This edition of the ECHO puts the spotlight on Alaska’s strong women.
After Libby Riddles won the 1985 Iditarod Trail Race, someone coined the phrase, “Alaska is where men are men and women win the Iditarod.” There are so many outstanding women from which to choose, picking one to write about is a real challenge.
The woman to be discussed here does not bear a household name but has many firsts to her credit in a time and place when things were usually done by men.
Benzie Ola Scott was born in 1894 in Wallis Station, Texas. Auburn-haired, she quickly became known as “Rusty.” It is by the married name Dow that she is most remembered here. She was the first woman to drive a truck over the Alaska Highway (ALCAN). She was the first woman to drive through the Whittier tunnel. She was probably the first woman to raise two orphaned black bear cubs. She was a miner. She was a loving wife. She was an accomplished artist. And she was a spiritual woman who was not shy about giving thanks to her Creator.
The list of “tough” Alaska women is long.
It includes five indigenous Alaskans. The wives of Yukon traders Al Mayo, Jack McQuesten and Arthur Harper were each 14 years old when they were wed according to Athabaskan customs, and at age 18 in religious services, to the men who met them at Kokrine’s trading post on the Yukon River in 1884. They had been educated in mission schools and were multilingual, something that helped their English-speaking husbands negotiate with Native and Russian trappers. They also helped keep books as well as raise large families.
Two other Alaska Natives who made names for themselves were Elizabeth Peratrovich and Changunak Antisarlook Andrewuk (Sinrock Mary). Mary Antisarlook was the wife of Andrew Antisarlook, a participant in the Reindeer Project who took a portion of his herd to Barrow to relieve whalers who were stranded there by ice. After he died of measles in 1900, Mary fought to retain ownership of his herd of 500 animals. She gained a precedent-setting decision allowing women and Natives to inherit property.
Peratrovich was a Tlingit born in Petersburg who also made history in a civil rights matter. She was appalled at signs posted on doors of Juneau stores that read “Dogs and Natives not allowed.” She waged a strong campaign to gain access for everyone. Appearing before the Territorial Legislature, she calmly responded to a senator’s question as to why people “barely out of savagery want to associate with whites with 5,000 years of recorded civilization behind us.” Peratrovich looked him in the eyes and gently said, “I would not have expected that I, who am barely out of savagery, would have to explain to gentlemen with 5,000 years of civilization behind them, of our Bill of Rights.” A measure calling for equal access was passed overwhelmingly by a legislature that years earlier had given women the right to vote.
While Riddles was the first female to win the Iditarod, two other dog mushers are on the long list of strong Alaska women.
Born in 1845 in Ireland, Nellie Cashman gained fame as the “Angel of Cassiar” after she led an expedition to rescue 75 stranded miners in spite of orders not to endanger her group. She joined the 1898 Yukon gold rush and in 1904 ended up mining her claim on Nolan Creek, 40 miles north of the Arctic Circle. At the age of 77, Cashman mushed from Nolan Creek to Anchorage, and the next fall mushed 350 miles to Nenana. Falling ill, she returned to Victoria, British Columbia, and died at St. Vincent’s Hospital, the institution she helped fund and supported throughout the rest of her life.
An indomitable musher who cannot be overlooked is DeeDee Jonrowe, who ran her final Iditarod this year. Consistently among the top finishers, she raced despite surviving cancer, a vehicle accident that took the life of her grandmother and severely injured both her and her husband Mike, and the devastating 2015 Sockeye 7,220-acre wildfire that destroyed her home and kennel at Willow.
‘Rusty’ Dow: homesteader, trucker, miner, artist, teacher
Rusty Scott attended high school in Carlsbad, N.M., and later moved with her family to California. There, in the depths of the Depression of 1929, she helped support her parents by hauling fruits, vegetables, and milk in a two-ton Chevrolet truck she acquired.
Her older brother, Lannah Zoell Scott, to whom she referred by his middle name, had homesteaded in the Matanuska Valley and invited his parents and sister to join him in 1934. That was a year before the Matanuska Colony project was begun and several families had already settled in the Valley. They joined in growing vegetables to be sold in Anchorage stores and to workers at the Independence Mine.
With six years of trucking experience under her belt in California, Rusty, who was 40 years old, went into the trucking business.
She made regular trips along the narrow gravel road to Anchorage. A footnote in her papers indicates that she sometimes transported miners who had imbibed a bit too much, along with merchandise purchased as a sideline shopping service. That frontier road trip of just over 100 miles, by the way, was an arduous one that required a very long day.
