Ted Lambert is regarded as one of the premier Alaska artists, a true pioneer. Born in 1905, and raised in the Chicago area, Lambert moved to Alaska in 1925 and went to work as a miner near McCarthy. He held several jobs, predominantly working at a copper mine and mushing dogsfirst for adventure, and then as a mail carrier.
Lambert left Alaska in 1931 to study art for a year at the American Academy of Art in Chicago, then moved to Seattle, where he began a mentorship under Eustace Ziegler, with whom he traveled throughout Alaska and painted. Eventually Lambert settled down in Fairbanks, where he stayed for twenty years and solidified his reputation as a painter and an artist.
But in 1960 he disappeared from the remote cabin he was living in at Bristol Bay. No trace of his body was ever found, but among the effects rescued from his last home was a memoir of his early days in Alaska. Presented here and never before published, these memoirs reveal Lambert to be a keen and intelligent observer and relay the adventure story of a young man who would become one of Alaska’s most important artists.
|Publisher:||University of Alaska Press|
|Product dimensions:||6.10(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.60(d)|
About the Author
Lew Freedman is the author of numerous books about Alaska. A former long-time resident of the state, he is the former sports editor of the Anchorage Daily News. He currently writes a weekly column for Alaska newspapers.
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Ted LambertThe Man Behind the Paintings
University of Alaska PressCopyright © 2012 University of Alaska Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWelcome to Cordova
Dodging through the crowd thronging the gangway, I made my way to the end of the wharf where it joined the land. Letting my packsack and bedroll down, I paused to take a glance at the place which through chance rather than purposeful design I had chosen for my Alaska destination.
It was the time of year when it is neither winter nor spring, but something unmentionable in between. Patches of thawing snow lay amidst puddles of dirty water and mud and water were everywhere, gurgling and gushing from the timbered hillsides, which were still buried in winter-long snow. A dank mist overhung the countryside, and across the bay wreaths of fog trailed down to the water's edge. A thin drizzle, part rain, part snow, fell. There was a sodden listlessness pervading the chill March air that struck to the bone.
The town was situated on rising ground near a half mile from the wharf and was connected by a rutted road which made a long ascent up the hill. Below the road, roughly adjacent to the beach line, was a railroad. A few fishing boats were tied to pilings or sat forlornly on the mud flats. Their slovenly appearance showed they were inactive. They looked more like derelicts than seaworthy craft. A lone man in a rowboat splashed around some old pilings and raised a few crab traps.
The somnolent atmosphere was ominous and depressing. There was something about this place that warned me to go easy considering the few coins amounting to $3.65 in my pocket.
Streets were nearly deserted and large groups of men lounged in pool halls. I passed a couple of hotels of modest proportions, but I had my sight peeled for some battered derelict that forsook all pretensions at comfort and offered bare board for bare pay. I noticed down a side street a ramshackle frame building with peeling paint and a small weathered sign over the door stating ROOMS.
A musty odor pervaded the place—like stale incense tinged with boiled cabbage—and I thought some of the lodgers must be trying to conceal that they were cooking in their rooms.
My small room contained a single bed with quilts, an old chair, a washstand with a crockery basin and pitcher of water, and a battered dresser with a cracked mirror nailed to the wall above it. I stayed only long enough to tidy up my appearance and then went in search of work.
A help wanted sign was unknown. The best that I received from potential employers was, "Well, maybe." The damp dusk settling over the town was in accord with my mood. It was evident I was limited to seasonal employment and such jobs didn't open up until May. I had arrived in the country more than a month too early.
My last meal had been taken aboard ship that morning. Now I sat down and devoured a can of cold baked beans with a couple of slices of baloney sausage wrapped between pieces of bread.
When I lay down, my thoughts chased one another around like fish trapped in a weir. My dead-end condition was beyond my experience. My head hurt from thinking of the problem of finding work. My first day in Alaska ended when I fell asleep with my clothes on.
The next morning I departed without breakfast, once again in pursuit of a job. By early afternoon I had tried everything short of joining a lodge or marrying a merchant's daughter. I had the disconcerting feeling that by now everybody in town knew I was broke, a vagrant and a public nuisance, and I expected to see headlines in the local newspaper demanding my arrest and expulsion.
