Hope sat opposite Anchorage on the Kenai Peninsula and required a visitor to travel 90 miles around Turnagain arm, up Turnagain Pass, and then down a 19-mile dirt road. The trip was scenic and always punctuated by some excitement, whether it was a moose siting, a pass closed due to avalanches, or a porcupine crawling under your car as you stopped to observe him. A side trip to Portage Glacier for some “Russian Tea” and a glacier viewing was always called for. (Today, a wonderful visitor/observation center replaces the old log lodge. Named after Senators Nick Begich and Hale Boggs, who were lost in a plane as they crossed the glacier, it is an impressive structure for tourism. But the glacier receded and is no longer viewable across the lake. After a massive search, the Senators were never found.)
Resurrection Creek had been a source of gold at the turn of the 20th Century, with several thousand hopeful miners congregating along the road into town and claiming rights to mine along the creek. While some miners were finding gold, when the Yukon became accessible, most moved north, leaving little more than a ghost town behind. In 1970 there were probably less than 50 year-round residents. Only later did it become developed enough to have a proper school. Today there are several people re-working the old mining tailings, and tourists and locals can pan for nuggets. I tried this once but never again. Hours bent over with hands in ice-cold water did not produce enough gold flakes to warrant the effort!
Hope was off the beaten track. I was a summer and weekend resident as were a number of us who built cabins a few miles outside of town near a small airstrip. The road that led to our cabin area went on for a mile to end at a spot further up Resurrection Creek where there was still an active mining operation as well as the trailhead for the popular Resurrection Trail System managed by the US Forest Service. Our time in town was sporadic, usually visiting the town store for a few incidentals and to schmooz with Coolidge Fuller and his wife, both living above and managing the store. They were a friendly older couple who subsisted on little, but made the town a friendly place for all visitors.
The few permanent residents occasionally interacted to try to bring tourists to the area to support hunting and recreational fishing. Pink salmon spawned in Resurrection Creek, and it was not unusual to find dozens of families lined up along the creek opposite the store, casting and catching salmon easily.
These same residents often interacted with the “summer residents” who had cabins in the wilderness and in the Forest Service lots.
Three interactions – events – have always reminded me of the Alaska that was the Wild West of the 20th Century.
The first and most notable was an infamous New Year’s Eve party held at the Hope Social Hall in 1978. It was a party my family did NOT attend due to heavy snowfall beginning. I feared being trapped in Hope if the snowfall was deep, keeping me from returning to teach on January 2nd. Indeed, the snow fell hard enough that even as we left, 9 miles from civilization, I found myself pushing snow with our station wagon’s bumper. By the time we managed to get to the main paved Seward Highway, only first gear was operational in the car, and I had to travel back to Anchorage in first gear. A new transmission was required, but we had returned safely.
Meanwhile, back in Hope, the party commenced. It was a raucous affair, attended by hard drinking locals and cabin residents. Everyone was deep into the music and liquor when two locals named Rusty and Chuck decided to kill Goose.
To explain…. Rusty was not only alcohol impaired, he was also somewhat mentally impaired. But he had a large .357 pistol and thought of himself as the “protector” of our cabins. He was often welcomed with barbecue and beer at our cabin sites as his presence indeed kept strangers from visiting our properties. Chuck, meanwhile, was lesser known. He had a back condition that had him in a half-body cast at the time of the party. Like Rusty, Chuck had some limitations but also owned and used firearms.
Meanwhile, squatting in an old miner’s abandoned cabin outside of town, lived Goose with several lady friends. He had a large goose tattooed on his right arm, hence his name. During our winter visits we would often encounter Goose and his friends at the store covering for Coolidge and enjoying discussions with visitors. Several nights we spent in town playing board games with him and his women friends, enjoying hot popcorn and soda. They seemed like nice people, like many who found Alaska to be a place to escape whatever ailed them in lower 48 society.
Sometime during the New Year’s Eve party, Chuck and Goose crossed paths and had words. I don’t know of anyone who knows exactly what transpired, but the cabin residents I later talked with explained what happened this way:
Chuck decided he had to kill Goose. He left the party to retrieve his firearms of choice… a shotgun and a .44 pistol. Rusty backed him I heard but wasn’t actively involved. Since Chuck announced his intentions, the partygoers who were not too inebriated relocated Goose behind a 50-gallon drum two doors away, behind the store.
