night that they -- that they called it the Nigger Road and not in a derogatory way, but in a way of -- SY NEELEY: That was --
BILL SCHNEIDER: Labeling it.
SY NEELEY: Yeah, the Negro regiment, when they came up, they walked all their equipment from Valdez to Slana. All their bulldozers and their scrapers and everything. They -- they drove them up the highway basically from Valdez to -- to Slana.
They had all white officers and all Negro people in the -- in the regiment. And they -- Like I said, they built the road between Slana and Tok. The Public Roads Administration worked on parts of it, too, but the biggest push was the -- the Negroes.
But they called that the Nigger Road. And they had a big sign that they put up themselves at Slana down there and it said, "Nigger Road 1942." And it had the regiment number on it and everything.
And they were quite proud of that road and they should've been. It was a -- They did a lot of hard work on that and worked the winter, several of them froze to death.
Six of them on Indian River Flats froze to death. I mean, six by six at one time. A couple more froze at just above the Twelve Mile sawmill camp up there.
Their white officers had no knowledge of cold weather conditions. They didn’t know how to deal with that. And the Negroes came from the southern part of the States. They weren’t -- they weren’t -- they didn’t know how to deal with this either.
The military didn’t have clothing for them. They had the same thing in the wintertime they had in the summer, so it was kind of a case of just put on more pairs of pants and more shirts to try and stay warm.
They had, you know, very -- their foot gear was not anything proper at all. I mean, they just didn’t have it. Military leather boots they were trying to walk around in, you know.
If you look at the -- at the weather reports, you know, in 19 -- the fall -- the winter of 1942-43 was the coldest weather ever recorded in Alaska was at Snag. It was 83 below zero at that time, the official recorded weather. We were having the same weather in the Copper River Valley here and lots of 60, 65, 70 below weather.
And it wasn’t really a pleasant place to be, you know, if you're not prepared for it. Most people had enough sense to get in where the wood stove was, but these poor guys were still out trying to do things out there, you know. That was in the late fall of ’42 and during the winter of ’42-’43 before they moved out.
But they had a pretty tough time. But they were, you know, they were pretty proud of that road they built through there and -- and they well should have been, you know. And they had a big sign they painted and put it right -- sat right down where the old Slana Bridge is, just where they went around the bottom of Ahtell Creek down there. A great big sign there painted the Nigger Road and that's what it was called. And we called it that for years and years and years. Now it's all -- they've changed names of all these highways.
BILL SCHNEIDER: As a young boy, you also spent some time out Nabesna way?
SY NEELEY: Yeah, the -- in 1942, a -- a fellow -- the major stockholder and the owner of the Nabesna Mine, Phil -- I mean, Carl Whitham, I think was a nephew of his that came up here and he was about the same age as I was. About ten years old. And there was no -- no other young lads around up there, but Carl and my dad were pretty good friends.
So he said, "Why don’t you have Sy come up? And they can spend some time around there together to kind of keep each other company." You know. And I think that was probably the big mistake on his part because we -- we did get along quite well.
But we -- we really terrorized that mill building around there. We weren’t allowed in the mill building, of course, so the first thing you do if you're not allowed in somewhere you plan immediately to get into there. And we did that the best that we could.
As soon as the blacksmith would leave the blacksmith’s stand in front of the mill building, why we’d sneak right in there and watch the big power plants in there. There're fascination. Just again, it's more of that big machinery and every kid likes big machinery.
We had a lot of fun around there. Watched the -- the -- right next to the blacksmith stand was the assayer that he did all the testing for the ore and stuff that was coming out of the mill. So we'd watch him. He had a little window in the side. We’d go watch him. And he had all these little like a porcelain cups sitting all over the place, hundreds of them, and, you know, all the chemicals in them and then put these in the retardant and burn them down or whatever they, you know, tested.
And, of course, soon as he'd leave, why we'd have to stick our nose in there. Stunk pretty bad in there, but there was a lot of interesting things in there you could look at.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Many of the people listening to this recording won’t know the history of the Nabesna Mine and -- and its importance. Could you take a minute and tell us about that?
SY NEELEY: Well, Nabesna Mine was -- when I got here was just closing. Of course, we got here in 1942 and they closed in 19 -- the fall of 1942 under the -- you know, the wartime act of closing all nonstrategic mining.
But the next few years, you know, at Chistochina in the wintertime and they pretty much closed down and a lot of the old timers would come in and stay around the lodge. They had cabins around there somewhere and live there.
From what I know about Nabesna Mine, basically is what I heard from the old timers and talking with people that worked there, you know.
But the mill or the mine was actually discovered back in the teens, and then they started out the -- just mining the high-grade ore. And later on a gentleman by the name of Phil Holdsworth came up and went to work for Carl Whitham and he put in a cyanidation treatment system there in the '30s and then they started milling or mining the low-grade ore.