Rusty enjoyed skating in both summer and winter. On one of those excursions, she met Russell Dow, a skier who before moving north had helped his Dartmouth College team win a championship. Dow had worked at Independence Mine and later at Ft. Richardson where he also was a ski instructor, teaching soldiers how to maneuver cross-country on snow. He was among the founders of the Arctic Valley Ski Club.
An August 11, 1939, entry in her diary reads, “Russ told me something that was in his heart that has been in mine too for a long time. And I am so glad, Oh, so glad.” They were married four months later and moved to Anchorage where they had a cabin in Bootlegger Cove.
By that time construction had begun on Ft. Richardson in the build-up to World War II. After the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7. 1941, work was frenzied. Alaska was isolated, the only connection with the Outside by sea. Work would start the following year on a road linking Fairbanks with the States. Rusty applied for work at the post, showing her credentials as an experienced trucker. She was hired by the Quartermaster Corps to haul material between Anderson Dock at the mouth of Ship Creek and the Army warehouses on the outskirts of Anchorage.
It is not clear how she met Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner, head of the Alaska Defense Command, but it is obvious they were acquainted.
Now 50, she was two years older than he, well established in Alaska and an easy person to talk with. One day in 1944, she happened to mention that her bucket list included driving over the Burma Road and the ALCAN Highway. That road linking Alaska with the Outside had been completed just over a year earlier.
“I can do nothing about the Burma Road, but the ALCAN may be different,” the general said, according to a note in her diary.
On June 1 when she parked her truck at the loading dock, she was told the officer in charge wanted to see her immediately. Wondering if she were in trouble, she hurried to his office.
She wrote that she was surprised to hear him say, “We have been informed that you wish to drive the ALCAN highway,” said he.
“Yessir,” I stammered.
“Well here are your travel orders, approved by General Buckner. Report to Merrill Field in two hours where you will take a plane to Fairbanks. Upon arrival there report to North West Service Command, from whom you will receive further orders.”
Driving home, she packed a bag with an extra pair of coveralls, a toothbrush, a pair of pliers and a screwdriver, and rushed to the civilian airport. There she boarded a plane, worrying about the flight and what lay ahead and “looked for the burp bag.” Relieved that the flight smoothed out, she landed to begin a record-setting journey.
The road to link Alaska with the Outside was seen as essential in case of an invasion by enemy forces.
That reasoning was fortified when Japanese troops captured Attu and Kiska in June of 1942, two months after highway construction was begun. The 1,600-mile road was bulldozed through from both ends to connect Fairbanks with Dawson Creek in Yukon Territory, Canada. It would link with the Whitehorse and Yukon Railway, allowing cargo to be unloaded at Skagway, shipped by rail to Dawson Creek, then by truck to the Alaska Railroad terminal at Fairbanks. The plan saved overall travel time and eliminated a portion of the threat of attack against transport ships.
In October of 1942 the road was completed and opened to traffic, but it was not heavily used until the following year. Much cargo had gone over the muddy, rutted road with hastily-installed wooden bridges over hundreds of streams. It had turns and twists so tight that the driver of a truck pulling a trailer could see his load move alongside him.
Conditions had not improved by June of 1944. Dow was faced with several dilemmas. She was the first woman to drive over the road. That meant few segregated quarters, including restrooms. When she was assigned a 10-wheel Studebaker 6×6 truck, she described it as “as temperamental as a wolverine after a long winter.” It had no speedometer, no gas gauge, and bald tires; she had to use a stick to measure the fuel level in the 40-gallon tank.
The pliers and screwdriver she had packed were brought along out of experience. She had to clear gravel from the tire treads and use the screwdriver to tighten things that came loose. Spare parts were sparse, and haywire often had to be put into play. There were no service stations along the way. She wrote that she covered an average of 200 miles per day.
A woman wearing coveralls resembling a uniform was a rare sight. Some thought she might be a WAC, the acronym for the recently-formed Women’s Army Corps.
She had to explain that she was a civilian employee, continually having to pull out her orders to prove her status. She recorded for posterity the night she walked into a mess hall only to see the cook drop his skillet at the sight of her. The morning she was greeted by a crowd of soldiers falling out for reveille after pulling into an area surrounded by several Quonset huts and crawling into her sleeping bag also was noted. She wrote that she dressed “as discretely as possible.”
Also noted with pride was the fact that she was the first woman to drive through the Whittier Tunnel. That facility was drilled through the mountains to connect the railroad to the Whittier port, an Army installation. It was later named for the Anton Anderson, the engineer who designed the project. Coincidentally, he also was the owner of a mining claim that Dow leased from him.
The war over, the Dows filed on a homestead in the Butte area. She took up oil painting and specialized in using fluorescent oils that took on amazing hues when viewed under a blacklight.
Rusty Dow was honored by the Alaska Legislature in 1988. She died the next year, at the age of 95.