Back in my room I opened another can of beans and ate the remains of the baloney sausage. People looked at you as though you were cracked when you asked for a job at this time of year. I had read that Cordova was located in one of the wealthiest parts of Alaska, where copper, gold, timber, oil, coal, salmon, halibut, herring, clams and crabs were on the scene. Yet here was a town of about 1,500 population whose only means of existence was as a port for shipping our raw materials, a town living hand-to-mouth with everybody hanging onto the other fellow's coattails, going around in circles and everybody waiting for the seasonal work to begin.
Why live in the country at all if you had to hole up six, eight, ten months of every year just to get in a few months' work? The landlady knocked on the door and told me I had to release the room for one of her regulars. I nodded, parted with a dollar-and-a-half, and threw my belongings into the packsack. I could not chance the price of another day's lodging anyway.
I crossed to a pool hall and a brusque, businesslike gent wearing a green eye-shade was behind the cigar counter. He understood my problem while I was yet talking and he sketched a rough map with an X on the chart. I was near the railroad yard facing a false-fronted one-story building. It featured a sign reading bunks, four bits, rooms, one buck. Now that was straight talk a man could understand.
A curly-headed, swarthy French Canadian greeted me and signed me up for a bunk. Then with a toothy grin he said, "Where ya been all the time? The boat was in yesterday morning."
I told the Frenchman about my hotel, and his brow furrowed in puzzlement. Suddenly, his face flashed open with a shout of astonished laughter. "Hell, kid!" he cried, "that ain't no rooming house. That's a whorehouse, the crummiest one in town!"
His rooming house was called Copper River Rooms. There were about a dozen single rooms with a long hallway leading to a larger room the operator called "the bullpen." It was here that the double-deck wooden bunks were lined up along three walls. The facilities were comfortable for a bunkhouse and as neat as a Dutch housewife's kitchen.
I continued my dogged search for work. On the wharf I encountered the dock boss and despite pulling out all of the stops he said, "No chance, no chance at all, boy. I've got twenty fellows standing by right now if one of the boys misses a turn. If there was an opening on the gang, half the town would be down here."
Talking with the fishermen was even worse. They told me they were all living on credit. Those poor fellows were in much worse shape than I. Darkness was setting in when I returned to the lodging house with two bits worth of cheese and hardtack and another can of baked beans. I felt beaten and my feet ached from constant walking. I had just a couple of silver dollars left, enough that might carry me through four days.
In Montana, my steamfitter boss had assured us nobody ever starved in Alaska as long as they were willing to work. I had never actually seen a man drop dead on the street from starvation, but I felt there was a good chance I might be present when such a thing occurred.
The following morning I set out to get a job as a dishwasher. Not even this strategy worked. "No chance, kid," I was told. "We've got more dishwashers now than we have customers." I returned to the lodging house and lay down on my bunk. This must be the way a condemned man feels just before the warden comes and leads him to the rope, I thought.
While sweeping the room, the Frenchman greeted me with a cheery good morning. He talked about the weather and repeated that a fellow could always get by in the country. He tipped me off that sometimes the placer mining companies picked up a few men at that time of year and that one of them was at the Windsor Hotel. Within minutes, I was on my way to the Windsor, considered the town's finest hotel.
I was pointed to Charles Kraemer across the lobby as a man who was running a camp. The mining man was engrossed in letter writing. He had strong, intelligent features and his face was deeply tanned from wind and weather. Obviously, he didn't spend much time living in hotels. Kraemer ran a casual survey over me, beginning at the feet and following through to the head. I explained I had just arrived from the States and was looking for work.
Kraemer's dark eyes rested on me thoughtfully. Then he spent a few minutes studying several pages in a notebook. "Yes," he said finally. "I can use you. We pay five dollars a day and board, with a fifty-cents-a-day bonus if you stay the full season." Before I could summon my stunned wits into words of acceptance, he asked my name. He jotted it down, snapped the notebook shut, and put it in his pocket. "Show up in Chitina in ten days," he said, "and I'll put you on." Then he turned back to his letter writing.