When Chuck returned, several people tried to talk him down. He would have none of it and threatened several with his pistol. He walked them backwards toward the store, believing Goose was in the store with Coolidge. He marched up the stairs onto the deck in front of the store’s main doors. There he encountered Coolidge, who tried to face him and calm him.
As Coolidge had the attention of Chuck, Goose emerged from the corner of the store, came up behind Chuck, and conked him over the head with a beer bottle.
Chuck went down, but in so doing, involuntarily pulled the trigger of his .357. A bullet emerged and passed directly through Coolidge’s colon. Coolidge went down. Someone jumped on Chuck, who promptly bit off the end of his little finger. Someone else picked up the shotgun Chuck had dropped and broke it over his head.
Chuck was subdued and Coolidge injured. A call was made to the nearest lawman.. a State Trooper in Seward. It took the trooper three hours to arrive at the store, at which time he was able to call for a helicopter to be dispatched from Anchorage to pick up Coolidge.
The outcomes of this incident were that Coolidge, with no vital organs or arteries involved, ended up with a colostomy. He left town with his wife. Chuck got off lightly since the shot was involuntary, and he still lives in Hope today. The bullet was located two years after the incident, lodged inside the leg of the wood stove in the center of the store. A visit in 2014 was interesting when I asked a resident of that time what she knew of this story. She knew Chuck and had heard a rumor that he had once killed a man in town.
Wilderness? Wildness? Alaska can be dangerous as well as offering awe-inspiring beauty.
The second event is not as graphic, but still of interest. In the summer of 1978, a few enterprising town residents decided to hold a “bluegrass festival” in town. They advertised this as a weekend event throughout Anchorage and surroundings.
Several hundred people came, which of course swelled the town population by at least double if not more. Wagons were set up for music groups to play and a very large firepit was established on which a large grate was placed. There, over the two weekend days of the festival, large chunks of prime beef were slow cooked to provide large slices of barbecued beef to paying participants.
A row of porta-potties was set up to accommodate the crowd. Given the amount of alcohol being sold and consumed, this was a most necessary addition.
Sometime late Saturday night, after many festive rounds of music, beef, and beer, a local resident who preferred the quiet of the wilderness, took issue with the Festival sponsors. He left in a huff to return to his mining operation just south of town.
By the morning, he had walked his small bulldozer into town to take revenge upon the promoters. Still inebriated, he was able to mow down the whole row of port-potties before other locals were able to jump on him and remove him from his weapon of choice.
Fortunately no one was using the facilities at the time.
And we had left the party early Saturday after partaking of a fine slice of beef and some foot-stomping bluegrass music.
The third event was not as exciting as these two, but definitely memorable.
This happened on a summer day when all the cabin dwellers were hearing rumors that the Kenai Native Land Corporation was going to “select” our Forest Service land as part of the Alaskan Native Land Claims Settlement. We knew that the US Government wanted to divest itself of this land and program. So, what would happen to our leases?
A State Senator from Juneau was dispatched to Hope to meet with us and discuss possible divestiture of this land. While the Native corporation could select it. It was also possible that the State of Alaska might end up with the property.
The Senator brought along a young female recorder. Both were dressed appropriately for a Congressional hearing. Their audience, however, were in jeans and wool shirts, male and female alike. The politician was out of place and looked at askance. Young children raced around the Hope Social Hall as a large dog fight took place outside the entrance.
As hard as the politician tried to explain what MIGHT happen, he had no real answers. The crowd grew raucous and shouted he and his young female recorder out of the building, into his rental Cadillac, and back to Juneau.
Later, the State did take possession of the property, and the Native corporation board did not choose the properties. The State then offered the one acre lots to the lease holders for $850 each and agreed to use monies from a special rural electrification program to bring powerlines into the area.
So the meeting represented raw politics done Alaskan style. And the outcome brought unmanaged “civilization” to the wilderness.