History: It's 83 Below And The Mail Must Go Through!

Frozen Gas, Plumber's Pots & The U.S. Postal Service.  Art Goodlataw & Cliff Steadman Travel From Chitina To Copper Center At R...

Frozen Gas, Plumber's Pots & The U.S. Postal Service.  Art Goodlataw & Cliff Steadman Travel From Chitina To Copper Center At Record Low Temperatures 

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Cliff Steadman ran the mail run from Palmer all the way to Chitina during the 1940’s. In February, 1947, he struggled to carry mail in a frozen-up mail truck, at a recorded 82 degrees below zero, and won an award from the U.S. Postal Service for his effort. But as Cliff told it, he didn’t deserve the credit that 17-year old Art Goodlataw did – for walking the entire distance at the same time. 

Cliff Steadman on his mail run in 1942. (Public Domain)

Cliff told the story of that mailrun to the Copper River Country Journal in 1989, during an extreme cold snap.  “It was in the Minus 70’s at Glennallen and Gakona,” recalled Cliff. “My partner, Clay Prewitt, was with me on this trip, to drive the ARC Cat dozer to clear 20 miles of road near Chitina for me.” The pair stayed at Copper Center Lodge overnight. They kept the mail truck running all night and left in the morning at minus 80 degrees, arriving in Chitina around three in the afternoon. “It had warmed up. Minus 35 degrees,” Cliff remembered.

THE PLUMBER'S FIRE POT
“The next morning it was Minus 45 degrees, so we pulled the canvas off the truck and started off. We couldn’t get much more than 100 yards, and the tractor would die for fuel, so we put the plumber’s fire pot under it, and covered it with canvas again. Then in about an hour, it would start OK again. When were were halfway to 5 Mile, someone walked past us. When we got to 5 Mile, it was 5 pm, so we went back to Chitina.”

The morning after that, the fuel was frozen. “I bought 5 gallons of Blazo for my heater in the van and 5 gallons kerosene to limber up the tractor. I stirred it up with a piece of 4 inch board for about 20 minutes. It ran good to 22 Mile. The foot tracks of the man who had walked past us were still going ahead of us, in the snow and into the dark."

GRANDMA GEORGE'S
“When we passed Grandma George’s place, at 27 Mile, the man’s tracks were still going towards Copper Center, 50 miles from Chitina, the foot tracks were going towards the village. It was Minus 83 degrees."

Later, Cliff saw Art Goodlataw, and something about him made him think of the guy who had passed them on the mailrun. “So I asked Art if he was the one that passed us at 2 Mile Lake. He said, “Yes, whatever happened to you?”

It was a great story, honoring the strength and tenacity of the Ahtna in this harsh land. And giving insight into the longstanding issues of running vehicles at extreme temperatures.

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