LitSite Alaska: Alaska Nellie, Pioneer

Screen Shot 2014-08-27 at 8.15.56 PMThe Alaska Nellie pages at LitSite Alaska include an informative article (with an audio link included), several photos, a number of links to related materials, and information about accessing  audio, visual, and written material about Alaska Nellie.

“One of Alaska’s best-known crack-shot hunters and camp cooks was a wiry, independent woman named Nellie Neal Lawing. Born Nellie Trosper, ‘Alaska Nellie’ was already 42 years old when she arrived in Seward on July 4, 1915. But her timing could not have been better for an ambitious and hard-working woman.

Grandview, photo by John Combs

Grandview, photo by John Combs

“Construction of the Alaska Railroad had recently begun, and Nellie was the first woman to be awarded a lucrative roadhouse contract with the Alaska Engineering Commission. She provided government employees room and board at the Mile 45 roadhouse, a place she renamed Grandview. The name has outlasted the roadhouse itself, and that bend in the railroad is as beautiful as ever. Today, on the Alaska Railroad’s southbound route from Anchorage to Seward, passengers are especially drawn to the windows during the Grandview stretch.”

LitSite Alaska is “a Web community promoting literacy, cultural diversity, and well-being throughout Alaska. A gathering place for families, communities and teachers, LitSite Alaska features narratives illustrating many cultural aspects of life in Alaska. As an on-line learning tool, LitSite Alaska showcases a living archive of lesson plans used in Alaskan classrooms and an extensive collection of excellent peer work by Alaskan students. LitSite Alaska is a project of the University of Alaska Anchorage and the Alaska Literary Consortium, funded in part by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and from the Rasmuson Foundation.”

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A Magnificent Bedlam of Hollywood and Alaska

10562553_584776921642920_7132391536759108877_oThis article, A Magnificent Bedlam of Hollywood and Alaska: The Creation of Alaska Nellie, by historian Doug Capra, appears as a chapter in his new book, The Spaces Between: Stories from the Kenai Mountains to the Kenai Fjords, published by the Kenai Mountains-Turnagain Arm National Heritage Area.

In the article, Doug Capra explains the title, “In the early 1950’s, shortly before Alaska Nellie died, a woman visiting her lodge on Kenai Lake described Nellie’s eclectic collection of Alaskana as “…a magnificent bedlam of Hollywood and Alaska.” She probably didn’t realize how close to the truth she came in understanding the legend of Alaska Nellie.”

“Alaska Nellie (Lawing) wearing a parka and mukluks and holding a gun, as she sits among her animal hunting trophies.” [Alaska State Library Fred Henton Collection AMRC-b65-18-741]

“Alaska Nellie (Lawing) wearing a parka and mukluks and holding a gun, as she sits among her animal hunting trophies.” [Alaska State Library Fred Henton Collection AMRC-b65-18-741]

Capra continues: “Souvenirs from all over the world – scarfs, handkerchiefs, knick-knacks and curios – lay scattered on every shelf and in every corner. Moose, goat, and sheep racks competed for space with pelts of every variety. A bison head sent to her, she said, by Buffalo Bill, hung beside the skin of Bozo, an African lion that had died of old age in the Portland Zoo. Propped up astride Bozo, as if riding him, were Nellie’s parka and mukluks. Framed in the parka hood was a life-size lithograph of General Douglas MacArthur’s face. Nearby stood the infamous piano she claimed to have bought from a Dawson City dance hall with thirty bullet holes in its back from a gun fight. When she moved this collection to Lawing (23 miles north of Seward) from her Dead Horse Hill roadhouse back in 1923, it had filled two railroad freight cars.”

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Lawing, August, 2014, by Fred Agree

Anchor Point resident Fred Agree visited Lawing on August 24, 2014, and shares these photos of the site, commenting, “I’m just back from Lawing on the Seward Road. It’s just south of Moose Pass. I was shown Alaska Nellie’s homestead on Kenai Lake, here’s some pictures taken Sunday.”

"Here is the old warehouse:. Note LAWING on the building." Photo by Fred Agree.

“Here is the old warehouse:. Note LAWING on the building.” Photo by Fred Agree.

"This was the store." Photo by Fred Agree.

“This was the store.” Photo by Fred Agree.

"This, I believe was the Inn. Note the sign Im holding ALASKA NELLIE's INN." Photo by Fred Agree.