An ecstatic feeling drummed inside me when I left the hotel. I felt like running, leaping over fences, turning handsprings, and shouting in a mighty voice for all the world to hear: "I've got a job! I've found a job in Alaska!" I had secured a foothold in the country. I was not going to be beaten. In ten days I would be going to work. Why, a man could go that long without eating anything at all if he had to!
The lodge owner must have seen my elation shining like an aura around my head, for the moment I entered the building he gave me a perfunctory nod and asked, "How did you make out?"
I quickly spit out what had occurred. The Frenchman bobbed his head, happy for me, and asked, "Where is the mine?" I told him I didn't know exactly, but it must be somewhere around there. "Where is Chitina?"
The Frenchman strolled to the front window with a thoughtful frown on his face. He stared into the bright spring sunshine and then yelled towards the rooms, "Hey, Ole! Where is Chitina?" A small, sad-eyed Scandinavian sidled into view down the hall. He shambled with a crablike gait toward the lobby, his gnomish features rapt in thought. "Chititoo? Chititoo? Aye don't know." Suddenly, his face brightened. "Yah, aye remember now. Yah, I hear some of the boys talking about it." Then he turned back to his room.
The Frenchman sent a boy to find another man who might know. I sat at the card table and dealt a hand of solitaire. A half hour passed before a husky, square-built Swede entered. He wore frayed, faded duck work clothing, much patched with canvas. The tops of his rubber hip boots were rolled down and flapping loosely around his knees. He might have passed for one of the pirates in Treasure Island.
"You got job Chititu, huh?" he asked me. He let drive a forceful brown jet straight into the bull's-eye of a spittoon. "Yu vant to know vere Chititu iss," he said. "It iss McCarthy, maybe twenty, thirty mile. Dar iss a road out dot vey. Maybe you get ride."
The Frenchman interpreted. McCarthy was near Kennecott, the Kennecott Mine at the end of the rail line. I had not imagined that in reaching Chitina there were distances involved that were more than a few hours' hike or a day or two walking from Cordova. "How far is Kennecott from here?" I asked.
"Well, let's see," the Frenchman said. "It would be around two hundred miles, something like that." He yelled again for Ole for confirmation, who said it was 196 miles, "maybe mile one way or other."
Then add the distance to McCarthy. Once again I retreated to my bunk to ponder the circumstances. My job was not less than 215 miles distant! The appalling discovery sent a shivering sensation over me as though I had fallen into icy water without touching bottom. How was a man to travel over two hundred miles of wilderness when he had only enough money to eat a few mouthfuls of hardtack and beans for three more days?
I asked the Frenchman how much rail fare would be to McCarthy and he guessed twenty-five dollars—at least. That was the straw that drowned the man! I was right back where I had started from that morning. I had been planning and saving for over a year, had traveled over three thousand miles, all to the end that I might beg vainly for a job as a dishwasher! Now this. A flood of hot anger welled up in me.
I marched out of the lodging house, not knowing where I was going. But I ended up in the grocery store counting out my last silver dollars, minus fifty cents, for a paper sack of trail grub. I walked away with beans, rice, sugar, tea, hardtack, and a small piece of bacon. All of the portions were small. The remaining fifty cents was to pay for a last night in my bunk.
Back at the lodging house I informed the proprietor of my determination to walk to the mine. He was surprised. "What the hell, kid? You aren't broke, are you?" I lied. "Not exactly, but I can't afford to ride the cushions."
He began thinking out loud, considering and rejecting options. I could not ride the rails because I would freeze to death. It was pointless to ask the brakemen because they were under orders not to allow passengers.
My pack was packed. It weighed thirty-five or forty pounds, not so very heavy. The Frenchman told me to stay another night, on the house, and offered to put me up as long as I liked. Shaking my head, I passed the fifty-cent piece over. He didn't reach for it.
A curious welt bobbed up in my throat for an instant. I swallowed hard to put it down. I doggedly held out the four-bit piece. The Frenchman, his eyes all the while on mine, reached one hand out of his pocket and took it slowly, a hesitant movement.
The transaction complete, the Frenchman began lecturing me on precautions. "Now look," he said, "you got everything you need? How's your socks and insoles? You know you'll be hitting cold weather long before you get to McCarthy. You won't get back in this area far before it will be zero and colder. I see you are carrying light blankets. They're not much good if you have to make an open camp.
