1915 Alaska Fieldwork by Stephen R. Capps – Part 2

Challenges of Alaskan Travel and Fieldwork

Today, with the exception of weather delays and the occasional volcanic eruption, travel between the lower 48 states and Alaska is relatively simple and uneventful compared to a century ago. Everyday multiple flights operated by major airlines depart Seattle, Denver and other cities and arrive at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport a few hours later. In 1915 the trip to Alaska was still a significant undertaking, requiring a multi-day steamship voyage up the inside passage. Getting to Alaska was just the beginning of the adventure. Travel throughout the territory at the beginning of the 20th century was limited by the general lack of road and rail infrastructure and typically required travel by foot, horse, dogsled, or boat.

I found the following excerpt by Stephen R. Capps describing of the routes of travel and commenting on the challenges of getting to and around Alaska in 1915 particularly interesting:

U.S. Geological Survey geologist Stephen Reid Capps, 1907.  USGS Portrait Collection, USGS Photo Library. (U.S. Geological Survey Photo Library)

U.S. Geological Survey geologist Stephen Reid Capps, 1907, USGS Photo Library.

This part of Alaska is accessible only by ocean steamship, and two lines maintain regular schedules between Seattle and ports on the Gulf of Alaska. During the summer season steamships make regular calls at Anchorage, on Knik Arm, and although no docks had yet been constructed in 1915, passenger and freight were discharged at receiving barges and taken ashore by small boats. From Anchorage small launches connect with all upper Cook Inlet points and make trips up Susitna River as far as the mouth of Talkeetna River. Anchorage is the summer terminus of the new Government railroad from the coast to Fairbanks, by way of Susitna Valley. The rails on the line were laid from Anchorage to Eagle River in 1915. The ultimate coastal terminus of this railroad is Seward, and during the winter, when ice forms in upper Cook Inlet and navigation is closed, all travelers bound for the Knik-Turnagain district land at Seward. The old Alaska Northern Railroad, now incorporated into the Government railroad system, extends from Seward northward for 71 miles to Kern Creek, on the north side of Turnagain Arm, beyond which it had not been completed in 1915. When in operation this road could be used by travelers from Seward to Kern Creek, but for the last two or three years it has not been regularly operated. The route of the railroad line was used, however, by winter travelers journeying afoot or by dog sled from Seward to upper Cook Inlet and thence across the Alaska Range to Kuskokwim and lower Yukon rivers, and the mail was carried by dog sled over this route. From the terminus of the railroad at Kern Creek the winter trail follows the north shore of Turnagain Arm eastward to Indian Creek, ascends that stream to its head, crosses the divide to Ship Creek, follows that stream down to the base of the mountains, and thence goes around the shore of Knik Am to the town of Knik. The old winter trail ascended Glacier and Crow creeks to Crow Creek Pass and thence followed Raven Creek down to Eagle River and that stream down to Knik Arm. This trail was well graded, at the cost of much labor, but the high winds prevailing at Crow Creek Pass in the winter led to its abandonment in favor of the Indian Creek and Ship Creek route. In the fall of 1915 the work of reopening the railroad from Seward to Kern Creek was begun, and as soon as the line is built between Kern Creek and Anchorage the district will have rail communication with Seward the year around. A telephone line from Seward to Anchorage is already in operation.

As throughout the winter foot travel to this district has been slow and difficult and the cost of transporting freight almost prohibitive, and as even water transportation during the summer has until recently been irregular and unreliable, the completion of a railroad with continuous service to the region will be of inestimable value in the development of its agriculture and mineral resources.
Stephen R. Capps  (1916, U.S. Geological Survey, Bulletin 642, p. 150-151)

Development of a few key roads and rail routes and the advent of travel by light plane, helicopter, and snow machine makes getting around Alaska significantly easier today than it was in 1915. However, much of the state is still remote and roadless and many of the same challenges that Capps faced still exist today.

Ron Karpilo with a steam drill and glacier mass balance monitoring equipment standing front of a 1977 Hughs 369D helicopter on East Fork Toklat Glacier, Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska, United States. (© 2003 Ron Karpilo)
I’m standing front of a 1977 Hughs 369D helicopter with a steam drill and glacier mass balance monitoring equipment on East Fork Toklat Glacier, Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska. Almost century ago, Capps could only dream of the fieldwork possibilities with the technologically advanced tools we have available today. To put it simply, we’re extremely spoiled. © 2003 Ron Karpilo
Photo info: June 27, 2003, Kodak DC290 at 8mm 1/295 sec at f9

The late Alaska bush pilot legend, Jay Hudson (owner of Hudson Air Service) fueling his 1977 Cessna 206 on the runway at the Talkeetna Airport in Talkeetna, Alaska, United States. Flight documenting glacier terminus positions with oblique aerial photography in Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska on August 6, 2004.  Flight originated in Talkeetna and traveled at an altitude of approximately 10,000 feet along the eastern boundary of Denali NP and turned around near Eldridge Glacier and returned to Talkeetna, refueled and flew along the park boundary in a counterclockwise direction with the flight ending at park headquarters.  Images were taken by Ron Karpilo. (© 2004 Ron Karpilo)
The late Alaska bush pilot legend, Jay Hudson (owner of Hudson Air Service) refueling his 1977 Cessna 206 on the runway at the Talkeetna Airport in Talkeetna, Alaska, United States. During the second half of the 20th century, Jay Hudson and his father Cliff Hudson flew thousands of people into remote Alaskan territory. © 2004 Ron Karpilo
Photo info: August 6, 2004, Nikon D100 camera w/ Sigma 15-30mm f3.5-4.5 lens at 18mm 1/320 sec at f14 and ISO 200.

The Iditarod Trail in Crow Creek valley near Crow Pass in Chugach National Forest, Alaska, United States. (© 2010 Ron Karpilo)
Fall view of the Iditarod Trail looking up Crow Creek valley toward Crow Pass in Chugach National Forest, Alaska. The Monarch Mine operated in this area from 1906 to 1948. Today scattered and rusted cables and debris are all that remain of the mining structures and equipment. © 2010 Ron Karpilo
Photo info: September 11, 2010, Nikon D300 camera w/ Nikkor 17-55mm f2.8 lens at 17mm 1/320 sec at f8 and ISO 200.

I’m currently working on a long-term documentary project about Stephen R. Capps, retracing his footsteps, repeating his photographs, and mapping his Alaska fieldwork. I’m actively seeking funding, sponsorship, and collaborators. Please contact me (ron@karpilo.com) if you would like to hear more about my project.

Here are a few older posts related to Capps:
1915 Alaska Fieldwork by USGS Geologist Stephen R. Capps Alaska Railroad Construction – Part 1
Repeat Photography of Eklutna Glacier, Chugach State Park, Alaska (1915 to 2010)
Repeat photography of Raven Glacier at Crow Pass in Chugach National Forest, Alaska (1915 to 2010)

Please feel free to leave me a comment or let me know if you have questions.  Follow me (@RonKarpilo) on Twitter for updates.


Ron Karpilo

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