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Sam Lightwood, Part 2

This is a continuation of an interview with Sam Lightwood by Bill Schneider and David Krupa on October 21, 1993 at his homestead in Kenny Lake, Alaska. In this second part of a two part interview, Sam talks about the Kenny Lake community, development, guiding, farming, and the impact of the establishment of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 95-71-14-02

Project: Wrangell-St.Elias National Park
Date of Interview: Oct 21, 1993
Narrator(s): Sam Lightwood
Interviewer(s): Bill Schneider, David Krupa
Transcriber: Sue Beck
People Present: Marian Lightwood
Location of Interview:
Location of Topic:
Funding Partners:
National Park Service
Alternate Transcripts
There is no alternate transcript for this interview.

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The needs of the Kenny Lake community, and their high school problem

Getting electricity and telephone service to their homestead

The development of roads, high school, and water sources in the area

The Kenny Lake League, and economic pursuits in the area

The National Park, and Bill Etchells' guiding and farming ventures

Kenny Lake residents' views about government and control over their activities

Problems with access to water and drilling wells

Impact of the establishment of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, and problems with Alaska Department of Fish and Game regulations on Copper River fishing

Use of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park

Purchase and use of private land, and access to inholdings

Old homesteads in the area

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After clicking play, click a section of the transcript to navigate the audio or video clip.



SAM LIGHTWOOD: Homesteaders are typical Alaskans in that they believe in doing it themselves, and so the idea of anybody coming along and telling ‘em what they’re going to do, how they’re going to do it, was anathema to them.

So there wasn’t any felt need. There was suspicion of the Kenny Lake League, as it was called. Originally, it was called the Kenny Lake Community Advancement League, which was a pretty cumbersome handle.

There were a lot of things that the homesteaders felt were needed. One was electricity. Another was telephones. Another was rural mail service. Another one was the getting the road paved. And another one was the improvement of the school.

All these things were accomplished one by one without too much community opposition, because they were all perceived as benefits.

The one that had the most opposition to it was creating a high school here, oddly as that might seem. Because the schooling was furnished by the private school, the Catholic Copper Valley High School run by the Jesuit priests. A pretty good school. It was a boarding school and took students from all over the state.

But as the other communities began to have high schools built, they were only getting the problem cases. So the school was shut down in the early -- in the mid-‘70s.

Glennallen High School was developing, and there were some who said we only need one high school in the area. But from down here the school bus run was so long it was impossible -- Because we generally were fairly poor and had lousy transportation and the road wasn’t very good, it was impossible to get up there for school activities. We couldn’t in any way participate in parent-teacher organization. We couldn’t get to know the teachers.

And so all we could hear would be our students’ complaints. We had no phones. We couldn’t call anybody up, and so those of us who were in that position very much wanted to have our kids in the local high school.

My oldest son went to Glennallen High School for one year and it was a disaster. The next year we got our own high school down here.

Copper -- the Copper Valley Electric Association extended lines here in the summer of ’62, and then most people hooked up. But we were homesteaded here behind the lake, three-quarters of a mile or a half mile back in, and they wanted us to -- if we were going to get electricity -- to pay it on our own. Well, that was completely out of the question.

But after we came back in the ‘70s and we were running a light plant, the -- the electric company had a little bit more money and was a little more aggressive in pursuing people to hook up. So we began to negotiate in about ’78 or ‘9 as to how it would come in, how much it would cost.

And they finally said, “Well, if you dig a ditch, we’ll supply the wire and we’ll put a transformer back here for you.“ So I negotiated with somebody to dig the ditch.

And after two years of additional delay, in the process of which a cow drowned in -- a calf drowned in the ditch ‘cause it filled full of runoff water before I could get backfilled. I had to do all the work myself.

Well, I hired a ditch being dug and the guy dropped the cable in it, but he didn’t have equipment to fill it in with. Well, I had -- I was a partner in a grader and we managed to get it filled in.

And then we finally got power in ’82, where the rest of the community had power in ‘73.

Then the telephone was a -- a problem. In order to make a phone call when I was teaching, I had to drive fourteen miles up the old Edgerton and a couple miles down the Richardson to the nearest phone. We didn’t make very many phone calls.

Then after we were living out here, I’d have to drive a couple miles to a neighbor’s house.

But the cost of the equipment for the telephone is much lower than for power company's, so as they began -- when the pipeline was beginning to get going, they seemed to have surplus money, and all of a sudden they showed up one day, “Hey, we’re here to put in your telephone. How should we come in?”

