Millie Buck Recalls The Christmas Trains Of Chitina, With Candy & Oranges In The Snow

Millie Goodlataw Buck: Magic Of A Small Child's Alaskan Winter  Old railcars in downtown Chitina. (Journal file photo)   Millie Buck was...

Millie Goodlataw Buck: Magic Of A Small Child's Alaskan Winter 

Old railcars in downtown Chitina. (Journal file photo)

Millie Buck was an ardent teacher of the Ahtna language who grew up in the town of Chitina. In 2011, she was interviewed for the Copper River Country Journal about her life there as a small child, when Chitina was a very different place than it is today. 

Chief Eskilida in Chitina. (Geoff Bleakley Collection) 

The trains to Kennicott & McCarthy brought their luscious treasures – figs and raisins and fruit – into Kennicott over a track that came along the Copper River from the coastal town of Cordova. The train chugged its way over a difficult, icy route that spanned shifting glaciers, arriving in the lakeside town of Chitina before heading on to the mines. 

Chitina was a large log cabin supply town, near the Copper River. It was upriver from the ancient Ahtna village of Taral, the historic gateway to the Copper Valley from the south. Today, Chitina is a dusty ghost town, full of abandoned buildings. But at one time, back when all this was happening in Kennicott and McCarthy, Chitina was very important. 

Millie Goodlataw grew up in Chitina. She was a little Ahtna girl, and she was descended from several well-known families who had lived here for centuries. Her grandfather was Doc Billum, an entrepreneur and ferry-owner who took miners across the river. Millie was also related to the strikingly handsome Chief Goodlataw. 

Chitina was a wonderful place for a small girl like herself. Millie could look back, decades later, and describe exactly what Chitina was like when she was little. It was nothing like today. Now, Chitina is easy to overlook, with its empty log buildings and wind-scoured frame homes, its silt-laden quiet roads and its tiny population. But when she was a girl, it was grand. “They had everything,” Millie recalled. “They had a pool hall, meat market, a fairly large store... a clothing store. That’s what some of those movies remind me of... the western cowboy films. They used to have silent movies, those days...” Those silent westerns reminded Millie of her girlhood home: Chitina. 

Chitina's Yellow Car. (Journal file photo)

And the mining train! Now long gone, the train’s miles of rusty track are bent and sunken into the taiga. Its dozens of trestles dangle down into gullies and canyons high above the Copper; its crossties have been pulled up and used for house foundations, and its rail spikes are working their way up out of the hardpan and into the tires of modern camper trucks driven by tourists over a large section of the abandoned railbed, which is now the McCarthy Road... 

Collapsed railway trestles. (Journal file photo)

But for little Millie, the train was an event. “It really was exciting, downtown, watching the train come in!” It was all the more wonderful because the thrill was fleeting. “They didn’t stay too long in Chitina, but went on to the mines.” Millie recalled the cheerful crew of the Copper River & Northwestern Railway (CRNWR) – nicknamed the “Can’t Run & Never Will” – happy to share the endless, unexpected bounty of fresh goods that poured north into Kennicott. After all, there was plenty for everybody on that train, so why not? 

The train crews were heroes to the Ahtna kids, who ran along beside the engine when it rumbled by. 

“They used to throw candy, and apples and oranges out in the snow for us,” Millie remembered. “The conductor always threw something for us.” The train, for Millie Goodlataw, was a mysterious source of the most wonderful promise of Christmas, all around the world. It was a time when fruit and candies rained down on small, delighted children, even in the wilds of Alaska.

Millie & Bill Buck, 1995. (Journal file photo)




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