And they did have a lot of low-grade ore stocked up on the side there that they had saved knowing that they were going to put this in so they ran that through.
And the Nabesna Mine actually paid all of its original stockholders that when Carl Whitham sold his nickel stock in Chitina in the teens, why everyone of those stockholders actually made a profit. And the -- the story was that the -- theres are a lot of minerals besides gold in Nabesna Mine, but all the other minerals paid for the milling and the mining and the transportation. The gold was actually the profit when they went into the cyanidation treatment system.
But, you know, Nabesna Mine when it started, you know, there was no road up to Nabesna Mine. The road -- we were talking the other day, the road actually followed the old telegraph system. It was built for the telegraph system.
It went from Valdez to Eagle right just prior to the turn of the century and right at the turn of the century.
And then the road was opened up. It was called the Richardson Highway. It went from Valdez, followed the telegraph line until it got to Gulkana up here, and then from Gulkana it went up through Paxson up over the pass into the Delta River drainage and down that way.
That road then was extended in the teens. In '20s, the early '20s. And they built that road from Gakona up through Chistochina and Slana and on up to Nabesna. So that road that we lived on, Chistochina, was called the Nabesna Road and it started at Gulkana, actually at the junction down there. And that was called the Nabesna Road.
Then in ’42, when they built the Tok Road. The -- what we call the Nigger Road. That went from Slana over to the Alcan Highway and that was at the same time the Alcan Highway.
So the road we lived on was a dead end spur road. Chistochina only went to the Nabesna Mine, but the Nabesna Mine ran year round. It was a year round mine.
And they had as high as 60 people there working in the mine. 40 to 60 people depending on the summertime they might have the sawmill going and they'd have some extra people to run the sawmill.
You know, the wood lots were going. They were hauling wood in from the woods.
Carl Whitham that owned the mine always had the Natives cut his wood for the -- for the mine. And that was all cut down around Jack Creek and along in through there. Lost Creek and Trail Creek. And in the summertime, they hauled it in. And they had a couple old trucks -- old Ford BB trucks. In fact, my dad bought one of those trucks in 1942 from Carl Whitham. When they closed the mill down, he bought one of the trucks.
But that was a -- that was the -- that was a lifeline was that highway through there. And since that mill and mine ran year round, why it was a constant source of income there.
The Slana Roadhouse closed in the -- in the late '30’s. And had been locked up, and that's when the military took it over in 1942. And when they were done, why it reverted back to the original family that owned it.
But Chistochina was the first place from Nabesna where you could, you know, come down to get groceries or things like that. There was a little store at Nabesna there. Skookum Creek Trading Company. It's right on Skookum Creek there, but it was a very small place.
Of course, Chistochina was a small place, too. It was -- The big place to go in those days, the biggest place on the road here, was the old Gulkana Lodge. It was a three-story lodge building with a grocery store. And then the next place was Copper Center, of course.
But in the wintertime, why the roads all closed. Basically, everybody just snuggled in. And the mail came through once a month however best possible way. And if it didn’t get through once a month, why, you know, it would get through as soon as the roads got good enough so somebody could get up and down it.
BILL SCHNEIDER: But on that Nabesna Mine, that was a pretty modern operation?
SY NEELEY: Yeah, it was. When the mill -- when they rebuilt the mill -- When Carl Whitham rebuilt that mill, Phil Holdsworth, they --
The mill and the mine was the most modern at that time. Everything was electric. The electricity through all the buildings around there. They had steam heat in all of the buildings.
And the mill building, the ball mill and the jaw crusher and some of that was run by flat belts, but everything -- all the newer stuff that Phil Holdsworth put in, all the cyanidation treatment and all the shaker tables and everything, was all electric. And had all electric lights throughout the whole thing. And even the mine shafts were all electric and ventilated up there.
So at the time this was all done, it was considered to be the most modern mine and mill, you know, in the United States. It was small, but it was still the most modern. It was right up to the latest thing out. DC current in every building and everybody had electric light.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, let’s back up and get a clarification on the old Eagle Trail. It’s -- that trail was established fairly early, but you’re saying there wasn’t a -- a good road up to Eagle.
SY NEELEY: No. There really wasn’t a road. In 1942, when we first came here, there was no road to Eagle, you know. The old telegraph line started at Valdez and came up through Copper Center and Gulkana and Chistochina. And it didn’t go into what is now Slana. It actually turned off at Ahtell Creek and went up across the pass (phone ringing).
BILL SCHNEIDER: So you were saying that the road didn’t go the way it goes now. That it didn’t go out to Slana, it cut off?
