Articles written by Laurel Downing Bill


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  • St. Michael awakens to gold rush fever

    Laurel Downing Bill, Senior Voice Correspondent|Jul 1, 2024

    On June 25, 1897, the sleepy old Russian town of St. Michael awoke when Alaska Commercial Company's river steamer Alice arrived with 25 miners from Dawson carrying $500,000 among them in gold dust. That was enough to liven up just about any town. But the party wasn't over. Two days later, the P.B. Weare carried in another group of 60 successful men who staggered off that small steamer with more pokes of gold. Miners from both boats then transferred to the SS Portland and the SS Excelsior to...

  • Exploring the rich culture and habitat of Ecuador and the Galapagos

    Laurel Downing Bill, For Senior Voice|Jul 1, 2024

    Part three in a four-part series. After enjoying the first leg of our 50th wedding anniversary trip in Peru, my husband and I moved on to Quito, which marked the beginning of an adventure that immersed us in the rich history and vibrant culture of Ecuador. We were met by an English-speaking driver and guide, which Smithsonian Journeys and Audley Travel had arranged. They whisked us away to La Casona De La Ronda, a charming boutique hotel housed within a Spanish colonial mansion dating back to 17...

  • Mulcahy, aka Mr. Baseball, comes to town

    Laurel Downing Bill, Senior Voice Correspondent|Jun 1, 2024

    The infant town of Anchorage, only a few years old, had always been interested in America's favorite pastime when William F. Mulcahy, later known as "Mr. Baseball," blew into the lusty, young railroad town in 1922. Everyone turned out to watch the games played evenings after supper and weekends. As far back as 1916, Anchorage had a regulation baseball diamond, built by the Bridge Engineers, located in what was known as Recreation Park in the railroad yards north of Ship Creek. A press box, with...

  • Exploring Peru and Machu Picchu

    Laurel Downing Bill, For Senior Voice|Jun 1, 2024

    Part two in a four-part series. As senior citizens, we initially worried our dream trip to Peru and Machu Picchu might be too demanding. Don, 80, and I, 72, weren't couch potatoes, but we weren't marathon runners, either. We had never used Smithsonian Journeys and Audley Travel before, and although the itinerary promised we would be met by a private driver and English-speaking guide at every stop, we couldn't help but wonder "what if...." After our plane landed in Lima on December 20, our...

  • Strange sight soars over Teller

    Laurel Downing Bill, Senior Voice Correspondent|May 1, 2024

    The people of Nome were planning a grand celebration in mid-May 1926. They'd decorated their fine city, set up committees, arranged receptions and lined up wagon teams to take school children to the airfield to see the landing of the dirigible Norge N-1. Slated to be the event to top all events, Nome residents were none too pleased when they learned that the huge craft-which had left Norway to fly over the North Pole a few days earlier-had missed their beautiful town and landed in Teller instead...

  • A bucketlist journey to South America

    Laurel Downing Bill, For Senior Voice|May 1, 2024

    First in a four-part series. Ever since Don and I said "we do" in Fairbanks in November 1973, my sweetie and I have been talking about taking a trip to South America to see Machu Picchu, the Galapagos Islands, and the Amazon rainforest. When we saw an ad for a highly discounted Princess cruise from Los Angeles to Santiago, Chile, we decided to "Just Do It" for our 50th wedding anniversary. We then Googled how to get from Chile to our three goals and stumbled across Smithsonian Journeys. The...

  • Vices abound in Anchorage's early history

    Laurel Downing Bill, Senior Voice Correspondent|Apr 1, 2024

    The seeds of Alaska's biggest city were planted in April 1915 when the federal government authorized construction of a new railroad to connect Interior Alaska to tidewater in Seward and hundreds of hopeful workers made their way north to the construction camp on Ship Creek. And although the government tried to keep a handle on illegal activities in its new railroad town, prostitution, gambling and bootlegging flourished. One didn't have to go far to find the vice of his choice in Anchorage,...

  • 52 years of Iditarod and counting

    Laurel Downing Bill, Senior Voice Correspondent|Mar 1, 2024

    The two legendary visionaries who conceived the 1,049-mile race from Anchorage to Nome hardly could have imagined the success and changes that would happen over the next half century of the "Last Great Race." In 1964, a history buff who lived in Wasilla had an idea. Dorothy Page, secretary of the Aurora Dog Mushers Club, saw that snowmachines were fast taking the place of dog teams and mushing. She thought a sled dog race on the historic Iditarod Trail, which originally began in Seward during...