“This, I believe was the Inn. Note the sign Im holding ALASKA NELLIE’s INN.” Photo by Fred Agree.

"Here is what I was told was her cabin: None of the roofs were caved in. All the hides she collected were taken by NFS and much of her stuff is in the museum in Seward.." Photo by Fred Agree.

“Here is what I was told was her cabin: None of the roofs were caved in. All the hides she collected were taken by NFS and much of her stuff is in the museum in Seward..” Photo by Fred Agree.

 

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Lawing, August, 2014, by Karen J. Laubenstein

Karen J. Laubenstein visited Lawing, Alaska Nellie’s home on Kenai Lake, on August 22, 2014, and shares these photos:

Photo © 2014 by Karen J. Laubenstein. All rights reserved.

Photo © 2014 by Karen J. Laubenstein. All rights reserved.

Photo © 2014 by Karen J. Laubenstein. All rights reserved.

Photo © 2014 by Karen J. Laubenstein. All rights reserved.

Photo © 2014 by Karen J. Laubenstein. All rights reserved.

Photo © 2014 by Karen J. Laubenstein. All rights reserved.

Photo © 2014 by Karen J. Laubenstein. All rights reserved.

Photo © 2014 by Karen J. Laubenstein. All rights reserved.

Photo © 2014 by Karen J. Laubenstein. All rights reserved.

Photo © 2014 by Karen J. Laubenstein. All rights reserved.

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Alaska Nellie

Nellie Neal Lawing

Nellie Neal Lawing

Nellie Neal Lawing, familiar to Alaskans as “Alaska Nellie,” lived a life much larger than most, even by Alaskan standards. She was a fisherman, a hunter, a trapper, a cook and a roadhouse keeper; she fed the crews building the Alaska Railroad, welcomed princes and presidents into her home, guided big game hunters and developed an impressive trophy collection of her own. She mushed a dog team, kept a pet bear cub, became famous for her strawberry pies, and saw a movie made about her adventures. She was one of a kind, an Alaskan original, and she lived life to the fullest.

Bill and Nellie Lawing at their cabin beside Kenai Lake.

Bill and Nellie Lawing at their cabin beside Kenai Lake.

Her happiest days were spent with the love of her life, Bill Lawing, in their log cabin on the shores of beautiful Kenai Lake. She mentions it in the opening paragraph of her autobiography,‘Alaska Nellie’:

“Glancing out through an open window of a large log home on the shores of Kenai Lake at Lawing, Alaska, the rippling waves had become glittering jewels in the full moonlight of a summer’s night.

Nellie Lawing’s property on Kenai Lake, 1938. [Alaska State Library AMRC-b75-40-7]

Nellie Lawing’s property on Kenai Lake, 1938. [Alaska State Library AMRC-b75-40-7]

Mountains covered with evergreen trees and crowned with snow were reflected in the mirror-like water of Kenai Lake. Was I dreaming, or was the curtain of the past rolling up, so that I might glance back over twenty-four years spent in the great North-land and say, ‘No regrets.’”

Nellie’s early life is succinctly described in an article which was written by Lezlie Murray, Visitor Services Director, Chugach National Forest, and published in Fall 2011 issue of SourDough Notes:

alaska-nellie-cover“The oldest of 12 children, Nellie Trosper was born into a farm family in Saint Joseph, Mo., where she dreamed of coming to Alaska. As a young child she learned to trap and hunt in the countryside around her parent’s farm, becoming a good shot and capable woods woman. She left home in her late twenties after she had helped to raise her brothers and sisters and could be spared. A diminutive woman barely five feet tall, Nellie began to work her way to Alaska in 1901, stair-stepping her way through the west. She spent the most time in Cripple Creek, Colorado, where she worked at a variety of jobs, owned her own hotel and married a prominent assayer. Unhappy in her marriage due to abuse at home, she made the decision to divorce and moved on to California, where she booked steerage to Seward, Alaska.”

Arriving in Seward on July 3, 1915, just as construction of the Alaska Railroad was getting underway, Nellie wrote in her autobiography that she set out to seek “a contract to run the eating houses on the southern end of the Alaska Railroad.” She described her effort:

“On my first time out on an Alaskan trail, I had walked one hundred fifty miles and as usual was alone. This accomplishment, in itself, might have satisfied some, but I was out here in this great new country to contribute something to others, and I felt this means could best be served by becoming the ‘Fred Harvey’ of the government railroad in Alaska.”

