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Sy Neeley, Part 2

This is a continuation of an interview with Sy Neeley by Bill Schneider and David Krupa on June 13, 1993 at his home in Glennallen, Alaska. In this second part of a two part interview, Sy talks about old timers,Big Carl Carlson, Henra Sundt, and Thad Conkle, and changes that have occurred in the Copper River Valley. Perhaps his most humorous story revolves around Big Carl Carlson (see tape Oral History 85-87 for more on Carlson), a man famous in his younger days for being able to lift two 250 pound counterbalances during the July 4th celebrations. In his old age, Carl enjoyed his drink and cared little for appearances. Sy suggests that Carl may have launched the tourism industry in Alaska one afternoon as he stood on a street corner outside his favorite watering hole in Copper Center. A bus pulled to a stop in front of Big Carl and as a woman exited she was shocked by the unexpected sight of Big Carl, stooped with age, hulking, drunk, flashing not only his big gray eyebrows but also the "better part of a man's business." It seems he had relieved himself and neglected to button his trousers. 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.

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Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 95-71-03-02

Project: Wrangell-St.Elias National Park
Date of Interview: Jun 13, 1993
Narrator(s): Sy Neeley
Transcriber: Joan O'Leary
People Present: Bill Schneider, David Krupa
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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"Old timer," Big Carl Carlson

Story about Big Carl shocking some tourists

"Old timer," Henra Sundt

"Old timer," Thad Conkle

Important changes that have occurred in the valley

Improvements in the road, and development of homesteading and farming

Development of tourism and the highway as a lifeline

Development of the oil industry and changes it brought to Alaska

Introduction of electricity to the area

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: So we're back on now and we can’t go much further without talking about Big Carl Carlson.

SY NEELEY: Well, Big Carl came to this country I don’t know where from and nobody really knows a whole lot about his history. When he passed away, I settled his estate and it was right after statehood.

And we could find no living relatives anywhere. Not any of his pictures had names on them, but he'd been around this country since I don’t know when. He came up here, worked for the Kennecott Northwestern Railroad that served the Kennecott Mine.

And he was a bridge builder. Was his claim to fame. He drove piling and built bridges. And I guess he was good at it. One of the best.

The bridge used to go out every year at Chitina down there and that was one of his big things. And he would -- they would watch the river out there and when the -- when the ice in the river was just about to take the bridge, they would go out and pull the rails off the bridge, pull the -- the timbers off and all the caps.

The piling went down with the ice. And as soon as the river went back down, they'd drive new pilings and put the caps and the stringers back on. Put the rails back on again. And they got pretty good at it.

They did the same thing at the Kennecott River up there, but there was another crew up there. And when that lake Jordan -- there's a lake up there that breaks loose every year, late in the fall. And it brings ice down.

Well, the Kennecott Glacier is right next to where the bridge was or you see it right there close by. But the water would raise and these icebergs would start coming down. It would just wipe the bridge out.

Well, as soon as that would start to raise, they'd run out, jerk all the rails off there, pull all the stringers off, pull the caps off. And it would only last like for maybe, you know, forty-eight hours and then the water would go back down again.

As soon as it went down and the ice quit flowing, why they could start driving pilings. They'd drive piling and they'd have the thing open in a couple, twenty-four hours again.

Keep that train running that was hauling that ore out of there. The Guggenheim’s were making money. They don’t want that railroad shut down.

But Big Carl worked on the Chitina crew. He worked out of the Chitina roundhouse down there. And he was a big man. He was well over six foot. And I suppose in his prime he was probably 250 pounds, 240 pounds and a huge raw boned fella.

Fourth of July, why he used to, you know, one of his claim to fame he could -- he could lift more than any man walking.

And the counterbalances on the old steam pile driver are -- are 250 pounds apiece. And you -- you moved them on your pile driver depending on how far you're cantilevered out to drive your next set of piling. Have to put counterbalances at the other end of your pile driver to hold the pile driver out there, so you can get your first piling driven down. Usually 15 foot depth.

So you're cantilevered out 15 feet, at least, out over the end. They move these things in the back. They usually move with a pair of tongs and two guys. They just hook their tongs and pick these things up and move them to the back on your pile driver.

And Carl could pick two of those up, one in each hand. Stand up with them and he could actually walk a few steps with them. He used to do that the Fourth of July down there.

