1920’s travel along the narrow gauge rail of what was originally the Tanana Valley Railroad. By 1920, the TVRR had been bought out and this section renamed the Chatanika Branch. In 1923 it all became part of the Alaska Railroad.
National Park Week, Day V; Today’s Park Theme: Wayback Wednesday
Not far from the confluence of the Yellowstone and Big Horn Rivers, among the rolling hills of Southeastern Montana, the Battle of Little Bighorn was fought on June 25th and 26th of 1876.
As many as 2500 Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors met the 700 soldiers of the 7th Calvary under Lt General George Armstrong Custer. The 7th Calvary lost 52% of its men, some 268 officers, soldiers and scouts were killed in total. It was an overwhelming victory for the Lakota, Cheyenne and their allies.
Custer would fall with his men on what is now known as Last Stand Hill. The soldiers were originally buried where they fell in shallow graves, but most were reinterred around the memorial obelisk that stands at the top of the hill. The grave markers on the hill’s slope, are placed approximately where the men fell. Custer’s marker is the one shaded in black. Many of the officers were reinterred out on the east coast, Custer’s remains were reinterred at West Point. Lt John Crittenden’s body was left buried where he fell until 1932, at the request of his family. Crittenden was reinterred in the nearby National Cemetery when road construction in the Monument came near his grave. Crittenden was 22 years old at the time of his death.
Estimates for Native American casualties during the battle, vary widely. Initially, as few as 36 were named as dead in battle, but Lakota Chief Red Horse stated in 1877 that 136 Native Americans were killed and 160 wounded.
The Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument encompasses just over 765 acres, which includes Custer National Cemetery.
Custer National Cemetery was created in 1879, to protect the graves of those already killed in battle here. There are approximately 5000 persons buried at Custer National Cemetery. The cemetery closed to reservations in 1978, but reservations made prior to that date will still be honored.
Little Bighorn Battlefield NM received 332,328 visitors in 2016.
National Park Week, Day IV; Today’s Park Theme: Transformation Tuesday
Kenai Fjords: Where Mountains, Ice and Ocean meet.
Kenai Fjords was first designated a National Monument in 1978. With the passage of ANILCA, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in 1980, Kenai Fjords officially became a National Park.
Kenai Fjords encompasses 669,984 acres, which includes the massive Harding Icefield, which is the source of at least 38 glaciers.
Exit Glacier and the Harding Icefield can be reached from the community of Seward. It’s a short drive from town to the visitor center and trail head. The short and relatively easy trail takes one to the foot of the glacier. Exit is retreating at a pretty good clip, and is now losing ice during all seasons.
The Harding Icefield covers over 700 square miles, and that does NOT include the 38-40 glaciers that spawn from it. The hike past Exit Glacier to the icefield can be described as strenuous, but the view, when clear, is absolutely amazing.
Harding Icefield is one of four remaining in the United States, and the largest that is contained completely within the country. It receives, on average, 400 inches of snow each year.
Much of the Park is only accessible by water, and sea kayaking is a very popular activity. There are many tidewater glaciers that can be reached from Seward.
Two glaciers that I have visited from Seward are: Bear, which is the longest glacier in the Park, and Aialik Glacier, which is a bit more impressive from the water. Bear has receded to the point, that a lake now exists between the ocean and the glacier. The lake is often filled with small icebergs, which makes kayaking interesting. Aialik is a giant ice wall from the water’s surface.
Kenai Fjords National Park received 321,596 visitors in 2018. It is the fourth most visited Park in Alaska, and the closest to the city of Anchorage.
National Park Week Day III; Today’s Theme: Military Monday
I was on my Amtrak Railpass tour of the Lower 48, when I was lucky enough to be invited to spend some time in New York City. While exploring the campus of Columbia University, I decided to walk down to General Grant’s mausoleum.
General Grant died of throat cancer on 23 July 1885. The mayor of NYC at the time, William Russell Grace, immediately offered a place in his city for the mausoleum. Grant himself, had only one request: That he should lie beside his wife Julia when she passed. That left out the military cemeteries, which did not allow women to be interred at that time.
