ADVENTURING TO THE REMAINS OF ALASKA NELLIE’S HISTORIC LODGE:
I’ve never had much of a desire or need to visit foreign countries. Canada is the only one I’ve been to, and I love that country because certain parts are very similar to Alaska. At 62 years of age, I’ve not seen enough of the 49th state to satisfy my appetite. Places like Kiska, a volcanic island in the Aleutian Chain occupied by Japan during WWII, are still on my “to do” list. Kiska is now a federal wildlife sanctuary, home to thousands of seabirds. Giant rats inhabit the island as well. My initial goal was to take a mountain bike to the summit of Kiska Volcano. At this point in life, my strenuous dream will have to become someone else’s!
One place I wanted to plant my feet and have thankfully been able to cross off my bucket list is Grandview, or Grandview Roadhouse near Portage. This scenic wonder sits along the Alaska Railroad amongst rugged mountains and spectacular glaciers, such as the renowned Spencer Glacier. Until recently, Grandview was basically off limits as far as a summer stopping place for hikers. Unless you had special permission, the only way to travel and stay was during winter months when special railroad excursions dropped skiers off during the snow season for a day of winter adventure.
In 2002 I began historical research on Alaskan pioneer Nellie Neal Lawing for a future story. She’s best known as “Alaska Nellie.” Nellie Lawing came to Alaska from Missouri in 1915. She operated various roadhouses along the Alaska Railroad. A stop named Curry on the way to Fairbanks is most notable. One of her food and lodging locations was in Grandview at milepost 44.9. My burning desire was to find remnants of the place, and experience some things she talked about in her book, “Alaska Nellie.” I own and covet a signed copy, finding it one of those “read ‘til finished” publications. In her book, Nellie talks exclusively about Grandview.
It was September 2003. My good friend Tom Doupe had connections with higher-ups in the Alaska Railroad. Telling him of my plan, Tom assured me he could arrange exclusive tickets for the expedition. Two days later he called saying things were a go. If there was anyone I wanted with me on a three-day expedition into Alaska’s backcountry, it’s Tom Doupe. Big and strong, he was an asset in both carrying goods and added protection. Tom was well versed in what snacks to bring along, which was especially important.
We drove from Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, to Girdwood which is approximately 43 miles south. There we caught a southbound passenger train at the Girdwood terminal. The train’s final destination was Seward, but Tom and I would hop off long before reaching the town. Loading all our gear, including Tom’s .375 Winchester Magnum, into a baggage car, the rifle immediately raised eyebrows amongst tourists. Tom, being a good spokesperson, told inquisitive passengers what we were up to. He informed them that I was a writer and he was going along as bodyguard. This was indeed fact as large brown bears are known to inhabit the Grandview area. “Alaska Nellie” talked about them at length in several chapters of her book. Nellie had a ‘pet’ black bear in Grandview that was unfortunately attacked and killed one night by a ferocious brown.
Our journey from Girdwood to Grandview didn’t last long. I believe we were sitting in comfort for only 30 minutes before the train stopped. Outside it was raining cats and dogs. Frigid wind howled with gusts strong enough to blow things around. Particles of snow and ice could be seen amongst huge droplets of water. Our conductor placed a small platform down while our gear was quickly offloaded. We thanked him before stepping off. A few of our lighter bags decided to immediately take off and fly. As the train pulled away tourists snapped pictures and waved. I told Tom the late and great adventurer Lowell Thomas, Sr. could not have elicited as much attention as we.
With the train gone, we immediately looked for a place to pitch camp. Tom located a flat spot amongst thick alders, and he quickly went to work clearing them. It took some doing with a razor sharp machete, but eventually the skinny trees were reduced to kindling. I knew with all the wet and cold, hypothermia wasn’t far behind if we didn’t get shelter. Strong winds made getting our tent erected next to impossible, but we prevailed. I looked at copies of vintage photographs inside the tent while sipping hot coffee from a thermos, and noticed we were camping in the exact spot where the old roadhouse once stood. Tom gave me a high five.
A surprise of all surprises happened our second day. The old saying, “You can bump into friends in the strangest places,” rang true. Tom and I were a considerable distance from camp when a railroad security vehicle rolled up. Through sleet and rain, the officer onboard instantly recognized Tom. Looking at me for a spell he coughed out, “Mike Hankins?” George Nolan was a schoolmate of mine at East High. I hadn’t seen him since another pal, Bob Malone, got married almost 30 years before. Telling us to be safe, George could only shake his head before cruising on down the tracks.
We spent nearly three full days in raingear plodding through bushes and trees, recording our findings. Because of all the excessive moisture, vegetation is extremely dense in that neck of the woods. We were always wary of bears. A root cellar was located amongst birch trees. It marked where an old dwelling once stood. Root cellars are holes dug into the ground. They lie underneath cabin floors with trap doors for access. Because of no refrigeration, early settlers relied on them to keep food from spoiling.
The landscape of Alaska is dotted with root cellar holes, their once protective log structures totally rotted away. Around the Grandview Roadhouse site we discovered several rusty cans and broken glass. Tom and I left things undisturbed. I was able to locate piping evidently used by Nellie for supplying water. In her book she mentions pipes moving water from a stream to the roadhouse. Nellie Lawing was indeed a very ingenious woman!
After spending three days and nights in the harshest weather I’ve ever camped in, Tom and I were ready to leave. With the train due around 1:00 that afternoon, we packed things up 30 minutes early. Hearing it coming miles away, we waited patiently alongside the track for our cushy ride home. Both of us remained standing as it rolled right on past. Tom and I looked at each other with surprise. That’s when my friend said, “They musta’ forgot?”
With rain continuing to pour and wind howling we walked a ways to an unoccupied railroad cabin. Thankfully the door was unlocked. Hours later, hearing another train approach from Portage, Tom ran outside to flag it down. That was a sight to see! He held up a shirt waving it like a crazy man. The train slowed before grinding to a halt. After several minutes of my pal explaining our situation, the engineer called someone on his radio. He received news back we’d be picked up late that afternoon. Evidently there had been a communication glitch.
Tom and I didn’t mind at this juncture. The cabin was dry and we had plenty of snacks. If the train never arrived it would’ve been okay. We were in our own Grandview Station so to speak and all was dandy. Other than a little inclement weather outside, stress was nowhere to be found.
Things have changed for the better since 2003 regarding excursions to Grandview. The Alaska Railroad now offers ‘day trips’ to the Grandview and Spencer Glacier areas during summer months. I highly recommend taking one. Look for the tall Grandview sign erected alongside the tracks. That sign pretty much marks the spot where Nellie Lawing’s roadhouse once served hot food and warm beds to weary travelers and railroad workers. I suggest you find the book “Alaska Nellie.” If you love Alaskan history, you’ll truly enjoy reading her amazing story!