But when I got to know him, of course, it was, you know, in the '40’s, early '40’s, and he was, you know, getting up in years then. And he went to work for the Alaska Road Commission. And he drove a grader for the Alaska Road Commission. We call them belly blades. They were old Ford trucks with a Norman Harrington (phonetic) attachment underneath them. Four-wheel drive. And it had a blade underneath them.

They don’t make them anymore I don’t believe now. Mostly, what we see now is a FWD trucks and Oshkosh’s with them what's called belly blades, the wing blades on them. But they're actually a truck rigged up with a grader blade underneath them.

But the highway department, the old ARC, they got a lot of those from the military. After the, you know, the war was over, they ended up with a whole bunch of these things given to them by the military. And Carl drove one of those for several years.

And Carl liked his Oly beer. Oly beer set pretty good with Carl. He bought an old cabin up by Chistochina up there. And his last few years, that's where he spent up there.

He loved to play pinochle and poker. And pinochle he was good at. You want to play pinochle with Carl you better know how to play pinochle because otherwise he's going to take your fifty cent pieces and your quarters, and they're going to disappear in his pocket.

But his hands were so crippled up he could hardly hold the cards, and he chewed tobacco all his life. And in later years, why he got to be pretty much of an effort to, you know, get up and go to the five-gallon can to spit out the tobacco juice. He just moved the can over next to the table, and he and Frank Charley and two or three other ones would get around the table and play pinochle and poker or whatever it was, you know, and enjoy life.

But like I say, Carl liked his Oly beer. And I tell a little story about Carl that happened in Copper Center. He was driving the grader, belly blade, for the Road Commission, and when he come in in the evening, why he'd first head over to the pub there and have a few Oly beers.

And a lot of times he'd take a few Oly beers to work with him, too. Just put them in the truck seat with him and, you know, go down the road. 'Cause he never went over about two or three miles an hour 'cause that's as fast as the old grader would go. So you didn’t have to worry about Carl getting off the road or, you know, doing anything.

He couldn’t hurt anybody because the old belly blade didn’t go that fast. But anyway tourists were just starting in. This was probably about 1947, ’48. And Carl went into the pub there at Copper Center and had a few Oly’s, and the tourist bus pulled up in the yard.

Well, Carl always wore pinstriped coverall, you know, and he chewed tobacco. And he'd shave once a week or so if it was really necessary.

And he had a few beers and, you know, he always walked -- He was pretty crippled up and he was getting to be an old man and he was all kind of crippled up. He walked kind of slouched over. His head was, you know, bent over a little bit.

And he was leaving the pub and heading over to the roadhouse to get his supper and this tourist bus pulled up. Well, Carl was getting a little forgetful, and he -- On his way, he'd stopped at the outhouse and he went to the bathroom, but he forgot to zip up the coveralls.

And it was hot, it was summertime. And he was walking over to the roadhouse, which is a couple hundred feet over there. And this tourist bus pulled right in front of the roadhouse right beside Carl.

And Carl had his hands in his pockets and the snoose was drooling out of the corner of his mouth and down his whiskers a little bit. And he was pretty dirty 'cause he hadn’t washed or anything from the day and it was dusty, you know. There was no such thing as watering the road before you graded in those days. You just graded whatever was there.

He stopped and he turned and the bus door was right in front of him right there. And Carl had great huge shaggy eyebrows. They were about an inch and a half long and they hung right over his eyes. If his head was down a little bit and he was looking up at you, why all you could see was these great bushy eyebrows and these little eyes peeking out underneath there and a great head of hair.

And he's standing right in front of the bus door and he's got his hands in his pockets in these coveralls. These coveralls were unzipped. He didn’t have any underwear on.

Well, he had underwear on, long-handled underwear, and it was all unbuttoned 'cause it was hot, you know.

So when the door opened on the bus, why the lady that was standing there looked down and saw this great shaggy white hair and these great eyebrows, lashes all hanging down, snoose drooling down this guy’s face and his hands in his pockets, and the better part of a man’s business hanging out of his coveralls. And there was a terrible shriek and she disappeared back inside the bus.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Is that what prompted the tourism business here in the Park? SY NEELEY: That may be what got tourism going here in this valley, I’m not sure.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, how about -- how about Henra Sundt? SY NEELEY: Henra Sundt? BILL SCHNEIDER: Henra Sundt.

