Alaska’s Savage River
Inside Denali National Park and Preserve
By Valerie Winans
A Writer for Readers of All Ages
Early People of the Park
As we oriented ourselves to our new environment, we wanted to learn more about this amazing place. We purchased and read books, and we used park resources to learn more. As people of the present, we needed more information about the people of the past. As we talked to visitors, we recognized that they also had a hunger for more information about this special place and its past.
In researching the history of the park, we learned about the people who, after visiting here, wanted to protect it and preserve it for others.
The national park in Alaska which congress created last spring is one of the monster spectacles of the world. To say. That it rises 20,300 feet above sea level and that it is the loftiest peak in America is to convey no idea whatever of its grandeur. There are several mountains in the Himalayas which materially exceed its height, one which rises more than 25,000 feet above sea level; and yet Mount McKinley, to the observers loftier than any of these. The reason is that the greatest Himalayas are seen from valleys seven to ten thousand feet in altitude, while Mount McKinley rises abruptly from valleys three thousand feet and even less in altitude.
Fairbanks Daily News-Miner
“The Monster of Mountains,” July 11, 1917
In 1906, as Charles Sheldon stood on the ridge of a mountain looking at a trail that followed the contour of the land, he did not know that the trail would eventually turn into a 90-mile long road connecting the mining community of Kantishna with the railroad at Riley Creek. This mountainous area was beautiful and wild, and Sheldon fell in love with it. During that summer, fall, and winter of 1906, he lived in the area near the Toklat River and Mt. McKinley (Denali) to observe the seasonal habits of large game animals.1 He specifically wanted to study Dall sheep because there wasn’t much known at the time about the Ovis dalli.2
As Sheldon and his packer, Harry Karstens, tramped along looking for sheep, they made their camp on the piedmont and enjoyed looking at the Alaska Range in the distance. Harry Karstens proved to be a capable packer, and their friendship which developed during this time, lasted a lifetime. While they were camped, Sheldon saw “ground squirrels, marmots that whistled on the moraine, Canada jays few about, the tree sparrows and intermediate sparrows sang continually, and wax-wings and northern shrikes were particularly plentiful. White-tailed ptarmigan with broods of chicks were near; the wing-beats of ravens passing overhead hissed through the air; Arctic terns flew gracefully over the meadows, and golden eagles soared above the ridges. Old bear diggings were everywhere, but no large animal was seen except a big bull caribou.”3 Amazingly enough, the 21st-century camper can have the same experience due to the preservation of this area as a refuge, and it was Charles Sheldon who was instrumental in getting legislation passed to make the area a national park and preserve.
After Charles Sheldon’s first visit to Alaska in 1906, he was committed to the establishment of a national park and wildlife preserve near Mt. McKinley (Denali). He was convinced that when the railroad passed near, the Dall sheep would be obliterated because their meat was a prime commodity for railroad crews and roadhouses. He had many friends in sportsman’s clubs and in politics, and he used his influence to promote a wildlife preserve. With the help of others, his dream became a reality in 1917 when it was signed into law by President Wilson.4 Sheldon wanted the park to be called Denali, and stated in his book, The Wilderness of Denali,
The Indians who have lived for countless generations in the presence of these colossal mountains have given them names that are both euphonious and appropriate. In a comparatively short time the Indians will become extinct. Can it be denied that the names they gave to the most imposing features of their country should be preserved! Can it be too late to make an exception to current geographic rules and restore these beautiful names – names so expressive of the mountains themselves, and so symbolic of the Indians who bestowed them?5
In spite of Sheldon’s plea, Congress called the park Mt. McKinley National Park. Finally, in 1980, under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, the park’s name was changed to Denali Park and Preserve, but the name of the mountain wasn’t changed to Denali until 2015.
One hundred years ago, the land looked pretty much as it does now except for the few contributions made by man since the area became a national park in 1917. The park road is the most significant manmade mark as it snakes ninety miles inward. It can be spotted from thousands of feet in the air as it follows the natural contours of the land, taking a route through the mountains used by people and animals for hundreds of years before anyone thought of building a road from the trail.
At the end of the road is Kantishna, a gold-mining community; although before the gold miners traveled this path, explorers, mountaineers, and scientists led the way. In the late eighteenth century, George Vancouver and Ferdinand von Wrangell were among the first explorers to note the “distant and stupendous mountains covered with snow.”6 When William Seward purchased Alaska from the Russians in 1867, the highest point on the North American continent had not been recognized as such. It wasn’t until 1897 when William Dickey surveyed the mountain, declared it over 20,000 feet in height, and gave the mountain its name: Mount McKinley. He named the mountain for the man “who had been nominated for the presidency.”7 Although the mountain had several different Indian names, Denali is the original Athabascan name which means “the great one.”
