The following is an excerpt From the book, The Way It Was, By Malachy Donoghue. This excerpt details the way Malachy arrived in Alaska and the whirlwind of life-changing events that happened at the drop of a hat.
I wasn’t happy in New York City. The summers were unbearable with the heat and humidity, and, of course, there was no air conditioning in any of the apartments. I decided I’d like to move to California. I was working for Safeway at the time and approached the store manager about the possibility of getting a transfer to a store in California. He said he didn’t know but suggested that I put in a request, and he would see what he could do, which I did. A few weeks went by and one morning he told me that my request was granted and I had two weeks vacation coming to me. I could take my vacation and he gave me the name and address of the store and the manager that I was to report to, in San Diego. I was delighted.
My plan was that I would fly to Seattle, Washington, and I would have nearly two weeks to travel down the West Coast almost to the Mexican border. That would take care of my vacation. I booked a flight on an airline called ATA – American Transport Association. This was the strangest flight I have ever been on. It was like a Tramp Steamer that never knew where its next stop would be. It got so bad that when the stewardess made an announcement about where our next stop would be, she would add, “I hope so.” One stop that I will always remember was somewhere in Montana and we had to disembark the plane. They didn’t tell us why or for how long. The plane stopped on the runway and you came down the ramp and when you looked out on each side of the runway there was a meadow with grass about twelve inches high and you had to walk through this grass to get to the terminal. It got so bad, it was actually funny.
I don’t remember how many hours it took to get to Seattle, but I do know we arrived sometime during the night. I left New York to get away from the heat and humidity. When I arrived in Seattle it was much worse than where I had left. I guess I was weary and tired after the crazy flight I just came off and I sat down on a bench. There weren’t many people in the airport – it was very quiet and I was sitting there sort of talking to myself and questioning my sanity. If it was this hot this far north, what would San Diego be like? I said to myself, this is crazy. I walked over to the ticket counter and asked the girl if they had any flights going north. She said, “North to where?” I said, “I don’t know – do you have flights going anywhere?” She mentioned that they had two flights going to Alaska – one to Anchorage and one to Fairbanks. Where did I want to go? I asked her where the first flight was going and she said Fairbanks, so I bought a ticket.
That night, I found myself on a Pan American flight and sitting next to me was a serviceman; an African-American man from the South. He had been home on leave and was returning to his outfit in Fairbanks. He wasn’t exactly overjoyed. We landed in Fairbanks as the sun was rising. When we got to the terminal I asked this fellow if he would like a cup of coffee and he said he would love one. We sat at the counter and were drinking our coffee when I was tapped on the shoulder. I turned around and there was a guy who said to me, “We don’t do this kind of thing here.” I didn’t know what he was talking about and he turned and walked away. That was the only time I saw a sign of Jim Crow all the years I was in Alaska. As I was leaving the terminal, I was fascinated by a huge sign over the exit door that read, “Send not your foolish and feeble – send me your strong and sane.” This is known as the Law of the Yukon. I arrived in the city of Fairbanks and went into a restaurant to get breakfast. I was absolutely shocked at the prices. I could have had at least three breakfasts in New York for the price of a single breakfast there. As I sat at breakfast, I was thinking about the sign at the airport and it stirred something in me. For the first time in my life, I got a feeling that I cannot describe, but I felt like I was “free at last,” free from everything that I had ever known and that I was home where I belonged. I walked around Fairbanks and felt like an idiot because I was wearing a suit and white shirt and tie, that was standard traveling clothes in those days but it definitely wasn’t the standard in Alaska. There wasn’t much I could do about it.
As I was strolling around there was a gentleman sitting on a bench and he said “Howdy, I see you are a stranger in town. Where did you come from?” I told him and he said sit down and we’ll have a little chat. I sat down and he told me he was retired, where he had worked, and he wanted to know if I was going to stay in Alaska. I said that I hope to as long as I could find a job. He said, “I may be able to help you if you go to the FE Company.” I asked him if that was the name of a company and he said it’s Fairbanks Exploration actually and it’s also known as The United States Smelting, Refining and Mining Company or USSR and M Company. “It’s a major gold mining company in the territory and I can tell you where their offices are located,” he said. He wished me good luck. He gave me his name and address and said he was sure he would see me again and indicated that I had to get rid of the clothes I was wearing if I expected to get a job with a company that expected me to work in a camp somewhere – wherever they send me.
It was still early in the day so I went to the mining office and was hired on the spot. I was told to report to their office the next morning to go to camp. The first thing I had to do was get work clothes. When I asked what I would need, I was told a sleeping bag, one pair of shoe packs, high wool socks, dungarees, a heavy shirt, work gloves and a work jacket. I had to shop for those items and be at their office ready for work at 8 am. The first thing I had to do was get rid of the leather suitcase and the suit and all the worldly possessions that I owned. All of this took place on the day I arrived.
