Project 49: Russ Dow, Ivy League dropout, Alaska pioneer
by Jamie Gonzales |
Project 49 is a monthly series from the University of Alaska Anchorage, highlighting characters and events from Alaska's rich history that have been preserved in our archives. The UAA/APU Consortium Library Archives and Special Collections are open to the public.
New Hampshire-born Russ Dow gave Dartmouth and Harvard the old college try as a young man. But by the time he was seated in those ivy-adorned halls of learning in 1934, he was already itching to return to Alaska. In the year before he enrolled at Dartmouth, Russ had accompanied Bradford Washburn-a newly minted 1933 Harvard grad himself-on a joint Dartmouth-Harvard expedition to Mt. Crillon to study glacial movement at the southernmost tip of the Saint Elias Mountains.
That was 18-year-old Russ's introduction to Alaska-backcountry trekking, mountains and glaciers, all in the company of a young, energetic explorer who had his sights set on conquering Alaska's peaks. Hard to focus on your studies after that when you know you're about to get a call or letter, inviting you along on another epic adventure. Russ would, indeed, connect with Washburn again, as well as another fearless Alaska explorer, pilot Bob Reeve, to shoot Alaska from the air. An avid photographer throughout his life, the Russ Dow Collection contains enough boxes of photos, slides and negatives to keep a full-time Alaska historian busy for years.
The perks of being a miner
Russ settled in Anchorage in 1936 with nothing like a cushy college dorm room to live in. He went to work at Independence Mine. The long days of hard labor came with one perk: great skiing if you could get a day off. As a former competitive skier for Dartmouth, Russ wasn't about to let his skills grow stale.
Okay, maybe the mine came with two perks. It was at Independence that he would eventually cross paths with Rusty, his future bride. Red-headed Rusty ran a stage line between Anchorage and Independence Mine, shuttling supplies, laundry, mail and miners in her truck.
The 'two roudy Dows'
On Dec. 28, 1939, he wrote to his folks back home in New Hampshire of his surprise wedding to Rusty with this opener, in lieu of Christmas greetings:
"I'm married. Rusty and I went and did it last Sat., the 23." He went on to describe how they'd pulled it off. "I had given her an engagement ring the night after her divorce...The diamond is small and set in a piece of fossil ivory that is a blueish [sic] color. Everyone thinks it is swell and so different and just the thing for Rusty...I got a new suit Sat morning...Rusty got a new dress and the first hat she has had in five years, so we looked some spiffey [sic]."
Together, Russ and Rusty laughingly conspired to keep their nuptials a secret from their friends until after supper that evening in Anchorage, when the florist blew their cover and the secret spilled. "We took a lot of kidding and Doug [Barnsley] and Geo. [Dooley] took us out for a super evening...We are undecided just what we are going to do now but we are still Russ and Rusty or the two roudy [sic] Dows."
Teaching the Army to ski
Russ's reputation as an expert skier soon made its way around the fledgling alpine skiing scene in Anchorage. He eagerly hopped on the Alaska Railroad's ski trains to Grand View, a whistle stop on the Kenai Peninsula, and to the Curry Hotel, built as a stopover midway between Seward and Fairbanks on the rail line. (Side note: the Curry station was named by Col. Frederick Mears, a previous Project 49 subject.)
Russ helped to establish the Denali Ski Patrol and the Anchorage Ski Club, making his mark on what would be the precursor to today's Arctic Valley ski area.
By 1940, his country had got wind of his ski skills and Russ was tapped to be ski instructor for Fort Richardson's soldiers until 1945.
Russ maintained regular correspondence with his folks back home in New Hampshire after he moved to Alaska. He wrote at regular intervals, though more frequently in the winter months when work at the gravel plant-Anchorage Sand and Gravel-as a Cat skinner slowed down.
In 1947, after returning from a 6-month, 20,000-mile tour circling the States in a rebuilt Army truck, Russ, Rusty, their dog Rowdy and their parrots moved out to their Palmer homestead.