And so there was a discussion of whether they were gonna come around the lake or where. And they said, “Well, don’t tell anybody how we laid the wire." And that’s where it stands today. So I won’t say on tape where the wire is that brings us telephone service.

As to the -- so there was basically no management. It was just an odd ad hoc way.

The decision to pave the road was -- had nothing to do with the community. The layout of the new Edgerton Highway, as we call it, or the Pippin Lake Cut-off, is a story that runs -- that in the late ‘50s, a group was going to start re-mining over in the Copper River region and they wanted a better road over in the Kennecott area. They wanted a better road to haul their ore out and they were going to ship it out of Valdez.

So they wanted a better road than the old Edgerton. They decided by looking at maps they could get a straight shot from the gravel pit up near the Richardson at Mile 82 mile.

And so to figure out exactly where they were gonna cut this line, the story is -- and get their line on it, they set some tires in the schoolyard and set ‘em on fire. So they observed that from the gravel pit up there and they knew where to cut their line.

And so as you come down it -- it lines up exactly where the old school was. And as you would come down it in the old days, you’d see the lights of the classroom right directly in the middle of the road. And there’s -- it’s about a six-mile straight stretch comin’ down the hills.

These decisions were made -- that was made by the Department of Education, to move the school. The community had little to do with it. They wanted to have --thought they’d appreciate having water at school.

That really didn’t have much effect on the community, except that they allowed -- they had an outside faucet where people could go to haul water for their homesteads. And not until we got a high school did we have any showers in the community where people could go and get a shower.

But at Tonsina Lodge they were very generous. I think they had a shower down there, but I never -- we never used it because we had a sauna. We didn’t need it, the bother, and we used the lake water and rainwater.

We’d haul our drinking water, but that didn’t amount to much, or we’d boil it.

When we first came here the lake was quite full and the neighbors told us, “Well, out in the middle of the lake where you get the wind action, the water is probably pure enough.” We had never heard of giardia at that time and nobody ever got it.

So we used the lake water, and I think we used it -- we just used it as it came. Particularly -- one day Marian was -- though we were very careful with the little kids about the water, and when saw ‘em drinking their bathwater, she figured it really didn’t matter.

This Kenny Lake Leagues had to soon change its name to -- for convenience to just to call it the League, continued with more or less recreational activities and as a conduit for contacting our legislators for things we needed. But by the time we got the road paved and the new road built so that it wasn’t so -- such a long, winding journey, there no longer seemed to be so many things we needed.

And soil conservation was piddling along, but the farming activity dropped off about that time. People discovered there wasn’t really much crops we could raise. There weren’t any markets developed.

Nobody -- very few people tried livestock. We didn’t -- there wasn’t a slaughterhouse. The season was really too short for barley.

The best crop was hay, and who was gonna buy it? Well, now the tremendous number of recreational horses, there’s a tremendous hay market. So that whether or not we had all the private land in the production of hay, whether we’d saturate the market is a good question because -- but Delta produces about as much as they can.

But quite frequently, we only get one crop cutting though we expect and plan on two crops -- two cuttings every year.

There would be a good opportunity for somebody to go into dairy. Because there is no fresh milk in the area. Matmaid ships a little bit up here, but theirs isn’t all Alaska milk anyway.

When the Park (Wrangell-St. Elias National Park) came in, it was very much a surprise and resisted. But there was already management by the BLM that was forcing people out.

One of my neighbors over here was a guide. He’d fly over into the Park. That was Bill Etchells. He’d been guiding and it was open country. Why should he have to file for a piece of land to -- as a headquarters site? It was all free land. It was all government land.

He didn’t need anybody tellin’ him what to do. So he refused to file on it. So the cabin and the land he had been -- used -- he had been using, as I get the story. He was told he couldn’t use any more. Well, had he filed for it, he would’ve gotten title to it.

So when the Park came on, he would’ve had an inholding. But as it is, he thought it was too much hassle and he gave up the -- he gave up his plane and concentrated on his farming next door.

He has 160 acres and for many years farmed it mostly by horses, Percherons and whatever. He doesn’t -- he still uses them a little bit on those jobs where you're just straight pulling power, but he has since gotten a tractor and some modern equipment.

But he lives very frugally, and very -- it appears very low cash flow. Or should we say very low disposable income. He buys the fertilizer and spends a huge amount of money on it. He does sell a lot of hay.

