Alaska’s Savage River – Chapter 11A

Alaska’s Savage River
Inside Denali National Park and Preserve
By Valerie Winans
A Writer for Readers of All Ages
Chapter Eleven (A)
People of the Past – Bobby Sheldon

It was a man named Sheldon who was instrumental in getting the legislation passed to make this a park and preserve, but it was another Sheldon who was the driving force in making the original camp at Savage River a success.

One of the special people who left a legacy as he passed by Savage River was Robert E. “Bobby” Sheldon who managed the tourist camp at Savage River for seventeen years. He organized setting up the camp, tearing it down, and everything in between. If canvas needed repair, he was at the sewing machine. Frances Erickson, Sheldon’s daughter said of camp life, “You just did whatever needed doing.”1 Bobby led by example, and so the people who worked at the park followed his lead, happily switching hats whenever necessary, and even working long hours without extra pay.

Sheldon’s ability to do whatever needed doing came from life experience. His mother died when he was only twelve years old, and when Bobby was fourteen his father decided to head for Alaska and the gold rush. He planned to leave Bobby with an uncle, but Bobby said, “You’re not leaving me with anybody. Wherever you go, I go.”2

In 1897, they left on a steamship from Seattle for Skagway, Alaska. The trip was a risky one because “in those days they had no aids to navigation at all – no buoys, no lighthouses, no help of any kind. They blew their whistle and listened to the echo, and if they bumped into the bank, they pushed off and started out again…a good many of them didn’t make it.”3

Bobby and his dad planned to take the White Pass Trail4 to the goldfields, but first they took jobs building the Brackett road up through the pass. However, the company constructing the road soon went bankrupt, and they were both out of work. Then Sheldon’s father had a heart attack. When he recovered, he decided to return to Oregon and wanted Bobby to go with him. Bobby told his dad, “I left that country broke and I’m not going back the same way.”5 Fifteen-year-old Bobby Sheldon found himself alone in Skagway, Alaska. He needed to find a way to support himself. Since he had sold newspapers in Seattle, Washington, he bought Seattle newspapers for five cents, paid two cents each for shipping, then sold them for twenty-five cents each. Sometimes he would get fifty cents from big spenders. “It was the only communication we had with the United States…so there was no trouble making a living.”6

In 1899, Sheldon learned of the death of his father in that same newspaper. He felt like he was truly alone, but later in life, he would say, “When my father died he left me probably one of the largest estates that any boy was ever left. He left me the entire territory of Alaska in which to try to make a living, and I’ve been trying to collect on that estate ever since.”7

In 1898, when Bobby was fifteen, he witnessed the shooting of Soapy Smith and Frank Reid on the dock at Skagway. He describes it as being “just like a play on the stage.”8 Sheldon relates that Soapy Smith was to Skagway what Al Capone was to Chicago. “Several preachers were soliciting funds in Skagway at the time, for instance, to start building churches, just like they are in Fairbanks today, and when the preacher would come along and ask for a collection, donations, contributions, Soapy would say, “Sure, you bet your life.” He’d get $100 and throw it right in. The preacher would be very appreciative and go on his way. Soapy would say to one of his trusted lieutenants, “You follow that guy, and when you think he’s got enough to make it worthwhile, why, bring it back.”9

Jefferson Randolph Smith got the name Soapy because he ran a scam where he would wrap large and small denominations of bills in with bars of soap in view of a crowd of people and then offer the bars of soap for sale at $1.00 each.10 No one ever got more than $5.00, and Soapy got rich. The business people of Skagway felt that if something was not done about Soapy Smith their investments were lost.

When a miner came into town with a “poke” worth about $2,500 and was robbed by Soapy’s men it precipitated action. They called a secret meeting on the wharf to decide what to do about Soapy. Soapy learned of the meeting, headed down to the docks with his Winchester on his shoulder, and was met by Frank Reid. “We couldn’t hear what the men were saying…Soapy Smith whipped his rifle right down off his shoulder…toward Mr. Reid…he (Reid) jumped down off of the railing and grabbed the muzzle of that gun with his left hand to jerk it away from him because it was pointed right at his middle…Soapy Smith pulled the trigger and the ball went right through his groin and put him to his knees. Even on his knees, Frank Reid was a tall man, a big man – even on his knees, he was pretty near as big as Soapy Smith. But he held that gun away, while Soapy Smith was trying to jerk it back…In the meantime, he (Reid) reached in and got his .38 revolver, and fired three shots while this gun was being jerked back and forth.”11 One of Reid’s bullets went through Soapy’s heart. Reid died two weeks later. “Now, the sentiment against Soapy Smith was so strong that when they took his body out to the cemetery, they wouldn’t bury his body in the cemetery and desecrate that hallowed ground.”12 They buried him outside the cemetery with a wooden board for a marker that read: Jefferson Randolph Smith aged 38, died July the 8th 1898.”13 Frank Reid received a very fine monument of Alaska granite, and it read: “He gave his life for the honor of Skagway.”14 Sheldon later used this life experience at Savage Camp by entertaining visitors with his eyewitness account.