  • Japanese Alaskans interred during WWII

    Laurel Downing Bill, Senior Voice Correspondent|Feb 1, 2024

    Following the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and six months later at Kiska and Attu, wartime hysteria and fear of sabotage and espionage ran rampant across the country. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 in February 1942. It ordered the removal of more than 112,000 Japanese Americans – also called Nikkei-from the West Coast. Those with Japanese ancestry were taken from their homes, businesses and schools and put in internment camps. Alaskans were n...

  • Woody Island's lucrative Alaska export: Ice

    Laurel Downing Bill, Senior Voice Correspondent|Jan 1, 2024

    A little "two-by-four" island, a couple of miles off the city of Kodiak, has several Alaska firsts. The first horses in Alaska were brought here, the first road constructed, the Territory's first iron rails put in, and the first field of oats was sown: all to support a sawmill. The sawmill established on Woody Island was perhaps unique in commercial enterprises because its main product was sawdust. And the sawmill, the iron rails, Alaska's first road, and first horses were the result of what...

  • 'Eskimo Scouts' volunteer by thousands

    Laurel Downing Bill, Senior Voice Correspondent|Dec 1, 2023

    When the U.S. Government needed them, Alaska's Native population came out in droves. From the beaches of Bristol Bay to the far corners of Bethel, Kotzebue and Barrow, villagers didn't hesitate to provide Alaska with a line of defense after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Col. Marvin "Muktuk" Marston, who'd been put in charge of organizing the Alaska Territorial Guard, traveled along 5,200 miles of western Alaska coastline to personally address the Natives, including a stop in...

  • Search for son launches Alaskan odyssey

    Laurel Downing Bill, Senior Voice Correspondent|Nov 1, 2023

    Many adventurous souls headed north during the 1890s after prospectors first discovered coarse placer gold in the Yukon River basin on Fortymile River. But a widowed German immigrant who traveled that arduous route was in search of something much more precious: her son. Anna DeGraf, who lost her husband in the West many years before, climbed the Chilkoot Trail in 1894 at the age of 55. She hoped to find her youngest son, George, who'd left Seattle for the gold-filled Yukon region a few years...

  • Fire hazards and the day Dawson burned

    Laurel Downing Bill, Senior Voice Correspondent|Oct 1, 2023

    Fire was the curse of many towns during the Klondike Gold Rush era, and Dawson was no exception. The extreme cold, coupled with dryness, meant fires burned in all buildings when occupied. Stovepipes thrust through flimsy walls or roofs of cabins and tents carried smoke from high-creosote spruce. Over time, the creosote built up on the pipes, which increased the draft, and soon that created enough heat to start the creosote burning. Eventually, a red-hot stovepipe could set a building on fire....

  • From bankruptcy to Skagway elite

    Laurel Downing Bill, Senior Voice Correspondent|Sep 1, 2023

    Harriet Smith Pullen left her children with friends in Seattle, and a bankrupt farm in Cape Flattery, and arrived broke in Skagway on Sept. 8, 1897. Although husband Daniel came with her, their marriage ended after he continued on to the Klondike and later died in Seattle in 1910. Earning $3 a day (about $108 in 2023 dollars) as a cook for Capt. William Moore, one of Skagway's founders, the enterprising 37-year-old soon opened a tent restaurant to feed Skagway's hungry stampeeders. She also...

  • Alcatraz inmate No. 594 had an Alaska connection

    Laurel Downing Bill, Senior Voice Correspondent|Aug 1, 2023

    Before he became well-known around the country, one of America's most famous prison inmates dug gold nuggets out of a mine in Juneau during 1908. But justice proved swift and sure after he killed a man on Jan. 18, 1909. A coroner's jury convened the evening of the murder, and after hearing testimony from the various parties, returned its verdict that Charles F. Damer met his death at the hands of the rival suitor for the affections of a woman named Kitty O'Brien. The jury included O'Brien as an...

  • City of Seattle turns to piracy

    Laurel Downing Bill, Senior Voice Correspondent|Jul 1, 2023

    If you have ever traveled to Seattle you may have visited its iconic Pioneer Square, which once was the heart of the Washington city. During the Klondike Gold Rush of the late 1890s, Seattle was the center for travel to Alaska. A group of businessmen decided it would be a great idea to connect Seattle's city center to its neighbor to the north by displaying an icon that was uniquely tied to Native culture. Their plan included enlisting one of the most well-known steamships of the day and a bit...

  • Surprising history of once-booming Alaska town

    Laurel Downing Bill, Senior Voice Correspondent|Jun 1, 2023

    Thousands of gold seekers flooded into the North country during the late 1800s and settled around new towns such as Nome, Juneau and Dawson. Several also streamed into Cook Inlet. They hacked out primitive trails connecting scattered camps and eventually unified the region between Cook Inlet on the south and the Talkeetna Mountains on the north, and the Matanuska River on the east and the Susitna River in the west. Although few of the prospectors who entered Cook Inlet became rich, by the early...