"There are track walker shacks all along the line, every fifteen or twenty miles or so. They're pretty good fellows, those track walkers. If it's cold and you're stuck, make it to one of their places. I've stopped with them several times myself when I was out sheep hunting. One of the fellows has a shack at Mile 18. Or maybe it's 19. You can likely make his place tonight before it gets too dark. When you get there, tell him I told you to see him."
When he finished speaking, I nodded and reached for the pack. I did not express my thanks in a formal way. We had looked straight into one another's eyes and in an instant had plumbed the depths of a wordless understanding. In that moment we knew that it was not two lone individuals playing their roles single-handed, but man and man standing together as they had stood together since time out of mind.
We walked out of the lodging house into the warm spring sunshine. Hunching the packsack around, I wrestled my arms into the harness and shook the pack comfortably down on my shoulders. I turned for a parting farewell and my hand met the Frenchman's sinewy grip. He nodded his head cheerily and said, "Take it easy, kid. Don't bust yourself. Lots of time. You'll make 'er all right. Good luck!"
Chapter TwoHiking the Iron Trail
The railroad ties seemed destined to lead forever to an ever-receding horizon. The steel rails, always holding out promise of joining in the distance, were as far apart as they had been eight days before when I left Cordova. A quarter of a mile ahead I could see a wooden bridge supported on pilings where the railroad crossed a mile-wide expanse of river flats frozen and covered with hard-packed snow. A late afternoon sun was shining on the flats and the reflected heat waves made the settlement beyond the river look unreal, as though seen in a mirage. But I knew it was not a mirage, for even a mile away from McCarthy one could hear the howling and barking of scores of sled dogs.
The village I was approaching was a rough frontier town which commanded the trails leading across the Wrangell Mountain Range. Bright light from the low sun was slanting ruddily on a row of false-fronted buildings facing the river, and thin clouds of smoke from the town's stovepipes were rising straight into the motionless air to mingle in a pinkish smoke haze overhanging the town. The place, even at a distance, had the rough, informal appearance of a western cow camp that somehow had turned up in northern surroundings.
Buildings were scattered over a considerable area, but the site was dwarfed by the magnitude of its surroundings. Rugged hills and mountains beset the town everywhere except on the westerly side, the side looking down the Chitina Valley, and the direction from which the railroad entered from the coast. Northward, the Kennecott Valley, which joined the Chitina Valley, was rimmed in high peaks and locked with a great ice field. Although there were subsidiary channels on the middle reaches of the ice field where the ice flowed down from cirques, the main body of ice headed far back towards Mount Regal and Mount Blackburn. This ice field was Kennecott Glacier. The broad front of its terminal moraine ended just a half mile short of McCarthy.
Tracks from the railroad passed directly in front of the moraine. After leaving the depot at the far end of the bridge, the railroad made a sharp bend to continue up the valley. It had to climb a steep grade and the passage soon narrowed with the glacier on one side and with a high, mountainous ridge on the other. The ridge, called the Kennecott Range, was over a mile high and about ten miles long. It was bored through and through with tunnels and slopes where hundreds of men were at work extracting copper ore from one of the richest ore bodies in the world. The mill and the company town of Kennecott were situated at the base of the ridge. It was there, at Mile 197, that the rails I followed ended. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Ted Lambert Copyright © 2012 by University of Alaska Press. Excerpted by permission of University of Alaska Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Welcome to Cordova 1
Hiking the Iron Trail 7
The Mine 19
Low Man on the Totem Pole 25
Bud Is Back 29
The Country 35
The Roadhouse 41
Forest Fire 45
Mining Something Else 51
Prohibition and No Inhibition 57
Finishing the Season 65
Dog-teaming?Origin of a Mistake 77
The Dogs Teach Us to Mush 105
Beefing Up the Kennel 111
The Education Continues 117
New Equipment 123
Early Winter 129
Learning Alaska History 143
The Trail 155
Taming Live Glaciers 161
Near Death on Skolai Pass 167
Strategic Withdrawal 173
Return to Skolai 179
Boyden's Saga 185
Over the Pass 193