He has -- he took over that farm that Bob Petties had, in which 80 acres were cleared, and he’s cleared almost all the rest of it. I don’t know exactly how many acres he has under production. Some of it’s still a little scrubby, and he has some ponds that are included in that 160 acres.

There is not -- the services are provided for the area by the Copper River Native Association, but most of the people here don’t feel they have any need for them. And they view it all as government boondoggle and government waste and welfare of one sort or another.

The biggest welfare program is probably Aid to Dependent Children.

The people who homesteaded, I would say have -- there’s probably only a third of us, maybe half of us, who first homesteaded who are still here. And there just doesn’t seem to be much perceived need for any government or management.

With the REAA, the school district -- I’m being on the board, I look at it a little differently, but I respect their reluctance to have another layer of government when they’re -- the state is providing everything that is needed.

There’s a great reluctance to pay a tax. And the problems of taxation were we to be a local government would be things that I wouldn’t want to face. Because mandated immediately are land-use policies, which is planning and zoning. Nobody wants to be told how they’re going to use their land.

We don’t have any building inspectors, so you can go and build what you want, where you want, when you want, and you can do with it what you want. You could probably build it on the right-of-way and the highway department would never even notice.

Nobody finances anything down here through the bank. As far as I know, there has never been a loan made to anybody for anything by the bank in Glennallen.

But the Agricultural Revolving Loan Fund does finance farm purchases and equipment. A lot of guys take advantage of them, and the only collateral that they have is the equipment itself.

So nobody has their homesteads encumbered by loans from the bank. Everybody saves up their money and builds their houses as they go, and when houses or places are sold the owner usually carries the contract.

So this is going to be interesting ramifications when and if there is a local government. Somebody’s gonna come down and inspect all the houses and say, “Hey, none of these are in conformation.”

We’re still trying to figure out the best way to build a foundation under a house so that it doesn’t heave or sag or whatever.

Then there’s the problem of water. I would say two thirds of the people still use outhouses. Because you can’t drill a well. You don’t have a water supply.

Wells are known to be possible down this far, as you come from the Richardson towards lower Tonsina. This is Mile 7 and the top of the hill is Mile 18. So that’s eleven miles down the road where nobody has a good, successful well. They’ve gone to six hundred feet and they get through rock and they get into caverns.

And no one has even analyzed what the rock cuttings are that they get out. Are they limestone caverns? Nobody knows.

And if you’ve spent the money to drill a 600-foot-deep well, you’re kinda bummed out. Not very many of ‘em are done, because it’s -- you know, so-and-so has one and there’s another one up the road.

They don’t even have a well at the church, which is at Mile Nine and A Half. Seven and a half is where the hall is and they have a well, and there is a family that’s attempting to put in a laundromat. I say attempting. They have it pretty well set up. They’ve got their permits. They have their sewer system in. But it hasn’t been checked out, and I don’t think their sewer system’s gonna work because we’re sitting on clay, clay layers.

And I don’t think there’s enough of a -- they put it in some gravel. But we have these little gravel in layers here and there, and I don’t think it’s going to be enough. But that’s their problem.

They do have DEC regulating and telling ‘em what permits they have to use. Because they wouldn’t -- I don’t know how -- I don’t know the mechanisms.

People don’t know the mechanisms of government. Of how it works. You just go ahead and do it until somebody comes along and says, “You can’t do that. “ And then you argue with ‘em and say, “Well, just try and stop me.”

BILL SCHNEIDER: What -- what have been the impacts, positive and negative, of the Park coming in? Have you noticed an increased traffic? Opportunities?

SAM LIGHTWOOD: Well, we do notice a great deal of increased traffic, but that’s the fisherman. And those are the ones who are going down on the Copper River Highway to O’Brien Creek down to Haley Creek, dipnetting and to the fishwheels.

I don’t think it’s the Park Service that has. But we used to be able to put in our fishwheels down on the Tonsina. And that was real handy. There was a string of ‘em down there.

But then they said, “No fishwheels on the tributaries.” Well, it was handy to get to because you could drive down there and then take -- take off from the road and drive up an embankment and it was along the river.

BILL SCHNEIDER: This is Fish and Game that said that?

SAM LIGHTWOOD: Yeah, Fish and Game, whoever. Now you can only put a fishwheel in on the Copper from the bridge at Chitina up. Well, you can’t get to the land. Well, you can’t get to it. There’s no roads down to it. Up at Copper, private landowners have riverfront access, but there’s no place.