“Alaska Nellie (Lawing) wearing a parka and mukluks and holding a gun, as she sits among her animal hunting trophies.” [Alaska State Library Fred Henton Collection AMRC-b65-18-741]

“Alaska Nellie (Lawing) wearing a parka and mukluks and holding a gun, as she sits among her animal hunting trophies.” [Alaska State Library Fred Henton Collection AMRC-b65-18-741]

Likely due in part to her plucky approach, she was awarded a lucrative government contract to run a roadhouse at mile 44.9, a scenic location she promptly named Grandview. Her agreement with the Alaska Engineering Commission was to provide food and lodging for the government employees; her skill with a rifle filled out the menu, and her gifted storytelling kept her guests highly entertained. Nellie described the accommodations at Grandview in her book, ‘Alaska Nellie’:

“The house was small but comfortable. A large room with thirteen bunks, used as sleeping quarters for the men, was just above the dining room. A small room above the kitchen served as my quarters. To the rear of the building a stream of clear, cold water flowed down from the mountain and was piped into the kitchen. Nature was surely in a lavish mood when she created the beauty of the surroundings of this place. The timber-clad mountains, the flower-dotted valley, the irresistible charm of the continuous stretches of mountains and valleys was something in which to revel.”

Ak Nellie DonateWiry and independent, Nellie was an excellent shot and a respected big game guide, and she rapidly accumulated an impressive array of wildlife trophies. She maintained a dog team in winter, and trapped along the corridor which would later become the Seward Highway. Once during a blizzard the local contract mail carrier, Henry Collman, didn’t arrive when he was expected, so Nellie hitched up her dog team and set out to find him. She located the mail carrier badly frozen in an area which had claimed several lives. Nellie took the young man back to her roadhouse to warm up, and then set off to finish delivering his mail sacks and pouches, which she later learned contained valuable goods, to the waiting train. For her courageous efforts the town of Seward declared her a hero and awarded her a gold nugget necklace, with a diamond set in its large pendant nugget. Nellie treasured her necklace to the end of her days.

Gold teamsNellie tells another dog team story in her book: “One cold winter day in December when the daylight was only a matter of minutes and the lamps were burning low, two U.S. marshals, Marshals Cavanaugh and Irwin, together with Jack Haley and Bob Griffiths, arrived at the roadhouse.

“The heavy wooden boxes they were removing from their sleds had been brought from the Iditarod mining district. They contained $750,000 in gold bullion.

“‘Where do you want to put this, Nellie?’ called the men, carrying their precious burden.

“‘Right here under the dining room table is as good a place as any,’ I answered.

And it was as simple as that. There it stayed until the men carried it back to the sleds, next day. They were able to go to sleep, for it was as safe right there in my dining room as it would have been in the United States Mint. No one would dare to touch it.”

The Curry Hotel on the Alaska Railroad opened in 1923.

The Curry Hotel on the Alaska Railroad opened in 1923.

Nellie later operated a roadhouse near the Susitna River, at a railroad camp known as Curry, and then, in 1923, she bought her final home, a roadhouse on Kenai Lake. The railroad stop along the blue-green waters was renamed Lawing when Nellie Neal married Bill Lawing, and together they built the roadhouse into a popular tourist stop on the Alaska Railroad. Vegetables from Nellie’s garden were served with fresh fish from the lake or with game from the nearby hills, and Nellie’s stories, often embellished with her rollicking tall tales, kept her audiences delighted. Celebrities, politicians, tourists and even locals came to enjoy the purely Alaskan hospitality at the Lawings’ roadhouse on Kenai Lake.

Alaska Nellie Lawing, at her Kenai Lake log cabin. [Alaska State Library Fred Henton Collection AMRC-b65-18-741]

Alaska Nellie Lawing, at her Kenai Lake log cabin. [Alaska State Library Fred Henton Collection AMRC-b65-18-741]

Alaska Nellie became known far and wide, and the foreword to a 2010 reprinting of her autobiographical book,“Alaska Nellie,” by Patricia A. Heim, sums up her legendary status:

“Nellie Neal Lawing was one of Alaska’s most charismatic, admired and famous pioneers. She was the first woman ever hired by the U.S. Government in Alaska in 1916. She was contracted to feed the hungry crews on the long awaited Alaska railroad connecting Seward to Anchorage. The conditions were harsh and supplies were limited. She delivered many of her meals by dogsled, fighting off moose attacks and hazards of the trail, often during below-zero blizzards. She always brought with her a great tale to tell of her adventures along the trail, how she had wrestled grizzlies, fought off wolves and moose, and caught the worlds largest salmon for their dinner, always in the old sourdough tradition. The workers listened and laughed with every bite. 

