Monday, November 9, 2009

Walter Harper

I'd like to continue to talk about my ancestors in Alaska.

Aunt Frances met Walter Harper the first day she arrived in the Yukon Territory in 1917. He worked with the doctor and others attempting to set up a hospital there, and he hoped one day to start medical school. In her letter to her family, she mentioned him by name, but said no more about him at that time.

Walter's father, Arthur, was the first white man to seek his fortune mining gold in the Yukon, and then became a trader. He married an Inuit woman, and fathered seven children. Walter was the youngest, born in 1893. Arthur insisted, over Jennie's objection, that the children be educated "Outside". But after the pair separated in 1895, Jennie moved back to her people, and Walter was educated in the old traditions.

When Walter was 16 he met Hudson Stuck, an Episcopal missionary, who later became Archdeacon of Alaska. Stuck befriended Walter, who soon became his aide. In 1913 Stuck organized a party to scale Mt. McKinley (Known in Alaska as Denali) and Walter led them up the mountain. Walter was the first person ever to set foot on the peak of the highest point on our continent.

In 1914, Hudson Stuck took the young man "Outside" to Massachusetts, where he attended school. Walter was 22, a tall, strong, soft spoken and polite young person. He had heard of New York's Coney Island, and said he would like to visit there. That is where they headed on Decoration Day.

On June 1, 1914, the New York Times published an article with the headline: "Yukon Indian Opens Coney Island Eyes". This article is reproduced on the website of my cousin Bob as part of his research of our family history. I will not publish it here, since it contains several things that I find objectionable. They would never appear in today's newspapers, since they would not be considered "politically correct". But I will tell you the story of that day.

As soon as they reached the park, Walter saw the Strength Testing machine, which consisted of a block you hit with a 20 pound hammer in order to ring a bell at the top. It's said that very few people managed to ring that bell. Walter took two swings at it, rang the bell twice, and broke the machine. He apologized for the damage, and went on to the next booth - sharp shooting. Three glass balls bobbed around in the water. Walter paid for three shots for a nickel, and before anyone could count the shots he fired, three glass balls were broken. He was now creating a lot of interest. He moved on to the dunking machine. Again, few people managed to hit the target and dunk the man, who liked to taunt those trying to send him into the water. Walter had never thrown a baseball before, but he had thrown lots of rocks, so he decided to give it a try. He bought three balls. He dunked the man three times. And so it went.'

In the afternoon they took a swim, then lay around on the sand. After a while, Hudson Stuck realized what Walter was doing with the sand. He had built a replica of Mt. McKinley, and a topographical map of the surrounding area. Then he traced their path up to the peak.

It was a long time before the people at Coney Island forgot this man. Quite a guy, my Uncle Walter! No wonder that Aunt Frances fell in love with him. How I wish that I had known him.


Daryl said...

What a fabulous piece of family history, Bobbie. I wish I had know him too . what a guy!

Sylvia K said...

What a fantastic man your Uncle Walter was! I can surely understand why you wish you could have known him! I would certainly feel the same way! This is just an incredible post, Bobbie! Thanks so much for sharing some of your families history! I look forward to more!

Have a great week!


Deborah Godin said...

I enjoyed hearing about this extraordinary fellow a lot - he comes alive again in your words!

Lisa (Mountain Photog) said...

Wonderful post, Bobbie! You're lucky to have so much detail about your family.

Ralph said...

Okay I'll admit - I would have liked and wished I had the opportunity to meet Walter.

Kay said...

This is such a fun and exciting post, Bobbie! What a guy your uncle was. He sounds like the sort of adventurer books are written about.

Anonymous said...

Well, you told an amazing story about your Uncle Walter. He must have been something to see and a fabulous person to meet.

Rambling Woods said...

I really enjoyed this post Bobbie.. read like a novel...I can only guess at what the article said that isn't appropriate..Michelle

Anonymous said...

Hi Bobbie, This is very interesting. I enjoyed it so much. It made me think of when my son was about six and we had to drag him away from one of those strength testing machines at a carnival. He just knew he could do it! lol. Walter sounds like someone people would certainly be attracted to.

Kathie Brown said...

Bobbie, I would like to have known him also! This is an amazing story!