And I just prevail on the good friends of good friends who say, “Hey, we got extra fish. Do you want some?” Sometimes I get a permit and sometimes they just give ‘em to me, which is illegal. Everything is involved in all the rules and regulations, but we tend to ignore ‘em.

One guy got into a whole lot of trouble. He always has a fishwheel. He was down there. A tourist came along. He was admiring him. And he was just a single guy, so he was giving away fish. Fish and Game -- “You can’t do that! You can’t give away fish!. You can’t give fish away to the tourists!” “Why not? They’re my fish. I got ‘em. I got a permit to give ‘em away. Why can’t I give ‘em away?”

Well, they went around and hassled. They never did anything to him. They just gave him a rough time. He had a personal use permit, and they were -- they were saying he couldn’t give away some of his personal use permit? As long as he was within his permit? That’s Fish and Game.

As far as parks go, there was a lot of noise from the people who used the Park. Our -- for myself -- never went over there for any reason at all. It didn’t make any difference to me too much, although it would be interesting to drive down the Copper River Highway. That was closer. That was handier. That was a better recreation, because from Chitina you got the experience of the canyon, the wild nature of it.

Where the McCarthy Road is a long, boring, rough road. And then you get out to McCarthy and you have an old village. And you can pay some money and go up and look at some tumbled-down mine buildings.

As far as our use of the Park, it’s zilch. As far as people I know, it’s zilch. People are allowed to go hunt there, and a lot of them do that I know, because they live in the area.

But they’re -- as I talk to people, there is a concern about the inholdings. The Park Service tries to threaten them with what they can and can’t do if they live along the road.

And the Park Service boundary is defined as the Copper River, but it’s not the Copper River at all. It’s back several miles from the Copper River. Both the State and the Natives own a lot of land there on the other side of the Copper. And then they claim that as inholdings, because of the boundary is along the Copper. Well, it’s just on the edge of it.

There’s a lot of good agricultural land over there that, together with the land on this side, would help comprise a viable economic unit for agriculture. But you can’t get there. You can cross the river -- bridge -- at Chitina, but then you have the -- Ladena? The river that comes down there? The one right by there -- is a huge canyon. It would be very difficult. Maybe you could go across the flat and work your way up the other side.

But after the land was closed in ’69, I believe it was, there wasn’t any access to land unless the State had some. And then they had such a policy of land leasing or acquisition, that it was more discouraging and impractical.

Under the Feds, all you had to do was find your 160 acres, file on it, and follow through with the requirements. It was working through ‘69, because land had no value. Therefore you didn’t file on it unless you saw a speculative potential in near the cities.

But out here you could get it and there wasn’t -- now whenever the State puts 'em there’s ten or twenty applicants for every parcel of land, because the State cannot say, “Are you qualified if you get this land to farm?” And they can’t put any restrictions on it.

People who live here, who have an acre, we would like to get twenty acres. We’d like to get fifty acres. We’d like to get a hundred acres. We want to farm. Well, they are competing against the people from Fairbanks and Anchorage who have no reason at all, no interest at all, except as a possibility for speculation.

But the residents here can’t get the land. So that’s a management problem. It doesn’t have much to do with the Park Service, except that until the Park came in there that land was also available, and people were homesteading and there’s a lot of people that live out in Strelna.

The whole McCarthy -- the whole Chitina River area is probably as good for agriculture as this is. We’re at elevation here of 1300 feet. People have homesteaded up as far as two thousand. But the lower your elevation, the more advantage you have. And Chitina River Valley is not any higher than this, all the way up to McCarthy.

There were some old homesteads in there and I guess they’re still privately held, but then you’re close to the Park. The land has skyrocketed in value. Nobody can buy it for anything except for a recreational site.

I saw one of those old homesteads in there. It was interesting. The size of trees that had grown up and the ruins of the houses that’d been there. You couldn’t make head or tail out of -- out of the ruins. Just a pile of roofing material and boards and two-by-fours and windows, and it was just a a big heap.

But they -- they went out. When the railroad went out in the -- 1938, that was the end. Where down here the road always maintained open to Chitina. And people were coming in in the ‘50s, so that -- they couldn’t get across the river. So that there wasn’t any access over there until they built the bridge, and I think that was about ’69.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, good. Thanks for supplying all that history.