“Nellie was an excellent cook, big game hunter, river guide, trail blazer, gold miner, and a great story-teller! It wasn’t long before Nellie became legendary and was known far and wide as the female ‘Davy Crockett’ of Alaska, her wilderness adventures and stories of survival on the trail spread like wildfire. Letters addressed simply ‘Nellie, Alaska’ were always delivered. 

Bill and Nellie Lawing [Univ of Washington Libraries, Special Collections Division]

Bill and Nellie Lawing [Univ of Washington Libraries, Special Collections Division]

“Nellie finally established herself at “Lawing, Alaska” on Kenai Lake, and converted an old roadhouse into a museum for her multitude of big game trophies. It was a great railroad stop and the highlight of any Alaskan visit. Her guest register of over 15,000 read like the Who’s Who of the early twentieth century: two U.S. Presidents, the Prince of Bulgaria, Will Rogers, authors, generals and many silent-screen movie stars. 

“Nellie would entertain them all. Colt pistol on her hip and a baby black bear by her side, Nellie was always ready with one of her outrageous tales of adventure. ‘I was just minding my own business on Kenai Lake when a huge grizzly showed up, I fired my Colt, but as luck would have it, somehow, it misfired, I then had to kick the heck out of the brute and he ran off, but before he ran off he bit me good, right on the wrist, see here.’ She would then fold back her sleeve to show a scarred arm. 

“Nellie was so popular and loved that she was honored with an “Alaska Nellie Day” on January 21, 1956.”

A short movie clip, ‘Land of Alaska Nellie,’ was produced in 1940 by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios:

At the end of her foreword Patricia Heim added the following somber note:

Nellie Lawing’s gravestone in Seward

Nellie Lawing’s gravestone in Seward

“Nellie is laid to rest in Seward, Alaska, where you can see Nellie’s gravestone which simply reads, ‘Lawing,’ unkempt, forgotten, unloved, with not a hint of the incredible little pioneer woman who lies beneath it. Every time I drive past the little dirt road which reads ‘Lawing’ I say to myself, ‘What a tragedy it is to have forgotten Alaska Nellie. What is left to remind us of the glorious days of the railroad roadhouse and the many lives that were so touched by Nellie?’”

Ak Nellie Donate

Alaska Nellie at her cabin on Kenai Lake, circa 1941-45. [Arthur O. Trosvik Collection, University of Alaska Consortium Library Special Collections UAA-HMC-0503]

Alaska Nellie at her cabin on Kenai Lake, circa 1941-45. [Arthur O. Trosvik Collection, University of Alaska Consortium Library Special Collections UAA-HMC-0503]

That same question was recently asked by Talkeetna resident Dave Folk, who created an online effort to raise money for a new headstone for Alaska Nellie. Dave wrote, “I found her headstone in grave need of help. It’s all but a crumbled mess and I have made it my mission to get her the notoriety she deserves…”

Please contribute to Nellie’s headstone project. This heroic and iconic Alaskan deserves to be remembered for her love of Alaska and the many lives she touched with her kindness, humor, and never-ending hospitality.

End Note:

Interestingly, Alaska Nellie’s gravestone bears the image of a pineapple, a symbol of hospitality which began with the sea captains of New England, who sailed among the Caribbean Islands and returned bearing cargos of fruits, spices and rum. According to tradition in the Caribbean, the pineapple symbolized hospitality, and sea captains learned they were welcome if a pineapple was placed by the entrance to a village. At home, the captain would impale a pineapple on a post near his home to signal friends he’d returned safely from the sea, and would receive visits. As the tradition grew popular, innkeepers added the pineapple to their signs and advertisements, and the symbol for hospitality was further secured as needle-workers preserved the image in family heirlooms such as tablecloths, doilies, potholders, door knockers, curtain finials and more.

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