Her name was Fannie Quigley and she could out-drink, out-shoot and out-cuss any man in Alaska. She was tough as grizzly bear claws even though she only weighed about 100 pounds – which included the bottle of home brew called Kantishna champagne she always kept tucked inside her boot. And she was the closest thing to a bona fide folk hero that Alaska had in the first half of the twentieth century.
Fannie was born in the Bohemian village of Wahoo, Nebraska, in 1871, a village of immigrants. Fannie, like many of the other children, had no formal schooling. She did not even learn to speak English until she was a teenager. Though she grew up in a farming community, the tilling of soil did not set her heart ablaze. But the thought of the Klondike did. When news of the gold strike reached Wahoo, Fannie packed her bags and headed north.
Once in the Yukon Territory she quickly discovered that there was more gold to be made in good meals than ice-cold streams, so she hung a Meals-For-Sale sign in front of her tent. Walking from strike to strike she served thousands of men hot meals and acquired the name “Fannie the Hike.” Her last strike was Kantishna, south of Mt. McKinley, where she met and married another Alaskan legend, Joe Quigley.
Joe Quigley was already a northland folk hero in his own right. One of the few white men to have crossed the Chilkoot Pass before the Klondike Strike, he had been mining in the north for almost a decade before the stampede into the Yukon Territory. He was at Fortymile River near Circle when he heard of the new strike and was one of the few men in the stampede who rushed south to Dawson.
Finding the best sites already taken, Joe drifted down the Yukon River and settled at the mouth of a small creek. Diggings were good but not exceptional enough to hold him, so he returned to Dawson the next year. There, several friends asked him if they could have his old claim. Joe had no objection, and he drew a map of his find and gave the map away. He never saw those friends again.
“Fannie was as adept as any man
in the rough-and-tumble
early days of Alaska.”
Twenty years later Joe was asked to a grubstake a miner who swore he had a secret map to a rich strike on a small creek that fed into the Yukon River. It was a lost mine, the down-and-outer claimed, that had made at least one man rich. Secretively the miner showed Joe his prized possession and Joe got a shock. It was the same map he had drawn twenty years earlier.
In 1905, Joe was in Kantishna where he found the diggings fair enough to consider staying a spell. He and his partner, Jack Horne, headed north to Fairbanks for supplies and unexpectedly set off a stampede. Part of that stampede included the woman who was to become his wife: Fannie. The two were married the next year and together they worked their Red Top Mine for the next thirty-odd years.
Joe and Fannie were a real Mutt-and-Jeff combination. Joe stood over six feet tall while Fannie was under five feet. But size didn’t mean much to Fannie. Whether it was hunting moose, working in the Red Top Mine or dog mushing supplies into Kantishna, Fannie was as adept as any man in the rough-and-tumble early days of Alaska.
Because of the unique location of the Quigley cabin near Mt. McKinley, the pair was known worldwide. Over the years they hosted the outdoors sets of the rich and famous when they came to study or climb Mt. McKinley. Europeans and Americans, scientists, nobility and big game hunters, as well as grubstakers, park rangers and geologists all came through Kantishna. The Quigley cabin was hospitable to them all. Though Fannie had not learned to speak English as a child, she showed no lack of understanding of the language and became well-known and highly regarded as a true conversationalist – though she was known to swear frequently.
She was also renowned for her cooking. Even in the harsh conditions of Kantishna, Fannie grew her own vegetables. Her garden included a wide variety of vegetables that many Alaskans only dreamed of eating: rhubarb, celery, potatoes, carrots, beets, turnips, onions, lettuce and radishes. That she found time to tend the garden is surprising considering that Kantishna only has ten weeks of growing weather. She was also adept at adding wild fruits and berries to her menu. Those berries the Quigleys did not consume raw were turned into jams, jellies and pies.
When it came to gathering meat, Fannie was without peer. She shot and butchered her own meat and used the tunnels of the Red Top Mine to keep the carcasses frozen year-round. Here the vegetables were kept fresh as well. The tunnels served this purpose well, for more than one traveler reported being surprised to have been served what appeared to be a fresh vegetable salad in the middle of winter.
“‘You ain’ fit to go huntin,’
she said as she tossed him her skirt.
‘Here, you do the housework today.
Gimme your pants.'”
Since supplies had to be hauled by dogsled from Nenana, Fannie made sure that every ounce of food transported was consumed. Tom Markham, a well-known Alaskan attorney at the time, happened to be eating at the Quigley’s when Fannie noted that he had left a small bit of butter on his plate.
“What are you going to do with that butter?” Fannie asked quizzically.
