Famous painter was Cordova's preacher

Aunt Phil's Trunk

It was a cold, snowy, windy January day in 1909 when a short, slightly built 22-year-old disembarked from the Yakutan in Prince William Sound. Eustace Paul Ziegler arrived in the boom town of Cordova to take charge of the Episcopal mission.

Fresh from the Yale School of Fine Arts, he must have been a shock to the thousands of roughly dressed pick-and-shovel "stiffs," lumberjacks, miners, engineers, dynamiters, surveyors, adventurers and what-not who had "floated in with the tides and the ties" to build the Copper River and Northwestern Railroad from tidewater to the Kennecott copper mines in the Interior. Probably as much a shock as the sight of the rough construction town was to him.

Rev. E.P. Newton, Episcopal minister based at Valdez, had visited the new construction camp two years before and had seen the need for a meeting place for the homeless, drifting men. And although a saloon was the first building in the new town, the Mission was the second.

Newton built a bright-red building, and coupled with the name St. George Mission, it gave rise to its nickname the "Red Dragon." By 1908, the Mission was ready to compete with the 26 saloons that now lined Cordova's main street.

When Ziegler arrived to be the Red Dragon's "ecclesiastical proprietor," it did not take him long to fit into his new life. He might have been a cheechako, but he was no tenderfoot. Although he looked deceptively slight, he'd spent summers on logging crews in the north woods of his native Michigan, and he was a dead shot and an excellent camp cook.

Soon he was friends with saloon keepers, company bosses, bar swampers, teachers, doctors, prospectors, trappers – he was "Zieg" to everyone, and everyone was welcome at the Red Dragon. Before its warm, friendly fireplace, wastrels and gentlemen, workers and strays gathered to sleep, wrangle, fight, read, visit, sing and play the piano. On Sundays, however, an altar was let down by block and tackle from the joists above, a screen was drawn and services were held by Ziegler, whose mission was to minister to men's souls as well as their bodies.

He passed a help-yourself box, which was a two-way collection plate. Coins and folding money could be taken by those in need, no receipts necessary – repayments for years exceeded the amounts taken. The frontier mission and Ziegler supplied warmth, cheer and aid to those who came seeking. He served as secular superintendent in the boom town until 1916. And then became ordained as an Episcopal minister, shortly after his marriage to Mary Boyle. It was said, "he married the elite of the town and buried with Christian decency the remains of murdered vagabonds."

"Zieg" was a friend of everyone and known all over the territory, traveling up and down the coast in connection with his work. He also painted. He decorated the walls of the Red Dragon and the church with paintings of great beauty and deep religious feeling.

The natural beauty of Alaska and the trappers, fishermen, prospectors and Natives of the Copper River Valley went on his canvases, too. One of his most famous paintings was the "Arctic Madonna." His sympathy and affection for the Alaska Native people shines through his paintings, and the feeling was reciprocated. Chief Goodlataw of the Chitina Indians called the young preacher-painter who brought food and clothing to his people, "George Jesus Man."

Ziegler was on a dog team trip with Bishop Rowe in the Chitina region when he received a telegram saying that one of his paintings, a mountain scene, had been sold for $150 (more than $3,500 today) to E.T. Stannard, president of the Alaska Steamship Co. Later, Stannard asked Ziegler to come to Seattle and do a series of murals for the company's Seattle offices.

Bishop Rowe convinced his young friend to grasp the opportunity, and practically lifted him off his snowshoes and headed him on the new trail that was to bring him fame.

When the murals were completed, the Zieglers returned to Cordova, but new offers flooded the little Alaskan minister. He finally had to make a choice between the ministry and a career as an artist. By this time, Cordova had tamed considerably and was a respectable young city with families, a school and churches.

Ziegler, who had fitted the Red Dragon and its early mission days, no longer felt needed. As he humorously said later, "I resigned 10 minutes before Bishop Rowe fired me."

The Zieglers and their two daughters, Betty and Ann, moved to Seattle in September 1924, and from then on his art career grew. His paintings found their way into the White House, governors' mansions, art museums and collections. He won numerable prizes, awards and citations.

In 1969, the old sourdough, 87, came to the end of his trail. He was inducted into Alaska's Hall of Fame in the early 1970s.

This column features tidbits found among the writings of the late Alaska historian, Phyllis Downing Carlson. Her niece, Laurel Downing Bill, has turned many of Carlson's stories – as well as stories from her own research – into a series of books titled "Aunt Phil's Trunk." Volumes One through Five, which won the 2016 gold medal for best nonfiction series from Literary Classics International and voted Best of Anchorage 2020, are available at bookstores and gift shops throughout Alaska, as well as online at http://www.auntphilstrunk.com and Amazon.com.

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