SY NEELEY: It turned off where the Slana -- the old Slana Roadhouse is down right at the -- just right close to the junction of Ahtell Creek and the Slana River. The old Eagle Trail came in fairly close -- right where the highway department camp is now, and then turned and went up Ahtell Creek and it went out through Ahtell Creek and over Indian Pass.
It never did go down to the Slana River down there. It turned right where the highway camp is.
Actually, right below the hill where the Alaska Department of Highway’s camp is there at Slana, that's where the road came right around the base of that hill and turned and went up across the highway right there. And went up Ahtell Creek, came out across Indian Pass, down to the north side of Mentasta Lake and on out through Mentasta Pass. And that was the old Eagle trail.
And, of course, originally it was a dogteam and then pack horses and then wagon road. And went on out through Tok or what we call Tok now, actually through Tanacross is where it went and then on up through clear to Eagle.
But as Eagle -- the old telegraph line was the basic reason for that whole thing was to maintain a telephone system or telegraph system.
The Richardson Highway at the same time was being improved and it came as far as Gulkana up here, but it didn’t go towards any farther north than that or northeast from there. It turned there and followed the old horse trail and dogteam trails. Went out through Paxson going to Fairbanks, because Fairbanks in those days was a growing community then.
We had more reason to go to Fairbanks because of the gold rush that was going on around there and there was river transportation over there whereas going to Eagle -- I mean to, yeah, to Eagle on the Yukon River, why it was just a long trip up through there. And we're over getting close to Canada over there.
And now we want to go over to US side and want to go to Fairbanks. And "Heart of Alaska" as Fairbanksans say.
That turned out to be the main route, and it wasn’t very many years after that that the telegraph line actually was discontinued. They put in radios.
The Eagle Trail was -- You know, it was capable of being gotten over with horses and wagons, but mostly in the wintertime with sleds. That was the big, you know, if you're going to haul a lot of freight, that was the time to do it was in the wintertime with a freight sled.
We had an old gentleman that stayed at Chistochina for a couple years that actually worked for the telegraph people. He was a private contractor and that's what he did, was horses.
He hauled freight for them, and most of his work was in the wintertime. And he had sleds that he pulled back and forth. He didn’t go any farther south than Copper Center.
That was where he picked up his freight was in Copper Center and he hauled that freight clear to the Tanana River, actually. He went through Mentasta, but from my memory of his talking what he actually do is deliver the groceries that were going to be used like the next summer.
They had each one of these pieces -- places had to -- the military people lived in each one of these little weigh shacks along the road. Like at Chistochina, there was one. And there was, you know, scattered along the route.
They had an inventory and it was their responsibility. As they used this stuff, they had to mark it off their inventory. And every once in a while somebody'd come through and check to see if their inventory was still there that they said was there.
Because some of these people, I guess, would give it away or maybe sell it or, you know. And it was military rations and -- and material, so they had to be on the watch for this stuff all the time. So it was kind of tight control on this, but his job was to go through and resupply these places and he did most of that in the wintertime.
Then in the summertime, he used pack -- the same horses, but he did it with packhorses. And he'd make his trip in the summertime and use the same horses he pulled in the wintertime with sleds.
And then sometimes -- like he talked that sometimes he couldn’t get through in -- like Mentasta Pass, it would get to the point where there was too much snow up there and he couldn’t keep the trail open, why then he -- he reverted back to dog team.
He'd just haul stuff up so far. In fact, he used to go into the old Indian village at Batzulnetas and he'd get dogs from there. And haul the freight with the dogs. And then bring the dogs down to Chistochina or to Slana or to wherever he could -- wherever he had gotten his freight up to at that point then he would bring the dogs in and haul with dogs. It really didn’t sound like a lot of fun.
BILL SCHNEIDER: A lot of work.
SY NEELEY: That road -- that road, actually, you know, died because it was no longer needed for the telegraph line, you know. And then the road -- the Richardson Highway was the main thoroughfare from Valdez to Fairbanks. Then the Nabesna Mine started in and so there was a need for a road up to Nabesna, so it started at Gulkana, Gakona area and went to Nabesna.
And, you know, we still have that road and since then later was a need for a road -- the Tok Highway which went from the Nabesna Road over to the Alcan Highway.
And, you know, reasons for roads have changed around here and, you know. The original we needed a telegraph line to Eagle. They don’t need a telegraph line to Eagle in 1993, you know. We got a road up there now.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Let’s take a minute and talk about some of the old timers that you remember. How about to start with the guy that you met at the station there, Bill Cameron, when you go into Valdez?
SY NEELEY: Bill Cameron was a wonderful gentleman. I think he was the first people that -- first person that my dad ran into in Valdez. And it turned out, you know, they became very good friends in later years.
And -- and I consider Bill and his wife Francis to be very good friends of mine yet. They're wonderful people. They live in Seattle now. And Bill is not very well at the time.