A National Park is Born
Harry P. Karstens recently appointed by secretary Fall to be superintendent of Mt. McKinley National Park arrived in Fairbanks on the Nenana train last evening and is kept busy today in receiving the congratulations of his many friends.
Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,
“Harry Karstens is On the Job,” June 11, 1921
Mt. McKinley National Park was in its nascent stage, a park and preserve in name only as there were no funds to hire anyone to protect its resources. Every year congress was lobbied for funds for the newly established park, but other priorities always topped the list. Finally, in 1921, funds were allocated to the park.8 During all the years Sheldon and others fought for funds; he was also currying favor for his choice of lead ranger (superintendent) of the park. The person he believed to be the best candidate for the job was his friend Harry Karstens.
When he was only 19 years old Harry Karstens came to the Klondike like many others because he was lured by the promise of gold. He found himself in a place called Seventymile, south of Eagle, Alaska. He became proficient at dog mushing and trailblazing and worked delivering mail on a primitive trail between Eagle and Valdez. He later moved on to Fairbanks and began delivering mail to Kantishna. His knowledge of this area made him a perfect candidate to be Charles Sheldon’s packer. Sheldon was convinced that he was just the man to take the leadership role in the new park and preserve because of his experience with Karstens on the piedmont. Karstens did have the skills and ingenuity necessary to build a park infrastructure using only the resources found on the land. When he arrived to begin his work as superintendent, the park had not even been surveyed. He brought with him Woodbury Abby, who did the first survey of the park’s boundaries.9 Karstens hiked the park behind Abby’s survey team because he didn’t have a horse. He was very concerned about poaching, but first he had to have a park headquarters and a place to live. Working alone, he cleared a spot near Riley and Hines Creeks, where he erected the first building in the park, from logs he cleared himself.
Harry Karstens was concerned about protecting the wildlife in the park; he knew that once the railroad was completed there would be more visitors. Aware that part of his job was to make the park accessible to people, he hired a concessionaire to provide destinations and diversions for visitors. Although Karstens had several interested parties for park concessionaire, a former horse packer and guide from Nenana, Dan Kennedy, was chosen as the first concessionaire in Mt. McKinley National Park.10
Dan Kennedy had a big job to do. While he was busy setting up a tent camp at the confluence of Jenny Creek and Savage Fork, he also worked on the road leading from the train station to the camp, which was nothing more than a brushed-out trail. By July 4, 1923, the road was not even “cruised out”11 all the way to Savage Camp, and groups of important guests were due to visit the park on July 7, 8, and 15. Although Kennedy prioritized working on the road over completing the necessary facilities at the camp, he did have a crude camp established by July 7 at Jenny Creek and Savage River. Karstens was unhappy with the lack of progress on the camp because he planned to take his guests out there. However, the first visitors, including a congressional party, a group from the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper, and President Harding’s party, did not have time for the twelve-mile ride to Savage River.12 (The railroad car used by President Harding during this trip can be viewed at Pioneer Park in Fairbanks.)
Nineteen twenty-four did not bring Karstens any more satisfaction with the concessionaire. Savage Camp was not fully operational until June of that year, and the other two camps contracted for were not in operation at all. Savage Camp consisted of only eight small brown canvas tents and a cook tent/dining room. There were only sixty-two visitors that year which was a losing proposition for both parties. Kennedy established his company under Mt. McKinley Tourist and Transportation Company and had the mayor of Fairbanks, Alaska, Thomas Marquam, as an advisor. They were looking for additional ways to bring in money and began to arrange guided hunting trips out of Cantwell. This was a cause for more friction between Kennedy and Karstens because the area used for hunting was along the border of the park, and there was no easy way to patrol that area. Relations between Karstens and Kennedy did not improve; and as a result, Kennedy sold his company in June 1925.13
With James Galen as president, Thomas Marquam as vice-president, and Robert E. (Bobby) Sheldon as the on-site manager of the Mt. McKinley Tourist and Transportation Company, the operation began to run smoothly. The company worked in partnership with the National Park Service, the Alaska Railroad, and the Alaska Road Commission to provide services in the park for the next seventeen years. The company decided that “its main camp would remain at Savage Camp, regardless of how far road construction progressed; it did so because of the camp’s nearness to the railroad, the spectacular Mt. McKinley view, and the plethora of nearby points of interest.”14
The endeavor of the Bureau of Biological survey to build up the market quality of the Alaskan reindeer is taking active form. O.J. Murie, field representative of the Biological Survey, left for McKinley Park Station yesterday, taking with him a party of experienced cattlemen and woodsmen who will attempt this fall to corral a number of bull caribou for breeding purposes.