Sheldon’s talent for mechanics led him to work on steamships and pile-driving machines. He was recommended to General Wiles P. Richardson who was looking for a pile-driver crew to build a dock at Haines. Working together, Sheldon and Richardson became good friends. Sheldon later stated, “Every time he would come to Fairbanks, he would look me up and we would have a good party and celebrate the old days. He was a wonderful person, and this road from here to the coast is named for him.”15

In 1905, Sheldon was employed as the night engineer for the Northwest Light and Power Company. While employed there he built Alaska’s first automobile. He had heard about automobiles but had never seen one. He built it for a girl he was courting. Another of her suitors had a handsome horse and buggy; so Sheldon felt he had to do something to compete. “He won first prize in the 4th of July parade for the most original entry,”16 but he didn’t win the girl. She married the guy with the horse and buggy.

In 1908, Sheldon moved to Fairbanks and “took over the power plant at Fairbanks for the Northern Commercial Company, and was the engineer operating that plant for five years.”17 While employed at Northern Commercial Company, Sheldon brought the first Model T Ford into Alaska. The “car had to come by rail to Seattle, and by boat to Skagway. Transported to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory by the new White Pass & Yukon Railroad (completed 1900) it followed the Gold Rush trail by boat down the Yukon past the famous mining town of Dawson, across the Alaska border into the Tanana River and smaller Chena River to Fairbanks.”18

He was single, had a good job, and his plan was to have a lot of fun with the car. “There were only a few miles of wagon roads around Fairbanks. These were poorly located, undrained and unsurfaced.”19 He took a vacation and spent the time bringing his friends from areas outside of Fairbanks into town with his car. They could make the trip to town in about an hour, a trip that would otherwise take them a couple of days in a buckboard wagon pulled by horses. They insisted on paying Sheldon for the service which he did not want to accept, but they forced it on him. He made trips around the clock picking up folks and taking them back home. When the vacation was over, he ended up with $1,500. That’s what made him think about the money that could be made in the automobile business.

Sheldon wanted to see if he could drive to the coast from the interior because at that time (1913) it took anywhere from twenty-eight to thirty-two days to get from Fairbanks to Seattle via riverboat, steamship, and overland travel. He decided to drive his Model T from Fairbanks to Valdez on the trail that Richardson was just beginning to improve. Sheldon chose a couple of strong men to be passengers and to help him if needed. They didn’t have any. Spare parts for the car, and they strapped 40-gallon cans of gasoline to the running boards. They “jolted over rocks and tree roots and splashed through mud holes and shallow streams. Brush raked along the side of the car, and its occupants had to be alert to avoid being whipped in the face as branches slid past the windshield.”20 When they came to the Tanana River it was in flood stage so they tied planks to two poling boats and floated the car across. There were many tense moments getting the car on and off the planks, and keeping it steady while it floated across the river. When the car bogged down in the mud, the passengers had to get out and push and pull the car along the treacherous route. In the Thompson Pass the road was little more than a “goat trail,” and at one point a snow slide completely blocked their way. Their troubles were almost over as they neared Valdez and then found that a bridge was out. With the help of his passengers, Sheldon got the Ford across the river and up a steep bank. They arrived in Valdez “at eleven o’clock Saturday night, August 2, 1913.”21

On Monday, August 4, 1913, the Valdez Daily Prospector commented on the excursion: “It is believed that this automobile run will help greatly in getting road appropriation hereafter. It will also advertise Alaska among those numerous folks who think the territory is all ice and snow.” Sheldon knew that he wouldn’t be able to make it back to Fairbanks alone, so he sold his car in Valdez and ordered another one. He purchased a bicycle and made his way back up the Richardson trail alone back to Fairbanks.

As soon as his new Model T car arrived, Sheldon started to build his transportation business, which was successful for ten years. At one time, they had fifteen cars running between Fairbanks and Valdez. As roads improved and more cars were purchased, Sheldon also opened a repair garage in Fairbanks. Business in transporting customers declined when the railroad was extended from Seward to Fairbanks. Then, as one business failed, other opportunities opened up for Sheldon. “So, like a lot of people in Alaska who made a failure of business, I finally got into politics.”22

His first political victory was to be elected Road Commissioner for the 4th Division. After four years, he ran for the legislature, was elected, and went to Juneau for the 1925 session. He was re-elected in 1926 and returned for the 1927 session. After the United States purchased Alaska in 1867, there was no formal government for 17 years. It was then defined by congress as a civil and judicial district and only made a territory in 1912.23 It was this territorial legislature that Robert E. (Bobby) Sheldon served in the 1920s. The territory was made a state in January of 1959 and Sheldon also served in the House of Representatives in the first state legislature. Sheldon lived in the state of Washington when it was a territory. He was three years old when Washington became a state. Then he lived in Alaska when it was a territory, and later when it became a state. He also served his community as postmaster of Fairbanks for many years.