But he worked for the Nabesna Mine as a timekeeper up there. And then later on went to work for the Alaska Road Commission. And I think that was in either ’39 or ’40, somewhere along in there. ’38, ’39, ’40 when he went to work for the Alaska Road Commission.
And he eventually turned out to be District Superintendent for this district for the Alaska Highway Department. And then went on to be over the highway department this part of Alaska. And then finally ended up -- after statehood he went to work for the federal government and was the liaison between the Federal Public Roads Administration and the Alaska Department of Highways.
So, you know, he went right up the ladder all the way to the top. But when -- when I knew him, why he was a foreman for Glennallen Camp here and a foreman for this district here, the Glennallen District. At that time, Valdez was the district.
Ben Stewart was the district foreman down there. District superintendent, I guess you'd call him. Bill Cameron worked for Ben Stewart out of Valdez. And Bill was in charge of the Glennallen and surrounding area around here.
And he's the one that hired me when I was -- I was 14 and, of course, looking for a job. And Bill asked me if I wanted to go to work bull cooking in the Camp. And I said, "Sure." He said, "You are 16, aren’t you?" And I said, "Yes." He said, "All right, come down and sign up."
So I came down to Glennallen and signed up. He said remember to put 16 down on that piece of paper now where it says age down there.
And my first job with the -- with the highway department that's when I was a bull cook. I remember I got a dollar and forty-five cents an hour. And, boy, that was a lot of money. I just couldn’t imagine how a guy could spend that much money if he could. Every two weeks you got a paycheck. It looked pretty big to me.
Yeah, Bill -- Bill was around this country for a long time and they still -- he was born in Chitina and he still owns a house in Chitina.
And, you know, he used to come up here -- in his later few years he used to come up every summer and spend the summers down in Chitina down at his house down there, he and his wife. I used to see him two, three or four times or half a dozen times a year.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Was he involved in some major engineering operations?
SY NEELEY: Oh, I think a lot of people in those days, you know, came up with ideas and a lot of those ideas turned out to be major engineering ideas, you know.
But, you know, as a -- as an -- as an engineer, Bill was not schooled as an engineer, but you know a lot of the ideas that he came up with have turned into be what they call major engineering ideas that -- that actually worked.
A lot of it was -- was case necessity. We've got a problem, we got to cure it. And what’s the best cure for it.
A lot of these guys that were around the country in those days were Swedes and Norwegians from the old country that were craftsmen. You know, give them a log or two logs and tell them to put these together and build something out of it, why they'd build you something that would stand for a hundred years if you kept it dry.
And, you know, that was the kind of the mother of necessity type thing, you know. Go build a bridge, you know, give me two axes and some shovels and a bunch of guys we'll go build a bridge. And they did. They just whatever was -- whatever was there, you know.
If they had a piece of machinery to help them, why that was fine. If they didn’t, why they could muscle it out and get it done. And a lot of these old bridges that are along the road here that were -- You know, if you got underneath them and looked at them, they're all made out of just spruce -- spruce logs that came from close by and all hand cut and fit in.
In fact, just four or five years ago I tore one out up the road up here that was on part of the old road that had been abandoned. The new road had built by it about a quarter of a mile away.
But we went in and did some work in there, and one of those old bridges was still in there. And I don’t know when that bridge was built, but the bridge was only nine feet wide so I know it was an old one.
And it was all built out of spruce timber. And the creek, you know, through the years somewhere the creek had moved over and went by the end of the bridge. The bridge was sitting high and dry over there with willows growing up around it.
And everything underneath that bridge was all mortised and tenoned in. All the timbers on that thing. And all done with an axe. There wasn’t a saw blade mark anywhere on there. It was a fantastic piece of work. A nine foot wide bridge.
I think it was probably built for wagons and Model T’s. And the guys that built that apparently didn’t have a bulldozer and they sure didn’t have a sawmill. And they didn’t have a saw right handy because everything had been cut with an axe. Except for the logs had been cut off square on the end. But, you know, where all the logs were fit in for the bulkheads on both sides. And there was about, oh, a twelve, fourteen foot long bridge. Nine feet wide.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Maybe you can talk a little bit about Jack Justin, an old timer who still lives here.
SY NEELEY: Yeah, Jack Justin, I've known him ever since I was a -- came here. He's really a fine, fine gentleman. He worked with a guide for many, many years. A gentleman by the name of Harry Boyden.
But Jack came from Nabesna. His dad was Chief Nabesna. His mother was Lucy John. You fellows saw the picture of Lucy hanging in our living room in there. She lived to be well somewhere 111, 113 years old when she passed away.
But Jack's getting up in years now, too, but he's -- Jack spent a good part of his time working with Harry Boyden in the guiding business, taking care of horses. And Harry booked some of the famous hunts in this country here. The Campbell family and the Kennedy family.