Homestead life in his own words
In the spring of 1947, the Dows made their claim on land in the Butte.
In a letter dated June 14, 1947, Russ wrote his parents, "...After four days of checking commissioners and land offices we staked a homestead on the Anchorage Palmer highway along the Kinick [sic] River. It is nine miles from Palmer...It is just on the Palmer side of the Kinick bridge and is about 160 acres in a strip about a quarter mile wide and a mile along the river. It stradles [sic] the highway and we have a nice creek running across the ground."
There were several existing, no frills cabins on the property that had been used by the road commission when they build the Knik Bridge. The rowdy Dows-now the resourceful Dows-cleaned up one cabin, put in windows and made it temporarily livable for Rusty. Russ set up camp in a tent house in Anchorage so he could work during the week at the gravel plant to rebuild their finances while Rusty tackled the first phases of homesteading. He joined her on weekends for heavy lifting. Not that she saved much for him.
Hoping for power
In that same letter to his folks, he added, "Rusty put a new floor in the larger cabin and built a porch on the front of it...Rusty has made the cabin as cozy as possible with what little there is. We still pack water and are back to lamps, however the power is only a half mile from us and we have gotten a couple more new homesteaders on the way and have applied to have the line extended down to us. It looks like we might get lights before fall."
It would actually be two more years until that power line made it out to the Dow homestead. Russ figured out a workaround and installed a gas-powered light plant that summer after Rusty nearly burned the house down twice with kerosene.
The dangers of solo renovations, pioneer-style
In a July 16, 1947, letter to the folks in New Hampshire, Russ updated them on progress. "Rusty told me the cabin roof had leaked the night before in a short hard shower so we decided to put on a new roof as soon as we could get material." Rusty decided it should be sooner rather than later.
"When I got home Sat. Rusty had the stuff and the old sod roof all torn off. She fell through the rotten poles twice and got bruised up some but was already [sic] Sun. morning to start in again. We put up the rafters and boarded it in...I stayed home Mon. and we put the roof jack in and the roofing paper on the whole deal and got back in the dry."
Rusty's take was a little more amusing. She wrote her in-laws on Sept. 19, 1947, "I have some funny things happen to me sometimes doing the work that ordinarily should have the services of at least one good man. Sometimes I get hurt and sit and cry till the pain stops, but that was only a couple of times, memorably when the ladder turned while I was up on the roof laying paper, and I fell and hurt my leg and Rowdy licked my tears away and I limped a couple days, some of the things are funny and I try to make them all funny as they actually are afterwards even so they are tragical and painful at the time."
ALASKA IS NOT THAT FAR, MOM
By August of their first summer on their new land, the Dows were enjoying the bounty. On Aug. 12, 1947, Russ wrote, "Last Sun we picked our first raspberries and it was our first crop on the new place and had berries and cream for breakfast."
By September, Russ was inviting his family to make the trek out to see them. Rather, he was writing the first of many Alaska-is-not-that-far explanations to his family back East, a situation that even modern Alaskans face.
Russ's take on the age-old argument in a Sept. 11, 1947 letter:
"We only have to stay seven months a year on our place and if things get going I see no reason why we won't be outside more often...one can fly to Seattle for 70 dollars or less...Also I see no reason why you can't see us just as easy up here as in some of the States...I can't see why you think we are so goshawful far. It didn't take us as long to get to New Hampshire last winter as it did from there to California. So please get the idea that we are lost or strayed to a foreign land out and realize that we are only 24 hours away by plane now that Northwest flies out of Minneapolis to here direct."
See, Mom? Just hop on a plane for 24 hours and quick-as-a-flash you're enjoying fresh raspberries in 1947 Alaska.
To access the Russ Dow collection, visit Archives and Special Collections in the Consortium Library. Peruse the finding aid online for more detailed descriptions of what's available in the collection.
Written by Jamie Gonzales, UAA Office of University Advancement