“Another gasket job”
Part 2 in a Series
The antagonism between Seward and Anchorage that began in 1915 was nothing new. Alaskan towns were used to fighting over resources, railroads, and baseball. First run in 1915, Seward’s famous Fourth of July Mount Marathon Race took many years to become the holiday’s featured event. Baseball competitions prevailed. Beginning about 1905-6, Seward played against teams from ships in port, especially coast guard survey or Navy vessels. The Navy was seeking a West Coast location for a coal station, and all coastal Alaska towns wanted the economic boost. Sometimes Seward challenged Valdez or Cordova, and the steamship companies gave special rates so the town baseball teams could travel.
In 1909, it was Valdez’s turn to visit Resurrection Bay. The holiday fell on a Monday, and Valdez planned to arrive on Saturday for a three-day celebration. But on July 1st, long after plans had been finalized, Cordova sent two men to Valdez to lure the holiday crowd to their town instead. Seward and Valdez were outraged at this last-minute tactic. For 48 hours they cabled each other, trying to salvage the visit. They had to decide quickly to either scrap the event or go ahead despite Cordova’s interference. They decided to continue with adjusted plans.
“Everybody’s cursing Cordova,” the Valdez Prospector wired the Seward Gateway. Cordova officials had tried to manipulate the steamer Portland’s schedule to divert the Valdez visitors there. When that failed, the Portland’s boom suddenly turned up broken, forcing the vessel to Cordova for repairs and delaying its departure to Seward. “Another gasket job,” moaned the Valdez Prospector, suspecting sabotage. Seward ended up losing the series, but both towns felt they had at least defeated Cordova.
There was a complicated history and much emotional baggage behind this particular double-cross by Cordova. Seward, Valdez, and Cordova had always been adversaries, but they mostly respected each other and played fairly, since there were many political, social, and economic ties among them. On another level, though, the stakes sometimes got so high that fair play seemed less important. The rivalries among the three towns make up a complex story involving competing railroads to the interior, monopolies and trusts, outside interests controlling Alaska, and at least one violent encounter. Although the towns were not afraid of fierce competition, they generally agreed to leave politics out of social events. Cordova had broken that rule, which revived deep animosities.
Cordova was a company town run by the “Outsiders,” the Guggenheim-Morgan Alaska Syndicate. Towns like Seward and Valdez saw the syndicate as millionaire East Coast carpetbaggers set on controlling all of Alaska’s economic interests. By 1909, the syndicate already owned gold mines, fish canneries, copper and coal lands, railroads, and steamship companies. The bankrupt Alaska Central Railway out of Seward had reorganized as the new Alaska Northern Railway. They would eventually lay 71 miles to Kern Creek. Syndicate interests had started a railroad out of Valdez under engineer George Hazelet. They later abandoned the site on the advice of engineer M.K. Rogers for a proposed route from Katalla, near Cordova. They later gave up on Katalla. Meanwhile in 1906, Michael J. Heney – a man who had actually built a railroad in Alaska, the White Pass-Yukon Railway out of Skagway – started his own project at Orca Inlet (later called Cordova), hoping to eventually sell out to the syndicate. He eventually succeeded, and the syndicate hired Heney as their grade contractor.
Valdez didn’t take their abandonment lightly. Promoter Henry D. Reynolds raised $200,000 – much from local residents – to build his Alaska Home Railroad out of Valdez. Alaska Governor John Brady supported Reynolds, which later got the politician into trouble from the Secretary of the Interior for backing a commercial enterprise. But Brady’s enthusiasm was understandable. Despite all their differences, if most Alaskans had one thing in common, it was animosity toward Outside interests like the syndicate – and Reynolds exploited that sentiment. He had tremendous energy and charisma. He hired workers from Seattle and sought funding from various sources; he started his own weekly newspaper to promote his project; he purchased a shipping firm to complete with the syndicate-owned steamers; and he opened a Valdez bank. He refused to be intimidated by the syndicate, even antagonizing them at one point by sending a ship to their Katalla port attempting to entice 300 of their workers to Valdez.
Like John Ballaine with his Alaska Central Railway, Reynolds moved too fast with too little financing. In those days, it was a race to see which company could be the first to get the tracks to the coal fields and beyond. Everyone knew there would be only one victor. Reynolds confronted the problem Alaska has faced throughout most of its history. Only deep-pocket Outside interests had enough capital to even attempt huge construction projects. Alaskans didn’t have the capital – and even if they did, once the resource is extracted, where do you market it and at what cost? Alaska’s climate and rugged terrain was challenge enough without even considering the politics.
Historians have taken both sides in evaluating the positive vs. negative influence of the Alaska Syndicate. Though caricatured as an octopus with tentacles squeezing the life-blood out of Alaska, J.P. Morgan is said to have expressed philanthropic interests while the Copper River Railway was being surveyed. He is quoted as charging his workers to pay attention to agricultural possibilities. “If those pioneers want to stay there after the gold is mined out, I’ll build a railroad in there for them,” he’s quoted as saying. “I don’t care a damn what it costs me, or whether I get a cent of the investment back. I’d like to make it possible for them to remain. John D. Rockefeller has built churches and Andrew Carnegie libraries as their monuments. I am going to build a railroad to benefit those Alaska pioneers as my monument.”
Reynolds over-extended himself with his Valdez railroad and failed a last-ditch attempt to raise enough money to save himself and his project. He resigned his chairmanship in January 1908 and in April was indicted for mail fraud and misrepresentation. He broke down, was adjudged insane, and the charges were dropped. But before Reynolds’ psychological and professional collapse – and while his Alaska Home Railroad out of Valdez faced bankruptcy in September 1907 – some of his workers had a violent confrontation with the Copper River Northwest Railway at the Keystone Canyon.
TO BE CONTINUED
Doug Capra is the author of The Spaces Between: Stories from the Kenai Mountains to the Kenai Fjords. He is an authority on American artist Rockwell Kent and has written the forewords for two of his books, “Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska,” and “Northern Christmas,” both published by Wesleyan University Press.