Prior to statehood, the Alaska Road Commission (ARC), a division of the War Department, constructed roads throughout Alaska. In the early years, before the introduction of motor vehicles, ARC cut and built numerous dog sled and wagon trails through the wilderness, as well as shelter cabins along those routes. Many of the workers were gold rush pioneers, who, having failed to strike it rich, supported themselves through seasonal labor.

One of the first major Alaska Road Commission projects was construction of the Richardson Trail from Valdez to Fairbanks, forerunner of today’s Richardson Highway. Another was the 89-mile-long Mount McKinley National Park road, begun in 1923 as a dual-purpose mining and tourism road. Much of the route, completed by 1937, traversed tundra and highlands and was built by hand or using the rudimentary equipment of the era. Workers, pioneers inured to hard labor, toiled on the road in summer, trapped, cut firewood, and mushed dogs.

Whispering Smith

When construction of the park road began, less than 28,000 people of European ancestry lived in the Alaska Territory, almost half foreign-born. With so many unfamiliar names to pronounce, nicknames were common. Alaska Road Commission at McKinley Station employed several “Smiths.” One of them, Oliver M. “Whispering” Smith, seldom spoke unless spoken to, then only briefly. Smith appeared to be hiding a secret. 

Alaska then, as now, sheltered fugitives and others seeking new lives. Oliver Smith and his brother, Frank, came to Alaska around the turn of the century. Short weeks after they left home, California relatives received news that the brothers had drowned in the Yukon River. For nearly 30 years, the family heard nothing more about “Ollie,” who, in fact, had survived the boating accident that had claimed his brother. 

Smith spent decades in interior Alaska working construction and never reached out to his family. He died suddenly at McKinley Station on September 9, 1930, after a season working on the road. The local roadhouse operator, Maurice Morino, used dynamite to blast out the enigmatic Smith’s grave on a rocky hillside overlooking the station and marked the grave with a hand-made cross. Only when territorial officials sought out Smith’s next of kin did the family learn that he’d survived the deadly boating mishap on
the Yukon.

Black and white photo of two buildings
The Alaska Road Commission Headquarters at McKinley Station. Courtesy Alaska State Library

Hobo Bill

In an era before Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment insurance, people were totally on their own, lives often balanced on a tenuous edge, seasonal work often their only source of income.

William “Hobo Bill” Dickinson also labored on the park road project. Biologist Olaus Murie met Dickinson in 1920, and hired him to freight supplies with his two-dog team to a pass near Savage River. Murie called Dickinson the area’s “number one character,” which was saying a lot given the people gravitating to Riley Creek. Dickinson worked on the road in summer and trapped in winter. He moved to McKinley Station in 1919 to work on the railroad with his goal to earn a grubstake and quit Alaska for good, but he never quite made it. For a short while, he worked his own gold mine on the banks of the Nenana and prospected on the Toklat River in 1924. 

Dickinson was extremely skinny, but one summer after feasting on the road commission’s meals, he’d gained, according to his foreman, nearly 100 pounds. He earned his nickname from his clothing and habitation. He wore patched overalls and all the old discarded clothes he could scrounge. He lived in a tarpaper-wrapped wall tent on the Nenana River below the Healy railroad bridge. At the end of each construction season, he bought two rolls of tarpaper and layered his tent with them, the walls eventually measuring two inches thick. Inside the tent he had a stove, table, and bunk arranged in such a way that he could reach everything from his bunk, with little room to move among the clutter. “I never saw anything like it. It was filthy,” road foreman Pete Bagoy said. “On one visit he said, ‘I’ll make you a cup of coffee,’ and I politely said, ‘No I don’t think so.’”  

After a chance winter encounter with Dickinson in Healy’s Singleton’s Hotel, a traveler described the hotel as a place where old-timers gathered daily around the pot-bellied stove. Singleton’s had long ceased to be an inn but housed a spotless post office and general store run by Anna Shannon. “And yet there is comfort at the store, even when the mercury stands at thirty—forty—even forty-five degrees below zero…at such times those who would be warm must wear heavy clothing, even indoors. No one, however, needs be quite so well protected against the cold as Hobo Bill, who nightly comes to sit near the stove at the store. There he sits, wearing a woolen shirt (none can say what is underneath), covered with a heavy red sweater and, over that, a wind-proof miner’s coat. On his head is a wool cap with the flaps pulled down. There he sits, close to the roaring stove, now and then getting up to expectorate outside—for this is the land of chewing tobacco.” Dickinson lived in Healy into the 1940s.

The hard-working, self-sufficient pioneers who built Alaska’s early transportation routes lived lives shaped by the often brutal subarctic conditions that typified the north. The few details left of their lives fade with time and will soon be lost forever.


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