His hunts were 60 to 90 days. If you came hunting with Mr. Boyden, why you were out for a long time.
And the Museum of Natural History, they've got a lot of his stuff is down there that he took them out, and took the bone structures and all the skins and everything took back and put up in the museum down there. And Jack worked on lots and lots of those trips. He would be along with him.
His dad, Chief Nabesna, why he -- he -- he basically divorced Lucy. Long Lucy as we called her. That was -- that was her nickname was Long Lucy.
There's also a Short Lucy lived at Mentasta. But, that's Long Lucy, the picture in there. That was Jack’s mother. He basically divorced her 'cause he said she was too old.
And then he had two wives then. And they were just young ladies, 18 to 20 years old. But Lucy outlived all of them.
I first met Jack John he was living at Nabesna Bar, which is -- During the Second World War, the freight -- prior to opening up the Tok Road or the Nigger Road as it was known as, the freight for Tanacross and Northway and Snag was hauled from Valdez to Nabesna over the Nabesna Road, and then down Jack Creek to a field. It was named the Reeve Field.
And (Bob) Reeve was the pilot that picked the location and he did the freighting out of there with a little Tri-Motor Fords and a Boeing, I think he had down there.
Which there again that was an interesting piece of history there. They built this -- this airstrip down on the gravel bar down there, took the trucks right down Ahtell Creek and unloaded them down there. Loaded everything up in those airplanes and then flew it over to Northway.
And all the tar for the airport in Northway and Tanacross was hauled and delivered over there prior to the road ever getting there. So that, you know, before --
Those airports were built for the Lend Lease planes coming up from the states during the Second World War. So the big push was to get those airports in 'cause they needed those emergency airports for landing strips along there.
So, of course, they got them carved out of gravel first and then they started paving them. So there was hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of truckloads of tar and fuel that went to Nabesna. And were flown from Nabesna over to Northway and to Tanacross to pave those runways with over there.
And that's where Jack lived. And there was two or three other Natives lived down there on the -- on the what's called Reeve Field or the Bar. They called it the Nabesna Bar. That's the name of the area down there.
And they wintered horses down there for years, Harry Boyden and Lou Anderton and several of the old guides. Harry Morgridge (phonetic) and such like that, wintered their horses down there on the Nabesna Bar. And that's where that Reeve Field is right in that same area down there.
Now Reeve Field is grown up with brush now. I don’t suppose you can’t even land on it now. I haven’t been there for several years, but that was a big airport at one time. Very, very busy.
Public Roads Administration was in there. Contractors in there. Alaska Freight Land was hauling freight down there. It was all being flown out.
I got to take my one and only trip on a Tri-Motor Ford was taken out of there. And my dad and I flew or got a ride from there over to Tanacross. And they unloaded the freight at Tanacross and then we flew into Delta and landed at Delta.
And my dad had bought an old GMC Panel (truck) up there, and we went over to Delta to get it. And I talked my -- I talked my way into getting a trip out of that. So I got to ride in a Tri-Motor Ford from Reeve Field in Nabesna to Delta Junction.
Of course, Delta Junction didn’t exist prior to the Second World War either. It was Delta and it was over at the Tanana River. That's where Rika’s Roadhouse is there.
And I'd been there before on the highway. In fact, we stayed there. In the spring of ’42, we come up here. Dad went up there for some reason. I don’t know exactly what it was. We ended up getting up to Rika’s Roadhouse there and had to stay there for a day or two.
There was no bridge across the -- the river. You had to take a ferry across there. And we got that far and the ferry was -- something was wrong with the ferry. I don’t remember the cable was broke or whether she was leaking or something. It was tied up and everybody in the world had their trucks parked there.
The trucks decided it was going to be too long to wait so they all unloaded and Dad -- we couldn’t get through on to Fairbanks, so Dad said, "Well, the heck with it, we'll just go back home." So we got a ride back down the highway to Gulkana and get back to Chistochina. But Rika’s was in operation at that time and you had to take the ferry to get across the river so.
BILL SCHNEIDER: So there was that old Reeve Field, huh, that was used? It was easier to ferry it by plane than to build the road in there, huh?
SY NEELEY: They were working on the road. The road was being built at the time, but you couldn’t get over it.
That first -- You know, they didn’t open up the -- the Tok Road, the Nigger Road portion of it, wasn’t open until the fall of ’42, late in the fall of ’42. And that -- that portion of the road was a kind of a -- it was a mud hole type trip.
You know, you can start up there with a truck and you might be a couple days getting through because of the rains you're going to get pulled most of the way.
It wasn’t 'til ’43, the road actually turned to the point where it was, you know, usable because they kept working on it all the time. They were hauling gravel on it and kept it going, but, you know, they made it through in the fall of ’42.