The scene of operations will be the head of Savage Fork, in the pass between the Savage and the Sanctuary, where they will commence immediately to construct a catching pen. The main corral will enclose an area of an acre or more… Mr. Murie has studied this country closely, and believes that it is the most favorable location for the experiment…it may be possible by this method of crossing to develop an animal of greater weight and better meat quality than either the reindeer or caribou, as has been the case with beef cattle.
Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,
“Murie Securing Caribou Bulls,” August 12, 1922
The Mt.McKinley Tourist and Transportation Company, to provide more opportunities for tourists, worked with the Alaska Road Commission to establish a road “for nine miles up the west side of Savage River valley to a tent complex dubbed Caribou Camp.”15 This was near the camp that Olaus Murie erected for his caribou studies in 1922. The company took tourists up this road in stagecoaches, and later by automobile. “The trip was called “the Big Game Drive,”16 along which could be seen sheep, caribou, bears, and foxes.
Extended trips into the park consisted of a “two-day saddle-horse trip…to the head of Savage River, then back to camp via SanctuaryRiver; another trip headed to Igloo Creek; while the most expensive trip, played out over eight days, took visitors all the way to Copper Mountain (now Mt. Eielson). To support those trips, by 1928, the concessionaire had built tent camps at Igloo Creek, Toklat River, and Copper Mountain. The company also erected a tent at Polychrome Pass, presumably as a mid-day rest stop.”17
R.E. Sheldon, manager of the McKinley Tourist and Transportation Company, returned last night from a trip made to the company’s Savage River camp. He states that a mess house will be completed within the next few days. A dining tent with board floors and sidewalls and a community tent with dance floor, each 24 X 40 feet are being built at the present time and will be in readiness for the tourist season. The dining room will accommodate 60 people at a sitting, and there will be sleeping accommodations for a maximum of 75. A new orthophonic Victrola will provide music for dancing. Mr. Sheldon says that the cost of the camp will run well over $10,000.
Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,
“Sheldon Completes Trip Savage Camp,” May 26, 1926
The Mt. McKinley Tourist and Transportation Company continued to improve services, and the number of tourists increased each year. Bobby Sheldon and his crew loved what they were doing at Savage Camp, and their good will was felt by the visitors. The trip to the park was a long and difficult one at that time – there was no road from the lower 48, and the crew at Savage did their best to make the trip worthwhile for their customers. But at the same time a hotel was being built at McKinley Park Station. When the hotel was completed, Savage Camp was moved to Mile 66 in the park. The company’s contract to run the concession was not renewed because the U.S. government decided to run the concession, and then legislation was passed giving the concession to the Alaska Railroad as it was also operating the new hotel.
Washington – President Roosevelt signed the bill authorizing the Alaska Railroad to take over the transportation and tourist accommodation facilities in Mt. McKinley National Park which authorized a $30,000 appropriation for use of the railroad for this purpose.
Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,
“Railroad To Run Park Facilities,” March 30, 1940
The Mt. McKinley Tourist and Transportation Company continued to operate the camps through a temporary contract until the end of the 1941 season. Tourist travel to Alaska came to a halt on December 7, 1941, and continued throughout World War II. During the war, the U.S. military, in cooperation with Canada, built the highway known as the Alcan. The highway starts at Dawson Creek, British Columbia, Canada, and ends at Delta Junction, Alaska, where it joins the Richardson Highway and continues on to Fairbanks, Alaska. Although there were challenges traveling the new highway, for the first time the lower forty-eight were connected with Alaska by road. Traveling the Alcan (now called the Alaska Highway) was its own adventure, but despite the difficulties of the journey to the last frontier, the road had a huge effect on tourism post World War II.
Notes for Chapter Four
- Sheldon, Charles. The Wilderness of Denali. Lanham, Maryland: The Derrydale Press
- Dall sheep: A wild sheep of northwest North America. “The proper name is Dall sheep, however, most often it is referred to as dall sheep. The species is named for scientist William H. Dall even though he may not have had anything to do with them. E.W. Nelson gave the sheep their first scientific name, Ovis Montana, with a sub-name of dalli. Later J.A. Allen changed the name from Montana to dalli. So their Latin name is now Ovis dalli dalli. http://library.thinkquest.org/3500/dall_sheep.html
- See note 1 above.
- National Park Service website: http://www.nps.gov/dena/historyculture/index.htm
- See note 1 above.
- Beckey, Fred. Mount McKinley, Icy Crown of North America. (Seattle: The Mountaineers, 1993).
- Norris, Frank. Crown jewel of the North: An Administrative History of Denali National Park and Preserve, Volume1. (U.S. Department of the Interior National Park Service, )
- See note 8 above.
- Document dated June 17, 1925, to shareholders of Mt. McKinley Tourist and Transportation Company from Dan Kennedy. Courtesy of the Candy Waugaman
- See note 8 above.