Sheldon was a risk-taker, adventure seeker, and automobile lover. Just one hour after his wedding to Anna Blonde on August 20, 1922, he “was to go up against possible death in a crazy auto race which even gouging, kicking and biting were not bared and if anything happened to him he was going to leave Anna a rich widow. And, that he wasn’t afraid is evidenced by the fact that he kept the undertaker right along with him, from the wedding to the finish of the grueling race, which he won, together with driver Ensley, their time being the same to the fraction of a second.”24 Anna Sheldon must have shared Bobby’s attachment to autos and taking risks because she would later drive tourists to Chocolate Mountain in Mt. McKinley National Park and Preserve where the road was so narrow and dangerous that traffic could only go one way. Drivers had to be sure everyone was up the road to its end before anyone started down. When Anna got to the end of the road, the tourists would ask to get out of the car before she turned it around.25

Bobby was willing to do almost anything to keep his guests entertained. He caught two bear cubs on Richardson Highway and brought them to Savage Camp – to the delight of visitors. When the season ended, however, he couldn’t just leave the bears there; so, he submitted an article to the newspaper trying to “locate a person who will protect, love and zealously guard the two Alaskan grizzly bears now residing at Savage Camp. He stated that their keeper must treat the bears as one of their own family during the coming winter and release them to the company next summer – he’s had no takers yet!”26 The problem was solved when the Director of the National Parks facilitated giving the bears to the National Zoological Garden in Washington, D. C.

Leaving Fairbanks on the morning train, you arrive at the park station about 2 o’clock in the afternoon. There you are met by a string of Studebaker automobiles operated by the Mt. McKinley Tourist and Transportation Company. After your baggage has been loaded into a truck and you are comfortably seated in the car the ten-mile ride to the company’s base camp at Savage River begins. After you have gone about two miles you come to the headquarters of Harry Karstens, Superintendent of the Park. The group of log cabins set in the encircling mountains and surrounded by a heavy growth of spruce presents a picturesque appearance. There you are asked to register in order that a record may be kept of all visitors into the park.

The rest of the ride to the camp is made over fine roads, and the automobile goes through rolling hills heavily wooded only to shoot out into the open country, giving at all times a pleasant variety to the trip. Always the high mountains of the great range stand out in relief.

Upon arrival at the camp, you are pleasantly delighted; it is built in a sort of basin on a high plateau, and towering not far away are rugged peaks. Too, the appearance of the camp, so modern and clean is refreshing for out in the wilderness you did not expect anything like it. It is situated not far from the Savage River, and fresh running water is supplied at all times by a hydraulic ram. The main buildings, the kitchen, dining room, and social hall are connected.

The chef, William Phinn, has a well-merited reputation for excellent cooking. The dining room has four long tables, and unlike the ordinary camp, chairs are used instead of benches. You sit down at a table that is covered with snowy linen and napkins – articles scarcely looked for in the wilderness. The social hall has a fine floor for dancing and orthophonic victrola. Tabes are provided for those who care to play cards.

You register as you would at any hotel and are escorted to a tent. The tents are set along regular streets and each will house two persons comfortably as they are 10 feet by 12 feet in size. Two cots are placed in each; board floors and frames keep out the moisture. Hot water is brought to you in the tent each morning. It is camping deluxe.

Back of the main group of buildings is the corral in which 27 horses are kept for those who wish to make side trips. They were brought from Montana by J. A. Galen, Vice-President of the company. The western effect is carried out by Galen, and for the entertainment of camp visitors, he has two bucking broncos which he rides. Brought from Yellowstone Park are two old-fashioned stagecoaches which are used in going to the head of the Savage River.

Or, if you care to, you may go to the head of the river in a Ford. There is no road, but the river bed is smooth and a great deal of fun is had in fording the stream and crossing bars. You most probably will see an abundance of wild game. On a trip up the Savage last week hundreds of caribou were seen, together with many sheep, a wolverine, and a grizzly bear with two cubs. Fox are so plentiful that at times they play around the camp. Recently a large band of sheep came down the hills about a quarter of a mile from the camp, crossed the plain, and ascended the hill on the other side. On a clear day, you get a wonderful view of that giant of mountains, Mt. McKinley. For those who wish to make longer and even more interesting trips into the park, competent guides, saddle horses, and pack horses are provided.
Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,
“Trip Into Park Ideal Vacation,” July 15, 1926

It is easy to see how this man of many skills loved his job at Savage Camp. He often said that the job at Savage River was “loves labor lost.”27 It was not a labor to him – it was love. His whole family was involved. His wife, Anna, would not only transport visitors in touring cars, but she also worked as a cook; and their daughter, Frances, would follow the help around and pitch in wherever she could.

About Valerie Winans
We like to camp because it’s easy to take our best friend with us. When we were hired as campground hosts in Denali National Park and Preserve Remington Beagle was only about a year old. Since that first trip up the Alaska Highway we have been in love with not only all things Alaska, but also the adventure in getting there each time with our truck and trailer.