By Gerrit “Heinie” Snider, Illustrations by Jane Hafling
From his book “So Was Alaska” published in 1961
I met these partners for the first time when he was working as a section foreman at Wasilla and I held the same job on the Pittman section. He had given me valuable advice as to how to take care of a section of railroad and when I paddled on my threewheeler to Wasilla, I met his charming wife. I don’t think she weighed more than one hundred pounds and was just short of five feet tall. She was good looking, but frail. How such a slight woman could stand all the hardship of the trail was a wonder to me. But what she lacked physically she more than made up in spirit. We had a little confab in Herning’s store, and as it was near Thanksgiving, she asked me if Mrs. Snider, myself and the four youngsters would come to Wasilla and have Thanksgiving with her. I accepted at once. After living mostly on brown beans and bacon, a turkey dinner would be good.
When the day arrived, we took the hand car to Wasilla—there was no danger of running into other trains in those days because there were only two trains a week. What a sight when we came into the section house. Curtains on the windows, white table cloth and, on the table, a big turkey. Cranberries, pie, lettuce, nuts, cake, everything good to eat. The kids stood with their mouths open.
After the delicious dinner, we talked about our experiences. He had come to Alaska in 1908 and his first job was to whip-saw lumber for the flumes for O.G. Herning’s placer mine in the Willow Creek district. Being brought up on a farm, he was a good hand at handling horses.
He was given sixteen men and four head of horses to freight a Lane ball mill to the Independence mine, a gold quartz mine well-known as a good producer. But, how to get there with a load of several hundred tons when there were no roads—not even a good foot trail—was another question.
They left Knik on Cook Inlet May 5 and after traveling six miles through swamp and grassland they got into heavy timber. O.G. Herning blazed the trail and the men cut the timber to make a path to get the wagon through. They made five mile relays—that means they took the freight five miles and unloaded—then they went back to get the rest of the supplies and machinery. In that way the men were never more than five miles from camp. Coming close to the foothills, they found the danger of keeling over was met by chaining a limb of a tree to a wagon and its load. At the same time, a few of the men hung onto the upper-side of the leverage to keep the wagon from turning over.
Maybe you have never heard that horses used snowshoes. Of course they were not like snowshoes that we use. Horse snowshoes were made from boxes that had contained oil cans. Two boards were laminated to prevent splitting. A strap was brought over the front of the horse’s hoof, and bolted into the shoe behind the hoof. I have seen this and can testify that it worked alright—except that every time a horse fell down, which they often did, the horse’s shoes had to be removed to get him back on his feet. The horses quickly learned to walk with their feet apart, and, as these shoes were held in place by boring holes in the round board to fit the corks, they never did slip.
In this way they crossed the hills without doing any grading. Any breakdown was repaired by using material out of the woods.
When they came to the Susitna Valley, they had to go down a very steep grade. Removing the hind running gear of the wagon, and putting a batch of boards under the bolster which rested on the ground, they lashed the freight on and snubbed it down the hill. The horses pulled this makeshift back up the hill. They then made switchbacks over the divide at Fishhook Creek. From there they proceeded to move over the divide. Again, there was plenty of snow. And again bobsleds were used and snowshoes were put on the horses.
The freighting party arrived on June 18th. The journey from Knik to Independence mine had taken 42 days. After James St. Clair got the mining stuff up to Grubstake Gulch he hauled a large ball mill and tons of tools and food to the Gold Bullion gold mine. For his excellent work, the company gave my section foreman friend a Winchester rifle and a skinning knife. Later, this trail-blazer was employed by the United States Government in improving the same road. In the later years, these Willow Creek roads were much improved by the Alaska Road Commission. The trip that had taken these pioneers almost two months can now be made in less than two hours—sitting on a nice soft cushion in your auto.
During a later meeting my friend told about the time he and his frail wife almost lost their lives. Reports had come out of the Nelchina country of a prospector finding coarse gold in the creeks. The couple bought a dog team and that winter freighted their supplies up the Matanuska River to Trail Creek, then over the divide to Crooked Creek, where they made a cache for their supplies.
The following summer, using the cache as a base camp, they prospected a radius as far as they could reach with packs on their dogs. That fall they went over the divide into the headwaters of the Caribou. They spent the rest of the fall prospecting and hunting mountain sheep.
Now, this country where they were located was shale formation which is very dangerous. Years and years of erosion of soft rock or shale causes immense slides to form. Most of these slides are wide at the upper side and slim down to a narrow point at the lower end. Kidneys of hard bed-rock, which doesn’t crumble, are often to be found on the sides of these slides. Side hills and mountains covered with shale slides may lay dormant for a long time until their weight is sufficient to start them moving. The move is spontaneous and often unexpected.
One day they went up the mountain to get some meat they had stored in a cave. It was late in the afternoon and they were still miles away from camp, each carrying a pack of meat. They could see their camp in the valley. It looked good to them, for they were tired, having been climbing up and down hills most of the day. If they returned the way they came, it would be late—maybe they would have to sit all night in the rocks and slides, waiting for daylight to come. They could, however, make camp directly by crossing one of these shale slides.
When it was decided they would try the route over the shale, his wife took off her pack. He cautioned her to remain there while he took both of the packs across.
“Now,” he said, “when I am across, you come—but be sure and keep on coming.”
The slide had already moved slightly because of their extra weight. When he was across, he yelled to his wife to come. She hesitated. “Come on,” he shouted. “What are you waiting for?” Finally she made up her mind to cross. No sooner did she start than the slide slowly began to move. When half way across she grew frightened, and it seemed to him that the slide somewhat stopped her progress.
Now, she stood stock-still, unable to move because she was caught in shale above her ankles. There was nothing he could do, for the slide was gaining momentum minute by minute. She was already moving down with the shale and still standing up.
If he tried to cross over to her, the additional weight would start all those tons of rock racing down the slope in no time. A little distance down the slope stood two kidneys of rocks where the formation narrowed, and then spilled out into space and dropped for thousands of feet to another similar slide.
Her big dark eyes looked twice as big. “Oh sweetheart,” she called. “I am scared.” He could hear her quite distinctly above the grinding noise of moving shale. There wasn’t much time left, for she was moving fast by now.
It seemed she was a little closer to his side so he ran down to where those two kidneys of bedrock stood just above the spill.
Crouching, sort of straddling across to the other solid rock, he held the jagged rock with his left arm, reaching out with his right. And when she came by with the speed of an express train, he caught her and swept her out of the slide onto his side of the bluff. The force was so great that her feet actually were over the ledge when she was thrown free and landed on solid ground.
He told us how scared he was and how he just sat there, practically sweating blood, unable even to speak. She was frightened, too, but not too nervous. And, while he was almost too weak to move, after picking herself up she walked away.
Not seeing her husband coming, she shouted, “Hey, you, come on! What’s the matter with you? I’m hungry and it’s getting dark.”
The subjects of this tale are true Alaska pioneers who have lived in Alaska as partners for more than fifty years. I have written of the lifetime partnership of Jimmy and Nelly St. Clair, who now live on Alexander Creek in the shade of Mount Susitna.
Printed with permission from the family of Gerrit “Heinie” Snider