But there wasn’t bridges in a lot of places and it iced up in the winter of ’42-’43. Why it became impassable practically.
In ’43, they got -- You know, they got the bridges in. They got the gravel put on it for the mud holes were. In ’43, they were hauling freight across there hot and heavy. But in ’42, why it was still going through Reeve Field most of it.
BILL SCHNEIDER: On this Harry Boyden and his big game hunts, can you tell us a bit about what those were like? 60, 90 days?
SY NEELEY: Yeah, those were pretty grand hunts. I remember in -- in -- Well, that was the first guide that -- that I guess my dad had ever been, you know, professional big game guide. And he showed up at the roadhouse -- trading post there in mid-summer 1942 and he needed to go to Chitina.
The Chitina Cash Store, which was the biggest store in this whole part of the valley here. The Chitina Cash belonged to O. A. Nelson. A very, very fine gentleman.
But he needed to go to Chitina and get his supplies for his hunt that fall. And Dad had just bought that old Ford BB truck from the Nabesna Mine. So Dad kind of contracted with Harry to go down to Chitina and get his supplies for him.
And they ended up doing this. And there's actually there was about three trips out of Chitina because Harry had left a whole bunch of harness and pack equipment down there for his horses in Chitina the year before. They'd come around through McCarthy way when they came out from the hunt. They'd went goat hunting late in the fall in the Chitina River.
And he left all his -- his -- a lot of his pack equipment down there. So it was a whole load of pack equipment we hauled from Chitina clear to Nabesna, and then Harry put in his groceries order down there with Ole.
And so Harry stayed in Nabesna and I got to ride back with Dad down to Chitina and we loaded the whole truckload of -- A truckload in the old Ford BB truck I suppose was about maybe four ton of freight. That was -- that was a big truckload for old Ford BB. To get back to Nabesna.
And in the meantime, Skookum Creek had washed out the bridge again. And the way the freight was going down to Reeve Field was on this side of Skookum Creek. In order to get to Skookum Creek, why you had to go past the turnoff to Reeve Field about a quarter of a mile at the top of the hill there.
Past where the old whore houses were alongside the road right there. I'm sure they told you where they were along there when you were up there yesterday. Anyway, you had to go past there and then Skookum Creek Lodge was right at Skookum Creek. You had to go across Skookum Creek.
We couldn’t get across Skookum Creek, because it had washed the bridge out and it was just a big mess there when we got there. And a lot of water.
So we unloaded all the groceries on the side of the road right there. And Harry couldn’t get across the river. We could holler back and forth across the river 'cause he couldn’t get across the river either. Went back to Chitina and got another load and took up there.
Well, in the meantime, Nabesna Mine was -- was in the process of closing down and they brought their -- they had an old Caterpillar tractor up there with no blade on it, but it had a -- had a -- a tumble bug we called them. They were a pull type thing that pulled behind the tractor and you could slip this thing a certain and you could grab dirt up with it and, you know.
But the creek had went down so they brought their tumble bug down and they worked on the creek. And that's when I got to stay up there because Carl Whitham’s nephew was up there.
And so when I got to go down to the Bar with -- with -- with Harry Boyden. He had one horse there and Jack John was down at the gravel bar down there at the -- at the -- at the field down there.
And he had some of the horses gathered up down there. And they brought the horses up and they packed all this stuff. It was a pretty exciting times for a young lad of 10 years old.
I mean, here's horses running around. There's trucks running around. There's airplanes taking off Reeve Field. There is more activities and right up the street is this big mine, and I'm going to stay there for a week or 10 days and terrorize that place. Which I'm sure we did.
And Harry Boyden has -- has got horses, you know, and I'd never -- You know, horses I'd seen on my grandfather’s farm when we went to Washington. There were a couple big Percherons, you know. There was two. There was Duke and Prince.
Well, here's a guy who's got 30 horses running around there. And I didn’t know how many more he had hid out in the woods around there.
And there's people packing stuff up with these horses and, you know, getting ready for these hunters to come in.
And I don’t know which group it was that fall that he took out, but normally when Harry took hunters out, he would go back to the States or he would find somebody that knew these people real well. He would find out what kind of liquor they drank. He would know their shoe size and their clothing size and what kind of --
He would tell them what kind of ammunition or what kind of arms to bring with them. He would know everything about these people there was to know about them.
He'd know whether they liked to sleep late in the morning or get up early in the morning, so whatever he -- he knew everything about these people. He never would take over three hunters at a time unless he had another full game.
Now the Jacquot brothers out of Canada used to work with Harry Boyden and Lou Anderton used to work with Harry Boyden. Now all these -- these people were the elite of the professional guiding service in Alaska. They were it for Interior Alaska.