“I’ve had more than I can eat,” Markham said politely.
“Don’t you know we have to haul our supplies a hundred miles by dog team? You eat that butter or you’ll get the same plate with the butter still on it for breakfast!”
“All right,” said Markham. “I’ll eat it with my pie.”
Another time Fannie entertained some city-folk who commented on how good her “grouse” had been. The meal had actually been of porcupine, but Fannie agreed, yes, it had been grouse. Later she commented to another guest who was familiar with Fannie’s ways, “If I tell her it’s porcupine she’ll probably get sick and die on me.”
One winter when game was scarce Fannie and Joe went hunting in different directions. When Joe came back empty-handed he found Fannie dressing her game: two caribou, a bear and a moose. Joe was embarrassed and Fannie wouldn’t let him off the hook.
“You ain’ fit to go huntin,” she said as she tossed him her skirt. “Here, you do the housework today. Gimme your pants.”
One day Fannie was out hunting and spotted a moose. Suddenly she was faced with a dilemma. She was far from the cabin and in the high country so there wasn’t any cover she could use to keep herself warm during the night. And she did not have any sleeping gear with her. But if she shot the moose, left its carcass on the ground and went back to her cabin to spend the night, by the next morning wolves would probably have devoured the carcass. If she let the moose go she might not be able to find it again.
She nailed the moose, gutted the animal on the spot and spent the night inside the warm carcass. Unfortunately it got so cold during the night that the moose froze solid trapping Fannie inside. She told many travelers that she “had a heckuva time” hacking her way out. This story was vintage Fannie Quigley and was recounted to author Edna Ferber who used it in her classic novel, The Ice Palace.
Grant Pearson, a Park Ranger at McKinley in the 1920s and 1930s remembered a time when he visited Fannie and found her drying her clothes. When asked how her clothes had become soaked, Fannie told him a story that will live forever in the annals of hunting in the Last Frontier. Spotting a caribou bull, she had taken a shot. The bull jumped into a clump of willows. Absolutely certain she had hit the bull, Fannie was surprised to see the bull walk out of the other side of the clump as though nothing had happened. She took a second shot and hit the bull again. Then she got a surprise: there were two bulls and both were wounded. In a rage both animals charged, splashing across the ice-choked stream toward her. But they didn’t get far. Midway across the stream they both died.
Not about to let the meat float away, Fannie waded into the frigid, thigh-deep water and roped the carcasses together and then lashed the rope to a tree. Then she dragged them ashore, one at a time, dressed them out and carried the meat back to the cabin – in wet clothes.
Fannie wasn’t only adept with firearms. In a land where doctors were few and far between she was the next thing to a medical practitioner. One day Joe was involved in a plane wreck near the cabin and when Fannie found him his nose was completely split open. Inside the cabin Fannie washed the wound and stitched it closed with catgut.
“That was the first time I sewed anyone up,” Fannie later recalled. “I sewed it the same way as I do my moccasins, which is what I call the baseball stitch.” The doctor in Fairbanks wasn’t thrilled with the stitching but Fannie felt otherwise. The stitching hadn’t given Joe any trouble so Fannie said “I guess the baseball stitch is as good as [the doctor’s] new-fangled sewing.”
“She unwittingly became
the single most important person
in turning that wilderness into what is today
Denali National Park.”
Perhaps the most humorous incident in Fannie’s life was the week she hosted Father Fitzgerald and his pilot. Weather had forced their plane down and the two spent a few days in Kantishna. The first night the men were there Fannie offered them caribou stew. The pilot ate hungrily but the priest just looked at his plate.
“Don’t you like my cooking?” Fannie asked.
“You know today is Friday,” the priest replied. “I don’t eat meat on Fridays.”
“Oh,” she replied and left the table. A bit later she came back with a bowl of lettuce. “Here,” she said, “eat grass. All the rabbits do.”
The missionary and Fannie got along well and when the weather broke they were good friends. Before the two men took off, Fitzgerald offered to pay Fannie for their keep. Fannie turned the money down. “You don’t owe me anything,” she said. “Your money’s no good here.”
“Well then,” said the priest. “My pilot will be flying back here. What kind of chocolate do you like?”
Fannie’s reply was quick: “Schlitz.”
Joe Quigley sold the Red Top Mine in the late 1930s and moved to Seattle. Fannie stayed in Kantishna. She died in her sleep in 1944. But she left Alaska and America with a great gift. Fannie Quigley introduced the world to Mt. McKinley. She unwittingly became the single most important person in turning that wilderness into what is today Denali National Park.
Story by Steven Levi