SY NEELEY: Oh, yeah, she's a lovely lady. She came to Cordova, I don’t know what year, and she married a gentlemen by the name of Arne Sundt that owned the Gakona Lodge up there.

And I don’t know -- she had three children. Arne, the oldest boy, is a year older than I am. And so they must've came there in the late '20’s or early '30’s to Gakona or she did, I should say.

Arne was there. Arne, Sr., was there prior to that. He owned the lodge.

And she's still alive and kicking, and her oldest boy just passed away. He died of cancer a few years a few years ago. Their son -- her little boy, Roy, he's still around and their daughter's in Anchorage.

Henra ran the lodge after Mr. Sundt passed away. Henra ran the lodge for years by herself there. She did remarry once and that didn’t last very many years.

But Henra continued to run the lodge there for many, many years. Of course, she was our, you know, next door neighbor. We lived at Chistochina and Henra was 30 miles down the road that way, so that was the next business down the street was Henra’s lodge, you know.

So, you know, Henra and my folks got to be, you know, very good friends through the years. They were all roughly the same age.

I knew, of course, the two boys and then they didn’t go to school here in the valley. Her youngest, her daughter, Margaret, we called her Toots. That was her nickname was Toots. And she went to school here with Carol in Glennallen for quite a while here. She lives in Anchorage now.

And her daughter now is living at Gakona up there. Henra still has a house there in Gakona and she's out there right now. You guys can go visit with her. I think you'll enjoy talking to her.

She's a -- You know, she -- she knows many, many, many of these people. More than I know, because she was here a lot longer than I've been. I tell her she's been here lots longer. Lots older than I am.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Are there some other old timers that we should mention?

SY NEELEY: Oh, there's lots and lots of old timers. You know, there's Big Carl Carlson lived at Chistochina and Thad Conkle (phonetic) lived at Chistochina. Well, I'll tell you a story about Thad Conkle.

Thad Conkle as far as -- When we came in 1942, he lived up the road about a quarter of a mile above the roadhouse. He had a little cabin up there.

And Thad was -- he made up his mind to something that he had thought of or something he might've read and decided how to interpret what he read, why that was -- that was the way it was. You couldn’t change his mind. I mean, there was no -- there ain’t enough water flowing in the world to get him to change his mind.

Like he decided that -- he had bought some corn at the Chitina Cash Store. O.A. Nelson down there. And he had -- that year had gotten a microscope. Now, remember this gentleman is 60 years old and so going on. And he'd been living by himself for a good many years.

We didn’t know until after he passed away that actually he had been married and he did have a daughter. His daughter lived in Cordova. He never mentioned it. We never heard of.

And I don’t think she knew where her dad was until he passed away and then through some other friends found out this Mrs. Rosen -- Rosenbloom -- Rosenbloom was her name. And she did come up after her dad passed away, but she didn’t know where he was living until after he passed away.

But anyway, Thad decided this corn he had bought from O.A. Nelson in Chitina -- he had this microscope and he was looking at this corn under the microscope. And where the kernel is attached to the -- to the -- to the husk or whatever it is, why he noticed there was a little twisty thing there on the end.

And he decided that was wormy and every piece of corn had a worm. So from that day forward, he would not eat corn because corn is all wormy. All the corn he looked at all had a worm at the end of each piece. You could see it. He had a magnifying glass and a microscope and you could see it.

He also one winter decided that he wanted to become an attorney. And he had been down to Chitina and he talked to O.A. Nelson and O.A. said, "Well," he said, "There was an attorney here in Chitina." He said, "All his books are over here in the old office over here. He said, "You know, I'd -- " He'd sell 'em to him or give 'em to him or whatever.

So Thad came home with all this -- this great pile of -- of -- of books. Law books. I don’t know 300 or 400 pounds of them. Dad hauled them up and down there for him.

And these -- these books, the last one I think was -- was like 1930 or something like that. Or ’35, you know, somewhere. The last one had been printed.

Well, Thad spent all winter long reading these law books. And in the spring, he told my dad, he said, "Well," he said, "I’m a lawyer now." He said, "I think I'll hang my shingle out beside the road." But he said, "I'm gonna have to go to work for the Road Commission for a while, because -- " He said, "I kind of ran out of money this winter." "But by mid-summer," he said, "I'll be -- I'll be a -- in the law business." And he said," I won’t have to do that anymore."