And if they had a party of four or five that needed to go, why they would join forces to take care of these people. And their hunts were fantastic because they would have a hunter and he had a guide that went with him.
They had professional camp cooks. There was a wrangler for every person there was or every horse and group that was going to being working together.
If a guide and hunter were going to be working by their self, there was a wrangler and cook went with those two people. They didn’t have to mess with this. Harry made sure if this guy drank Scotch, what kind of scotch it was, there was that kind of scotch in the box on the horse that went with that hunter.
And I remember that fall, the fall of ’42, when we got back to the roadhouse and Dad was still shuffling this freight up to Nabesna. The mill was shutting down and they were kind of packing it up.
Harry was in a big tizzy because his hunters were having a hard time. It was wartime and they were having a hard time getting to there.
They finally ended up in Valdez and they stayed overnight at Chistochina. And I remember there was three of them. The three of them were hunting and there was one lady came along.
And Harry -- it was a surprise to Harry. He did not know that this lady was coming along. I think it was a last minute thing they decided.
They had sent him a wire, telegram, to Valdez. Well, there was no way for the telegram to get from Valdez to where Harry Boyden was in Nabesna. So he didn’t know this lady was coming along.
So it was a -- a -- a big shuffle. The last minute he went up and got a hold of a gentleman named Harry Morgridge, Harry and Millie Morgridge and they lived two miles above Chistochina, Sinona Creek up there.
He had to get Harry and Harry had four more horses. He got Harry and his four horses, and had to get them packed up and get them up to Nabesna because he had this one extra person that was going along. And it was a lady to boot.
And Harry was in an absolute tizzy. And he had to make arrangements, you know. And at practically a moment’s notice and that's not the way Harry worked.
Harry knew four months ahead of time what all these people were going to do. Now all of a sudden, there's a lady thrown in on the deal. And -- and it was just more than Harry could pretty near stand.
And he came from England. He spoke like an Englishman. He was a pure Englishman, and he was a gentleman and a scholar all the way down the line. And this was just pretty near more than Harry could handle, you know.
Inez Bronniche was at Slana. Inez and Fred Bronniche lived there and Inez told this story. She said Harry came in and he was just beside himself. He didn’t know what to do. He had a lady to take out.
And Inez told him that ladies are no different than men, you know, just a different place to go potty. "They all eat the same, Harry."
"Yes, but, he said, "I don’t know how to take care of her." She told him you don’t have to take care of her. She can take care of herself probably.
Jack -- Jack, I think was on that hunting trip that fall. So Jack -- Jack may be able to shed more light. I think that was the fall of ’42, I think that was, that that happened.
BILL SCHNEIDER: And it worked out okay?
SY NEELEY: Worked out all right, I guess. They all got -- You know, they were gone for 60 days that fall. Came back that -- That fall, why Harry came out from the -- they came back to Nabesna that fall.
Of course, everything shut down in Nabesna, you know, late in that fall, but Harry got out before things had shut down. But he came out and got his little grubstake for groceries that he was going to use for himself that winter and went back in.
Harry was kind of a hunter that -- or guide rather that -- He took out two Germans and I don’t remember what year this was. ’44, ’45, ’46, somewhere along in there. It must've been after the war because these Germans didn’t come from Germany. They were from the south, from the 48, South 48 as I call -- USA whatever.
But there were two German gentlemen. And they had, I think, originally booked through the Jacquot brothers over in Canada. And then Harry was working with the Jacquot brothers that year and they were taking the Museum of Natural History out that year. And they went out in May that year with the horses and everything.
And these two Germans come up and they were -- they were doing a hunt themselves, but they were also working with the Museum of Natural History.
And Harry did not like Germans. He was -- he didn't like them. He didn’t like that at all. We were fighting the Germans. And these two German gentlemen showed up and, you know, he knew they were coming, but they were all part of this party. And he was very distraught over that whole situation.
But when he came back, why these two gentlemen gave Harry -- each of them gave him their rifles. And these rifles had been made in the '30’s. They were -- they were high-powered rifles. They were German hunting rifles. And those two rifles are still in the valley right now. I know who has them. But they're beautiful rifles.
But because they'd -- Harry had given them such a nice hunt and then they had done their work all summer long for the Museum of Natural History and then followed through on their hunt that fall. And Harry told my dad that fall, he said, "Well," he said, "as Germans," he said, "they probably weren’t the regular run of the mill. They were probably a little better."
I got to get me a cup of coffee here.
BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, we're still pretty fascinated by this guy Harry Boyden. Can you -- you were mentioning the fact -- How many horses he needed to -- to run this -- this major guiding operation?
SY NEELEY: If I remember right, Harry used to say it took six horses to support every hunter and guide. And every hunter had a guide.
