Saturday, July 23, 2011

AK Bush Trip--The Spike

I'd like to say we planned it this way, but we didn't. It was sheer coincidence (or heavenly influence) that when we arrived at the subdivision, the first person we should run into was Mark V, its only full-time resident, who informed us that a centennial ceremony was planned in the mill town of Kennecott on Saturday to commemorate the completion of the Copper River and Northwestern Railway in March,1911.

During the original ceremony a century ago, the symbolic spike, which in railroad tradition is made from gold, was replaced by one cast of copper taken from a creek near the Bonanza mine. One hundred years later, the ceremonial spike, seen above, is made of iron and is plated in Rust-Oleum Antique Copper.

At least the spike under the copper paint looks like an authentic Carnegie iron spike from the CRNWern. There are plenty of them in circulation today, thanks to a gift to the McCarthy Museum from Carol M in memory of her husband, Harold M. Harold died last year at the age of 99. Carol donated his horde of railroad tie spikes, pictured above, for fund-raising. The museum was selling them for $2.00 each. I couldn't believe the low price. It took Harold over 20 years to build this tower-o-spikes, and when they're gone, they're gone. $20 each would be closer to the mark, IMO. If anyone out there collects historical artifacts, dig this. While NPS rules make it a federal offense to remove Kennecott artifacts, which are literally lying in plain sight, you can legally pick up a genuine CRNW spike for $2.00.

I used to have a small horde of CRNW spikes myself. I earned them the old-fashioned way in the early 80s. My ex and I spent parts of several years at Long Lake (mile 45 McCarthy Road). In those days the road was little more than gravel laid over the rail bed. The straight rails had been scavenged in the 1940s for the war effort, and the curved rails had been pushed into the brush alongside the tracks. The cross tie spikes, seven inches long, were left where they fell. The spikes have a preternatural shape that enables them to "float" to the top of a gravel bed. That means that each time the McCarthy Rd was graded, a new crop of spikes would surface. The surface of the road was pretty primitive to begin with. It ate tires and tore suspensions clean from the frames. The spikes added another dimension of fun to the McCarthy trip. Look closely at the copper spike above. Notice that it has a large lip on only one side of the spike. This is another deadly feature of their unholy design that makes them into ideal little tire mines. At speeds above 10 MPH, the front tire runs over the lip, flipping the spike up to the perfect angle to gore the rear tire to death.

After driving for hours at 10 MPH on a gravel road, the eye acquires a knack for spotting spikes. The custom on the road was to stop and pick 'em up as you spotted 'em. Harold's tower-o-spikes, therefore, took a lot of trips in and out to build.

BTW, Mark told us that last year, shortly before his death, Harold spoke to him about dying at age 99. He had been hoping to make it to 100, and when it was clear he wasn't going to, he said that, technically, he was already enjoying his 100th year of life since birth, so it was OK to go at age 99. Harold always saw the sunny side of things.

These days, with Princess Tours bringing busloads of tourons through the valley, the gravel road is kept in terrific shape and seems safe in places to drive 45 MPH (though the speed limit is 35).

The spikes rise no longer (though surely a few of them must lurk below the gravel surface, biding their time).

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