The 49th State abounds in ghost stories.
They make good subject matter for those sitting around a campfire on a summer evening. Some, such as the Old Woman who is paid homage by mushers on the Iditarod Trail, become lasting legends.
A number of books have been written about some of the ghouls that inhabit special places around our state.
This writer has never delved into the deviltry of ghost stories, having been devoted to reporting historical fact.
His imagination fails when it comes to creating fictional accounts. His one foray into fanciful foolishness failed famously. His involvement in spreading the story of the search for Big Foot in Eagle River Valley was believed by too many readers despite exaggerations thought to be obvious. He vowed to never again knowingly participate in a hoax. Fact is more fun than fiction, anyway, and there is enough drama in real life to keep one fully occupied.
This particular column is intended merely to inform our loyal readers that there are people who claim to have experienced unexplained encounters with ghostly figures. I will summarize a few just for the purpose of presenting what we have read, but have not verified. How, pray tell, can one actually prove that ghosts are real? Having never been visited by an apparition, I by no means want to question the veracity or impugn the integrity of a person who states he or she has experienced such an encounter. If they think they saw a ghost, it is enough to believe they believe they saw it.
Plenty of people have experienced a visitation by the Old Woman, an Alaska Native who perished late in the Nineteenth Century on a mountain now named for her, on the Bering Sea coast about 25 miles east of Unalakleet. The manner of her death, whether from an avalanche or starvation, is subject to debate. What many mushers along the Iditarod Trail can attest to, however, is that strange things happen in that area. Sounds similar to a woman humming have been reported. A hand suddenly touching a shoulder, a shadowy figure seen, then disappearing, to name a few.
Jon Van Zyle, Iditarod artist who drew the above illustration for this column, said he and other mushers have left food for her.
According to legend, doing so would cause her “to thank you with a safe journey.” The abandoned cabin was said to be a good spot to rest the dogs, nestled in a small grove of spruce with firewood handy. In his Iditarod races, he left dried fish and some meat “and was always blessed with a safe trip.” Within an hour, he said the food had disappeared.
Other mushers have reported similar stories, with various experiences of strange occurrences. Most of those are serene, making them want to linger rather than hurry on to their destination under the burled arch at Nome.
The closest I have come to a place hosting a supernatural being was when visiting the Hotel Del Coronado in California. My bride and I several years ago visited there. Kate Morgan died there in 1892 and is said to still be seen walking the halls and grounds at night. We didn’t see any unusual signs or hear anything strange, although in the morning we did find the ceiling over the closet had given way, leaving debris on the floor. Perhaps Miss Kate paid us a visit but decided not to wake us.
Two days before Halloween of 2012, the Anchorage Daily News came up with Alaska ghost stories dug up (the stories, not the ghosts) by members of their staff.
One told of a lady in white frequently seen by several people around the West High School Auditorium. Also at that school, a janitor who had passed away was sometimes seen at night, industriously sweeping the vacant lobby. Footsteps were often heard at night when the building was empty. Lights inexplicably turned on and off.
Another was on the consolidated tower built at Whittier during the Cold War to house up to1,000 troops. Abandoned, it was a creepy place where visitors were made to feel uncomfortable. Graffiti showed up surreptitiously on the walls. Strange noises were often heard.
A government housing project in the vicinity of the abandoned Kennecott Copper Mine, now a Historical Park, was said to have been abandoned after workers were frightened off by unusual occurrences. Tombstones on graves in a nearby cemetery appeared to disappear, then reappear mysteriously. Tools vanished from workers’ tool belts and wails could be heard, supposedly from workers who had died long ago during construction of the railroad built to haul ore from the mine to smelters Outside.
Another haunted theater was said to be the Wendy Williamson Auditorium at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
Shadowy figures were said to scoot by, startling people. Doors reportedly slammed shut with no one around and music was heard coming from a piano with no one at the keyboard.
The Princess Lodge website has the story of “Scary Mary,” a guest at the Golden North Hotel in Skagway who had come there to marry her fiancé, “Klondike Ike.” He failed to return from a prospecting trip and after several days she was found in her room, non-responsive, dressed in the bridal gown she had intended to wear at their nuptials. She is said to continue to be seen from time to time, still looking for her lost lover.
Another popular paranormal account stems from the purchase of Alaska in 1867. After the Russian imperialists moved from Russian America, a ghostly female figure wearing black, adorned in jewelry, often could be seen around Sitka. She was said to show up at social gatherings, only to suddenly disappear when approached.
An Internet search for Alaska Ghost Stories shows several books that have been written on the subject.
Among them are “Spirits of Southeast Alaska,” by James P. Devereaux; “Haunted Alaska: Ghost Stories from the Far North,” by Ron Wendt; “Strange Stories of Alaska and the Yukon,” by Ed Ferrell; and “Ghosts of Alaska: Stories & Legends,” by Judy Ellis-Knapp.
Perhaps the best ghost story of all the Northern tales is “The Cremation of Sam McGee” by Robert Service. It is a rhyme portraying the effects of long winter nights on people isolated along the creeks of the Yukon during the Gold Rush. The words are immortal and start like this:
There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.
The next 12 stanzas explain what led up to that fateful night:
On Christmas night the two partners were huddled in their tent, desperate to keep warm. Sam was ill and predicted that he would not last much longer. Delirious, he ranted about his home in Tennessee. Terrified at the thought of being buried in the cold ground of the Yukon, he begged to be cremated. His partner agreed, then set out with Sam’s body on a sled, the huskies howling all the while.
It was a disheartening thing, but “a promise made is a debt unpaid, and the trail has its own stern code,” as Service wrote. Even though the sled’s cargo grew heavier and heavier, the partner known only as “Cap” mushed on for several days. Finally, they reached Lake Lebarge. A derelict steamboat, the Alice May, lay there, its boiler intact but cold. Tearing loose some boards, Cap built a fire. When the coals were glowing bright red, he opened the door and stuffed his departed partner in.
Ere long, after taking a hike to spare himself from the gruesome goings on, he went back and opened the boiler door.
And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar;
And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: “Please close that door.
It’s fine in here, but I greatly fear you’ll let in the cold and storm—
Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it’s the first time I’ve been warm.”
Thank you, Robert Service, for a ghost story I can appreciate.
That one I know was made up, but it is understandable for anyone familiar with the tribulations of the Gold Rush stampeders. The Northern conditions definitely were severe. One can sympathize with both of those partners of ages past, glad not to have been either of them.
Lee Jordan has been an Alaskan since 1949, moved to Chugiak in 1962 and in 2016 moved back to Anchorage. An Alaska history buff, he enjoys writing about the place where he did not want to be sent, but came to love. He has written four books on Alaska history and has a blog at www.byleejordan.com. To reach Lee Jordan, email: email@example.com.
Chugiak artist Jon Van Zyle, internationally acclaimed for his depictions of dog sledding along the Iditarod Trail and Alaska people and landscapes, illustrates columns by Lee Jordan that appear monthly in the ECHO Magazine. Van Zyle does the poster for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race each year and is an avid supporter of dog mushing. His Web site is www.jonvanzyle.com.