I mean, assistant guide, but it was a guide that just stayed with that hunter. And took six horses to support those two. So it would be eight horses for every -- every hunter he had, had eight horses. It would be eight horses involved with that.
You know, which is a lot of horses. You've got three hunters, you got 24 horses running around out there, plus I suppose there were a few spares for extra ones, you know, in case one got lame or --
You see there was no refrigeration or anything and they -- they were traveling all the time. So like when they were taking out these big parties that'd be gone for a month or six weeks or two months at a time, sometime during that time they would have to send in --
In those days, they didn’t have plastic forms for your head mounts. They took the skull. And if there was going to be a full mount, they took every bone that was in that critter’s body. Boned it out. All the bones were cleaned. The skull and the hide was all salted.
And sometime during that process, they'd ship this stuff back in. You know, bring it back in where it could be taken care of, so there'd have to be some horses for that, you know. And somebody would have to come out and get this stuff and take it back in.
I remember they had -- they had meeting places where Harry would -- would -- was going to be at a certain place. Like he'd be at Ptarmigan Lake or at the White River camp or someplace like that at a certain time.
Because that's when maybe that season was going to open for sheep or maybe moose, whatever it was they were going to hunt. They had a specific spot they were going to be at, and that's where somebody would go and meet him.
And sometimes he'd have people bring him in more groceries at one of these places, and meet them and then they'd bring out the skins, capes, bone structures and such as that.
'Cause most of his hunting parties were -- were -- they were -- they had to be very wealthy people. And in those days, his -- his fees were, you know, considered outrageous, you know, for the time.
Today, they'd be the cheapest thing going. But he would get a hundred dollars per day for a hunter. And he would have three hunters, three hundred dollars a day, you know.
And they're paying wranglers three or four dollars a day, you know. It was --
His -- his hunts were well-manicured hunts. I mean, they were -- if you went with Harry Boyden or with the Jacquot brothers or with these old guides out of the Wrangell Range back in here, those were -- those were elite hunts.
You didn’t -- you didn't just get a hold of him and get a hunt. He selected the hunters he was going to take out. He'd have many, many applications and then he would select the ones he was going to take.
The one year, the biggest parties they took out with two years running they worked for the USGS. And the Jacquot brothers, Harry Boyden, Lou Anderton and Harry Morgridge, and they combined all their horses.
The Jacquot brothers bought 60 more horses in Canada and they brought them up from Canada up through the White River and they all rendezvoused at the -- on the White River over there.
Harry and, of course, Lou Anderton lived in Chisana. And it was right close to home for him, but the rest of them had to get from here over to there.
And they spent two summers with the USGS surveying back in the Wrangell Range. In the backside of the Wrangell Range back in there. But in the fall when the hunting season started, why then the USGS people would leave. The hunting would take --
So those two years, all these guides, which were the elite of the guides in the -- in the interior part of Alaska, in this part, you know, the Wrangell Range and St. Elias Mountains and through this area here, were all hunting together. And they took out some large parties in those years.
But, you know, you can ask -- You know, Jack was around with Harry during those times and Jack could tell you these stories a lot better than I can because, you know, he was -- he was around during those times.
He was working with Harry Boyden. He was one of Harry’s guides, packers, whatever had to be done why Jack would be around to do it. And, of course, Jack lived in Nabesna and so did Harry during his last few years before he moved out down to --
Well, he actually moved to Jack Creek to get away from Skookum Creek because the darn bridge was out all the time and you couldn’t get out of there. So he built a cabin down at Jack Creek where he could drive out over the Nabesna Road and get down to civilization at Slana and such as that.
Then in his last few years he was alive, he had a little cabin at Chistochina, just north of Chistochina about five miles. Actually, Bill Barnhardt’s place. And he lived there until he passed away. But that was after he retired.
BILL SCHNEIDER: You said he ran the mail, too?
SY NEELEY: Yeah, during -- in the '30’s, late '20’s and '30’s, he had a contract from the US Mail Department and he used to haul mail from Kennecott, McCarthy area, and used to take it up around the back side of the mountains over to Chisana and over to Silver City.
And that was the mail route through there. And they did that with horses and dogteams.
In fact, I’ve got some pictures here somewhere in my -- I collect stuff. That were taken by -- They came out of a collection that came from Big Carl Carlson, which was a bridge man for the Copper Northwest Railroad.
But, of a horse down in a crack in the ice up in the glacier up there when they were going across in the summertime. And the horse had slipped into a crack. He had a full pack on. He had a big pack on his back and was stuck there two or three feet down below the surface there.
They did get the horse out. He came out alive, too, But, you know, it had slipped into this crack in there. Big Carl went along on that trip for some reason or another and he got -- he had a picture of it.
BILL SCHNEIDER: We got to talk about Big Carl, too. Interesting.