But one of the things he did to us, the funniest thing he ever did was -- he was -- he liked to prospect in the wintertime. He was basically a prospector. He came up during the gold rush days and, you know, he was always a prospector.

It's like miners, once a miner always a miner. Once a prospector, always a prospector, you know.

Anyway, he was up the Chistochina River and he built these little cabins as he called them. Line cabins. But these little line cabins, I’ve been in two or three of them. They'd be about five feet wide and about eight feet long and about four foot high, you know, and that was a line cabin.

It had a 15-gallon grease bucket in there for a stove with a piece of pipe sticking out of it. And it was just you could lay down on one side and the Yukon Stove fit on the other side beside the grease bucket or whatever he had for a cook stove in there.

Well, he was up the Chistochina River there. He never got very far up, but, you know, 30 miles or so. He never got up to the mining ground was up there, but he had this prospect there.

And he stayed late one spring up there, and Thad liked explosives. Dynamite was something he always had around. Always had a few cases of dynamite around. Every one of these little line cabins had a case of powder in there just in case he needed it for something.

Well, like I say, he stayed a little late one spring out there and a darn brown bear came around where his diggings was there. And he shot it.

And the brown bear was way too much for him to drag away. He didn’t have any dogs or anything. Thad didn’t have dogs or horses. He just was himself.

If he wanted freight hauled, he neck yoked it up on a Yukon sled, you know. Rope around his neck and a G-pole on. That's the way he moved his freight.

So he went and he got about half a case of powder and stuffed it underneath that bear and lite it off. And that made the bear go away. He didn’t have to worry about hauling that one off. It went away.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, you've seen a lot of changes in the valley here over time. Why don’t you just take a minute and -- and tell us some of the ones you consider to be the most important changes.

SY NEELEY: Hm. I guess the most important change for this valley was -- You know, we arrived in ’42, why the big change was just happening we just didn’t realize it and that was the opening of the Alcan Highway and the military effort.

But that -- that -- the building of that highway didn’t really affect us, you know, as ordinary citizens along the highway system in the trading post business or lodge business, until after the War was over and they opened it up to the -- to the public in 1946.

And there wasn’t very many people came up in 1946. It was just a few. It was a hardy group. You had to have a permit and you had to go around, you know, in Canada. You couldn’t -- the highway didn’t run where it does now and it was a long trip.

In 1947, we started seeing the larger influx of people. You know, people started -- we heard about Alaska, you know, in ’46, why the road opened up and by gosh we’re going to go. So in 1947, we started seeing it.

But we also started seeing some tour buses start showing up. They actually were charter buses is what they were. They chartered and made the trip.

And that was a long trip, you know. Ten days, two weeks each way if everything went real well, you know.

I know Bill and Mildred Jenkins and Clayton and Lillian Hough (phonetic) when they came up, the two families, they left Oregon and when they got to Chistochina they had been on the -- on the highway for 22 days.

And the only thing they had a problem with, they broke an axle in the old -- They had a 1938 Chevy car and they broke one axle. And that held them up for a day there while they changed the axle and got that fixed.

And the rest of the time was just muddy road and slow going. And they had an International truck and they were pulling a trailer behind the International truck. It was just a little small freight trailer.

And Bill had his ’38 Chevy and he had a small trailer behind that he was pulling. And it was just a long, slow trip to make it.

And they had all their personal possessions loaded on board all this stuff, of course. And they were moving to Alaska to live. That’s it and they came here. Bill and Mildred were here for, well, I don’t know -- Bill's passed away now. Mildred lives in Arizona now, but she's 82, I think. They came in 1947 and they left here probably in 1975, ’76 somewhere along there. It's been a long time.

BILL SCHNEIDER: So certainly improvements in the road?

SY NEELEY: Improvements in the road. And, you know, by 1948, ’49, traffic was picking up over the highway and then we were seeing the change then. Because now we have a tourist industry.

I wouldn’t really call it -- to start with it was -- it was a homesteading industry. People were coming up here to homestead in Alaska.

There was free ground in Alaska. You could get free ground from the federal government. So they were coming to Alaska to homestead, you know, and not realizing that what you can grow in Kansas you can’t grow in Alaska. But, you know, yeah, you got to try it to find out it don’t work.

