Hope On A Rope – Memories of Hope, Alaska
by Michael Hankins
The first time I visited Hope, Alaska, was the summer of 1966. My father transferred to Elmendorf Air Force Base (A.F.B.) that year from Reese A.F.B. in Lubbock, Texas. We arrived in Anchorage on May 17th and headed straight to the Lucky Wishbone restaurant. Dad was told they had the best burgers and fries in town. We spent our first night at the Mush Inn Motel. Back then Lucky Wishbone and Mush Inn were welcome sights for folks coming off the Al-Can Highway.
Sometime in late July dad told us to load in the car for a sightseeing trip. Our destination was the historic mining town of Hope, Alaska. The Seward Highway along Turnagain Arm was in horrible shape. Things had not been totally repaired since the Good Friday Earthquake two years earlier. Driving through knee deep mud in construction areas, our 1965 Ford Galaxie 500 got stuck several times. On one occasion it had to be yanked out by a truck. Mom wanted to turn around at that point, but Dad was bound and determined to get through. He definitely had an agenda for doing so.
It took a while before arriving at our destination. The 90 mile trip took five hours. Dad refueled at the only gas station in town. The rustic establishment utilized a vintage gasoline pump with a glass bowl on top. This is the type of pump where customers could see the amount of fuel being purchased. Prized collectibles—antique pumps are now worth thousands of dollars. Hope’s only service station also housed a small store and community post office. A gentleman running the place gave us detailed directions on where to pan for gold. The lure of finding precious metal kept my father glued to the steering wheel. Dad definitely had what miners call gold fever!
We drove to a remote site along Resurrection Creek Road. A crudely labeled sign saying “Paystreke Mining School” was nailed to a tree. The placard instructed people to look for the man wearing a red hat. This fellow was the owner and resident mining instructor. “Red Hat” Haun showed us how his operation worked. We could either pan for gold or sluice it. Dad chose the sluice method because it meant more glitter. Red Hat had perhaps six wooden sluice boxes lined up along the creek. Each box had a rope tram line with pulleys going to a nearby hill. Five-gallon buckets were attached to the ropes. Newbie miners were instructed by Mr. Haun to only partially fill the buckets. A full bucket he said was extremely heavy. The shovel person would then slowly allow their bucket load back down the hill. The lucky recipient at the bottom would dump the dirt into a sluice box. The bucket would then be pulled back up. This routine went on for hours. Of course the more gravel or dirt placed into the box, the more gold. Thankfully we were Red Hat’s only customers that afternoon!
Initially my brother and I were the ones dumping dirt into the sluice box. Dad and mom half-loaded their buckets slowly sending them to us. After an hour we changed positions. With our first bucket filled to the gills and overflowing, Jim allowed me to lower it down the sharp incline. For reasons unknown the wet rope slipped out of my hands. All I could do was scream, “Look out!” My parents glanced up in disbelief. Jumping out of the way just as the heavy bucket crashed into things, dad turned beet red before yelling. “Why’d you let go?” It was a question I’ve never been able to answer.
The sluice box was totally destroyed. It appeared as if multiple sticks of dynamite had been strapped to it and detonated. Pieces of shattered wood floated downstream—their final destiny unknown. Lucky for us the burlap material containing gold was salvaged. “Red Hat” Haun said he was okay with the damage, indicating it happened at least once a year. When dad paid him at the end of our gig he forked out a few extra dollars for repairs. We eagerly took several flakes of gold home that day in a glass vial. Mom put the treasure in a clear bezel-style pendant which she wore with pride. When asked about it she informed people it was her “Hope on a Rope.”
Hope continued to be one of my favorite destination points especially for camping and fishing. In 1968 I traveled there with my good friend Bob Malone. Bob and I stayed two weeks in a rented camper. We fished every day and hiked when not fishing. It was great fun being away from home. One morning we were walking along Gull Rock Trail, when out of nowhere a large dog came running towards us. I thought it was a wolf. The animal scared the “you know what” out of me. Bob didn’t seem fazed. It turned out the creature was ultra-friendly. An intimidating looking German shepherd mix, the playful pup had three legs yet seemed to get along just fine. He was more interested in what we had for snacks than anything. The hungry canine took to my Vienna Sausages like they were long lost friends.
One sunny afternoon Bob and I met two nice looking girls riding a horse. One of the girls, Laura, was the owner of the horse. She was also daughter to the proprietor of the gas station. Laura’s blonde friend was in town with her family as part of a construction crew. Their company was building a new bridge across Resurrection Creek. Living in scenic Hope, Alaska, and having a horse was something many gals would die for. To this day I believe Laura is one of the luckiest people I’ve ever met!
Late one evening Bob and I were walking back to the campground when we heard a blood curdling scream. It made us hasten our steps considerably. We couldn’t lock the camper door fast enough. Later on we discovered the noise came from a small pony attacked by a grizzly bear.
When Bob and I went back to Hope the following summer our three-legged pal was there to greet us. Fortunately for his unlimited appetite I had an ample supply of canned sausages. Years later I discovered through Hope residents Hugh Moore and Ray Defrance the dog’s name was Augie. He’d lost his foot in a trap. Hugh informed me the girl (Laura) married a local guy and still lived in the area.
Hope, Alaska, has always been a special place to get away. At 19 when I was having a “woe is me” relationship problem, I had my brother drop me off with a backpack, an orange tent, a supply of food, plus a Winchester rifle. I hoofed it to the end of Gull Rock Trail then continued further. I’d always wondered what lay beyond. Walking the beach for a good distance I was forced to higher ground when the tide rolled in. I couldn’t go up down or sideways. The phrase, “trapped between a rock and a wet place” became a new saying. Sitting on a large stone for hours with no place to lay down was a lesson in patience. I kept thinking, “Hopefully the tide goes out faster than it came in!”
Gull Rock had been the site of a sawmill during the early days when the Alaska Railroad was being built. Cut boards were taken from there and barged across Turnagain Arm. Remnants of the old buildings were still visible in 1973. In one area an avalanche had swept down a mountain. The compacted snow was still trying to melt. I was able to hike up it almost to the top. Turning around and seeing how high I’d climbed scared me. Sliding a good portion of the way down made me wet and cold. Good thing there was plenty of old timber lying around for a fire.
A week later when my brother picked me up I was stress free. Getting out of town for seven days revived my spirit—there’s something about being in the outdoors that does such. Years later, driving to the tiny mining town became a ritual my wife and I did often. We found something tranquil and peaceful about Hope, Alaska. Perhaps it was the name alone!
Three years after Mom died I came across her gold filled pendant sitting in a box. It’d been carefully wrapped and put away. The tiny piece of jewelry meant lots to her where family memories were concerned. I can’t say exactly what Hope memory she cherished most. To me, the necklace helped rekindle one interesting thought, “Why didn’t I hold on to that rope just a little bit tighter?”
If you enjoyed “Hope On A Rope – Memories of Hope, Alaska” article by Michael Hankins, check out “The Master Pilot.”