The Last Frontier, Alaska 1947

by | Adventure, Living Well

When my Grandparents moved to Alaska in the 1940s, it was still very much a frontier. It was both the wild, wild west, and the frigid north.

Grandma took notes. By compiling and transcribing her notes, and sharing them on my blog, I’m fulfilling a promise to her to make these stories available and accessible to the rest of the family. I have created an archive to which I am slowly transcribing and adding these documents: McKinley Family Archives.

I’ve left these stories exactly as she wrote them, although I have been hunting down photos for illustration.

Here she is again, Doris McKinley, in her own words.


McKinley Kids - Alaska 1947

Steve, Karen, and Rodger with the family plane

The Last Frontier, Alaska 1947

Anchorage, a thriving business community, is the nerve center of western Alaska. In 1939 it had a population of 3000, now with the post-war influx, it boasts of nearly 15,000 – causing a serious housing shortage. Building in all classes is progress, but far too short of its needs.

Ft. Richardson, located only five miles from Anchorage is a combined Military, Naval, and Air Command with a personnel of about 12,000. The United States Government is pouring tremendous sums of money into the development of Ft. Richardson as the permanent headquarters of all Alaska Defenses.

Thus, there are some 25,000 local people served by Anchorage business. This is exclusive of the “bush.” The term “bush” is used to identify outlying terretory. “Bush pilots” are very efficient airmen, piloting their own planes. Their business consists of scheduled and unscheduled hops to almost any point within a radius of 400 to 500 miles. Residents of these remote localities, traders, trappers, and miners rely on the bush pilot and his light plane as readily as persons in the States use the bus or train. For in all Alaska there are only about 2000 miles of automobile roads.

The Alaskan economy is dependent on the various phases of aviation.

One day we saw a shy native boy carrying a baby seal. Walking along the street, he was drawing considerable attention. He had found the seal on the shore, it apparently had become lost from its mother. It lay quite content and quietly in the boy’s arms. The face seemed much like a dog’s, tho larger, with a rather pointed nose. The heavy brown body and flippers were interesting.

When my Father was in Anchorage last March, he saw several native Indian women carrying babies on their backs. As he was talking with one, he noticed severe sores along the baby’s jaw. Inquiring of the Mother what caused the sore, she replied, “Just rubbing.”

On a motor trip to Valdez, a distance of 300 miles by highway, which I am sure is not more than 75 by air, we saw a fish wheel in operation. This wheel was similar to a conventional water wheel, excep that each peddle had a wire screen which built up the side and end. The inside was left open so that as the river current turned the wheel, a fish was caught and held until that section reached the top and the fish dropped out onto a slide thence into a tank of water. The native then picked up the fish, split and cleaned it, then hung it by the tail on a nail with rows of other fish. Drying frames were built in a square and a fire smoldered in the center. Smoked, dried fish are a staple diet of the seld dogs and natives in winter. The use of these wheels are limited to the native population.

McKinley Family - Alaska 1947

McKinley Family log home

Salmon fishing is most popular and during the season it is very common to see men, women or children on the streets with their fishing tackle going to Fish Creek near the Railroad. One day an old-time showed us the procedure. We bought stought fish line, heavy sinkers and large three pronged hooks. The idea is to throw the hook into the stream and jerk it back. Really, we snag salmon as they do not bite. Some time passed and we had no luck, our friend insisted, however, that the salmon would be at that spot about 15 minutes after the tide came in.

Shortly afterward a little boy, possibly 8 years old said, “If you’ll throw your hook right over there, Doc, you’ll catch a fish!” Sure enough, Lee brought in a nice four or five pound salmon, and brought in several more in a short time. The youngster caught two, pulled them onto the shore, but before he could get a good hold on them they flopped back into the water. He went on fishing as tho nothing had happened. When we were ready to leave, he handed two other fish to my husband, saying “Here, Doc, you take these. My mother wont let me bring any more fish home!” Lee skinned and filleted them, and we cooked in a friend’s kitchen that evening. They were truly delicious.

These were the silver salmon and were about 18″ long, later in July the big king salmon appear which may weigh 10, 15, or 20 pounds.

The famed Matanuska Valley farming project which was publicized a few years ago is located about 50 miles from Anchorage on the only highway which joins Fairbanks and Anchorage. The project is managed on a cooperative basis, is successful, and is developing into a real asset to Alaska. These farms, many only ten or fifteen years removed from the wilderness, are remarkably fertile. Farmers are farm owners as tenant farming is frowned upon. The valley produces vegetables of unusual size due to the very long days during the growing season. Dairying is being rather slowly developed because of the difficulties of carrying the herds thru the long winters. Farm buildings, built with Government assistance follow identical plans and are built of logs. Most farm work is, however, carried on with tractors and modern machinery.

Judy Schwartz Haley


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