But those are the kind of people we had coming up here just, you know, lots of them. All headed for the Kenai or for the Matanuska Valley. The farming regions.

Three out of five, it seemed like, you talked to, "Where you headed for?" "I'm going to the Kenai." You know. Or "Going to the Matanuska Valley. Going to go farming, you know. Where's the best farming area?"

And that's when the Kenny Lake community down here started. People started drifting there because it was --

A lot of your federal reports say, well, this is a potential farming area or this is a potential farming area. They may be potential farming areas, but maybe they're only good for one thing. Potatoes or onions or, you know, they're certainly not --

Alaska is not a -- a -- a great farming area, but that's what these people were coming up here for.

And then at the same time, the tourists were starting in. And that's, I think, has changed now into a tourist industry and the highway is a lifeline now. It's a --

Well, look out at the window there. I mean, there's motor homes going by and buses and -- and people traveling a hundred an hour going by out there, you know.

And I can remember when I opened the garage up at Chistochina in 1951, you know, there was --

Carol and I came back to the -- to the lodge in 1957 after I got out of the Service and Carol and I got married. And we came back to the lodge at Chistochina.

And that winter, there was one day during the winter there we took in a dollar and twenty cents. It was a big day. Had to be some good one in summertime to make up for those, but, you know, it just --

In the wintertime, things just came to a grinding stop. I mean, you know, you basically survived. People were going through on the highway, you know.

Our equipment is so much better now. The highways are so much better. Now, there's a car every few minutes going by even in the middle of winter in the worst kind of weather, you know. They're constantly going.

The roads have improved. The vehicles improved. The highway -- you can drive to Seattle in three and a half days, you know, compared to a week, ten days, two weeks it used to take.

And I think that's one -- been one of our big -- And, of course, the airplane transportation into Anchorage which is, you know, that's much better than it was. And now we have tourism coming in there.

The big -- the next big thing I think that was a big change to Alaska was the oil pipeline. That was the -- that was an instant change. It wasn’t something that grew over a period of a few years. That was an instant change all of a sudden.

And then in ’69 they discover oil on the North Slope and in 1975 they're pumping oil down through here. And in the meantime, we spent billions of dollars building a pipeline and it's here. And it's been pumping oil. Still pumping oil.

But it changed Alaska. You know, it just turned Alaska upside down. A whole different industry.

There was no oil industry in Alaska prior to that, except what was on the Kenai Peninsula and it was a small area. It affected Anchorage and the Kenai and it didn’t affect us out here, you know. It didn’t affect Fairbanks or Valdez or Glennallen or any of this area out here.

That was -- it's another part of Alaska over there. Now all of a sudden, we have a pipeline that runs from the north shore of Alaska to the south shore of Alaska right through the middle of Alaska, and it's changed everything.

Plus it's given the state so much money they don’t know what to do with it, you know. I mean, they're literally throwing it away down there for several years.

Now, of course, they're getting a little bit more fussy about where we're spending it, but they're still basically giving a lot of it away. They still got more money --

We spend more money per capita here in Alaska on the individual than any state in the union. Eighty-five percent of that comes from oil. And so this has made a tremendous change in our lifestyle. Where we live and what we get for, you know --

When I was a kid, there was an outhouse in the backyard. We didn’t even have electricity at Chistochina until 1949. The only thing we had there was a small light plant that was started every Saturday when mom did the laundry. And it charged the batteries.

And those batteries were used to fire the radios up that we listened to the radio, so we could listen to the Fairbanks radio station, KFAR.

I remember it well. And the Lone Ranger and all them other ones were on the -- the good things. But now, we have REA running all through this valley. All this money has been spent in here.

BILL SCHNEIDER: REA? SY NEELEY: Rural Electric Association. You know, that was 25 years ago when they got that started in here.

Now it runs, you know, all around through this valley. Chistochina now has a cooperative electric up there. It's actually not a cooperative electric, it's a branch of the Tok Electric. Wrangell Power and Telephone has come down and put power plants in there.

But up until three years ago, Chistochina supplied its own power. Had its own light plant, you know. You know, things have changed drastically in the last fifteen years in this part of Alaska. And more people.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, that's real helpful. I think those are important perspectives for people to hear. Thanks for taking all the time to do this, Sy.

SY NEELEY: Hey, no problem. Enjoyed it. A little history. BILL SCHNEIDER: Yeah. SY NEELEY: A little history.