  • WWII Japanese ousted from Aleutians, May 1943

    Laurel Downing Bill, Senior Voice Correspondent|May 1, 2023

    This coming Memorial Day, it seems fitting to honor the sacrifice that America's brave military made in the Aleutians 80 years ago this month. Under the mistaken belief the Doolittle Raiders had taken off from an air base in the Aleutian chain to bomb Tokyo during spring 1942, Japanese forces bombed Dutch Harbor two months later. They then proceeded to occupy the islands of Kiska and Attu, although most Americans had no idea the enemy was entrenched on our soil – no enemy had occupied A...

  • Anchorage's Midtown Mall is aging well at year 55

    Laurel Downing Bill, Senior Voice Correspondent|Apr 1, 2023

    Have you ever wondered how the mall that sits at Northern Lights Boulevard and the New Seward Highway got its start? This Anchorage landmark opened its doors to the public for the first time 55 years ago. When shoppers streamed into The Mall, then Alaska's largest shopping center, on Jan. 31, 1968, they found a covered, weather-conditioned facility anchored by Sears Roebuck Company at one end and the newest Carr's Quality Food Center at the other. The Mall was the brainchild of Lawrence J....

  • Seward's folly became U.S. treasure 156 years ago

    Laurel Downing Bill, Senior Voice Correspondent|Mar 1, 2023

    On March 30, 1867, U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward and Russian minister to the United States Edouard de Stoeckl exchanged copies of the Treaty of Cession, whereby America agreed to pay Russia $7.2 million for the territory of Alaska. The formal transfer of the territory did not happen until several months later, but Seward had been wanting Alaska for years before he finally succeeded in obtaining it. "Standing here and looking far off into the northwest, I see the Russian as he busily...

  • The Flame of the Yukon

    Laurel Downing Bill|Feb 1, 2023

    After brief stints in Skagway and Whitehorse, one Kansas girl swirled her way into gold rush history when she stepped on stage at the Palace Grand in Dawson City in 1900. Kathleen Eloisa Rockwell, better known as "Klondike Kate," delighted audiences of miners with her song-and-dance routines. She wore an elaborate dress covered in red sequins and an enormous cape in one dance that made her famous. Kate would take the cape off and start leaping and twirling with a cane that had yards of red...

  • Sisters of Providence head to Nome

    Laurel Downing Bill, Senior Voice Correspondent|Jan 1, 2023

    Many images come to mind when one thinks of gold rush days in Alaska: bearded prospectors swishing pans filled with water as they search for specks of gold; saloons beckoning the hardworking boys to forget all their troubles with a slug of whisky and a game of chance; and ladies known as "Lil" leaning against pianos, offering to help miners lighten their leather pokes. An image that doesn't usually come to mind is that of four nuns mingling with the masses on the virtually lawless streets of...

  • Loneliness and hardship for early trappers

    Laurel Downing Bill, Senior Voice Correspondent|Dec 1, 2022

    Some adventurous souls who came to Alaska didn't search the creek beds and mountains for golden riches. Instead they chose to make their fortunes through trapping furs. From early in the fall to the close of trapping season in April, many trappers traveled miles and miles of trap lines with no company but that of their dogs. It was no job for a "Chechako." Trappers like Ed Ueeck covered around 80 miles a week, checking to see if any animals had been caught in hidden traps. "About 14 miles a day...

  • Early Miners' code ruled in the Last Frontier

    Laurel Downing Bill, Senior Voice Correspondent|Nov 1, 2022

    As hordes of prospectors streamed into Alaska and Canada in the 1880s and 1890s, crime like thefts and claim jumping became more common. The Canadians had not yet established a law and order presence in their remote territory and the Americans' only established civil government was hundreds of miles away in Sitka. In 1893, miners in the camp of Fortymile formed the fraternal Yukon Order of Pioneers to enforce correct moral behavior. The order's motto was "Do unto others as you would be done...

  • Ancient rock pictures dot Alaska shores

    Laurel Downing Bill, Senior Voice Correspondent|Oct 1, 2022

    Not only does Alaska have a history steeped in fur trading, whale harvesting and gold mining. It also has drawings on rocks usually associated with primitive people in exotic faraway lands. Petroglyphs, the Greek word for rock carvings, are among many enigmas of science. Because their true meanings are elusive, they remain a mysterious link to a people who inhabited the world a long time ago. Many of Alaska's petroglyphs, which are in abundance in the Southeastern part of the state, are unique...

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