I also had to find a place to stay that night so I wound up in the USO and asked to be woken up at 6 am. I had a cot in a dormitory setting. At 6 o’clock, I was being shaken and I rolled over and the first thing I saw was the handle of a Colt .45 sticking out of a holster. Did I wake up fast? That was one way to get people moving in the morning. I arrived at the office before 8 am and climbed into a pickup truck that was headed for Gold Stream Camp about 12 miles north of Fairbanks. The guy who drove the pickup was very talkative and told me where he came from in the states. I asked him if he went back often and he answered that he had never gone back and he said he didn’t intend to ever go back. He said he didn’t think he could ever live there again. He then added, “Just wait, you will feel the same way in a very short time.”
I didn’t have to wait long until the crews started to arrive for lunch. Bill introduced me to the foreman, Carl Brenner, and said after you have had your lunch, you will get on the truck with me. As the mess hall filled, I had never heard so many different accents in such a small area — mostly from the mid-west, the western states, some from the south, and a lot of Russians. Later I realized that I was the only Irish guy in the whole place. When lunch was over I got on the truck and what a ride that was. You got up on the truck by grabbing hold of a big rope that had a large knot on the end of it and you swung up into the back end. The truck had two sides, a roof, and a bench on each side. You held onto anything you could grab. It was a fun, wild ride. The guys jumped off at whatever camp they were working at.
I didn’t know where I was working and stayed on until I was the only one left. Eventually the truck came to a stop and Carl the foreman said, “Come with me.” I looked around and there was nobody in sight anywhere – I was in “No Man’s Land.” It sure was a long way from New York City. He said, “OK, this is what I want you to do. Do you see the markings here on the ground – I want you to dig a hole approximately six feet long and about three feet wide and I want it four feet deep. There are picks and shovels over there.” He asked me if I thought I could do that and I said, “Sure, I don’t see any reason why I can’t.” He told me he was leaving but would be back later to pick me up. Before he left I asked him what the hole was for and he said, “That’s to bury a dead man.” He again told me he would be back later to pick me up. I looked at the departing truck and wondered to myself, why would anyone want to bury someone in this ice?
There wasn’t a person anywhere and I couldn’t even see the camp. I realized that that wasn’t my problem. I had a hole to dig so I picked up the shovel and started to clear off the moss and debris from the marked area. Then I got the pick to loosen the surface soil and when the point of the pick hit the soil, it didn’t even leave a mark. I hit it again and again and nothing. I might as well be hitting a granite wall. This was my introduction to permafrost. The ground was frozen solid all the way down to bedrock, to whatever depth that would be since the beginning of time. I pounded and pounded and chopped and progress was next to impossible. I kept at it and at it and did I ever work. I kept thinking that if he wants to bury some guy four feet down, he is going to be very annoyed when he gets back to pick me up and sees how little I got done. This is going to be very interesting.
Later the truck returned and Carl came over to check my progress and said, “What are you trying to do, kill yourself?” Apparently the little that I got done, which was practically nothing, was much more than I should have accomplished. To this day I still wonder if that was an initiation test. I never was put on that detail again but that was my introduction to the gold fields. We rode the truck to camp and I had my first dinner, which was delicious. I was told to go upstairs and wherever you find a room with an empty cot it’s yours. The rooms only had a metal cot in it with a mattress which you put your sleeping bag on and there was a small shelf for your personal possessions. Up the stairs to the left was a washroom which was about 8 or 9 feet wide and maybe 20 feet long. Along the wall was the wash area and there was a trough down the whole length of it, which had a tin galvanized liner inside and against the wall about every three feet was a hot and cold faucet where six or seven people could wash up at the same time. They had a separate building for toilets and showers.
I located a cot to put my sleeping bag on — no sheet or pillow and I didn’t realize at that time that I wouldn’t see any of those items for many years. After staking my claim to my sleeping quarters, I went outside where a group of guys were standing around talking. They didn’t have anything else to do. I asked one of them if somebody had died in the camp and he said, “No, why do you ask?” I told them I had been digging a grave for someone and Carl Brenner said it was for a dead man. He started to laugh and I didn’t think it was funny when someone dies. He said, “You don’t know what a dead man is?” I thought it was when his heart stops and he stops breathing. He said, “Hell no, that’s not what it is. It isn’t a grave you were digging. Have you ever walked down a sidewalk and walked smack into a cable coming from a pole on an angle to the ground? Well, that cable has to be attached to something in the ground and it’s attached to a dead man which is usually a large chunk of wood about 2 feet by 5 feet, buried in the soil to support it. So there is no wake and no funeral.” Wow, the things you learn. Learning happens fast in Alaska.
To read Malachy’s entire adventure of his time gold mining in Alaska in the 1950’s, see The Way It Was, available on Amazon