Memory of the country’s Civil War was still fresh, and any funding need for a memorial to the General who ended the war, was met with enthusiasm. Not to say that there wasn’t controversy. Washington D.C. felt that they should get his memorial, and there were design competitions and delays. Still, construction began in the summer of 1891, and Grant’s remains were transferred to the red granite sarcophagus on 17 April 1897. The monument was dedicated ten days later on the 27th, which would have been Grant’s 75th birthday.
Julia Grant would die five years later in 1902.
The National Park Service assumed authority over the tomb in 1958. In 1991, efforts were made to bring attention to the deteriorating condition of the mausoleum. This was not the Park Service’s finest hour. A Columbia University student, Frank Scaturro, who was also a volunteer at the Grant Memorial, tried in vain to bring attention to the lack of maintenance at the tomb. Graffiti and vandalism plagued the Memorial, and the building was in very poor condition. After two years of being ignored by the Park Service, Scaturro wrote a 325 page whistle-blower report to both Congress and the President.
In 1994, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation to “restore, complete, and preserve in perpetuity the Grant’s Tomb National Memorial and surrounding areas.” The restoration of the Memorial was completed in 1997, and the site rededicated on 27 April 1997 – 100 years after the original dedication.
When I was there, the Memorial had a jazz concert playing nearby, and the grounds and Riverside Park were immaculate. It is a very peaceful setting above the Hudson River.
Approximately 80,000 people visit the Grant National Memorial in non-pandemic years.
National Park Week Day II; Today’s Park Theme: Volunteer Sunday
Wrangell-St Elias may very well be my favorite road accessible park in Alaska. Denali is closer, and I visit it the most, but Wrangell-St Elias is a trip of its own. First off, it is the largest National Park at 13.2 million acres. It starts at sea level and rises all the way up to 18,008 feet with the summit of Mount St Elias, which is the second highest peak in the United States.
Within Wrangell-St Elias is four mountain ranges: The Chugach, Wrangell, St Elias, and the eastern part of the Alaska Range. Mount Wrangell is one of the largest active volcanoes in North America, and nine of the sixteen tallest peaks in the U.S. are within the boundaries of Wrangell-St Elias.
If you prefer glaciers, Wrangell-St Elias has you covered with 60% of Alaska’s glacier ice within this park. It has the state’s longest tidewater glacier, North America’s largest piedmont glacier, and the world’s longest valley glacier.
The park offers an endless list of things to do. The hiking here is phenomenal, although established trails are few. The beating heart of this park is wilderness. I have seen the gamut of Alaska wildlife with Wrangell-St Elias.
The Edgerton Highway runs along the Copper River Valley to Chitina, where the McCarthy Road follows the old CR&NW Railway grade to the Kennicott River. For years, you had to stop there to take a tram across the river to the town of McCarthy and the mines of Kennecott. Today, the tram sits unused, and a walking bridge spans the river.
The Kennecott Mine and company town were named after the Kennicott Glacier, but they missed the spelling by a letter. It gets confusing trying to keep it straight. Copper ore was discovered here in 1900, and a rush soon started. Eventually, Kennecott would have five mines operating, but by 1938 operations had shut down. During that time span, the mines produced over 4.6 million tons of copper ore, and gross revenues of $200 million. I’m not sure what that dollar amount would add up to today. The Kennecott Mines are now a National Historic Landmark District.
The population of McCarthy in 1920 was 127. By 2010 it had dropped to 28.
Some of the mines like Jumbo can be hiked to, and the green of copper ore can still be seen in the rocks around the area.
Fishing the Copper and Chitina Rivers is an Alaskan tradition, going back millenniums. Dipnetting for salmon is restricted to Alaska residents, but I can tell you that it is an adventure like no other.
If you want a park that you can disappear into, Wrangell-St Elias may just be the place for you. 2018 saw only 79,450 to the nation’s largest park. Like Alaska in general, that’s a lot of elbow room.